“Anyway Joel,” Craig texted later that same evening, “guess who I met today?”
The reply appeared on Craig's phone screen, “I don't know, who?”
“Dr. Samuel Pollack!”
“Really? Wow! Golly! Umm, who's Dr. Samuel Pollack?” came Joel's sarcastic reply.
“Hang on a sec...” Craig did a quick Youtube search and fired off a link to Joel. “Take a look at that video. That's a lecture by him from two years ago, umm, I guess I mean last year, on new developments in String Theory at a TED conference.”
“What's String Theory and who's Ted?” answered Joel. “Hang on, lemme look at the video.”
Craig waited for a few minutes and then Joel's reply appeared. “Ok, some kind of physicist, right? At some popular technology conference thingy?”
“Yup. I've read a couple of his layman's books and seen a few lectures on the internet. He's amazing.”
“So how did you meet him?”
“Well, it turns out I go to school with his son, Andrew. I knew he lived in town but I never thought I'd actually meet him. Anyway, I was over at Andrew's place earlier tonight.”
“Andrew you say? He invited you over? Is he cute?” Joel included a winky emoticon.
“Shut up Joel. It's not like that. At least, I don't think it is. He's just a neat kid.”
“You don't think it is? So then maybe it will be? You go Craig!”
“Geez Joel, give it a rest. I was talking about his dad anyway.”
“So what about him? He's a good scientist?”
“Yes, he's the best there is, though a lot of people think his ideas are completely wacko. Anyway, I've been thinking, if anyone can tell us something about what's happened with us, well, I wonder if he could.”
A moment went by before Craig saw Joel's answer on his phone screen. “Well, I don't know Craig. I'm not actually sure we should say anything. I mean, it all sounds crazy. I don't really look good wearing a white strait-jacket, and rubber rooms aren't my thing.”
“Well, I'm a bit hesitant myself. But I'm not sure if I can go on forever without telling anyone. It kind of feels dishonest, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. I kept wondering if I should say anything to my parents. I almost did a couple of times, but then changed my mind. Dammit Craig, what the hell are we going to do?”
“Well, listen Joel, have you noticed anything kind of strange today? Aside from the fact that everybody exists again, and we're time travelers or something now.”
“Oh god, yeah. Tons of things. Like the broken door in my school cafeteria. I did that after the Disappearance to get in, but it shouldn't be broken now. Everybody seemed to be totally ignoring it too. And then there's the house on the corner. I, like, accidentally started it on fire a little while after the disappearance. Well, it's a burned out shell now. It looks like the fire fighters didn't even try and put it out. The family is apparently living in a hotel until the insurance comes through. But nobody knows how the fire started. I asked, but people just shrugged it off as if it was unimportant.”
Craig typed his answer, “That's what I mean. It's almost like we're in some kind of a mix between the two 'worlds' or 'realities' or whatever. If things were completely back to normal, I think I might be able to just go on and pretend nothing happened. But I can't with things like this.”
“I know. Something's wrong. I said that before on the phone and I haven't changed my mind. It's messed up Craig.”
“Well, I won't talk to him, Dr. Pollack I mean, without both of us agreeing. But think about it, okay? Oh, by the way, Andrew has basically told me he's going to pester me until I tell him what happened.”
“What!?! You means he knows something already!? What did you say?”
“No, I didn't say anything. Look Joel, he's smart. He saw the scars, and he saw how I've been acting compared to 'yesterday' and I think he put something together in his head. He knows something is going on with me, and he wants to find out what it is.”
Joel answered, “Mrs. Kinley, my English teacher today, she knows something is up too I think. I answered a question I think that she figured I wouldn't know the answer to. Well, you know I never really read too many classics until you got me into them. So, I answered and then I answered another one, and then she was watching me the rest of the class and looking at me funny.”
“It's only been a day and people are already noticing stuff. We need help Joel. The only one I can think of to ask is Dr. Pollack. Maybe he'll think I'm bullshitting or crazy, but, I think we should take the chance.”
