Strong by Pengi
1. Chapter One by Pengi
2. Chapter Two by Pengi
3. Chapter Three by Pengi
4. Chapter Four by Pengi
5. Chapter Five by Pengi
6. Chapter Six by Pengi
7. Chapter Seven by Pengi
8. Chapter Eight by Pengi
9. Chapter Nine by Pengi
10. Chapter Ten by Pengi
11. Chapter Eleven by Pengi
12. Chapter Twelve by Pengi
13. Chapter Thirteen by Pengi
14. Chapter Fourteen by Pengi
15. Chapter Fifteen by Pengi
16. Chapter Sixteen by Pengi
17. Chapter Seventen by Pengi
18. Chapter Eighteen by Pengi
19. Chapter Nineteen by Pengi
20. Chapter Twenty by Pengi
21. Chapter Twenty-One by Pengi
22. Chapter Twenty-Two by Pengi
I slammed into a stall in the men's bathroom with a crashing bang of the door, falling to my knees and puking my guts out. Only half the vomit hit the bowl, the rest hit the floor with a splash and a waft of smell that made more rise in my throat. My knees burned against the tiles where I'd landed. I panted, trying to gasp in enough oxygen to calm down my racing heart. "Gotta see a doctor," I mumbled. I pushed myself up, my nose running, eyes wet, and I walked shakily to the bathroom sinks, turning on the faucet and splashing water into my face. I was all red and puffy and disgusting and my hair hung all in my face.
Coming out tonight was stupid. I hadn't been feeling good for days and days, but it was my brother's birthday party and it was the first time in almost a year that I'd heard from him in a positive manner and I wasn't about to let him down. Not because of some fucking stomach virus or whatever it was. The water felt cold against my red-hot face and I shook it off and dried my hands in the air current of one of them blower dryers. Then I pushed my way back out of the men's room.
Suddenly, a girl was directly in front of me.
She was thin, maybe half Japanese, with big almond shaped eyes and curly black hair. She stood between me and the club, where the music was thumping and the colorful lights were casting colors all over the walls and the ceiling and the floor. I could hear people shouting, could hear Aaron talking into a microphone. But the girl stood between me and everything else. I stared at her.
There was something about her... something.... something I couldn't put my finger on. She took a step toward me, one hand out, her eyes wide with awe and surprise, her mouth slightly open. "Oh my God," she whispered, "It worked."
"What worked?" I asked.
"December 7th," I answered.
"Shit. I'm late."
"Late? Late for what?"
"Excuse me," a waitress pushed by me, a tray full of cupcakes balanced precariously on her upraised palm.
I dodged the tray, and during the split second that my eyes had been diverted, the girl had turned and walked away swiftly, ducking through the pair of doors to my right marked employees only and disappeared. The cupcake waitress glowered at me as she pushed back-first through the doors, too. I craned my neck, trying to see over her, but I coudn't see the girl anywhere in there before the doors closed. I thought about going after her, but just as I was about to, I heard Aaron calling my name over the speakers and there was a murmur of voices as people looked for me, so I dashed off onto the crowded club floors, pushing the mystery girl out of my mind.
"There he is," Aaron called, pointing, "There's my big brother. I love you bro." He grinned at me, eyes starry and watery. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today with all you great people." Angel was standing beside him, a tiara glittering from her head, a hot pink drink in her hand. She waved it at me, a smile on her face.
I smiled back.
"Okay so enough of this emotional bullcrap," Aaron said, "DJ, let's raise the roooooooof!" And a thumping club beat rose out of the speakers, shaking the floor as it got louder and louder and filled the room. Bodies started moving together like one massive gelatinous blob and I shrugged and shouldered my way across the room to the VIP area that was blocked off with velvet ropes. I threw myself into the otherwise empty booth and grabbed one of the cupcakes off the table in front of me.
I looked around as I peeled the wrapper off the bottom of the cake, blue frosting getting on my fingers. I had two of my fingers in my mouth and was sucking the frosting off them when my stomach started turning again. Maybe eating wasn't the best idea, I thought, and I pushed the cupcake away and leaned back into the cushioned seat, closing my eyes.
I thought about that girl in the hallway. What had worked? Why was she late? I ran my palms over my knees, swiping away sweat that had pooled in the crevices of my lifelines. It wasn't all that hot in the club - not now that I was away from all the crammed bodies on the dance floor anyway - yet I was breaking a sweat like nobody's business. I was about to go back to the mens' room when I felt the cushion next to me shift with somebody's weight.
"Are you okay?" It was Angel.
"Yeah," I lied.
"You sure? You look pale."
I nodded, but I wasn't. In fact, I was really... really dizzy. "I think I should maybe head home," I answered, "I think I have a little bit of a stomach virus or something. I almost didn't come but I know what birthdays mean to Aaron."
"He's such a diva," Angel laughed. She smiled. "He really is glad you came."
"Good," I answered. I could feel my stomach getting dangerously close to erupting again. "I'll see you guys later, okay?" I slid out of the booth and smiled at my sister and pushed my way through the club. The further I got from her, the more I allowed myself to wince and feel the pain that was twisting through my midsection. I grabbed hold of the door jamb by the coat check, my breath taken by the spear of ache that was rushing me. I bit down on my lip so hard that I tasted the iron in my blood fill my mouth. "Goddamn," I whispered, clutching my side.
Suddenly, there were hands on me, gentle hands, comforting hands. "It's gonna be okay. Come with me." And I allowed whoever it was to lead me out of the club without my jacket into the cool night air. "Shhh..." I doubled over, clutching my side. "Shh, it's okay. I already called the ambulance. They're going to get here faster this time. Maybe that'll help."
"This time?" I groaned. I felt the concerete of the sidewalk come closer and landed on it, rolling to my side, curling into the fetal position. I looked up to see the curly haired girl with the wide awestruck eyes looming over me.
"Well last time nobody called until after this happened, so ---"
"This hasn't happened to me before," I groaned. Pain like a lightening bolt shot through my side. "Oh Jesus. Fuck."
"I forget you don't know about the other times." She sighed. "I gotta work on that."
"What the fuck are you talking aboo-- owwww." I closed my eyes. The pain was so intense I could see stars and my vision went all blurry and white.
Was this what they meant about seeing the light? Was I about to die on a dirty street outside of a club? To be honest, I'd thought for many years that was how I'd go, but then I'd cleaned up and I'd somehow envisioned something else, something less pathetic. Something warmer, with less concrete and more blankets and maybe some family around... I clutched my side. "I don't want to die," I choked.
"I know," she said, "And I'm trying not to let that happen this time. I promise I'm trying."
"Why do you keep saying that? This time?" I asked. "Like we've done this before."
She stared down at me, but she didn't answer because there were red lights and sirens and an EMT rushed over and the moment had passed for her to answer me and the next thing I knew I was being lifted up onto a gurney and pushed into an ambulance and she was gone, replaced by the stoic faces of working medical professionals and the door was closing and the girl and the club were both left behind us in the dark.
"Knock, knock." Brian leaned around the curtain that blocked off my hospital bed from the rest of the room.
"Hey," I answered, barely looking up. I was flicking through TV channels sullenly.
"Hey," he smiled and came into my little world. He put a foam Nerf basket ball on my rolley table like it was a peace offering and glanced up at the TV. "What'cha watchin'?" he asked, "Anything good on?"
"It's all shit," I answered.
He turned back to look at me again. "How are you feelin' buddy?"
"Like a million dollars," I said sarcastically. I threw the remote into the gaping drawer of the night stand, landing on a rerun of some crappy old TV show with Dick Van Dyke in it. I sighed.
Brian pulled up the plastic chair by my side. "I know this is hard on you, but --"
"-- It's better than the alternative," I said before he could. "I know. I know that. That's what everybody keeps saying to me. But God damn it if I don't really gotta wonder that right about now. I'm sick of being in here. It's been a fucking month, Brian. A month."
"I know," he said. "But you can't give up. There's nothing else to do but wait," he said.
I shrugged, "I could die."
"Don't say that," he said, and he got this look on him like I'd slapped him clear across his face. He shuffled his feet. "I can't even think about that, okay, so don't say that like that."
Brian got up and started rearranging shit on my rolley table, including the Nerf basketball set. He waved it. "I thought maybe I could whoop your ass at some ball later," he said.
It was his way of trying to bury the topic. I took a deep breath. "Like you wouldn't let the sick guy win at basket ball on his death bed."
Brian tossed the set at me. He turned back to the stuff on the rolley table, moving things incrementally. He stared down at it. Then, "Nick. I really don't want you to die. So please. Stop being so negative." He looked up at me. "Negativity will kill you every time. But sometimes -- sometimes when you have a positive attitude, it can make all the difference. So please. Just try...?"
I wanted to make some smart ass remark. Something scathing about how he didn't give a shit if I was dead or alive a month ago, before he knew about my fucked up liver. I felt like pointing out that things had been shaky between us for years, that I wasn't really his best friend anymore except in that honorary way your best friend will always be your best friend even after you've drifted apart like the spreading of the continents. But I didn't. Because I could see in his eyes that, despite everything, he really was trying to make it up to me now and he would, too, if only he had the time to but my doctor didn't seem to hopeful of that.
"I'll try," I said. Because Brian was trying, too.
He turned back to the table stuff and seemed to have found the perfect setting for all the stuff. He sat back down on the plastic chair, his feet shuffling nervously under him. We spent the afternoon watching crappy TV shows, ESPN classic games, and playing with the Nerf basketball. It was nice spending time with Brian but at the same time it kind of hurt because time like this was all I'd wanted from him back in the day, when he'd first started to pull apart our Frick & Frack-enised Pangaea. I was dying for his attention back then. Which was the irony of getting it now. As I was literally dying.
When he left he hovered by the edge of the curtain, staring at me, hesitating in leaving. "You have a good night," he said. He shuffled his feet. "I'll be back in a week to see you, okay? I promise. One week."
"I'll be here," I answered.
"You better be," he replied. He stared at me too long, then he ducked beyond the curtain and I listened until I heard his footsteps fading off down the hallway.
I lay there spinning the little Nerf ball in my palm, staring up at the glow of the TV, feeling alone now that he wasn't there to keep me company. I closed my eyes and let myself drifting in and out of sleep.
Suddenly, I felt like there was somebody watching me. I opened my eyes and blinked to focus and found myself staring up at that girl - that girl from the club the month before, when all this shit started, the one who saved me, the one with the curly hair and the big, awestruck eyes. She jumped in surprise when I looked at her and started to dart away but I shouted, "Wait!" and she stopped and turned back to face me. "Who are you?" I demanded.
She hesitated and stared down at her feet a moment, then said quietly, "Meira."
I waited, expecting more of an explanation of why she was there, but she left it at that. "Okay... but... who are you?" I asked again, "Why'd you save my life before? Where've you been? What'd you mean when you said you were late?"
Meira chewed on her fingernails nervously. Rather on the skin around the edges of her nails. She stared at me over her hand, then lowered it when she realized what she was doing and put her hands behind her back. "Well we were aiming for August. That would've been the best time, really. But it's hard to really aim, I guess, and I keep ending up too late and, I mean, December 7th was the earliest I've ever ended up being but it was still too late, considering we were shooting for August this time and --"
"Wait, wait, wait -- what?"
She stared at me.
"C'mon, you can't just say all that then not expect me to ask questions about what you mean," I said. "What do you mean you were aiming for August? Why is December 7th late? And why do you keep saying this time?"
"I can't tell you that," she said.
"Then why bring it up at all?"
She groaned and smacked her hand to her forehead. "Because I'm stupid and I'm bad at this." She turned to the wall and leaned her head against it and literally banged her head against the wall.
"Hey stop that, you're gonna wake people up in the next room or something," I said, "Or give yourself some kinda brain damage. But I dunno, you might already have that. Are you from the fourth floor? Did you escape or something?"
"The fourth floor?" she asked, looking over.
"Psych is up there," I replied.
Meira narrowed her eyes at me, "I'm not crazy. If either of us is crazy it's you, you asshat, for thinking I could pull this off! God! Send me here without even telling me what to say to you to explain, just that I can't tell you what happens and to give you a message. Easy as pie, you tell me, you'll do great, you always have, you tell me. Well I call bullshit!" She waved her arms. "If I was so great at it all the other times then why the hell am I here this time?" she demanded, "Doesn't it seem like if I was so great before that one of those times we would've succeeded and this whole thing would be over by now? UGH! Why didn't I think to tell you that? God I hate when I get answers in my head after the fact, don't you? Or I guess this is technically before the fact but whatever."
"What in fucklandia are you talking about?" I said. "Before and after what fact? Pull what off? I haven't said anything to you, really, I don't even know you!"
Meira shook her head, "Well no, no you haven't yet, have you?" She sighed, "And I suppose if I was oh-so-capable of pulling this off as you seem to think I am then maybe you never will. But if you don't then I wasn't here to tell you the message and -- I don't know how you think that's gonna help and -- Ugh! I don't know! It's so confusing."
Meira paused mid-freak-out, arms mid-flap like she was a dancer frozen in pose. She lowered her arms slowly. "Well maybe next time you'll tell me how to tell you so it's not so confusing, Mr. Stop Me Without Telling Me Why."
She sighed. "Forget it. I can't get into this with you right now. I just wanted to make sure you were okay because -- because --" she looked down at her toes. She was wearing beat up green Converse sneakers with two different laces strung through them. "Because I miss you. And -- and I'll probably never see you-you again and you --" she sighed, "I dunno. You aren't you."
"I'm not me?"
"Well you're you, but you aren't you, you aren't the you I know, anyway. At least not yet..."
I reached for the nurse's call button.
She dropped her face into her palms, "God why does this have to be so messed up? Why can't we just have met like normal people in the normal way?" She looked up at me with questioning eyes, like she expected me to have the answer. "Wait. What are you doing?" she leaned to look around me at my had as my thumb pressed against the call button. "Oh that's rich. What exactly do you think the nurse is gonna do?"
"Bring you back to your ward," I replied. "Maybe medicate you? I dunno. Something. Cos you, ma'am, are fucking certifiable."
Meira rolled her eyes. "Look, I'll be seeing you soon. I was early anyways. Jesus, you were stupid before, weren't you?" She ducked out from behind my curtain with a flourish and I could still hear her tread in the hallway when the nurse bolted into the room, a nervous look in her eyes.
"Is everything okay?" she asked, panting because she'd evidently just run clear here from the nurse's station.
"Yeah it is now," I replied, "But if you see that crazy girl come back again, can you do me a favor and keep her outta here?" I asked.
"The one that just left? I think you might wanna have the psych ward count their chickens cos I think one of them is clucking around down here."
The nurse glanced over her shoulder. "Okay," she replied.
"Thanks," I laid back into my pillows. She started to leave, but then I said, "And hey? Could I get a popsicle or something?"
"Right away, sir," she answered, and she ducked out of the room.
I turned back to the TV. But I couldn't get Meira out of my head.
I couldn't get Meira off of my mind.
I played around some with the Nerf ball Brian had left and I flickered through the channels until I started to feel dizzy from the flashing colors and lights, and then I laid there on my back, staring up at the ceiling, wondering about the mystery that was the crazy girl that kept saying this time and the strange feeling that I got every time she showed up... like I'd been waiting for her all along.
Well I pushed her out of my mind that day and everyday for another week. I tried to be more positive, just like Brian had asked me to do, but it was hard because everyday that passed I was getting more and more tired and my life was feeling more and more wasted just laying around in the hospital. There was a million and three things out there in the world that I could be doing to see myself out of this life with a bang and there I was - doing nothing and being content to wait. It felt like I was just waiting and hoping for a miracle that I didn't believe would ever come, and I wasn't even sure that I wanted anymore.
It was a week and one day after her last visit when Meira showed up in my room again. She tentatively poked her head around the door. I was staring out the window, and turned to look at her as she slid into the room. She was chewing the inside of her lower lip. "Hey," she said slowly.
I started to reach for the nurse call button.
"Please don't. Please. Let me talk to you. Okay? Please. I know you think I'm nuts and I haven't exactly been really good at making you think otherwise..." She had her hands held up. "So please. Just... gimme another chance."
I put the call button down. Mostly because I had questions that needed answering than because she'd asked.
"Thank you," she said. Meira came closer. "So um. How are you today?"
I stared up at her. "I'm just... great."
She licked her lips. "You're hurting, aren't you?"
I was. But I didn't wanna say that. So I shrugged.
"Look...it's January 18th. It's kind of going to be a big day for you. That's why I'm here."
"Oh? Is that right?"
"And how do you know this?"
"You told me. This was one of the dates we've tried in the past... the closest I ever came to succeeding was the time I met you on this date." She looked proud of herself. "At least, that's what you say, anyways."
I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose. "Talking to you makes my head hurt," I said.
"Why? Because I have no fucking idea what you're talking about half the time and you don't really clarify what you're talking about when I ask and --" I shook my head, "You talk about me like I'm two different people."
She blinked at me in surprise. "Well of course you're two different people, Nick," she said like this should've been obvious, "There's future you and there's past you. You're past you. I'm talking about future you."
"How can I be past me if I'm here?" I said, "The past is... the past."
"Well you're the past," Meira replied matter-of-a-factly. "Future you and I are trying to stop past you from... making a mistake."
I raised my eyebrow skeptically. "What kind of mistake."
"The biggest mistake of your life," she replied.
"And what exactly makes you such an authority on all this?" I demanded.
"Because I'm in your future," she replied. "You sent me here."
I laughed because I didn't really know what else to do. "Are you now?" I said, chuckling, "And -- what? Future me sent you to come talk to Past me?" I snorted.
"Now you're getting it," she said excitedly, clearly not picking up on the fact that I was making fun of her.
I rolled my eyes and reached for the nurse's call button again but Meira reached across and grabbed my wrist. "You want proof?" she asked.
"This I gotta see," I laughed. "Yes. I want proof. Give me proof you're from my future and I'll listen to your crazy little message or whatever."
Meira stared at me for a long moment.
"Well?" I demanded. "I'm waiting."
"So am I," Meira said. "Because..." she looked at a watch on her wrist. "Because you're gonna want to get that phone before we continue this discussion." She looked up and just as the words faded from her lips, my cell phone started vibrating on the rolley table.
I looked at it. What the fuck were the odds of that? I thought and I reached for it.
"It's a number you don't know yet," she said, and I stared at it. She was right. It was an out of state area code. I looked up at her. "But it's okay. You should answer it anyway because it's gonna be Brian. And he's gonna tell you about his friend -- Chris or Chip or Clyde or something that starts with a C -- who is working on something.... you might just be interested in. Given your situation."
I picked up my cell phone slowly.
"He lost his cell phone," she added. "He's calling you from C's phone."
I slid my thumb across the screen. "Hello?" I said, my eyes never leaving Meira.
"Hey Nick! It's Brian. I'm glad you answered, I was starting to wonder... I know you're weird about numbers you don't know... I'm calling from my friend's phone -- his name is Carl. And man do I gotta tell you about this thing he's working on, you're gonna shit when you hear it... Seriously, man. You're not going to believe it."
The thing about dying is you start getting kinda desperate for ways to live through whatever it is you're dying from. In my case, it's liver disease... something totally avoidable, but once brought on pretty much irreversible. (Thanks Mom and Dad for all those great alcohol-fused life tips.) What I have is called Cirrhosis and I guess I waited too long to get it checked because by the time I went I had developed a few complications that I'd overlooked so long they'd intensified my problem. Things like Edema and Ascites - basically swelling because my kidneys were over compensating for my liver - and Varices - which is increased blood pressure in weird places around the body because of the liver not pumping blood right. And finally I managed to develop myself a pretty mean case of Spontaneous Bacterial Peritonitis, which is basically a bunch of bacteria-filled fluid hanging out around my stomach and esophagus. That's what caused the pains and vomiting and everything I had and was what made me collapse at Aaron's birthday party back in December. Oh and apparently we're in the middle of this liver donor crisis in which everyone and their grandmother is over drinking, getting liver transplants, and using up all the good livers of the planet. And have I mentioned my blood type is the hardest to find livers for even on a good day?
So yeah I was pretty much living on an IV in the hospital at this point until by some miracle someone with a good liver with my blood type kicked the bucket and donated it to me. Which I wasn't even top of the list and for once my status as a Backstreet Boy was gonna do absolutely nothing for me. Celebrities, it turns out, do not get any kind of preferential treatment when it comes to organ donations. They join the heap of people waiting the same as everybody else. So it was probably going to be awhile. And in the meantime there was a good chance that the bacteria crawling around in my blood would kill me.
And to think, Brian wanted me to think positively.
Oh speaking of Brian.
So like I was saying, when you got all that shit going on, you tend to get desperate for a way to keep on living. Or, if and when you finally give up having believed you've reached the end of all your options, your friends get desperate for you. Which is the point Brian was at. And like I said before... he was trying like hell to make the past ten years up to me and all.
"Hey Nick! It's Brian. I'm glad you answered, I was starting to wonder... I know you're weird about numbers you don't know... I'm calling from my friend's phone -- his name is Carl. And man do I gotta tell you about this thing he's working on, you're gonna shit when you hear it... Seriously, man. You're not going to believe it."
I was staring at Meira as he said the words exactly like she'd just told me he was going to... as proof that she was from my future. My head was spinning. What was she, a psychic of some sort? I wondered. How did she know what Brian was going to say? Or that it was Brian at all? I was so perplexed by Meira, who was smirking knowingly at me, that I barely could focus on the words that Brian himself was saying, so I stammered out, "What?"
"I'm visiting my ma back home in Kentucky, and I go to the Home Depot to get some eggshell paint for her 'cos we were painting her garden fence over the weekend and I run into this guy I went to school with, Carl Pritchett. You remember me talkin' about Carl, right? He's he one I told you about, we played ball together, he used to take apart old radio control trucks and build things with 'em? Like robots? Remember I told'ja about the R2D2 we won the science fair with in eighth grade?"
No, I didn't remember. But then again, all I could think about were this big brown, almost almond shaped eyes that were staring back at me as I listened to him talking. "Yeah," I muttered. "What about him?"
"Well I run into him and he's buying all this weird stuff at the Home Depot and he told me he's working on this project and he's real excited, right, and he says it's gonna change everything we think about science. Come to find he went to MIT and he's got all these degrees and everything from all these schools since I last saw him. He's a real engineer and he's got this crazy project he's working on and Nick, by jimminey, I saw him test it. It's insane. I couldn't believe it. He said I couldn't tell anybody but I had to tell you because, Nick, I think it could help you."
"Help me? An R2D2 robot?" I asked, confused.
"No man, the project he's working on now. Nick, I saw it with my own two eyes. I saw it or I wouldn't believe it. I'm telling you either the guy is Houdini or it worked."
"His time machine."
I blinked several times in a row in disbelief. Brian's voice was so level for such a stupid joke. He should've been snickering or cackling or something by now. Meira was biting her lips, eyebrows raised as she watched me digest the words Brian had just spoken. I snorted. "Brian, please."
"No, Nick, I'm for real about this," Brian said. "It's not like some Doctor Who crap or anything, Nick, this is the real honest to God thing."
I laughed. "Brian you sound insane."
"Maybe I am, but Nick, for real. I watched him test it. He's tested it before he said and he made it to another time and there was another version of him still working on the time machine that was really surprised to find out he actually does it in the past and the two of them were passing objects back and forth through the time machine. He'd send forward an apple, say, and the other guy sends back a pear. Nick, they exchanged notes and everything else while I was watching. While I was watching, Nick."
I shifted my weight in the bed.
"Nick, what if he sends you forward and you get a liver transplant in another time when it's more abundant and then you can come back and be cured? Or hell he sends you forward and they have some kind of medication you can get on that cures it altogether? Or some crazy synthetic cyborg liver that can run forever? Nick, he could save you with this thing. Maybe faster than the doctors can."
I shook my head, "This is mental."
Meira sat down on the chair beside my bed. She picked up the Nerf basket ball and studied it while she waited for me to conclude the phone call. Brian and Meira would make a great pair in the padded rooms on the fourth floor, I thought to myself.
Brian's voice was serious. "Nick, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes, but I'm telling you, it's for real. I saw it, man."
"Maybe you need glasses," I said.
"You need to see it to believe it," he said. "I get it. Nick you need to come to see it."
I laughed, "Brian, aren't you forgetting something? I'm tethered to an IV in a bed at a hospital until I get a liver. Even if I believed you enough to drag my ass all the way to Kentucky I wouldn't be able to right now because last I checked IVs don't exactly go on field trips to crazy best friends' friends houses to check out trick machines they claim send you to the future."
The words that next came out of Brian's mouth were the ones that solidified the fact that he'd gone absolutely batshit crazy: "You can sign an affidavit, releasing the hospital from responsibility if you die after you leave and go at any time, Nick. I did it once for a Backstreet Boys tour with my heart. You just sign the form, they give you the meds they think you'll need to have a fighting chance, and you're a free man. You can get up here and we can get you to the future to fix this mess once and for all and the next thing you know we're back on the road with the fellas makin' music again."
"And what happens when I sign this form thing and I get up there and it turns out your friend is full of crap and I can't go to the future to get a new liver?" I asked, "I die and you spend the rest of your life blaming yourself for me dying 'cos you went and lost your mind and believed in a time machine?"
"I won't blame myself, Nick."
"Of course you will."
"No I won't, Nick. Because it's going to work."
"How do you know?" I demanded, "How could you possibly know that some ghetto ass time machine that your high school buddy built - probably in his momma's garage with spare parts from whatever tinker toys he's got laying around - is gonna transport my dying ass to the future where I get a new liver and live happily ever after touring with you and the Boys? How do you know that?"
"Because, Nick, Carl saw it. He saw it in the future."
I pressed my hands to my face. "I'm sure he did."
"Nick. I have a copy of People Magazine dated five years in the future with a news story about an album we haven't released yet having been released and us going on tour and you - you're in it - and they ask you about the liver transplant - and you say you had one. Nick. I have the magazine in my hands. Right now. Right now."
I shook my head, "You're insane."
"Nick. I'll show it to you. I'll bring it down. I'll be there in a few hours." He hung up the phone.
I put the phone down on the rolley table and turned to Meira. "He thinks he's found a Time Machine," I laughed.
Her face was perfectly straight. "He did," she answered.
I laughed again and leaned back into the pillows. "Jesus, everyone is going insane. Every-fucking-one." I closed my eyes.
"You'll see," she said.
"What do you mean I'll see?" I demanded.
Meira smiled a lazy kind of smirky-smile and got up from the chair, unfolding her legs the way an octopus unfurls to rise up. "Just exactly what I said," she answered, "You'll see. You think Brian and I are crazy, but you'll see."
I shook my head, "Sci-fi shit like time machines and stuff don't exist. Not really. I'm sorry if I have some reservations about putting my life on the line based on what some whackadoodle fruitcake escapee from the fourth floor with psychic-ish powers and my pre-mourrning guilt-ridden honorary best friend have to say about time travel being real." I sighed. "And even if it is real, I'm not sure I'd even wanna do it anyways." I glowered down at the blanket.
Meira walked around the end of the bed. She let her fingers trail across my feet gently as she passed. "See, if you'd just keep that mentality you'd make my job a hell of a lot easier," she said.
I rubbed my nose. "I'm not gonna change my mentality, so no worries there."
Meira reached the window and stared down at the traffic. She had a nice body. I'd be blind to not see that. She leaned against the sill, the curve of her face reflected in the glass, her eyes skimming the world beyond the window. The sunlight was shining on her hair, creating shadows beneath her thick eyelashes. "I just wish I knew why you end up changing your mind about the time machine 'cos that would make it so much easier to keep you from going..."
"I just told you, I'm not going to change my mind."
"You do, though," she said with a sigh. "You always do, you say, and then I have to come and undo it and it never works because you always, always change your mind about the time machine. Always."
In another world, in another life, in another situation - one in which she was not batshit crazy - I might've thought Meira was sexy, might've tried to go out with her, even, I thought.
"I mean you always start out dead set against it, you said, and that you slowly come around to it. Stop me from coming around to the idea of time travel, you always say, and I always ask how and you always tell me you can't tell me how, only that I need to stop you. And I never succeed at it and we always end up right back here." She put one hand to the glass of the window.
I was staring at Meira. I wanted her to keep talking, but I wasn't sure why. There was something hypnotic, something beautifully mesmerizing about the way she was standing there, staring, speaking in riddles. Something bewitching, even.
Suddenly, whatever spell she'd cast was broken, though, by the nurse walking in the door, humming some song by Elvis Presley, pulling along the vitals cart. She pulled it up to my side before she noticed Meira and her eyes lit up with recognition. "Miss," she said, "You shouldn't be in here."
I started to say that it was okay, since Meira wasn't hard on the eyes and all and I was starting to get used to her rambling dibble of crazy talk, but she turned around and said, "Why not?" in a tone that was a challenge to the nurse's authority.
"It's family only," the nurse answered without batting an eye. She shoved a glass of water and a little cup of pills at me and I quickly knocked back the pills and started to down the glass of water.
Meira crossed the room, her hand held up and from her finger glinted the set of my grandmothers' rings, which my Grandpa Doug had given to me after Gramma G died. They were locked up in my safe at home - behind a combination that only one other person in the entire world knew and it certainly was not batshit crazy Meira. "Well then I guess I'm okay, aren't I, seeing as I'm his wife."
I choked at the sight of those rings and the words she'd spoken. I honest to God choked. Water spewed from my mouth in a wide spray of spittle that misted across the blankets clear to my feet like the blow hole of a whale or something. "Excuse me?" I hacked.
"His wife?" the nurse asked, perplexed, "But why did you say to keep her out of here if she's your wife?" she demanded of me.
"You asked her to keep me out of here?" Meira demanded, arms flapping in offense.
"I didn't - I - I did, but I mean I --"
"I'm getting security," the nurse decided and she rushed into the hallway.
Meira turned to me. "Why would you tell her to keep me out of here?"
"Because you're some kind of fucking psycho-stalker person!" I shouted, "Where the fuck did you get those rings from, you delusional psychopath? Give me those! They're my ---"
"Gramma G's? Yeah. I know. You told me when you gave them to me." She jumped back as I waved my arms in her direction, like I thought I could catch her and pull them off her fingers myself.
"Tell me right now how you got those!" I snapped.
"You gave it to me," she repeated. "Or give it to me, I don't know anymore which it is!" Meira clutched her hand to her chest with her other hand, as if to protect the rings from me.
"Stop it! Tell me the fucking truth, right now, and give them back or I'll call the police and then you'll be sorry, you'll go to fucking jail or something!" I yelled hotly.
"I am telling the truth, you asshole!" she yelled back, "On April 11 in five years you give me these rings. We went out to eat, Nick, and you pretended you dropped something on the floor and you went down after it and you come back up with these rings and you asked me to marry you and told me about the rings while we were driving to Las Vegas. We got married there because you didn't want the press or your fans to know 'til it was over and I don't have anyone worth inviting to the wedding."
I stared at her.
"You were wearing your Breaking Bad t-shirt."
"When we got married?"
"Yes. Elvis officiated. He was nice. Smelled a little like mentholated cigarettes but over all it was nice. You said once that you'd gimme a real wedding someday, but we never have because you're too busy trying to turn back time." Meira's eyes looked sad. She looked right into me and her eyes seemed to sear right into my soul. "Don't try to take my memories of you away from me," she pleaded. "You're already trying to take yourself away." Her eyes filled with tears, "Trying to undo the very way you end up meeting me." She shook her head and turned away.
The nurse came back in the room with a security guard in tow and a couple doctors, too, including one I recognized from the fourth floor who looked in Meira's direction and shook his head to the nurse. She must've asked him if he was missing anyone and he'd just confirmed that no, Meira had not escaped from upstairs.
I felt a thrill of goosebumps crawl up my arms. If she wasn't from upstairs... then... what the hell was going on here?
Maybe I was the one that was batshit crazy.
"Is everything okay in here?" the security guy asked, glancing between Meira and I with concern.
"Just... just a misunderstanding," I replied.
The security guy's eyes drifted to Meira who stood there, shoulders hunched, crying. "Miss?" he asked gently, "Everything okay here?"
Meira nodded and turned back to face me. "Yes," she choked, "Yes. Like he said. Just a misunderstanding."
I kept waiting for Meira to start chattering again, but she stayed quiet and huddled up on the plastic chair next to me for the rest of the time we were waiting for Brian. I kept glancing over, at her arms wrapped around her knees, to see my grandmother's rings on her hand, wondering how the hell she got into the safe to get them if what she was saying wasn't true...
Wait. If? What am I saying? Of course it's not true! But.. if it's not then... how did she get the rings?
Brian came in almost two hours later. He didn't bother to do his usual knock, knock greeting, he just barreled into the room, breathing heavy, having obviously run up the stairs to my floor. He stood there in the doorway for a second, catching his breath, before saying, "Hallo."
Meira looked up. She'd been studying the woven pattern on the knee of her jeans. She stared at him in a fascinated sort of way. The way a wild animal looks at you before it runs away.
"Hey," I answered him.
Brian came into the room further, reaching for his back pocket, and produced the issue of People Magazine he'd just driven a sixth of the way South across the country to deliver. Then his eyes flitted to Meira. He stared at her in a fascinated sort of way, too. "Hey," he said to her, narrowing his eyebrows questioningly.
She answered by raising her hand in an arc of a wave.
"Brian, Meira. Meira, Brian." I said the names in a lazy sort of voice as I reached out for Brian's damn magazine, pulling it onto the rolley table and towards me.
"Meira?" Brian's eyes widened and he looked at me, then back at her, then back at me.
I stared down at the magazine.
Catching up with the world's hottest boyband. Twenty Five years and still going strong. Plus! Get the exclusive scoop on Nick's miraculous recovery and secret wedding. Backstreet Baby Teenagers: Father's Day Photos!.... Display until July 17 2018.
I looked back down to the magazine and slowly lifted it's first page, looking at the table of contents until I saw the page number for the article and flipped to it. A two-page spread photograph of the five of us huddled together in a studio, arms flung over one another's shoulders, filled the page. And I know there's a lot of pictures out there of me and the fellas, like more than I can count, but I knew this was not one I remembered taking and a chill went up my spine.
This was insane. It was crazy to even pause for a moment and think that this could be true, wasn't it?
My eyes skimmed the article. Word sets popped out at me - newly reunited after five year hiatus... multiplatinum new release, Infinity, featuring the single Stay With the Light... Meira Jung-Carter... private Vegas ceremony... honeymoon on exotic Japanese island....
I looked up. Brian and Meira were still staring at each other. Brian had narrowed his eyes even more, Meira was chewing the inside of her mouth, making her full lips pucker outward.
"You're in the article," Brian said to her.
Meira nodded. "I know."
"You've seen it, then."
She nodded again. "We did the interview together. All of us." She took a deep breath. "You spilled a cup of coffee on your pants." Meira laughed and looked down. "You were worried they'd be stained but they weren't."
Brian looked at me. "How the hell could you need more proof than this? Than her name being in that magazine?" He waved at Meira.
I couldn't wrap my brain around what was happening. It was like my body refused to believe that time travel coul exist. "I just - I - I just --- I mean how?" I asked.
"Miracle," Brian said.
"Quantum physics," Meira said at the same time. She took a deep breath, "It's math that Einstein essentially did almost a century ago, altered slightly and bent to fit the concept of passage." She licked her lips.
"But it's impossible," I stammered.
"Obviously not," Meira replied. "Or I wouldn't be here. You probably wouldn't ever have met me."
"I haven't met you," I replied.
"You gotta have faith Nick," Brian spoke up.
I sighed. Figures Brian would bring up the faith thing. He'd been on me about faith and God and stuff since he found out about me and my whole liver thing because, you know, as he put it he'd like to see me in Heaven someday, like he thought I was going to hell because I wasn't exactly the Bible Man he was. I mean, I believe there's something out there, but I dunno if I'm comfortable putting a label on it the way he is. I think there are things out there that we don't have any concept of at all.
And if this whole time machine thing was real that would only confirm those beliefs of mine more.
And that's a big if.