Two full minutes passed before Joel answered. “Okay. Do it. But we need to get together on the weekend. I'm tempted to just take the keys and drive up there, but I won't. I'll work on my parents and you talk to your mom. Maybe we can arrange something.”
“Okay. Thanks Joel. And I'll talk to Mom. Good night.”
Craig tossed his phone over onto his bed and leaned back in his chair. He shook his head and chuckled, remembering how he thought everything would be just perfect if they could go back to the way they used to be.
It's funny how quickly routine can feel like, well, like routine. The next day in school Craig was already looking forward to the weekend, the “newness” of being back in school again already worn off despite all of the challenges of being back again. One thing he was glad about though, one thing that he found himself looking forward to, was seeing Andrew. It had nothing to do with asking Andrew's dad some questions, though that was in the back of his mind. It was more just about Andrew himself.
He had thought about him again last night.
And then after he cleaned himself up he thought about him some more, in a different way. There was something about him, aside from his looks, that was intriguing. Before the Disappearance, Craig just thought of him as another rude jock. Someone to avoid at school. He seemed completely different to Craig now. Yesterday's conversations with him proved he had intelligence, and insight, and a sense of humor. He seemed to value honesty, and was interested in other people.
Craig couldn't stop thinking about him.
Which is probably why he had let himself become distracted enough to walk into Clyde Cromon a half block from school. It was during “nutrition break.” A short break mid morning to allow the students a chance to get a healthy snack. Which meant most of them used the twenty minutes to run two blocks to the convenience store, fill up on sugar and salty snacks, and run back. Craig had used the time to take a short walk away from the school and was on his way back when it happened.
Craig was pissed at himself as he waited for the inevitable reaction as he watched Clyde's slushee hit the ground. He was angry that mainly, after a year of the hardest lessons, only one day had gone by and he was allowing himself to become inattentive to his surroundings. Just because he was back in civilization didn't mean there weren't dangers.
Speaking of dangers, Craig thought, here's one now.
Craig tried to head it off at the pass. Something else that was different from before. Before, he would've either cowered, or ran. Most likely both. This time he didn't.
“Oh shit,” he said, loud enough to make sure others heard. He knew an audience could only be helpful right now. “My fault entirely Clyde. I owe you a slushee at lunch, plus one more for the trouble. Extra large. Sorry.” Now he had the upper hand. He knew it, and the audience knew it. He had taken responsibility, and attempted to make amends, and more, and he had apologized. Now it was up to Clyde. He could take what was offered, and look like a human being, or he could take another course of action, and look like an oaf.
Too bad Clyde had the social skills of an enraged rhinoceros. Or maybe slightly below.
“The fuck!?” was the reaction as Clyde turned to see who he would be pummeling next. “You're a fuck, ya know that? Yer right. It's your fucking fault. And you're gonna fucking buy me a fucking slushee every fucking day from now the fuck on. After I fucking bust you up and send you into the fucking grave.”
Craig didn't bother to point out the logical inconsistencies in Clyde's tirade about how he would manage to buy slushees from a casket, or compliment him on his creative and multi-faceted use of the word “fuck” as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective in the same paragraph He just let his survival skills take over.
Survival skills are funny things. Part instinctive, and part learned. Before the Disappearance, they were mostly instinctive for Craig. And his instincts had been poor. Instinct was still a part of it, now, but the instinct just provided the first half of the reaction. The heightened senses, the increased awareness, the adrenaline and improved reaction time. The second half was all learned. And boy oh boy had he done a lot of learning. It was funny how dealing with wild dogs, hungry cougars, angry moose, territorial coyotes, and sundry other dangers made a slightly overweight 8th grade bully look almost pathetic.
Craig watched as Clyde's center of gravity changed as he pulled his fist back for the punch. It seemed to take forever. Craig had time to lower his center of gravity, adjust his balance, and plan his counter-attack.