But, I realized, it was a way out of this fucking hospital without anyone (Brian) passing judgement, thinking I was trying to kill myself. 'Cos I wasn't trying to kill myself. My self was already dying and I just was tired of acting like IV bags and sterile walls and nurses and doctor rounds and blood pressure cuffs were gonna change that when nobody was giving me a liver any time soon.
This was my chance to get outta there and die like I was living.
"Faith, huh?" I said in a hushed tone.
"Yeah," Brian said.
I took a deep breath. I saw Meira close her eyes. She knew what I was gonna say.
"So where's this affy-davey thingy I gotta sign?"
My signature was shaky and messy on the Leave Against Medical Advice form. Despite myself - and how sure I was I wanted out of the hospital - I still couldn't help but be a little bit unsure sealing the deal. I stared down at the scrawling signature on the page after I'd finished, biting my lips.
"You know that if you leave today you'll have maybe one week to change your mind and come back? Once the toxins have entered your blood stream there won't be much we can do for you. You'll have two to three months to live." The doctor was staring at me with concern in his eyes as he swiveled his eyes over the top of his glasses frames uncertainly.
"Once the toxins enter your system there will be nothing we can do to sustain your life at that time," he said. "At that point, even if you get a new liver the toxins wold simply destroy it, too. You'll be removed from the donor list."
I nodded again.
"And nobody is pressuring you to sign this affidavit?" he asked lowly, glancing in Brian and Meira's direction.
"No sir," I replied.
It was his turn to nod.
I turned the document around and pushed it toward him to the very edge of the table. He put his palms down on the page an he stared at it for a long moment. Then he took a deep breath. "Okay, then I will go begin the discharge paperwork for you," he said. He stood up and took the page from the table and walked out of the room.
There was no going back now.
I looked over at Brian and Meira. "Well," I said, and I forced a laugh, "I guess you guys better be right about this or I'm gonna be pushin' daisies." I smiled even though my nerves were doing anything but smiling on the inside. Inside, I was having a more-than-slight panic attack as my survival instincts started kicking in. What had I done? I'd essentially signed my own death sentence, I realized. When we got up to Kentucky and Brian's friend Chip or Chunky or Carlton or whatever the fuck his name was turned out to be a crackpot and there was no time machine to transport me to the future of healing then what?
But if there was no time machine then where the hell had that magazine come from?
It was like every time I made up my mind what I thought about the whole thing something bubbled up in my head that made me think the other thing. But I really didn't want to believe it because I'd been so adamant to Meira about not changing my mind...
It took awhile for the discharge papers and everything to get finalized, but once it was done the nurses came pretty quick to help me out. Brian rushed ahead to get his car up to the door while a nurse helped me get onto my feet and into a wheel chair and Meira rolled me down the hallway to the elevator. It felt strange to be away from bed, and my excitement level rose the further and further we went from the room. I realized it'd been since before Christmas that I'd left the hospital.
The nurse was babbling on about instructions for me to follow with my medication they were prescribing me, but I was barely listening. As the wheel chair rolled through the doors of the hospital I breathed in the great outside air - cold and harsh and raw in my nose - I felt invigorated and I got up out of the wheel chair. I felt wobbly on my feet and stumbled a couple steps. The nurse caught me just before I went back down. "We have you in the chair for a reason, you're gonna be a little wobbly on your feet at first," she said in a scolding tone.
I didn't care. I was outside, I was vertical. That's all that mattered to me at that moment. When she released my arms, I stumbled toward Brian's car, Meira rushing after me carrying my duffle bag. Brian got out and came around to open the passenger side door and he and Meira helped me climb in as the nurse hovered holding the last of my paperwork. She held it out to me before Brian closed the door and I thanked her and Meira and Brian got into the car... I glanced back only once as Brian drove away.
At least I'm not gonna die in a hospital, I told myself.
I leaned into the car seat and closed my eyes and enjoyed the feeling of the warm sunshine heating my skin through the window. It felt so nice.
When Brian's car rolled into my driveway, I stared up at the house, at the Christmas lights that had never been taken down, at the empty trash bin standing sentinel at the end of the driveway, like a soldier guarding the property, and I felt this ache in my gut. Meira leaned forward from the back seat to stare up at it, too, her jaw slack, eyes aglow with excitement.
We climbed out of the car, me still wobbly on my feet, and Brian helped me up the walkway as Meira practically danced up it herself. She reached into her pocket and produced a ring of keys I'd never seen before in my life and unlocked my front door. "What the fuck--" I started to say, but Brian glanced at me and I said, "Well she has a key to my front door, I'm not gonna hold back the obscenity, Frick."
"She lives here in the future probably," he said calmly.
How in hell was he soooo okay with this whole time travel bit? I wondered. He was acting like it was common for chicks to appear from the future with keys to your house.
Hint: It's not.
Meira was already beyond the foyer when Brian and I walked in after navigating the steps up to my porch. I breathed in the smell of home and pressed my palms against the familiar walls, greeting the house. "Welcome home," Brian said.
I choked back singing a the next line of his song. He hated it when I did that. I think he thought I was making fun of him when I did, but I didn't mean it like that. It's just that the phrase welcome home always was followed by you - I know you by name - how do you do? in my head.
"It's so different in here!" Meira's voice echoed through the house from the living room. I walked toward it, followed by Brian. She was standing between the couch and the dining room, looking around.
"Different?" I asked.
"Yeah," she spun and came back around the couch, "Everything's so different. What the hell were you thinking buying these curtains?" she asked, flapping one of them in my direction. "They have fucking sailboats on them."
"I like fucking sailboats," I said.
Brian mumbled, "That's what she said."
I raised my eyebrows in surprise as Meira's laugh crashed over us from the curtains. Brian's cheeks were flushed from his accomplishment of a dirty joke and his eyes twinkled. I felt like pointing out that he wouldn't have had the balls to crack the same joke in front of his wife, but I decided to let it go. Things so far were going pretty good between Brian and I for the first time in awhile, I didn't need to go bringing up my issues with Leighanne to set it off again.
Besides that, Meira had moved on to the assortment of keyboards and soundboards and music stuff that cluttered the wall of the dining room. "Nick, what the hell? Why isn't this stuff in your studio where it belongs instead of messing up the dining room?"
"I don't have a studio," I replied.
Meira turned around, "Oh. Well. You will." She fluttered off to the kitchen.
I looked at Brian. "She's insane. In-fucking-sane, Brian."
He smiled. "You've always gone for the crazy ones."
"I'm not going for her, she just showed up. She's forcing herself on me. That doesn't count as going after someone."
Brian headed toward the kitchen after Meira, and I hurried after him as quick as I dared to, still being all wobbly and all.
She was standing in the kitchen when I came around the corner, holding up a pan. "Well." She said, "Don't tell future you I said this but you totally win the fight about whose pan this originally was." She put it back down on the stove top.
"We fight about pans?" I said, raising an eyebrow.
"I threatened to move out once," she replied, "And I started packing pans and you grabbed this one out of my hand and said it was yours and we fought about it and by the time we were done fighting..." a smile spread across her face. "Well, let's just say I didn't exactly move out." She danced away.
I looked at Brian, he was laughing.
"This isn't the least bit messed up in your eyes?" I asked. "You don't find the fact that she's frolicking around telling stories that haven't even happened yet just the tiniest bit weird?"
Brian patted me on the back. "Nick, I think you found yourself a keeper," he replied.
"Again with the I didn't find her," I said.
"Well, whoever found the other first did a really good job of it," he answered.
I watched as Brian followed Meira on through the house and I sat in one of the stools by the breakfast bar and let out a low sigh, lowering my head down on the counter top. I took a couple of low, deep breaths. I was exhausted from just the short drive home from the hospital. I closed my eyes and just felt the coolness of the tile counter against my cheek, thankful for something solid to lean against.
I could hear my heart pounding in my head, like a drumline.
Suddenly there were hands on my shoulders. "It's going to be okay," she whispered in my ear. She kissed soft part of my neck. "I know you're hurting, but it's going to be okay someday. Someday really soon, I promise, Nick." She rubbed my shoulders, kneading the balled nerves.
"Where'd Brian go?" I asked, my face still on the tile, eyes still closed.
"Bathroom," she answered. "Aw, you're so tense... these muscles..."
Her hands were experts at the knots in my neck. She knew exactly how to do it. It wa like heaven im the form of perfectly kneaded pressure points. "Hmm," I hummed in approval as she kept on massaging me. "God you're good."
"Amazing what a few years of practice will do," she replied huskily. I could've fallen asleep with her rubbing my shoulders like that. And maybe I did because she was suddenly whispering in my ear again, "Let's at least get you up to bed, sweetie."
"Okay," I mumbled.
And she led me up the stairs to my bedroom, navigating me perfectly down the hallway to be room. I crawled, clothes and all, right onto the bed. It was another bed, sure, but this one had my pillows and my blankets and it didn't smell like hospital bleach and it didn't crinkle like hospital beds do and I sank into the pillow-top mattress like it was a cloud. "Oh Jeeesus, yes," I moaned as I dropped my weight down.
"Get comfy," Meira directed, "It's gonna be okay. You'll feel better soon... so very soon." I had no objections when she climbed up next to me and continued rubbing my back - all up an down my spine and across my shoulders - until I fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was morning and I was alone in the bed. Sunlight was peeking in through cracks in the window like it was shining into the crevices of broken places. I stared at it, at the dust floating silently in the streams of bright orange light piercing the blackness of the room. It took a moment for my consciousness to notice that I had a persistent, throbbing ache in my abdomen, and I realized for the first time that I didn't have a handy-dandy button to press to relieve the pain when it started. I clutched at my side and took a deep, shaking breath. It hurt, but, I reminded myself, it was gonna get worse before it got --- well, not better, but before it won and I didn't have to feel it anymore.
I could hear the shower running in the bathroom down the hall and that's what reminded me that I wasn't home alone, that somewhere in the house was Brian and Meira. They'd given me a prescription for pain medicine, I remembered the nurse telling me to take one once every six hours. I'd need to go get that prescription filled so I could take one and make the pain in my side stop or at least lessen a little. So, desperate for my meds, I crawled out of bed, my hand on my abdomen, and waddled into the hallway, wincing with every step. It hurt like a mother fucker. Maybe, I thought, dying at the hospital would've been better. At least it wouldn't have hurt this much.
Meira was in the hallway, headed my direction when I clutched the wall, an especially sharp pain cutting through my guts. I lowered to the floor and sat, my back against the wall. I whimpered and grit my teeth until the ache had gone by. I wondered if this was what women felt when they had babies 'cos I felt like they look in the movies and stuff. "Are you okay?" Meira asked, hurrying over to me.
"I need to go get my pain meds," I spoke through gritted teeth.
"I have them right here," she said, holding up a little dixie cup with three pills in the bottom of it. I took them from her hand and downed them quickly. "Here," she said, holding out a bottle of water. "There you go, you should feel better soon."
"Thanks," I said once I'd swallowed about half the bottle of water. I recapped it.
Meira was kneeling beside me. I looked over at her and I realized for the first time that she'd been wearing the same clothes pretty much since I'd quasi-met her the first time. And what made me notice was now she wasn't. Instead, she was wearing one of my t-shirts and a pair of my sweatpants with the drawstring pulled so tight it hung to her knees.
"Why are you wearing my clothes?" I asked her.
She looked down and flushed, then looked back up at me. "To be honest, I didn't really think anything of it because I do this all the time." She blinked up at me, and I could feel my face contorting in perplexity. "I'm sorry, I can take them off if you want. I forget how weird it is to be bombarded with someone who knows everything about the future."
"Forgot what it's like?" I said, eyebrows raised, "Does this happen often to you or something?"
She laughed, "Only the once," and looked at my pointedly.
"You mean me?" I said. I laughed, "You think I'm gonna bombard you knowing everything about our future?" I shook my head, "You know everything about my future, how could I possibly bombard you?"
"Well the me you bombard is past me...before I met you... and... you'll see. Let's just say, you're gonna get me back for everything I'm doing to you now." She smiled, a twinkle in her eyes as she remembered what I hadn't yet done. She smirked, "Or maybe I'm getting you back now. Depends on how you look at it, I suppose."
My brain was boggled by the twistedness of time.
"It's hard to say who's getting back who because neither of us have ever been on exactly the same timeline in a way. You know all this about me and I know all that about you and there's nothing that we both just know together. At least...not yet. I'm hoping when I get back that you'll still be there and --" she paused. She bit her lip.
"You don't know if I'll be there?"
"It depends on how all this goes, I suppose," she replied. "If you listen to the message from future-you or not."
I rubbed my nose. "And what exactly is the message?" I asked.
"I can't tell you that," she replied. "Not yet."
"Just because. I can't." Her eyes were filled with tears. She sat down next to me and stared up at the ceiling a moment.
"Please don't cry," I asked of her.
"I just... I've always wanted to ask you... why you aren't just happy with the way things turned out, why you had to send a message back to yourself to change things. Why... why we weren't enough just the way we were."
Then the tears started way worse than before.
I reached out my arm and put it around her shoulders instinctively... because that's what you do when girls cry. You hug them. That's the only way to fix them. I rubbed her arm.
She turned into me, pressing her face into my chest, hugging me. I'd be a goddamned liar if I said it wasn't the most perfect hug I'd ever received. She smelled so pretty, like fruit and flowers, and she felt so soft in my arms, just the right height and everything. I wrapped my arms around her and I felt like I was shielding her from the world. Like I could actually keep her safe by holding her. It was a good feeling because really that's all any guy wants is to be needed like that.
"Why aren't you happy?" she asked, big tears pouring over her cheeks.
"I dunno," I answered honestly. "You know future me way more than I do right now," I added. I squeezed her shoulders as she squeaked in sadness at my reply. "I'll tell ya what though, if everything you say's true and I lived through my fucked up liver and I got a great girl like you to fall in love with me and stuff then I'm a damn lucky guy and I should be the happiest man on the entire earth." I sighed. "I mean that's really mostly why I'm so unhappy right now, about, like, you know, life and stuff." I snuffed and rubbed my nose again. "I dunno if I even want all you're saying to be true because I'm so scared I'm gonna die and lose it all."
She pulled back away from me, just far enough that our palms could touch flat together between us and she stared up into my eyes for a long moment. "You aren't gonna die. Not yet. I've got a lot of time with you left. And you better not even dream of dying and taking that all away from me." She moved her fingers to weave between mine. "I know right now that you're scared and you're in pain and everything, but someday you'll be sure of me - of us - and you'll save my life." She stared into my eyes. "And I'll really need it when you find me. I won't tell you how much - not ever - not until this moment, but... you'll know 'cos..." she laughed, "Cos this is before you do it. But..." Meira smiled, a wobbly, sad, broken kind of smile, "I almost died that night, Nick."
"How?" I whispered.
Meira breathed shakily. "I didn't think I could be loved... and then you just... showed up, like a hurricane of love. And you didn't even think twice, you just..." she shook her head.
"How'd we meet?" I asked.
Meira laughed. "It was New Years Eve... and I was at First Night with my friends and my resolution was to - to have a good night because I was gonna kill myself the next day." She looked up at me, tears in her eyes. "And I was standing there in the crowded street at the corner of Broadway and Second... and suddenly this guy grabs my shoulders and it's you, and you're shouting that you can't believe you found me in the mess of people there, and you just... kiss me with all this passion... and when you stop, you pull back and you stare into my face and tears are pouring down your face and you say to me, I love you, and I'm like whoa this guy is drunk. But then you say, Shit I'm sorry, I should introduce myself, I'm Nick Carter, and I'm gonna marry you. And... I just..." She chuckled, "I wanted to see if you were telling the truth or not."
I laughed. Because it was so ridiculous of a story. But it sounded like a pretty good one, too, at the same time.
"Well. I guess we'll see how it goes."
She nodded. "You'll see."
"You keep saying that," I teased.
Down the hallway, Brian turned the shower turned off and I realized that the pain in my side was subsiding thanks to the miracle of the pills. I struggled to my feet and Meira popped up beside me, helping me up carefully. Maybe, I thought to myself, it wouldn't be so bad believing in the time machine... believing in Meira and me.
It was clear while we were eating breakfast that Brian wasn't over the concept of Meira being from the future yet. He kept staring at her. She'd catch his eyes and smile in this really awkward way and kinda nervously laugh, then try to look away, but Brian would keep staring at her and she'd look at me like she was expecting me to help her. When Meira excused herself halfway through to get some more juice, I nudged Brian in the arm. "Dude, you're freaking her out."
"What?" he said, looking down at his food, "How? What do you mean?" He cleared his throat because he knew exactly what I meant. So I stared at him for a second with my best impression of how he was staring at her. He sighed, "I can't help it," he said, waving his spoon at me to imply that he got my point. "Have you really thought about it, man? Like really thought about it? She's from the future."
I shrugged and turned back to my bowl of cereal.
"No man. Stop for a second." Brian grabbed my bowl and slid it away from me. I looked up at him. "A woman from the future is here. In your house. She knows you and me and everyone and what's gonna happen tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. She knows it all. She's like... a crystal ball in the movies... only... reliable."
"If it's real." I reached for my cereal bowl, but he pulled it further out of my reach. I glowered at him.
"It's gotta be real, Nick. It's gotta be. Her name was in the magazine Carl got from the future, remember? How else would her name be in there? It's not like there's a lot of chicks named Meira running around. You don't exactly bump into one everyday. What's the odds of it being fake with her name in it? Nick, think about it. She can tell us what's gonna happen."
"I can tell you what's gonna happen," I said, "I'm gonna kick you in the balls if you don't gimme my cereal back." I wiggled my fingers at it and Brian sighed and pushed the bowl back in front of me. "Thank you." I shoved my spoon into it and shoveled a mouthful of cereal into my mouth. "Now as for Meira... I dunno," I said around the mouthful. "I mean... I dunno, it just seems too good to be true. I mean, I just get to parachute off into the future and never feel pain again? I'm dying and just like that I'm gonna be fixed, just boom - fixed because of an unlikely event like a time machine being invented right under my nose. Why hasn't the government hijacked the shit out of this machine anyways? You know, and do all kinds of army crap with it?" I chewed.
Brian put his hands on the edge of the counter like he was clinging onto it. "That's why it's so important for you to get to Carl ASAP, Nick. He's just waiting for the government to bust down his door and take the thing off to some kind of test site facility. He hasn't reported it yet, but the minute he does they're gonna be all over him."
I moved my spoon around in the bowl to make patterns with the cereal still floating in my soymilk. "And why does he wanna help me?"
"He's helping me," Brian replied.
I looked up at him.
"Nick, I don't want you to die," he said. Brian's eyes swiveled to the ceiling, like he was avoiding looking me in the eyes, like what he was about to say was hard for him to get out. And once he started speaking, I understood why. "Nick, I've lost enough time with you already, haven't I?"
"So he's helping me out." Brian turned back to his cereal.
"Okay," I replied. And I turned back to making patterns in mine.
We were quiet for several moments and Meira still hadn't come back. I had a feeling she'd only said the juice refill thing to give me and Brian a few minutes to talk or something. If she really was from the future and she really did know me and Brian real well then she probably knew what it looked like when Brian had things to say which he clearly did right now. It was kinda cool that she could read us like that, and she respected it enough to give us the space, too. I smiled to myself.
"Do you think she'd mind if I - I asked her something?" Brian asked, studying his cereal like it was some kind of rare specimen.
I looked over, pushing my empty bowl away and put the spoon on the counter. "I doubt it. What'cha gonna ask her?"
Brian sucked in a deep breath. "Just... about some stuff..." he chewed his lip. Then he turned toward me. "Nick, Leighanne and I haven't been...getting along very well recently."
I raised my eyebrow, not wanting to look excited but I'm not gonna lie I was a little. "No?" I asked. "Why?"
I could venture a guess but I didn't dare, afraid I'd piss him off.
He shrugged. "I just wanna know if we make it."
"I don't think she'd mind you asking her that."
"It didn't say anything either way in the article in that magazine," he said.
I hadn't really read the article well, only read the words that popped off at me. But I had a feeling that if it'd said something about Leighanne and Brian breaking up that it would've popped.
"So ask her," I said.
He nodded. "When I'm ready to hear the answer, I will."
I nodded, too.
Meira must've been listening at the door because she came back in the room a couple moments later, when we'd both been silent long enough that it was obvious the conversation was over and she had a fresh glass of orange juice and an overly happy expression on her face, like she was trying to make up for being so damn confusing. "So," she said, sitting on the stool across from us at the bar, "When are we heading up to Kentucky?"
"As soon as possible," Brian answered. "We need to get up there before anyone else finds out about Carl and the time machine and everything. If someone else gets a hold of it, we won't be able to use it until God knows when and by then --" he glanced at me, "By then it might be too late."
I stood up. "Well, I guess we better get going then. My liver ain't waitin' for nobody." I carried my bowl and glass into the kitchen, followed by Brian, and Meira, who was swallowing the juice she'd just poured herself quickly.
Meira followed me upstairs and set herself on the bed, legs crossed, and watched as I put things into a duffle bag after pouring all the crap I'd had at the hospital into the laundry bin. She held her toes in her hands as she sat there, Indian-style. "So," I said as conversationally-casual as I could manage, "What's it feel like, time travel?"
She shrugged, "Kinda like waking up, I guess. You know time's passed but you didn't feel it."
I nodded. That seemed logical. "What happens to present-day you when you go somewhere? Like if I'm going 5 years in the future, what happens to me now? What'll the fans all think I've gone to?"
Meira thought for a moment. "I dunno. I've only ever gone backward. And nobody notices when I'm gone. Except for you. But you're the one sending me, aren't you, so --" She paused. "Plus I always wake up back where I was."
I nodded again and set to work choosing shirts and pants and socks and shit like that. Meira sat there chewing on her lips. I was about to put a shirt back when she said, "No. Pack that one. Please pack that one."
I looked over at her. "What?"
"That's the one you --" she paused, closed her eyes. "Never mind."
She shook her head.
I folded it and put it in the bag.
"I can't do things like that," she said with a sigh, "I can't keep telling you about the future. It's gonna change your mind. I can't do that. I can't. You sent me here for a reason." She rubbed her knees. "God it's just so hard because I want to be like fuck it and just be with you."
I stared down at the things in the bag. "So why don't you?"
"Because," she replied. "It doesn't happen that way."
"Maybe it does now."
"Because in six months you'll die and I'll have never met you to come back to begin with. See?"
"It's confusing as fuck," I replied. I chucked a couple more things into the bag. "I dunno why I'm bothering to pack. I'm gonna change my clothes like once anyways. Maybe." I zipped it shut and threw the strap over my shoulders. "So I gotta question," I said.
"Yeah?" she asked.
"If it's so damn important that I get the message and stuff and I couldn't tell you anything, then why the hell didn't I come do this myself?" I asked.
"I don't know," Meira replied.
"I mean it'd be a lot easier to believe in time travel if I was confronted with myself," I pointed out. "Can't really go wrong with me bursting into the room."
Meira raised an eyebrow.
"I just feel like it's easier to think you're just a crazy girl than it would be to believe I have an identical stranger that's crazy," I laughed.
"Parent trap style," she smirked.
"Exactly," I said. "The odds of that are nil."
She laughed. "Do I really seem crazy to you?" she asked.
"You'd have to be at least a little to put up with me," I pointed out.
"True," she agreed.
"You agreed too easy to that," I commented.
Meira rolled off the bed and stood up next to me. "You said it first," she pointed out.
I stared into her eyes. They were pretty. They were brown and deep and sad. They were the kind of eyes I could imagine staring into for a really long time.
"Seriously how long does it take to pack a damn duffle bag?" Brian called up the stairs and I realized I'd been staring into her eyes for a lot longer than I'd meant to.
She blinked and I backed away. We started for the door, but I paused in the doorway. Without looking at her, I asked, "Is he gonna wanna hear his answer when he finally asks you?"
Meira hesitated like she didn't want me to know she'd been listening to us before. But then she answered, "Probably not."
"Okay," I said. And we headed downstairs.
I couldn't help but keep glancing over at Brian as he drove north from my house towards the city, towards the state line, towards Kentucky and Carl and the Time Machine and the future and everything we were about to encounter. He'd catch me looking and he'd smile all cheesy and unsuspecting and in a way that he thought was reassuring because he thought that I was nervous or something. But really, I was more worried about how he'd get along after, how he'd end up picking up the pieces when life as he knew it fell apart.
Knowing the future, I realized, was a huge responsibility. Knowing how something was gonna turn out put this unspeakable pressure on you to make it stop before it could happen. Knowing without saying anything, just letting events take place because that's how it's supposed to be is a heavy burden, I realized, and I glanced at Meira in the mirror on the visor as she sat in the backseat, staring out the window at the passing fields and trees and buildings on either side of the road.
Maybe, I thought to myself, a Time Machine is a dangerous invention. Maybe a Time Machine isn't something we humans should take as lightly as we do in sci-fi stories and in our imaginations. I mean, think about it. Given the opportunity, how many things would we go back and change? How many of those things that we most desire to change in our past are the very things that molded and shaped us into who we are, the very things that make us strong? What if we changed all that and time just unraveled, like a knit sweater where one string pulls loose and the next thing you know it's all just coming undone, everything changing, shifting, falling into new places. What if we change one thing and everything that we've ever said and known and done and felt and thought becomes completely different? What if we change one thing and poof, we've never been born at all?
But the thought of how colossal time was, and how dangerous it was to alter it, it occurred to me that my future self was playing it awful loose, sending Meira back in time to tell me some message that could potentially rewrite all of history without so much as telling her why or what it would do if she told me what she had been sent to tell me. Why didn't I do it myself? I should have. Future-me sounds like a cavalier asshole with a huge ego to think that all of history was worth altering just for the sake of my future.
Unless there was some reason why I couldn't tell myself. Some reason I didn't know about.
Like maybe the Time Machine doesn't work to cure me.
Like maybe I'm dying anyway.
I caught Meira's eyes in the mirror and she smiled up at me, her eyes twinkling. I took a deep breath and ran my hands across my knees.
"So what year in the future are you from?" Brian asked conversationally.
Meira licked her teeth before answering, "2022."
"Eight years. Wow." Brian glanced at me. "Eight years."
"Yeah," I said.
"What's it like? Any flying cars?"
"They developed one but it's not on the market really," Meira shrugged. "To be honest, it's not really all that much different."
"What iOS does your phone operate on?" I asked.
"iOS?" Meira laughed. "Please."
I looked at Brian, then back at her. "What?"
"iOS is sooo -- well, 2015. In 2018 they rolled out iLife. It's a wrist band. Makes calls, is voice-operated primarily, has a pull-out screen that folds like it's made of cloth or something. It's pretty cool. Everyone uses them. They come in like 7 colors. We're on iLife 4.12."
"That sounds fucking insanely awesome," I said. "Like James Bond." I grinned, eager. "Dude, I cannot wait to get my hands on one of those."
"You should wait 'til they come out with the two. The first one annoyed the shit out of you. You broke like four of them out of sheer aggravation."
"Thanks for the tip," I said, grinning.
Brian took a deep breath and before he even opened his mouth I knew he was about to ask his question. I closed my eyes. "Meira... I understand if you can't tell me the answer to this but... my wife and I... are we... still together?"
Meira looked down at her knees, "You and Leighanne you mean?"
"Who else?" Brian asked.
I glanced over at Brian. His knuckles were pale as he clutched the steering wheel. "I'm remarried?" he asked, voice a quiver. "What's - what's her name?"
Meira shrugged, "There's some things I can't tell y'all," she said.
Brian bit his lips and I could see the faintest hint of tears in his eyes as he stared straight ahead as he drove on. And this was exactly the sort of thing that could make the time machine dangerous, I thought. Things like Meira telling Brian and me the future, things like Brian not wanting things to end with Leighanne. What if the wrong person got a hold of the machine and went back and stopped major historical events? Maniacally or not, they could fuck up a whole lot of lives - maybe even in an attempt to save a life, they could actually ruin millions more. And suddenly I went from being a disbeliever in the time machine to not only being a believer to questioning the ethics of the whole thing.
Where do you draw the line? I wondered. What things are okay to change and what things create a ripple effect that'll alter the course of everything? Whose lives was it okay to save and whose deaths were written indelibly in the history of mankind for a reason? Was mine one of them?
The rest of the ride to Kentucky was pretty quiet. When we got about an hour over the TN/KY border, Brian steered off the road to fill up the gas tank at a station overlooking the interstate. The exit had pretty much nothing else off it except farm land, a few cows, and a billboard for an adult bookstore. Brian shook his head in disapproval at the sign as he got out to pump the gas and Meira and I went into the little convenience store.
We were standing back by the drink coolers and I was debating between juice and chocolate milk when Meira asked, "So this is the first time we've met for you, right?"
"Mhm," I answered, opting for juice.
"What do you think of me?" she asked, "Do you like me?" She was wringing her hands in front of her, a nervous expression on her face. I couldn't help but laugh. "What? It's not funny, I'm serious," she said, pouting.
"You know how everything turns out," I said. "How do you no know if I like you or not?"
Her eyes were burning as they stared into mine, "Because there's something different about you. Something... something I can't explain. You aren't the Nick I know and..." she took a deep breath. "I just... a part of me has always been afraid of this, of what we're doing somehow changing you, making you... making you less you." She shifted foot to foot. "I'm just afraid if you don't like me now that you won't wanna... you know... end up with me." She shrugged. "I'm afraid you'll not come meet me the first time."
I shrugged, "But I already came for you or you wouldn't be here."
"A past you came for me. You're a new you. You have the power to rewrite it all."
"That is so confusing."
"Well? Do you?"
I stopped halfway to the front of the store by a display of small bags of chips. I picked up a couple bags of Cool Ranch Doritos and took a deep breath. "Yeah," I said. I said it the way a twelve year old boy commits to liking a girl on the playground by the swing set. I said it in a way that said I wasn't sure. I said it in a way that made her look more nervous than she had before I ever said a word.
"I don't know you," I said, my voice a little whiney. "I don't dislike you, Meira, but I don't know you yet. You said I did this to you? So you know what it's like, when you suddenly have someone that's in your life that loves you so completely but you don't even hardly know'em. You know what it's like to be on this end." I chewed on the inside of my lower lip a moment, thinking. "But I'm gonna get to know you when we meet and when I do... I'm gonna love you."
Meira's voice was quiet, "You already loved me when we met."
I took a deep breath. I didn't know how to fix it. I didn't think there was a way without a miracle occurring.
I paid for the drinks and chips and we went back out to the car. Brian was just finishing gassing up and was tapping the hose nozzle against the tank rim. He looked up as we came over and Meira climbed right into the car without a word. He glanced at her as the door closed behind her, then looked to me. "Everything... okay?" he asked.
I nodded and got into the car, too.
She was sitting in the backseat with a worried look on her face.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," she replied.
"It's not gonna change anything," I said.
"You don't know that," she answered.
I sighed. She was right. I didn't.
Brian got back into the front seat and rubbed his hands together, blowing between them to warm up. "G'Lord," he shuddered, "It's mighty cold out there, ain't it?" He looked over at me, and then back at Meira, then back at me. "Lil chilly in here, too," he muttered. He reached for his seatbelt and strapped himself in.
Meira looked over at me. "I'm afraid you don't know what you could lose," she said.
"So why didn't I come back and tell myself then, huh?" I asked. "If you're so worried I'm gonna mess it up, that I'm gonna lose you," I said, "Why give me the message at all? Why not just rig it all so you get me exactly the way you want? I'd never know the difference."
Brian was staring in the rearview mirror at her face, his eyebrows cinched together in concern.
Meira shook her head and looked back out the window.
Brian's friend Carl really seriously lived in his mother's basement. And here I'd thought I was joking when I'd made fun of the concept of a time machine earlier. We pulled up to the house - a somewhat small place in the middle of downtown Lexington suburbia, not very far from the high school Brian had gone to - and we all clamboured out of the car.
Meira hadn't said much since the gas station. She had a worried expression on her face, though, and she kept looking at me with these sad, almost haunted, eyes, like she was seeing me for the last time. It made me kinda uncomfortable. It was the same way Brian had looked at me every time he'd left the hospital since I'd been diagnosed.
"So... remind me again why we're trusting a guy in the basement of his momma's house in Kentucky?" I murmured as Brian led us across the lawn to the geranium-lined front door.
"Because I saw it work with my own eyes," Brian replied. "Because she's here," he added, thumbing in Meira's direction.
Brian pressed the door bell and we could hear it echo through the house even from outside. A dog started barking - a little yappy kinda dog. The curtains in a window to our lefts ruffled and there was a bang against the inside of the door as, I assume, the dog bounced off of it. Then the clicking of the locks undoing, and a moment later the door opened just enough for an old woman to peer out of the crack. At her feet, a blonde-colored pomeranian peeked out, too. I took a step back as the dog growled with it's itty bitty teeth bared. Probably they were sharper than they looked, I thought.
The old woman's eyeball swiveled between me and Meira, then back to Brian. "Are you sure we can trust them with it?" she asked.
"Absolutely," Brian replied.
"Not gonna try to steal the plans or anything?"
"This is my friend, Nick," Brian said, waving his hands at me. "The one I told you about. The one that could benefit from it?" He paused and waved at Meira, "And this... this is his... well his -- his wife."
"Wife?" I said, my voice choking with shock at the phrase.
"From the future," Meira added to Brian's declaration. She forced a smile at me, as if to say there, is that better? "If it happens the way it did before."
I looked at her, then back at the old lady.
She opened the door of the house like she was allowing us into Fort Knox or something and we shuffled through the door. Inside, it smelled like old lady. The pomeranian bounded a couple feet away, still wary of us, though a little less aggressive now that the old woman had shown us in. "Pikachu," the woman called it as she walked toward what looked like a living room - the blue flashing of the TV set gave it away - "Come with mummy. Carl's in the basement. Been making a noise like the cows a'comin'," she added. The pomeranian raced into the room and I heard the unmistakable sound of an old person sitting on a couch - groaning of both the person and the couch.
I looked at Brian, eyebrow raised.
"This way," he said, and he walked through the house in a way that showed how well he knew it. He'd probably been coming here since he was a kid, I thought. He led us to a small door in the kitchen, down a steep, wobbly flight of steps into a stone-wall basement. A squat space heater oscillated in one corner of the room, which was cold regardless of it's efforts, and the far wall was lined with a cord of firewood. And in the middle of the room was a small, home made, wooden platform, encased in plexiglass with a little door on hinges. Inside the plexiglass room sat a folding chair and in the folding chair was a pair of headphones with some weird computer chip looking things connected all over them. The wires stretched off to the top of he dome where there was a giant metal thing that looked like a weird ass corkscrew. To one side was a card table and at the card table, in another folding chair that matched the one encased in the plexiglass, sat a guy, leaning forward, staring at the screen of the old computer that was in front of him.
And the computer was the most futuristic thing in the whole room.
I looked at Brian. I wondered if he could feel my skepticism.
"Hey Carl," he said.
Carl turned around and you know the quintiessential look that a mad scientist has? With the wild eyes and the crazy hair? The Emmett Brown look? Yeah. Carl kinda had that a little, I'm not gonna lie. I mean he wasn't Christopher Lloyd by any means - he actually looked more like Adam Goldberg than anything - but he had a wild look in his eyes like he couldn't be stopped. Like he should be cackling evilly. Like maybe Pikachu upstairs should be thanking his lucky stars that Carl didn't want a pomerainian fur coat.
"Brian," he said, and his voice was higher than I'd expected. I tried not to guffaw in surprise. "You're back. So soon. That was fast. One day. I haven't finished the touches I told you about yet." He got up and grabbed a pair of glasses off the top of the tower of the computer - 'cos yes, the computer was old enough to still come with a tower - and slid them onto his face. He squinted across the room at me and Meira. "So you're Nick," he said. "Your liver's bad."
"Yeah," I answered.
Carl nodded. "I'm one of the few scientists who get to see their invention used for good and healing before it's abused and used as a weapon."
"Well there's something," I said. He turned to the plexiglass encased platform. Part of me had been hoping that wasn't it, but it evidently was. I licked my lips.
"Have you ever seen a more lovely time machine than this?" Carl asked, practically foaming at the mouth as he danced around it. He splayed his hands on the plexiglass and stared up at the lights and wires and metal that hung above it. "Well of course you haven't, it's the only one of it's kind."