He didn't have his usual weapons, but anything can be a weapon in a time of need. Craig's backpack would do just fine. It was heavy with his English and Chemistry books. He had a lot of re-reading to do after a year and was using every chance he could get to try and catch up. He lowered his shoulder to allow the pack to slip off and gripped a shoulder strap, adjusting the heft.
Craig waited until Clyde's fist began its ponderous forward journey to where his nose used to be. He figured he'd have a better argument, if it came to it, if he waited until after Clyde threw the punch. He had no intention of actually being in the vicinity of the end of that punch however.
He moved his weight to the right, getting out of the line of fire, and brought the backpack up in his left hand in the same motion. Clyde had punched with his right hand, but had left his entire left side unprotected. Apparently he was unused to having to protect himself. When Clyde was off balance and too far forward due to Craig's face not being where it was supposed to be Craig swung the pack up hard into Clyde's face.
The edge of a book must've caught his cheek. Clyde fell over sideways, a small gash in his cheek bleeding along with his nose. His hand held his face and Clyde looked at Craig with shock, and, of all things, with tears in his eyes. Clyde didn't say a word. And with that, the “fight,” what there was of it anyway, was over.
Craig saw that the danger was over and his survival instincts settled down. Craig looked at Clyde, not quite knowing what to say. He had never won a fight before. Well, not with a person anyway. And the fights he had won, well, one of the parties normally never moved again. He just said, “I'll get you some medical help if you want. And I still owe you a slushee.”
Clyde just looked at him a second longer before answering. “No. I'm fine.” He lumbered to his feet and walked off.
Craig couldn't help hearing the comments from the audience that had gathered.
“Jesus, did you see that?”
“I've never seen Clyde get hit like that.”
“Who is that guy?”
“Isn't that the new kid this year? Jamison I think, Craig or something.”
Then another voice, closer this time. “What the hell, Craig? You do lead an adventurous life. I knew it.” The voice almost sounded amused though.
Craig turned to look at Andrew. “Oh. Hey Andrew.”
Andrew began laughing, then laughed harder. And then harder again. It took a minute or two before he could get any words out. “That's it? You spill the school bully's drink, you apologize to the him, he tries to beat you up and instead you beat him up in, like, two seconds. Less. Half the school is cheering at you, you didn't get a scratch, not even dirt on your pants, you offer to buy him a slushee, and, and, and, then you say, 'Oh, hi,' like you're bored and saw me at the drinking fountain or something? I told you that you were some kind of superkid.” Andrew just kept laughing.
Craig couldn't help it. He started to laugh too. But he was blushing as well.
Andrew just kept laughing. "And now you're blushing? That's just too much."
Craig just shrugged and kept smiling at his friend and they turned to walk back to school. They made a brisk pace; they were close to being late.
Andrew's laughing had stopped and Craig could see him looking at him a couple of times but not saying anything. Then he stopped suddenly, a hand touching Craig's arm making him stop too.
Andrew's eyes were serious now, and burning with intensity. “Listen, Craig. You can't tell me that you would've done that two days ago. I watched you. A lot. I know. Something happened.”
Craig's eyes must've shown some fear, or nervousness, or something.
“Oh sure. Now you look scared. Look, trust me.” Andrew paused to make his point sink in, and then continued, “I'll bet you want to tell someone. I get the feeling that something is eating you up. And it has something to do with why you're acting weird the last two days. Tell me. Please.”
Craig stared into Andrew's warm brown eyes, his earnest expression. Long seconds passed. He made a decision. He just hoped to god it was the right one. “Come over to my place after school. You can ride my bus with me, kids do that all the time. Then I'll tell you.” Craig started walking again, not ready to say any more, or to let Andrew see the worry on his face.
Andrew caught up and walked beside Craig, seeming to know not to say anything, except a nod at Craig's invitation.
They said their goodbyes and walked to their respective classes.
Craig was halfway into his desk when he remembered something.
Wait a minute, he thought. He watched me? He watched me a lot?