"I've seen one," Meira argued.
Carl looked over at her in surprise. "Say what again now?"
"This is Meira," Brian said, "She's from the future."
Carl stared at her, an almost hungry look in his eyes, and something about it made me struggle not to grab hold of her hand. "Well. Aren't you lovely." He smiled. "You've seen time machines like this one?"
Meira walked closer and looked in the glass at the headset sitting on the chair. "Similar concept, at least," she said. "The headset is the vacuum, yes? The energy breaks down the atoms and because they're contained in this box, the headset draws them up to the receptor --" she pointed at the corkscrew thing, "Which translates them to their destination. Yes?"
Carl nodded, an impressed expression on his face. "More or less. You a physicist?"
Meira shook her head, "Just have used a few in my life."
"Changing your past?"
"Changing his," she pointed at me.
Carl glanced over at me. "And did it work?" he asked.
"Changing his past?" she asked. She shrugged, "I don't know yet."
"She's talking about changing his future to us," Brian explained. "To her, it's the past. To us, it's his future." He grinned.
I just stood there because, to be honest, I was back to feeling like maybe they were all completely mental.
"Well. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Yeah, I should have it all... fixed... by... tomorrow." He grabbed the chair by the folding table and pushed it up against the platform, got up on it and started inspecting the wires on the top of the thing. He removed his glasses, tilted them, and used them like they were a magnifying glass.
Brian nodded, "Okay." Meira was squinting at the wiring on the inside of the thing, then she shrugged and turned back to join us. "We'll come back tomorrow then," Brian said to me.
"Okay, whatever," I answered. Somehow, I pictured me getting electricuted by that contraption more than I pictured getting sent to the future, but that's okay. Whatever. It's just another way to go, really.
Brian led the way up the stairs and Meira and I followed. He shouted good bye to Carl's mother - to which Pikachu barked up a racket and she shouted a "toodle-loo" in return - and then out onto the lawn, pulling the front door shut behind him. When we got in the car, we were all silent for a moment. Brian clutched the driver's wheel and he took a deep breath. "I mean, I know he's a little eccentric, but --"
"A little eccentric?" I asked pointedly.
"But the science is solid," Meira said. "I was looking at that machine's wiring. It's perfect."
"I thought you said you weren't a physicist."
"I'm not," she replied, "But I helped you build your machine," she pointed out.
"How exactly do you think I got here?" she asked.
"I dunno," I answered.
"Your time machine. The one you're operating eight years in the future right now. The one you're gonna use to pull me back the moment I give you the message."
"And when are you gonna gimme it?" I asked.
"When it's time to," Meira replied.
"So... anyways." Brian took a deep breath. "Y'all are welcome to come with me to my momma's for the night."
Brian's got one of those families that are sickeningly close. That's the part about them that has always been both really great and really... not so great. When I was a kid I'd go with Brian to visit his parents and it would feel really cool how much like a real family they treated me. I looked forward to being a part of it and being accepted. But it always made me feel worse about my own family, who wouldn't be that close if our asses were superglued together. There's only just so much of Brian's close-knit family that I can take before I gotta hide.
Which is why I snuck out of the house around nine o'clock and sat myself down on the front stoop of the house. I stared up at the bright Kentucky stars that hung overhead and rubbed the back of my neck. My stomach was hurting again. I put my palm across my abdomen and closed my eyes, trying to will away the pain that seared through me. I let out a breath. I could feel tears kinda half thinking about sneaking their way out of my eyes.
I wished I could make it all better somehow, make the confusion and the hurt and the suffering that we'd all been through go away. I really wanted the time machine to work. I ran my hands along my knees with a sigh and turned my eyes to the ground, to the worn dirt pathway that snaked off across the Littrells' front yard.
The front door opened and a moment later the step creaked beside me and Meira sat down. I drew a deep breath and looked up at her. She smiled and held out my pills. I reached for the bottle. "Thanks," I said.
"No problem. What are wives-from-the-future for?" her lips curled into a half smile, then she turned to look at the ground at the base of the steps, too.
I looked over at her. She still had on my Journey t-shirt.
"Do you even like Journey?"
"Who doesn't?" she asked.
I shrugged, "Deaf people."
Silence fell over us for a long moment and I looked away. I let my mind wander off, imagining ways for Carl's time machine to malfunction. I pictured myself getting all wired up to that thing and something similar to those static electricity balls happening - you know the ones with the purple lightening that goes to your hand when you touch the glass? Except I'd be in the center of that shit like an overdone potato. I pictured it working like the thing in Honey I Shrunk the Kids and making me itty bitty. I pictured it just plain blowing me up like the eels at the end of the Little Mermaid.
"Whenever we talk about this part of your life you always tell me I'm what made you strong enough to do what you had to do," Meira said quietly. "I pictured this part so much different."
I looked over at her.
"I guess it didn't really occur to me that you didn't know me yet, that it wouldn't be like a hero's welcome."
"How did you picture it?" I asked.
Meira let out a dreamy sigh. "I guess I pictured... something closer to the day we met." She stared up at the stars, her eyes glazed as she spoke. "I pictured you taking my face in your hands and kissing me deeply and saying that you missed me, that you'd been waiting for me all your life. Which is silly 'cos you haven't been waiting for me all your life really. I'm not a thing to you yet... though you're the world to me."
And I felt so bad for her - because I wasn't who she wanted me to me, because she was sticking by my side anyway... so I stood up and I stepped in front of her, between her and the stars, and I grabbed her face in my hands gently, my palms pressed to her cheeks, my thumbs on her chin, on her lips, and I tilted her head sofly. I stared down into her eyes - those deep brown, hypnotizing eyes - and I whispered, "If I'm the world, perhaps you're the universe... and maybe I'm jus not comprehending yet just how big you are... but eventually I'll get there... and when I do... I'm gonna be amazed." I leaned in and I pressed my mouth against hers.
The kiss had started out as a sympathy kiss but somewhere between staring into those eyes and the flavor of her mouth and the way her lips moved to perfectly shape around mine... somewhere in there, in all the heady, dizzying, heat of the moment... it turned into magic.
When I pulled away I stared into her eyes again, breathless, my heart pounding, my hands shaking just a little bit, and I took a deep breath...and went in again for another kiss. She stood up this time, her hands brushing up the sides of my neck and into my hair. Around us, there were all the night noises of a Kentucky evening, a light wind blowing through the brush, making the porch swing creak. Meira pulled away this time and she had tears in her eyes.
"I love you," she whispered. "Oh Nick Carter, if you only knew how much I love you."
"I'm gettin' an idea of it," I whispered back.
Meira's lower lip trembled and she pulled me close and pressed her face against my chest and breathed deep, like she was trying to memorize the smell of me. "Please," she whispered, "Change whatever you need to, but don't change us."
"I don't even know what I'm changing at all yet," I reminded her.
"You will," she answered, "When I give you the message."
"Tell me what the message is," I pleaded.
"I can't yet," she answered, shaking her head.
"Tomorrow," she said. She moved to look up at me. "I'll tell you tomorrow."
Chapter Thirteen by Pengi
I woke up early on the day everything changed and stared out the window at the trees moving in the wind outside. I could hear Jackie - Brian's mom - singing along with a Michael W. Smith CD she had blasting somewhere downstairs. She was in the hallway. I could hear her banging around with the washer and dryer as she sang about how awesome God is and how much he reigns and stuff. (God must get so sick of hearing this stuff. Every Christian song ever seems like it's about how much God rules and what a kick ass job he does at it. If I was God I'd be like, dude. I know. Enough already. Sing about something else. I'm just saying.)
It was funny because as much as I wasn't sure what I believed about the time machine, the day still felt like it was an important one. I rolled onto my back and took a deep breath, then got up and headed out into the hallway.
We ate breakfast and kinda lingered around the table, Brian expertly rounding questions from his mom about Meira. He apparently hadn't mentioned anything about Carl and the time machine to her because he avoided the topic like it was hot. Meira stayed focused on her plate, pushing stuff around, having barely eaten a bite of food, a nervous twinge to her eye. Her hands shook, too, I noticed, when she gave me my pills from the bottle that was tucked neatly in her pocket. I knew it was bugging her that she was gonna be delivering the message today and I found myself wondering what in hell the message could be that would be frightening her so much.
When it was around noon and sitting around the breakfast table had become more awkward than social, we got up and helped Jackie clean the dishes away, then Brian announced we were going out and that we'd be back later. "Bring some milk home with you when you come," she commanded, and she smiled, kissed her hand, and patted Brian's cheek with it, which made him flush.
At Carl's house, it was more awkward time with his mom and Pikachu, who still didn't like us much. Brian once again led the way down to the basement where the heater was still blowing its pointless stream of supposedly warm air. Carl was sitting on top of the plexiglass room, a pair of goggles on his head, biting a screw driver between his teeth and fiddling with the wires atop of the contraption. He stared down at us, his eyes magnified by the glasses. He spit out the screw driver and said, "Well hello, ya'll are back. I got the fix done." He turned and slid off the box, landing on the far side with a colossal thump.
Meira looked at her watch nervously.
Carl came 'round the machine, lifted up his goggles and shoved them up into the unruly nest of hair atop his head. "So 2018 was the year we were talking about, yes?" he said, throwing himself into the chair by the computer. I felt dizzy as he started rattling off facts about 2018, things he was reading off a word document on his computer.
I stared at the box. I should've smelled the grass, the air one last time, I thought, just in case that thing really malfunctioned and I got toasted or something. I should've said goodbye to my friends, should've called the other fellas. I should've tried to make things right with my family maybe. Called Aaron and apologized for cutting out of the party early back in December. Should've thought more about where I was going and what I'd be leaving behind in the present when I went to the future.
Brian cleared his throat, "Maybe we should show Nick how it works before we shove him in there?" he suggested.
I looked over at him.
Meira was biting her lips.
"Of course!" Carl hooted. And he leaped up from his seat. "I can't believe I didn't show you yet," he added, and he grabbed a notepad and scrawled across the top page with a blue magic marker he'd withdrawn from a mug on the table top, What year did we send Nick Carter to? And he ripped the page off. He danced to the plexiglass room and he opened the door. It creaked as the hinges swung and he put the paper on the chair in the middle of the room between the headphones ear pieces, then backed out and closed the door. He slid a latch I hadn't noticed before across the handle of the door, effectively locking it, and swung back to the table, where he pulled up a blinking/flashing program on his computer and started typing in a flurry of letters and numbers. Then, he hit the Enter button with a flourish.
All of us turned to look a the plexiglass room.
It didn't seem to be doing anything at first, but then the metal corkscrew on top started to hum - quietly at first, then louder and louder, with more and more urgency. And just as I was about to think that was all the thing did, there was a sound like deep drum beats the seemed to come from the headset and the wires leading up to the corkscrew vibrated with the beat of it. Then - and I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my very own eyes - the paper he'd laid between the headset ears started to shimmer and then to fade and then it was gone.
I felt my jaw drop because I'd seen it, but I couldn't believe that I had.
"Holy fucking crap," I whispered.
"See?" Brian said. "Time machine."
"Now we just wait for it to answer our question for us," Carl said. "Where do we send you? Well let's find out where it was that we sent you... and then send you there." He grinned and laughed maniacally, "Oh the questions that could be answered by the gift of tiiiiiiiime!" And he danced off to the table.
I could barely breathe. It was real. It was fucking real. Or else that paper had been zapped to oblivion. One of the two had happened. Which, I didn't know. Which, it didn't matter, because whatever had happened to it was what was about to happen to me.
Meira stared hungrily at the place where the page had been, a desperate look on her face.
"Meira?" I asked.
She closed her eyes and glanced down at her watch. "No," she croaked.
She took a deep breath, "Nick. I gotta go."
"What? You can't go now. I'm about to zap up to your time. Don't you wanna be here for that?"
Meira shifted her weight from foot to foot, "Yes, of course I do, but Nick..." she looked at her watch, "I can't. I don't have time. You're gonna pull me back in a minute. If you're still there, that is. Well you will be - there, I mean - at least until you make a decision..." she rambled the words all together, her voice choking up. "But I gotta tell you the message."
I reached out my hands for her shoulders. "Can't you just stay a couple more minutes?"
"I can't. Nick -- just - just please... please remember me. And.. and come for me." She stared up at me, tears started streaming down her face. "I need you and you always say you needed me, too. And I'm scared because -- because you don't right now -- and ... what if.. what if you never --" she choked on her own words. "Nick in a second I'm gonna disappear."
And then as I stared at her she began to shimmer. Much like that paper had done. I stumbled back. "What the --"
"Nick!" she cried, "Nick, you said to go back. Go back."
"That's the message -" she said, "I don't know why, but you said to go back!"
"Go back? Go back to what?"
"I don't know!" she sobbed.
"But Meira, what -- how am I supposed to go back when I dunno what I'm going back to?!" I cried.
"You didn't tell me!" she said.
"Nick! Don't forget me!" her voice was desperate, and the hope in her eyes was desperate. But she was fading fast and her voice went first and her mostly transparent form shouted out more silent words until she'd disappeared altogether - just like the paper, just like she'd said she would. My hands were still outstretched before me, though they hung in the air aiming at nothingness. My mouth was dry.
"Meira -- ?" I whispered.
But she was really, truly gone.
There was humming behind me and I heard the door open all creaky again, but I couldn't move my eyes from the spot where she'd been standing. "What in the hell does she mean by go back?" I asked and I turned around to look at Brian and Carl. Brian looked just as traumatized as I did by her departure, his eyes wide and nervous.
"Maybe," Carl's voice echoed in the basement which, though only one of us was missing now seemed profoundly empty to me. "Maybe she meant go back," he said. He was leaning into the plexiglass door. He turned and, smirking, he held up a sheet of paper and upon it was written, in big green letters, June 2006.
"Well look at you!" Carl said, eyes wild, "Sending a message from the future to go change the past!" He grinned and came over and clapped a hand on my back enthusiastically as he handed me the page. My hands shook just touching it. "Aren't you clever!"
I looked at Brian.
"That's when Kevin left the band," he mumbled.
I stared back down at the page.
That's when my life shot to hell.
A searing pain went through my abdomen. And I realized that Meira probably still had my pain meds in her pocket. They were gone. Gone to the future.
"Well are you ready then?" Carl sang, dancing back to the plexiglass door and swinging it open. He waved his hands at the chair inside, holding the headset in his hands, grinning like a crazy person at me, his eyes sparkling.
I turned to Brian. My throat ached. I had so much stuff I wanted to say to him. I wanted to tell him that despite all the bullshit we'd been through he was my best friend. But I couldn't bring words to my mouth, so I just gave him a hug instead and hoped he got the message somehow.
Then there was Carl, waving me into the machine and me, stumbling up the step onto the platform, and into the chair. And there was Carl, leaning in and putting the headset over my ears and fiddling with the wire a moment and there was the door creaking shut. My eyes traveled to the spot where Meira had been and my liver ached and my hands shook and I pressed my palms to my knees and wiped away the sweat. I could feel my heart pounding a hundred thousand miles a moment. Brian put his hands on his mouth as he stared at me through the plexiglass, like I was a creature at the zoo.
I closed my eyes as the humming started above me, the sound amplified a hundred times louder than it'd sounded before from out there when Carl had sent the paper on ahead.
I could still see her - Meira, I mean - I could see the look of desperate hope in her brown eyes...
And then the drumming and I could feel it inside of me, shaking my veins and my heart and I squeezed my eyes tighter and then ---
Chapter Fourteen by Pengi
I woke up face-down on a cement floor, my cheek pressed against the base of a toilet. I could still hear the drum beat - far off and thumping... thumping... thumping... though I could no longer distinguish if it existed inside or outside of my head. "Meira --" I choked on the name, and felt a rush of nausea rush through me. "Oh Jesus." I closed my eyes, feeling the world spin around me like I was on one of those tilt-a-whirl rides. I grabbed the seat of the toile and pulled myself up. The basin was filled with throw-up and the smell of it made my stomach churn. "Oh Jesus." I pushed myself away, up to my shaky feet. "Where the hell am I?" 'Cos this certainly wasn't Carl's basement.
I fumbled out of the bathroom stall and staggered to the sink that stood opposite the narrow room from the stalls. Along the wall to my left was the urinals, but I was alone in the room. I reached for the faucet and turned on the water, bending low to splash it across my face.
I felt like I'd been punched in the head - and the gut - several hundred times. Like maybe I'd been run down by a Mack truck or had the shit beat out of me or was hung over or had just come off a horrible drug trip or something - maybe all of those things at once even. Meira did not make it sound like time travel would be so hard, I thought. She made it sound like it was a breeze. Just like waking up, my ass, I thought bitterly. I looked up a the mirror over the sink.
"What the actual fuck!" I yelped and I backed up in shock - right back into the stall and onto the toilet I'd woken up beside, tripping backwards and landing on my ass on the seat.
I reached for my face. Chubby. Stubble along my chin. Longish, sorta-bowl-cutty hair. My hands shook. I looked at them. "What the hell, what the hell?" I gasped, staring down. My hands - I mean they were my hands but they weren't my hands. At least not my current hands. Not the hands I'd had for the past few years. No these were my old hands, my hands from before. My fat hands. My hands before I got my act together. They looked swollen and the nails were bitten into rough, odd shapes and they were yellowed from nicotine and whatever the hell else I was smoking in those days.
Pretty much everything.
"Oh! Je-SUS," I muttered.
Was time travel supposed to make me become the person I literally was in 2006? I wondered. Somehow I'd pictured more like there being two of me. New me and old me, kinda standing side by side and being like well shit Nick you cleaned up good, I know thanks and boy did I look like crap back when I was you or something. Not this. Not... not this.
I stared out of the stall at the mirror where my horror-stricken face stared back. My 2006 face. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck..." I whispered.
Suddenly, while my brain was still trying to process just what in the fuck might've gone wrong with the whole time travel thing, the door to the rest room banged open and Kevin walked through the door.
"NICK!" Kevin's eyebrows were especially dirty-brow-licious as he banged through the door and rounded the corner, spotting me sitting there on the toilet. "God damn you." He came at me like he was gonna tear me to pieces and grabbed me by my elbow. "There you are." He yanked me to my feet.
"Were you lookin' for me?" I asked, confused. I felt like I'd been in this bathroom all my life.
"Was I looking for you??" he asked, an incredulous tone to his voice, "Was I -- Seriously Nick? Seriously?" He shook his head. "Get out to the god-damned tour bus. You're lucky we didn't just leave your pathetic ass here." He prodded me to move ahead of him.
I moved along, glancing back at the mirror one last time as Kevin forced me out the bathroom door and down a ghetto ass hallway, through a bar that reeked of alcohol and drugs and sex. On a stage beyond was a girl dancing on a pole, a bunch of guys enshrouded in thick smoke watching her. "This place is disgusting, you probably caught some kind of fucking STD just laying on that bathroom floor," Kevin grumbled as he shoved me out the door, past an amused looking bouncer.
It was fucking cold outside, considering Carl had said June. The stars were hanging in the sky and as I stumbled out across the street I saw a couple of the signs on the bars that lined the seedy looking street were in German. A tour bus idled on the sidewalk and through the window I could see Howie peering out with a concerned expression on his face. The door opened as Kevin and I approached and he thumbed up the steps. "In."
I wasn't sure what I'd done to piss Kevin off so bad, but I didn't wanna piss him off worse by asking or anything so I scrambled up the steps into the bus. He followed and the doors closed behind me with the hiss of a vacuum seal.
The other three guys were sitting on the long couch that lined the inside of the bus, like a peanut gallery. AJ bore a guilt-ridden expression, Howie a look of concern, Brian one of disgust and Kevin of disappointment. I looked around at them all.
"So much for fucking trying," Kevin said, his voice rough. He shoved by me and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
I stood there, stupified. If this had happened before, I had no recollection of it.
I glanced around at the other guys.
Brian sighed, shaking his head, "I hope it's worth it Nick," he said, "Everything you're throwing away." And he walked off toward the bunks in the back of the bus. AJ followed after Brian without saying anything at all.
I looked to Howie who was staring down at his lap. "What'd I do wrong?" I asked.
Howie looked up, eyebrows raised, "Really, Nick?" he asked. "If you don't know what you did wrong... then... there really isn't much hope that me explaining it to you is going to help any." His voice was edged with just a hint of disappointment, peppered by shame in me. He got up. "This has gotta stop, Nicky," he said quietly. "You're pushing us all away and I dunno how much longer we can hold on."
I watched as Howie walked away down the length of the tour bus, his hands in his pockets.
I sat down numbly, completely mind-fucked.
I stared at my hands.
Was it all a dream? Was the past seven or eight years of my life not even real? Had I passed out in a bathroom and had one hell of a drug trip and dreamed the entire thing about cleaning up and getting sober and my liver and Meira and everything? Was Meira even a real person?
I closed my eyes.
I could still see her brown eyes staring into mine. "Nick, don't forget me!"
I opened my eyes.
Kevin was standing in front of me, staring down at me, his eyebrows cinched together in one harshly thick line across his forehead. He sat down. "What do I gotta do to make you see how much seeing you like this breaks my heart?" he asked heavily.
My throat tightened at his words.
"I can't watch this Nick. I can't watch you fall apart. I love you too much, man."
Like a hazy image, I started to recall the conversation.
"I can't do this anymore," Kevin said thickly. "I just can't. I can't watch you piss away everything we've worked so hard for, everything you've worked so hard for. You swore to us that you were better, that now that Paris was out of your life you were stronger, you were gonna clean up. Remember that? Remember when you swore to me you were gonna do better?" He had tears in his eyes. "Nick, I've watched enough people I love die. I can't watch you do it to yourself. You're gonna die and I can't watch it."
"I'm sorry," I croaked.
Kevin shook his head, "You're not sorry. But you will be. Eventually." A tear fell across his cheek, drawing a long, wet trail along behind it. It rolled off the edge of his jaw and my stomach felt like it was curling around my heart and squeezing. He stood up. "I think - I think when this tour is over -" he paused, took a deep breath, "I think I'm gonna be - done."
"No," I whispered.
"I went through this with AJ, I ain't doin' it again with you," he shook his head. "Until you clean up and prove to me you're clean, I'm done."
"Kev - I - Please."
Kevin shook his head. "Good night, Nick."
But he walked away, leaving me sitting there alone.
I put my hands over my face, bending forward toward my knees and peeking out at my shoes. I couldn't go through all this bullshit again, I thought. I couldn't. I'd barely made it through the first time.
"Meira," I cried, "Come back."
I lay in my bunk listening to the wheels of the tour bus on the highway, watching the street lamps flicker by the window like a strobe light, my chest tight and my face wet from crying. I felt stupid, I felt like a baby. I felt so god damned confused. I didn't know anymore what was the truth, what I'd made up, what I'd dreamed. I wanted to wake up back in Carl's basement, hooked up to that fucking machine again. I wanted Meira to be back, speaking in weird riddles again. I tucked my worn out old comforter under my chin and stared on out the window.
I thought about all the shit I'd been through in the last eight years - all the things that, if this was really 2006, I'd soon be going through. Kevin leaving the band tore me to shreds because it was like being abandoned by another parent. Then Brian would give up on me, too, and I'd lose my best friend and AJ would stop hanging out with me because he was struggling to stay sober enough without my bad influences. And Howie would be there but always with those big sad eyes of his, always waiting for me to clean up and make him proud... Then there were the fans. And my heart problem. The night of the zombies.... And me, forever disappointing Aaron and Angel and BJ and -- and Leslie while we were filming the House of Carters. Leslie dying. My family blaming me... me blaming me... My world spiraling out of control. My liver going to shit. I hugged my knees to my chest. I couldn't go through all of that again. I'd only just barely lived through it once.
I rocked myself under the blankets, terrified just imagining trying to endure that hellish part of my life over again for a second time.
What had future me been thinking, telling me to go back? What was I thinking? I didn't wanna go back. I'd rather die, I thought. Wake me back up in 2014. I'd rather die of the liver disease. Just lemme go. Don't make me go through it all again.
I cried myself to sleep.
I woke up almost an hour later to a thump against the frame of my bunk. "Shit." The whisper was a girl's voice. I rolled over and pushed the curtain of my bunk aside and squinted into the dark.
The light was dim - only what little moonlight made it down the enclosed hallway from the sitting area of the bus, but I could see the outline of her - of her wild hair and her narrow frame. She was clutching the frame of the bathroom door for support, trying to balance as the bus clomped over a couple pot holes in a rough patch of road. She almost tripped. She looked up. Our eyes met.
"Shit. Shit. Too early." There was a pause... then she shimmered...
"Wait!" I gasped, "Wait, wait don't go. Please."
But she was already gone.
I stared where she'd been, my heart racing. So she was real. Or else... or else I was still dreaming. I reached for my arm and pinched my skin between two fingers. It hurt. I'd never been so relieved for something to hurt in all my life. I lay back in my bunk, letting my curtain close and stared up at the ceiling of it, my heart rushing in my chest. So what did that mean? If Meira was real then... then was the past eight years also real? And if so, what did that mean for me now? Why would future me - if future me did indeed exist - want me to go back? What could I possibly do here that would be worth coming back for?
Well, I thought, what caused the liver disease to begin with?
This. This period in my life. This time when I was constantly being dragged out of random clubs by the Boys. This time when everything in my life was a blurry mess of stumbling from one high to the next, one session of binge drinking to the next, when my career, family and friends were a colorful blur, like side effects of sobriety, things I tried to push away and ignore, believing that the dreams I had when I shot substances into my veins were more important because it numbed the pain that I felt. The pain that I caused by trying to make the pain go away. A nasty, terrible catch-22, whose cycle I'd endlessly spun like a roller coaster I both loathed and loved, whose tracks I couldn't escape and whose car I couldn't stop.
But I could stop it. I could. If I tried hard enough, I could. I had once, I had in the future, and if I wanted to, I could stop it now. Before it even began. Before it could kill me.
I blinked into the dark.
I hadn't needed the time machine to go to the future to find a time in which I could be healed from my liver disease, I'd needed the time machine to go to my past to find the time in which I could have prevented my liver disease.
I hadn't told myself to go back to experience the suffering again. I'd told myself to go back to stop it.
It made so much sense.
I'd given myself a second chance to right everything that had been wrong in my past, to fix every mistake, to undo everything that I'd done that had broken my spirit and made me weak. I'd given myself a chance to be strong.
I hugged a pillow to my chest in the dark, now staring out at the spot where Meira had appeared, half waiting for her to return again. Perhaps making the choice in this time would be enough and she'd come back and rescue me and take me back to the future with her and I wouldn't have to actually live through everything a second time, just making the choice would alter how it'd all gone.
But she didn't and soon enough the sun came up and I'd drifted in that sort of half sleep that comes - you know, when you close your eyes and rest and sleep is present but so is consciousness? I could feel the bus's movement below me, I was aware of the sunlight streaming through the windows of the bus, all orange and glowy... and I heard it when Brian got up to call Leighanne, sitting down on the couch and whispering his conversation.
"Hey... I'm sorry I hung up so quick last night," he was saying, "Nick was MIA and Kev had to go find him..... A bar, where else? Passed out in the bathroom, Kev said.... I wish I understood him better. I feel like it's my fault he's like this. I mean I basically raised him..... What if Baylee turns out like this?" the worry in Brian's voice made it wobble. "Kevin's leavin' the band... and to be honest, I'm kind of thinking about it, too. I can't stand seeing him like this. It was bad enough when it was AJ, but Nick....."
I bit my lip.
I never knew Brian had ever felt like this. I mean, I knew he didn't approve of my drinking. I'd always known that. But I didn't know that he felt responsible. I'd always thought... I dunno, that maybe he was judging me. That maybe he thought I was a horrible person for relying on alcohol.
Maybe I'd been wrong all this time about Brian and me and what all had torn us apart.
Brian kept on talking to Leighanne, but soon enough the topic changed and they were talking about Baylee and his extra curricular activities and foods she was cooking and plans they had for when we returned from the tour.
So as I listened to the rambling, rolling, comforting sound of his voice and the hum of the tires on asphalt, I lay there in my bunk trying to come up with a plan. I needed to sober up, I thought, and I needed to prove it to the fellas that I was better. And then I needed to stop all the bad things from happening. I needed to cancel the House of Carters idea, my family's bullshit was public enough without being on TV - a lesson I'd learned far too late the first time I'd gone through this. And I needed to get closer to Leslie and be there for her more than I'd been the first time.
And then, when it was all said and done, when I got to the future, I'd meet Meira and everything would be perfect.
Later in the morning, once my plan was formulated and the other fellas were up, I called a group meeting by the couch. They plopped down on the couches staring up at me as I nervously twitched in the aisle, the words I was about to say tumbling through my head. I wrung my hands until they were all settled and Kevin asked, "Okay Nick. What've you got to say for yourself this time?"
All eyes on me.
"Okay. So." I took a deep breath, "So I've made a lotta mistakes and I wanna fix'em," I announced. Kevin raised one wooly eyebrow. "I'm gonna stop drinking. I'm gonna be better about being in the moment, gonna pay more attention. I'm gonna be a better person. I'm gonna get healthy, lose weight, and I'm gonna make you proud of me. In the future, we're gonna look back at this moment and its gonna be the one when I changed for good."
I'd pictured them cheering uproariously, raising me up on their shoulders, chanting my name in exultation because I'd finally got it right. I'd pictured everything being perfect and smooth sailing from there. Like just making up my mind was gonna be enough to change my life from bad to good.
Instead, Brian looked down at his knees. Howie looked over at AJ and they shared a concerned expression. Kevin sighed, "Nick. You say this every week."
"For real this time," I persisted.
"You say that every week, too," Kevin said.
I looked between them. None of them looked convinced. Howie had that almost pitying look in his eyes. "No guys, really, it's gonna be different this time," I said.
Kevin stood up and clapped me on the back. "I believe ya, Nicky," he said. But the way he said it, I could tell he didn't. He fully believed he'd be pulling me out of a bar later that night. "Now let's get ready for this interview we've got today," he said and he turned away. The other guys did, too, back to business and off of focusing on me.
I felt frustrated.
But also determined.
We got ready and headed off to the interview, which I stayed quiet during because to be honest I still wasn't entirely positive I knew where I'd landed in my own timeline and I didn't wanna say something stupid. Kevin rambled on about the Never Gone tour and plans we had for videos that I already knew we'd never make. Or at least we hadn't the first time I'd lived through this era of my life. I studied my hands in my lap, still weirded out by how swollen up they looked. It was strangely mesmerizing, and I kept flexing my fingers and watching the muscles move under my skin, consciously commanding my body to move just to reinforce that those were really my hands, and they were really attached to me.
We did a show that night and I felt brilliantly out of sync with the other guys. It'd been years since I'd performed the Never Gone choreography and I could barely remember the steps. I felt breathless moments into it, too, and I remembered how awful and uncomfortable I'd been before I'd lost all that weight. I couldn't believe that I hadn't figured out all on my own that maybe it was time to diet. I mean I felt a bit like I was hauling a baby hippo around on my back. I also could only just barely remember the lyrics to some of the songs that were standard on that tour - songs we hadn't really performed since. Kevin kept glancing over at me, eyebrows together, disapproval on his face as I fumbled through verses and lines that I should've known.
I felt like telling him to leave me the fuck alone, I was lucky I remembered what little I did after all that time.
Backstage during the second clothing change of the show, Kevin came over to me. "What the hell is going on out there?" he asked.
"You. You're stumbling around like a drunken hobo, mumbling lyrics. Those fans out there -- they paid to be here. They're looking up to you. There's kids out there Nick that think you're worth looking up to." He glowered. "Get your fucking act together."
"I'm doing my best!" I snapped, frustrated with myself and my inability to remember the steps and the words and with him for pointing it out.
Kevin shook his head and turned for his suit jacket, shrugging it onto his shoulders. Howie was already dressed and waiting by the steps leading up to the stage, not wanting to get involved with the argument blooming between Kev and I. This was typical, I remembered, the other guys scattering when Kev and I were about to get into it. None of them wanted to tell Kev he was being too hard on me or me that Kevin wasn't being hard enough, which ever.
"Maybe just try and get some of the lyrics right," Brian said quietly. I don't think he meant it as mean as it came out, but Brian's always been good at pushing buttons for me.
"Well fuck you, you try not singing a song for eight years and see if you remember the fucking lyrics," I snarled. And the moment the words were out of my mouth I winced because I was gonna have to explain eight years.
"It hasn't even been twenty-four hours..." Brian muttered, but he turned and dropped the subject.
Kevin came over and stared me in the eyes "What'd you take and when?" he demanded.
"What?" I asked.
"You heard me." He stared right into my pupils, getting real close, squinting. "What did you take and when did you take it?"
"I didn't take anything," I answered, dodging away from Kevin.
Kevin sighed. "I swear," he grouched as he headed to the stairs, pushing past Howie, who jumped out of the way, "I'm done after this tour. I will not be on stage with you high every fucking night."
"I'M NOT HIGH!" I shouted, and I rushed after him. I grabbed his arm, stopped him. The music was starting, our cue nearly upon us. "I'm not high," I repeated, staring into his face.
"Then how the hell do you explain your sorry excuse for a performance tonight?" Kevin asked, waving his arm at the stage as AJ, Brian, and Howie stepped by us and started getting into position for the next part of the show.
I stared into Kevin's eyes, "Because I'm from the future."
Kevin stared back into my face. A tense moment passed between us. For a moment, I thought maybe, just maybe, Kevin might believe me. And then he shook his head and sighed, "Jesus Christ, you get more and more ridiculous every god damn day --" and he pulled his arm out of my grasp and stormed off onto the stage.
I stared after them - the four of them standing there, ready to go, and I yanked on the hem of my shirt, which fit a little tighter than I would've pleased, and took a deep breath before joining them.
After the show, Kevin wouldn't talk to me. We were brought to a hotel and the other guys went to their respective rooms, leaving me standing in the hallway alone, staring around at four closed doors, my throat tight. I walked alone to my room and closed the door, staring around at the bright, off beat patterns on the walls and the carpet. I threw my bag onto the floor and dropped onto the bed, my hair puffing out around my head and stared up at the ceiling.
How was I supposed to prove to the guys that things would be different this time when they wouldn't even give me the chance? I wondered.
As I laid there, a burning sensation was pouring through my veins. Withdrawals. I scratched my arms as the nervous, tingly feeling spread through me. I sat up, restless, and looked around the room. It was standard - a TV, a small couch, two beds, a balcony, desk, mini-fridge. I got up and walked over to the mini-fridge and pulled it out. Lining the shelves were bottles of water and soda. A small selection of mini bottles of alcohol stood there, too, and a bowl full of those little bags of nuts on top.
I picked up one of the little bottles of tequila, spinning it in my fingers, staring at the label and the clear liquid inside.
My veins were on fire.
I carried it back to the bed. Just one wouldn't hurt, I told myself, and I unscrewed the cap and sniffed it. It was powerful smelling. Just the scent of it relieved a little bit of the ache in my body. I hesitated.
Did I really wanna use my second chance like this?
I put the cap back on the bottle and put it on the nightstand.
I got up and walked out into the hallway. I couldn't stay in that room alone. It was too quiet, too tempting to open that bottle back up and knock it back in one gulp. To return to the fridge and suck it all down. The burning in my limbs raged. This was the hardest part, I remembered. Every time I swore to myself I wouldn't drink anymore I'd gotten to this point where my blood seemed to be filled with pins and needles all throughout me, like it'd been replaced by ice or fire or both.
I was waiting for the elevator to open when I heard a door close down the hallway. I turned and saw Brian.
My heart raced.
He looked down the hall at me. "Nick? Where you going?" he asked, concerned.
"I just needed some fresh air," I answered.
Brian sighed. "Don't go out, Nick," he said. "I really don't feel like listening to Kevin."
I shook my head, "I really am just going for air," I replied.
Brian hesitated. "Okay." I could tell the way he said it he didn't believe me. He turned and started down the hallway the opposite direction.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Vending machine," he replied without turning back.
I chewed my lip, watching him walk. "Hey," I called.
He turned, walking backwards. "Yeah?"
"I saw a hoop across the street," I said.
Brian stopped. "A hoop?"
"Yeah," I replied. "Bet I could kick your ass."
Brian stared at me. "It's two o'clock in the morning," he said.
I shrugged. "So? You scared of the ass whoopin'?"
Brian flapped his arms thoughtfully. "Hell no," he replied. He started back toward me. "Lemme get my ball." He eyed me as he reached his room door, one eyebrow raised. "It's been forever since we've done this," he said, a little smirk crawling across his mouth, and there was a flicker - a crack in a wall that had been built up.
Chapter Seventen by Pengi
"So where's this ass whoopin' you promised to bring me?" Brian taunted as he dribbled the ball around me and tossed it into the hoop, swishing the net in the dim street lamp light. He hooted and jogged after the ball as it bounced lamely to the side of the fenced in court, his breath visible in the air as he caught it and kicked it up into his arms. He grinned as she chucked it my way.
I caught the ball and tucked it under my arm, "I'm goin' easy on you, old man," I teased back. Truth be told, at that time in my life, Brian could've run circles around me and we both knew it. He was actually going pretty easy on me. I gave the ball a couple bounces. The sound of it hitting the tar below was satisfying, and the burn of the adrenaline from running had eased up some of the icy-fire in my veins from the withdrawals. I was thankful that I'd run into Brian in the hallway, even if he was beating me by a wide margin.
"Bring it, Carter," Brian chuckled and he swooped into a guard position as I dribbled about with the ball a few moments before rushing forward, turning to block him from snapping the ball away, and twisted in an attempt to push the ball into the net. He leaped up, seeming to climb the air the way he moved, and managed to swat the ball away from the net with the tips of his fingers, sending the thing rolling off under a bench that ran alongside the court.
I jogged over after it, oxygen piercing my lungs. It sucked being out of shape, I thought to myself, not being able to play ball or dance or go up and down stairs without puffing and huffin' like I was trying to blow down the houses of the three little pigs. I got to the bench and got the ball out from under and I tumbled onto the bench. "Oh Christ, time out," I called, "Shit. This was a mistake." I rolled onto my back across the bench, hugging the ball. "Oh yeah. There it is."
Brian laughed and came over and snagged the ball away and tossed it from where we were through the hoop. He grinned all cheesy at me. "Game," he announced, and he threw himself onto the bench beside me, laying down, too, so our heads met in the middle and we were staring up at the sky as the ball rolled to a stop across the court. We were in a city so the stars didn't so much show as the smog did and I stared up at the patterns of the swirls in the smoggy layer overhead, the city lights glowing off the clouds.
I took a deep breath.
"I missed this, Nick," Brian announced.
"Did you?" I asked.
"More than you know," he replied thickly.
We laid there in silence a few more moments before I said, "Brian. I'm sorry if I've hurt you."
He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry if I have hurt you," he replied.
"Can I tell ya somethin', Frick, without'cha thinkin' I'm crazy?" I asked, rolling a lil so I could look up at him.
"I already know you're crazy, Frack," he replied. His eyes were closed.
He rolled over and stared at me for a moment. "What's wrong, Nicky?" he asked, concern in his voice.
"I'm from the future."
Brian laughed and rolled over and closed his eyes.
"No really, Brian."
"Kevin said you were on about this earlier," he mumbled.
"No listen, Brian. In the year 2014, your friend Carl - you know, Carl from Kentucky, the scientist guy you know? You went to school with him?"
"Yeah I know Carl."
"He invented a time machine, Brian, and you helped me get to it and go to a different time 'cos in 2014 I'm dyin' from this liver disease 'cos I drank too much and --"
"You've got a vivid imagination boy," Brian laughed sadly, shaking his head. "Some powerful shit you're snorting these days, isn't it?" He sighed. "Nick. Please. We were having such a good night. Please don't ruin it like this."
"Brian... I swear to you I am not high, I didn't dream this, it's real."
He was quiet a long time. "Ok."
"Do you really believe me?" I asked him.
"No," he replied.
I wanted him to believe me so much. Some part of me had hoped I'd mention it to him and he'd reveal that he was actually Brian - my Brian, the one from the future. But that was just crazy. I wanted so much to make him believe, but I wasn't sure how.
We got up and he grabbed his basket ball and we headed upstairs to the hotel rooms again. Brian slid the key into the door slot. "Well... like I said, thanks fo the game, Nick," he said. He smiled and turned to look into the room. "Welcome home, right?" he laughed and started to move into the room.
"Welcome home you," I sang under my breath as I turned to go back to my own room.
Brian stopped dead and came back to the door just before it swung shut. He stared at me, squinting through the dark, "What'd you just sing?"
"Your song?" I said, stopping in the hall and glancing back.
Brian stared at me, a dumbfounded expression on his face. "But... ain't nobody has heard that yet," he said. His eyebrows cinched together.
I paused, racking my brain. It occurred to me that it was cold for June, that we were in Germany... when the hell had we been in Germany on the Never Gone tour? I tried to remember, but I wasn't sure. I'd spent the whole tour drunk, high, or both. When had Brian's CD come out? In 2006, I knew. But when? I stood there, a million questions going through my mind.
"Nick," Brian's voice was quiet, "How did you...?"
I looked up at him. "You yap at me all the time for singin' that at you. You think I'm makin' funna you but I'm not, I just can't hear the words welcome home without hearing the song." My mouth felt dry.
Brian stared at me.
"It was my birthday," I remembered. "The song came out on my birthday..." I stared down at my feet. "Shit, it's not even 2006 yet is it?"
Brian was still staring, his eyes wide.
"Carl was really off calculating where he was sending me," I muttered. I thought of Meira always saying she was early or late. "It must be hard to figure out where you're going I guess. Meira's always seeming to have trouble with timing, too." I shook my head. "He said it was June 2006."
Brian was still staring.
"What's today?" I asked.
"October 17, 2005," Brian choked the words.
"Well damn," I muttered. "We did overshoot that a tad bit, now didn't we?"
Chapter Eighteen by Pengi
Brian's bed was littered with empty Mountain Dew bottles, M&M wrappers, and chip sacks. He sat cross-legged, leaning against the headboard with a pillow across his lap, and I laid across the end on my back, chip crumbs on my chest, my fingers all greasy. Outside, the sun was coming up over the city, turning the smog orange and purple. Brian was staring out at it. "I can't believe this," he said, shaking his head.
I'd just finished describing the time machine to him.
He took the last sip out of the bottle of Dew he was holding and tossed it into the pile of empties we'd gone through already. "It's just one of them things, you know? You joke about it, and you see movies about it, and you think about how cool it'd be if it existed, but you don't ever really believe that - that it could really be, you know?" he asked. He leaned back, looked up at the ceiling, "Damn... damn."
"So what all happens in the future?" he asked, "Are you allowed to tell me?"
"I dunno, I don't know if there's like rules or anything. I don't think so. Well." I paused. "Maybe. Meira says sometimes that she can't tell us things."
"Who is Meira?" Brian asked.
I took a deep breath. "Meira's this... this girl. She's from even my future. She said she came back from --- I think she said 2022. In the year she came from, she's my wife and I sent her back to me to tell me to come back here, but she couldn't tell me why."
"Your wife?" Brian sounded incredulous, "You get married? Way to go, Nicky." Brian grinned.
"I know, even in 2014 I ain't thinkin' bout gettin' no married and yet... there she is. She showed up on Aaron's birthday just as my liver was gettin' real bad and --" I shook my head. "I dunno, I ain't ever seen her before then, and she showed up a couple times, then one day she comes in my hospital room like a month after I first met her and she informs me she has a message and I see she's got my gramma's rings on -- and she reluctantly tells me who she is and I didn't believe her. Then you called. And you've got the time machine and you want me to go cos you think I'ma be healed in the future."
"Am I what?"
"Healed? In the future?"
I thought about what he was saying. "No I mean you thought I was going to the future and that they would heal me there."
Brian bit his lip. "Are you dying?"
I nodded. "Unless I can fix this all now."
Brian blinked and looked away.
"It'd be nice," I said, "To fix it all and wake up in the future better," I mused. "To have never gone through all the shit like I've been... there's so much shit I've always said I'd undo if I could turn back time."
"Me too," Brian agreed, nodding. "But it kinda feels like we're undoing some of it right now," he added, looking pointedly at me.
I nodded. "This was something I wanted to fix, too," I replied, waving at the space between us.
"You know even when I treat you like shit you're still my best friend, Brian," I said, "And I'm sorry, deep down."
"Me too," Brian answered.
"I know," I replied. And I did because Brian showed up at the hospital when I was sick, after Meira brought me there from the club at Aaron's party. He got in his car and he drove so fast he got a speeding ticket somewhere south of Nashville. He got from Atlanta to the hospital within four hours, and when he came in the door he'd had that wild look of fear, of desperation, that only people who are at the hospital for someone they care about can wear and that look had turned into guilt, a guilt that only comes when you realize how afraid you were to lose someone that you'd taken for granted as years had passed by.
"So. Do we make it to twenty years?" Brian asked.
"Yeah," I said, nodding, "We do. The best damn way possible, too," I added, thinking of how great it was standing on the boulevard with the star to be added to the Walk of Fame. I thought about how warm the sun felt and the tears that threatened to burn my eyes out even after I bragged I wasn't gonna cry and how AJ had slid me the fifty bucks I won discreetly behind Kevin when he did start crying before he even started his speech... I thought about how good it was to have Kevin back in the band and how it'd felt like coming home and being reborn somehow, like a second chance.
Like I had now.
"It's really great," I said. "The 20th."
Brian smiled. "So we're all still friends then."
"We are," I nodded.
"So Kevin doesn't really leave the band like he's saying he's going to?" Brian was hopeful. "Kevin's there? At the 20th?"
My throat burned. "Well," I said. "Hopefully... Hopefully he won't leave this time."
Brian's eyebrows ducked in concern, "You mean... you mean he's not there? How can that possibly count as a 20th anniversary without Kevin?"
"Well... he's there, it's just... he's back," I answered. I wasn't sure how much was too much to tell Brian, but his face was so concerned I rambled on, "We did a couple albums without him. A couple tours. I needed some time to clean up, you know, because that's why he left. Because of me. And I took alla that time to realize I was treating myself like shit and I got a heart problem and --" I rubbed my chest. I probably already had that, I thought, remembering how tight my chest had felt playing ball.
Brian's eyes were wide.
"But he comes back, though," I said.
"But if we do a CD... who does all the stuff Kevin usually does? Who handled all the contracts and the business planning and the production research and all the stuff Kevin usually does?" he looked concerned.
I licked my lips. "Well.. me," I answered.
"What? I did. I learned a lot about the business. I had to without Kevin there."
"You're not joking," Brian's eyes turned from laughter to surprise. "You did?"
"Yeah. Don't sound so surprised."
"Well I am so surprised," Brian said. "Impressed maybe is more the word."
"We did pretty good, considering," I said, still feeling a little defensive.
Brian puckered out his lower lip, "Sounds like you really grew up a lot when Kevin left."
"Yeah," I nodded, "It was like when a kid has to leave his dad and go learn how to be a man himself, kinda. Before, I kinda leaned on Kev too much, always expected him to clean up my shit after me, but then he left and there wasn't nobody there to clean up my shit and I had to do it myself and it was kinda sink or swim. I grew up a lot cos of that." I paused. The words kinda sinking into my brain.
I bit my lips.
What would happen if I stopped Kevin from leaving? I wondered. When would I learn to grow up? Would I still learn all the shit about production that I'd learned before? Would I ever have the motivation to clean up?
I pushed the thoughts out of my head. It hurt too much when he walked away, I told myself. I'd stop him this time and I'd just... I'd make myself do those things anyways. I'd make myself grow up even with Kevin there and we'd all be happier because we'd never have been a fractured mess like we'd been for those Kevin-less years.
After all, this was my second chance. This was how I was gonna make things right for the future. This is what the message was all about, wasn't it? Making it all right?
Chapter Nineteen by Pengi
It was easier to stick to my promise to clean myself up once Brian knew about me being from the future and all because it was like having a sidekick. We started sharing hotel rooms like the olden days when we were Frick & Frack traversing the European nations. He could tell when I got the fire and ice feeling in my veins and he'd grab his basket ball and throw it my way and distract me until I didn't feel tempted to raid the bottles in the mini-fridges as we traveled on from Germany to Belgium to the UK, back to Germany, Italy, Spain... and finally in November, on the last night of that leg of the tour, Kevin pulled me aside backstage as I was tucking the wires to my hands-free microphone's battery pack down the back of my shirt. "I need to talk to you," he said, voice stern, eyebrows clenched.
I followed him down through the bowels of the stage until we found a private corner out of ear shot of the other fellas, although I could see Brian still stealing glances my way. Kevin stuck his hands in his pockets. "So what's going on, Nick?" he asked.
I thought for a moment. Had I done something to get into trouble with Kevin? I pondered. I'd set up a couple practical jokes on AJ, with Brian as my accomplice, but nothing on Kev. I looked up at him with what I hoped was innocence.
"What changed this time?" he asked, "Is there a woman?"
"A woman?" I asked. I thought of Meira. I wish she was here, I thought.
Kev nodded. "Yeah. I find it hard to believe you woke up in that club a changed man. So I wanna know what happened 'cos shit if you weren't true to your word this time about cleaning up. What's different?"
Oh that, I thought, and I smiled at Kev. "I just really think it was time I cleaned up my act before you or one of the other guys completely gave up on me," I answered.
"You know we'd never give up on you," Kevin said, shaking his head, "You're our little brother." He reached over and mussed up my hair. He smiled.
"So you're not gonna leave the band then?" I asked, "Brian said you were thinkin' about it." I stared up at him again - this time with what I hoped was the saddest puppy eyes he'd ever damn seen.
Kev laughed, "You know I couldn't walk away from all this." He waved his hand at the stage. "You know I couldn't give it up. Not even for a minute. I'm all bark and no bite, Nicky."
I wanted to remind him only Brian and Howie were allowed to call me Nicky, but I decided to hold my tongue. I didn't wanna annoy him and change his mind about not leavin' the band. I felt like I was gonna have to put in an extreme effort to not piss him off during the next seven to eight months, just to keep it all balanced.
I gave him a hug just 'cos I was so thankful. I'd managed to fix something.
But as I reached for him, something strange happened. I felt this... thing strange sensation... like... like my mind was altering or ... it became hard to think. Kevin hugged me back, his hand thumping my back and I squinted my eyes as my brain felt like jello. What the hell was that? I thought, and I tugged away from Kev once the feeling stopped. "Dude, careful with the hands there," I joked, grinning wildly. "Ok let's get this party started in here!" I whooped and I galloped back through the underside of the stage.
"Calm down!" Kevin called, but he laughed.
I ducked and dodged my way back to the fellas, where Howie and AJ were almost ready for the show and Brian was waiting with expectant eyes for me to come back. "Hey Frick," I sing-songed as I got back to the dressing area. Energy seemed to rush through me and I couldn't understand. Was I really just this happy that Kev wasn't gonna leave the band? It was the best news all day! All my life, maybe. Gosh, if he didn't leave the band then --- then ---
Well, I dunno what wouldda happened if he did leave it, but now he wasn't gonna so it didn't matter what mighta happened!
I grinned and started tossing on my stage clothes.
"So what all happened?" Brian asked eagerly, shuffling foot to foot.
"Kev said he ain't gonna leave the band, wondered if it wasn't a girl that was makin' me clean up," I laughed. "When the hell do I have time to meet a girl on tour? Crazy Kevvers." I grabbed Helga, my guitar and started messing with the tuning.
Brian stared at me. "Well there's Meira, she's kinda why you're cleaning up, right?" His voice was low and he leaned closer so the other guys wouldn't hear.
"Meira?" I said. The name sounded... vaguely familiar. I leaned against an empty equipment box and tuned Helga some more, turning the name over and over in my head. Meira... Meira... Meira... sounded like something the witch in Snow White would say. Meira Meira on the Wall. I laughed at my own humor, then looked up at Brian. He had concern written all over his face.
"Nick," he whispered urgently.
"Are you okay?"
I laughed, "Why wouldn't I be okay? I'm great. Dude, Kevin isn't leaving the band, didn't you hear me? I'm on cloud fuckin' nine." I laughed because I'd said fuck and that seemed ridiculously funny to me for some reason. Like when I was twelve and I used to hang out with my friends and we'd dare each other to whisper cuss words under the playground equipment.
"Nick..." Brian's voice was really concerned now. He grabbed my elbow and pulled me through the understage like Kevin had done. But I had a feeling I might be in trouble for some reason with Brian. I eyed him. "Nick, okay, we're away from the guys now. Is that what you wanted? Is everything okay? Like... you know... Time Machine wise?" He eyed me.
"Time machine wise?" I laughed.
"Nick. What about Meira?"
I paused. Meira, I thought. Meira Meira on the wall... and as I thought the words... a flash of curly brown-black hair crossed my mind... a flash of deep almost almond-shaped eyes... Oh Meira, I remembered. And something about remembering Meira seemed... seemed wrong... seemed impossible... seemed...
Wait a second.
Meira. Meira. I met Meira. In the future. 'Cos I'm from the future. But -- but something's different, something's changed. Something major. Something shifted. I rubbed my hands across my legs, sweat pooling in the palms. I felt like I'd been brainwashed and I was waking up. "Shit," I muttered, clutching my head, "Shit, shit. I can't remember --"
"Nick," Brian's voice was really low now, "Nick I think you might've altered something."
"Yeah I - I dunno."
"Nick you told me last night that Kevin left the band in June, right?"
I blinked. I couldn't remember.
"Brian," I hissed, "I dunno what happens in June."
"Nick," Brian hissed back, "You said that --"
"Guys!" Kevin's voice was sharp, "Are you coming or what?" He waved up at the stage. Our cue was coming. We needed to get up there. Brian stared at me with concern as we grabbed our military jackets and rushed to catch up with the other fellas, to get into formation, to open the show and do what we do. But my brain was reeling, trying desperately to catch up, to remember, to figure out what was happening.
Suddenly, I wasn't certain of anything.
It's kind of a blur how I got from the stage to the bathroom of the hotel later that night. But I know this: for one magic moment on the stage, right before the big bow at the end with the fellas, when the music was reaching it's crescendo, I felt like I was on top of the world and everything was exactly as it should've been. But like most things - when you reach the top, you gotta come back down. Gravity's a bitch like that.
Here's what I remember.
Kevin glancing over my way throughout the show. I remember that vividly. He was about to cry every time our eyes met, I thought, and he looked just so proud of me. I'd always wanted someone to be proud of me. It sounds silly. I mean, I'm a Backstreet Boy, shouldn't there be a lot of people proud of me? And maybe there was. But Kevin wasn't just proud of me that way, he was proud of me because of something deeper than a god-given talent. And that's what I'd wanted alla my life. I remember thinking about that as the lyrics to the songs became easier and the steps in the choreography became more fluid. I remember thinking, this is what I sent myself back for.
And then the show was ending and we were all joined hands and taking our bows at the front of the stage and AJ was laughing and Brian was squeezing my fingers and Kevin bowed the lowest of the five and Howie nearly tripped off the stage... and we were waving to the fans and promising to return and running off into the darkness behind the curtain and below the stage... ripping off microphone packs and rushing with bodyguards to the vans that would bring us back to the after party. There was a thundering of screaming women outside, blurs of loud color and sweeping arms and piercing shrieks.
It was such a head rush. Such a strange feeling.
I remember the ride in the van only vaguely. I remember Brian's look of concern as Kevin yelled loudly over the cranked stereo system about how much he loved us all and how much this fucking band meant to him, how he couldn't believe he'd ever dreamed of leaving us... Brian kept staring at me and he'd glance at Kevin then back to me with this questioning look in his eyes and I just yelled along with Kevin.
At the club, I saw AJ rush off to get a Red Bull and Howie followed him. Kevin and Brian lingered with me at the van and Kevin clapped me on the back and congratulated me on making a good choice and we walked toward the doors and Brian waited until Kevin's long strides had left us a good distance before he grabbed hold of my arm. "Nick," he hissed, "Nick, we gotta talk."
"We can talk later!" I shouted and I bounded after Kevin.
"No, Nick, we gotta talk now!" Brian persisted as he rushed after me.
But I was too caught up and I didn't really care what he had to say anyways. I rushed through the bar, ready to celebrate, ready to live life. Kevin wasn't leaving, my life wouldn't spiral out of control. I could stop drinking, I could sober up. I'd be a better role model for my siblings and we'd all be closer. I couldn't quite remember why it was so bitterly important to me that I sober up and get close to my siblings -- there was a reason, wasn't there? -- but I could do it anyways.
Brian stayed by my side as we walked through the club. Beats played overhead, thundering against the walls and the ceiling. I hit the bar and ordered a drink - a Jack on the rocks. "Nick!" Brian shouted, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Ordering my last drink," I announced.
"Nick, you can't. You're changing things," he shouted.
"I know." I reached for the glass as the bar tender held it out.
Brian reached to grab my glass away but I simply held it up out of his reach and turned away - the benefits of being tall. I started pushing my way out of the frenzy around the bar. "Nick, you said you came back to stop yourself from - from ruining everything." He waved at the drink I held aloft.
"Brian -- c'mon, you can't expect me not to cap the night off. One drink ain't gonna hurt me none and besides, I already changed it all for the better. One drink ain't gonna wreck up my liver at all."
"Nick -- you're making a huge mistake."
But I knocked it back anyways.
Like I said, everything else is pretty much a blur. The only thing I know for certain is that there was more than just the one drink and Brian was right about me making a huge mistake.
I woke up horizontal, staring at another toilet basin. My body felt weak. I groaned and moved slowly, peeling my face off the floor. "Oh God," I groaned.
I heard something shift and I moved and looked up to see a girl... a girl with dark curly hair and almond shaped eyes... a girl I had a feeling I should recognize but I couldn't put a name to. She was standing in the doorway. She stared down at me, her hands on the frame. "What's today?" she whispered.
"I dunno," I replied. I stared at her, mesmerized. Had I taken her home from the club?
She sighed. "I'm early. Again. Why am I always early? Why can't I ever be just in time?" She shook her head.
"What're you early for?" I mumbled.
"You," she replied. "It's too early." She shook her head and started to turn away.
"Wait," I said, "Where are you going?"
"I'm not sitting here watching you roll about in your own filth," she answered. "I love you too much to watch this. It hurts too much." She started to walk away again and I reached for her ankle, nearly tripping her.
"Wait," I begged, "Wait. Please. Who are you? Did we sleep together?"
"You'll know me someday," she replied. "If I can ever get you at the right time. Ugh. I don't know why we can't just touch down at the right time." She shook her head.
I squinted up at her... and there was something... something I needed to remember. The information lay there somewhere in my head, I could feel it... just under the surface memories.
"You'd think since you built the damn thing you'd know how to run it, but noooo -- knowing how to run it is too much to ask," she mumbled as she shook me off her ankle.
I struggled - fighting against my own brain because as I lay there listening to her speaking I felt like there was something else... something important. Something... something that could save me.
"I gotta go," she said.
"But wait," I begged because I knew I needed to remember and her presence there was somehow making me remember.
"I can't stay here. I'm too early. I gotta go." And she ducked out the door of the bathroom.
It came to me in a rush, a big glob of information just bursting in my head like a raindrop hitting the sidewalk. "Wait!" I shouted and I struggled to my feet and rushed into the room after her, but it was empty and my head was spinning like I'd done a million revolutions. I sat down on the bed and held my head in my hand. "Fuck," I muttered. I closed my eyes. And I forced myself to remember.
But it was so much harder now that she was gone.
The year I was from was 2014, I reminded myself. I was in the past. I was here to change the past because when I was from I was dying of liver disease probably caused by the drinks I had last night, judging by how fucked my liver felt now. I came back after meeting Meira - a girl from my future, the girl who I'd just seen now in the hotel room in 2006 - who came to my past to tell me to go back to my even more distant past - now - because the me of the future - her future - had told her to tell me - of 2014 - to go back - as in to 2006 - which is where I am now.
Fuck. That's confusing. No wonder I was getting lost. But the key to all of it was the message she'd come to give me - the message she kept saying she was too early or too late to give.
Go back, the words rang in my mind.
I repeated this information over and over in my mind. It was the only way to keep it because the moment I stopped thinking about it, the moment I let the image of Meira leave my head, I started to lose a grip on what I'd come for and I started to fall into the same past that I'd already lived.
There was a knock on the door, and I fought myself to get back up again an stumbled out to the door. When I opened it, Brian was on the other side.
And he wasn't happy.
Chapter Twenty-One by Pengi
"Do you have any idea how stupid I feel?" Brian demanded, pushing his way into my hotel room. I closed the door behind him. I wanted to tell him to lower his volume because his voice was so loud I could feel it joggling in my brain thanks this killer hang over I was experiencing. Or worse, he might wake Kevin up or something. That would be real hell.
I walked after him into the room and I stood there awkwardly as Brian went across the room and grabbed his suitcase off the floor and started pushing things into it. I moved closer, "Why do you feel stupid? Don't feel stupid. Brian, What'cha doin'?" I asked.
"Packing. What's it look like?"
"Why are you packing?" I asked slowly. "Don't move in with one of the other guys... don't leave me alone... please... Brian, I need help, I need you and --"
"In case you've forgotten during your drunken stupor," Brian interrupted me, "It was the last show of the tour last night and we're heading home in a couple hours. I'm not moving in with one of the other guys, I'm going home to my wife." He picked his basket ball up from the floor and tossed it into the suitcase effortlessly from where he stood. He paused in packing and raised an eyebrow at me. "And yes, you do need help. You need a lot more help than I can give you. Obviously."
I hung my head.
"Nick, I can't believe I even for a second believed you." Brian sighed, "Changing the past, fixing the future... whatever, man. I'm sure those glasses of Jack on the rocks did wonders for the future you, right?" He shook his head and grabbed a book from the nightstand, jabbing it into a backpack he'd pulled from inside the suitcase.
I wanted to lash out and argue with him, but I felt my brain slip-and-slide over the suggestion of changing the past and fixing the future. I scrambled to keep my facts straight. Meira, Meira, Meira, I mentally chanted. I balled my fists. "Brian, I am here to fix it," I said in a pleading voice.
"Like I said. I'm sure those JDs did you wonders in your mission." He was nearly done packing, shoving the last stray socks into the corner and attempting to zip the bag.
"It was an accident," I whined. "Brian, I dunno what I've done but I think I fucked up something. Everything's gone all... fuzzy." He didn't even pause in his work of zipping the bag. "Brian," I begged, "Please. Help me."
"I've tried helping you Nick and all you do is get mad at me. There's nothing else I can do." He looked up at me, his eyes sad.
"I get mad right now, but in the future I'll understand and I'll thank you for it," I argued.
Brian shook his head, "Tell that you present you."
"Present me is telling you that now," I answered.
Brian finished zipping up the suitcase. "Look... Nick... I dunno what kinda drugs you're on to believe this shit as deeply as you do, but you've proven to me last night that ain't nothin's changed... and it isn't going to either." He slid the case off the bed and grabbed the handle, dragging it along behind him as he moved past me to the door of the room. "I think I need a break."
"Yes. A break."
"A break from what?" My heart accelerated.
"A break from you, man, from being your friend. I can't take it anymore. You are exhausting, Nick!" Brian's face was angry, like I'd broken some shell that had been built up and the wild beast that had hunkered down inside it had woke up and was really pissed off. Brian turned to the door like a hurricane changing paths along the coast.
I felt a desperate clawing in my throat like a scream trying to escape me. "You're gonna break up with Leighanne," I said, "Meira said so. She told me so."
Brian stopped in the doorway. He turned slowly. "Do not bring Leighanne into this. Seriously Nick, I do not wanna start this bullshit with you again."
"But Brian, don't you see, it's proof I'm from the future. 'Cos I know what's gonna happen!" I was desperate. Brian had to believe again because the longer Brian argued with me and the less he believed, the harder it was for me to stay believing. "Brian, Meira said --"
"Nick! Meira is a drug-induced figment of your imagination!" he shouted. "You don't even remember her when your sober, only when you're like this - hung over and drunk and disgusting. Go clean your damn vomit off the toilet seat, get some coffee, and we'll see if you believe in Meira still after that." Brian's eyes were feiry, "And do not talk about my wife with anything but respect because as much as you might think she's the reason that I'm so hard on you and I judge you so harshly, she's not. She's the only reason I keep giving you second, third, fourth -- twenty-fourth -- chances."
And with that, he stormed out the door and slammed it shut so hard the walls shook.
I sat back down on the bed and felt like my whole world was exploding or something. Like maybe I was gonna die inside from all the feelings and the confusion. Was Brian right? Was Meira a figment of my imagination? Had I woken up in a mens room after a particularly vivid hallucination? I grabbed my head with my hands and I felt kinda like I might be holding the pieces together before the big kaboom of it all.
It was some time later when we were collected to go on to the airport to head home. The other guys had apparently somehow not heard about my Jack on the rocks because nobody else said anything. Kevin was still raving on about how proud he was and alla that and Brian sat silently like one of them gargoyals on a church, just staring at his backpack and picking at a loose string, igoring the rest of us to the best of his ability. When we got to the airport, we split up for the most part, except me and AJ, who were both going to California. The other guys went on to their own airline terminals.
I watched Brian until he was all tiny among the people in the airport. Then I couldn't let him go any further. I looked at AJ. "Watch my shit," I said, and I ran before he could reply or ask what I was doing. I ran as fast as my 2006 fat ass would let me, my dirty old sneakers hitting the pavement like elephant footfalls and my heart slamming in my chest like it was going to jackhammer it's way right out of my body. I reached Brian, breathless, dizzy from running and grabbed his elbow as I doubled over to grab my ankle. He was standing walking to a terminal with Howie, since they were Florida and Georgia bound they had the same connecting flight. Howie stopped a couple paces away when he realized Brian had stopped.
"Nicky?" Howie asked.
"I'll catch up with ya, D," Brian said. He stared at me, waiting while I gasped and choked. I thought I might throw up, that's how fucked up I'd got from running. "Nick. I gotta flight to catch, and so do you. What is it?" he asked when he became impatient. "I said all I gotta say to you this morning."
"Come back," I choked.
"What?" he squinted at me, "What're you talking about?"
"In the future. When I'm here. Come back. Help me." I stared into his eyes. "Come back and help me."
Brian licked his lips, "Nick, I appreciate the feeling behind asking me to do this but I --"
"You have nothing to lose, Brian," I pointed out. "If I'm telling the truth then you can keep the promise. If I'm not, then you don't have to do anything and it'll never ever make a difference in your life if you promised me or not, will it?"
He stared at me.
"Please. I can't do this alone."
Brian sighed, "Okay, Nick. I promise. If you're telling the truth about the time machine thing then I'll come back."
I thought once he said the words like lightening would strike or something, maybe he'd just appear, maybe everything would snap back the way it was supposed to be. I dunno what I expected, but we both looked around at the faces passing by us in the airport, completely unaware and unconcerned with us other than a couple who mumbled something about do you know who that is? as they walked.
"Well then," Brian said after a moment's wait, "I guess that settles it then, doesn't it?" He turned and walked away.
I felt let down... utterly confused... and completely alone.
I walked slowly back across the airport to the terminal where AJ was standing with both our backpacks. He hoisted mine into my arms as I sat down. "What the fuck was that about?" he asked.
"Nothing apparently," I answered.
Chapter Twenty-Two by Pengi
I sat on the plane with my headphones on, staring up at the ceiling as my shuffle blared in my ears, feeling like I'd been crushed in the chest. AJ slept, his mouth hanging open. I didn't understand. It felt so real. When I could remember it, that is, the whole future me thing felt so real. But then I'd stop thinking about it a second or two and it'd start to fade and go away. Part of me wanted it to fade completely, to just go on living my life, but then those almond shaped eyes would strike me and I'd realize I didn't want to lose them - not ever - no matter the cost. Even if it meant I was crazy.
So I kept thinking about it.
2014. 2022. 2006. Future. Past. Meira.
I wanted so bad for her to show up again, and I constantly found myself looking around, waiting for her to be there, going on about being early as she always was. But early for what? I wondered and would she ever be on time?
When the plane landed at LAX, AJ said he'd see me in a month when we restarted the tour and wished me a Merry Christmas. He waved as he walked away from the baggage claim hauling his bright orange suitcase behind him. I stood there by the claim watching the bags go by, waiting and trying to remember what my bag looked like. I only figured it out when I saw the Buccaneers logo on a luggage tag. I pulled the thing off and hauled it out to the curb, looking around the lot. Did I have a car parked at the airport? I wondered. Probably not, I decided, and I got into a cab.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
I had to sneak a glance at the tag on the suitcase to tell him my address.
When we got to the house, I tossed my fare at the driver and climbed out. It was gaudy - way, way too big for just me to be living in alone. But in 2006, I reminded myself, I had a billion and two friends that were always there, always ready to party, always ready to drink the free booze that came with running with Nick Carter. I thought my own name in a bitter attitude.
I dragged my suitcase up to the front door, and fished my keys out of my backpack, but before I could reach for the knob to unlock it - the door opened from the inside.
I looked up.
"Finally. Good Lord, where in the hell were you? I've been waiting for you for days." Brian was standing in front of me.
I stared at him.
"I just - you were - you - you're in --" I sputtered. Then I realized that present-day Brian was on his way home to Georgia. Therefore this must be... "Brian?"
"2014 Brian?" I clarified.
His forehead moved with relief, "Oh thank the Lord almighty!" he sang out. He wrapped his arms around me. "When you told me to come back all those years ago, I thought you were absolutely insane, Nick. Completely gone. You know that? I went home and told Leighanne, I was like Nick's finally lost it. I can't believe this is all for real!" he practically shouted. "After all this time!"
"It's only been like thirteen hours for me," I said.
"Thirteen hours? No way."
"That's insane." Brian's eyes danced with the math of it. He's always been a nerd that way. I swear if he hadn't become a Backstreet Boy, he probably would've done some kind of geeky/dorky/sciencey stuff. "I would love to figure out how all this works. It must be some seriously intense thinking behind it, huh?"
"I'm just glad to know this all ain't just a hallucination," I confessed. I hesitated, "How much have I changed?" I asked. "Have I fucked everything up in the future?"
Brian hesitated, "I dunno... Not that I know of... but, I suppose if you messed up something in the past then I wouldn't know, would I?"
Seemed logical. "Meira prolly would've said something if I messed it up too, too bad, though, right?"
Brian stared at me for a long moment.
"Right, Brian?" I asked, pressing.
"Meira," I repeated. "You know... Meira."
Brian shook his head.
"But... but she's the reason I'm here. 'Cos the message I gave her was for me to - to go back," I argued. "Brian. C'mon. Stop fuckin' with me. You know Meira."
"Nick, I swear to you I have no idea who you're talking about."
"The girl - the girl with the - with the -- and the --" I waved my hands over my head to indicate Meira's wild hair and my chest to simulate her ample boobs.
Brian was shaking his head slowly.
"I'm gonna marry her," I said, my voice climbing in pitch and volume with desperation, "You gotta know."
"Nick, I'm sorry."
"But I marry her, she's my woman," I said. And the words were becoming more and more important as I said them. It suddenly seemed like it was of absolute, vital importance that I end up with Meira. There may have been billions of girls in the world but there was only one I wanted and it was her.
It was her and she was out there somewhere, God only knows where. Doing God only knows what. With God only knows who. Because something I'd done had ruined the part where I met her.
And then a chill went up and down me.
Meira had said the first time she met me she'd been about to kill herself.
What if... what if something I changed in the past... altered the future... and I never met Meira? What if... what if she followed through and had killed herself and I never met Meira?
"Brian," I choked, "I've made such a huge mistake trying to fuck around with everything. I shouldda listened to her when she told me she was afraid of what my message would do." I rubbed my forehead. "Aw shit, shit. Brian, I can't just let the best thing in my life be deleted just like that." I snapped my fingers. I jumped up. "Brian... we gotta fix this. We gotta fix everything. We gotta find the girl."
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