I remember dying. I remember my father coming into an apartment I lived in. There was shouting between him and my mom. My sister started tearing verbal strips off him, which is her superpower. I started trying to push him out of the apartment, but I'm a little short for my age and not as strong as I'd like.
In my mind my father shoved me backward, and I could feel the pain lance up from my tailbone as I landed on the floor. I didn't see the gun go off the first time because I was focused on that literal pain in my ass, but the loud sound distracted me from my own issues.
He killed Cait first. There was a piece of her head missing and I could see her brain for a second before the blood covered it up. The next two shots were at my mom. She screamed, then louder – one was fear and the other pain. I stood and ran for my room. Pain blossomed from my right shoulder blade and the sound of the gun was too far away for me to care about. The pain from my shoulder was worse than anything I had ever felt before.
I fell into my door. I think there was another shot and my mother stopped screaming. Dimly I realized it was getting harder and harder to draw a breath. I coughed and blood bubbled down my chin. I just needed to rest a second. I lay down, feeling such pain and an overwhelming sense of being tired.
I don't know why I remember all that, because it's not true. Bennett Turchin – that's me – lives with his grandparents – Grandpas Owen Turchin and Stanley Fielding – better known as Grandpas T and F – and his sister, Cait. I'm alive. I'm in school, so I sometimes feel like pieces of me are dying, but I certainly didn't get murdered by my loser of a father.
Still. Being shot wakes me up in the middle of the night a lot lately, and it sucks.
When I was really little I lived with my mom, Amanda. I don't remember much of that time because I was little, but when I talk to her now I understand that she just wasn't the mom type. I think she'd have done okay on the big three basics – food, clothes and shelter. But the other things, like love, compassion, all of the other things that make life worth the whole experience – she just wasn't good at that. The best thing she probably ever did for me and Cait and my older brother, Karl, was to let our grandfathers raise us.
It was probably the single biggest compassionate act she was capable of, and I guess if you look at it that way, it was relatively heroic.
Karl was six years older than I was, and he couldn't wait to leave home. I get it – there isn't much going on here. Like...nothing. Once this was a busy little town, but its small industries had been gobbled up by larger concerns or moved or just up and died. That was this town – just waiting to up and die. Towns die hard, though. There's always someone who loves them, the idea of a small town experience.
People love ideas a lot. They forget about reality way too easily.
So Karl left. Cait was a year ahead of me and already looking at colleges. I actually liked where I was – not because I wanted to farm when I grew up or because I liked small towns or everyone knowing your business. Brady Andersen and Andy McGuire were my main reasons for liking things outside of my home. Andy had been my best friend forever – like three years. His aunt had worked with my grandpa Fielding until he'd retired. Brady was more complicated.
I should be clear up front that I love my grandpas more than about anything I can think of. I know I am who I am because of them. I know my life is way better than I'd have had with my mom – they are involved, but not in a helicopter parent kind of way. They have always listened to what I say – to what Cait and I say – as if it was really important. They seem to understand that to us it was really important. My grandpas make me think, and overthink.
One thing that has made me make mistakes is how our small town reacts to two gay older men raising kids. They're what I think of as small town nice. Nice to your face, trashing you behind your back. My grandparents have loved me and my sibs from the moment we were born. Grandpa T teased Gramp F that we had him wrapped around our finger from our first breath. I don't think other people really understand how much of an impact that can have on someone, to be so totally loved.
But our small town...they aren't like that. Grandpa F put up with a lot of crap to be the commissioner of our baseball league. Even when he did a great job, some people felt like it was okay to discount him – like he had to work ten times as hard to be half as good as a straight guy. Grandpa T was in the same boat – he retired as the manager of the local grocery store. He still held an ownership interest – in fact had saved the place and jobs from going under when he took on an ownership role. Still, some folks will drive out a half hour to Wally World to get groceries rather than go to his store.
So it's not my grandpas, but the town. I'm not always brave, and when it came to Brady, I was a damn coward.
I play baseball with Brady and Andy. We also play just about any other sport together. Andy's dad was cool with me and my grandpas – in fact he was one of the guys who helped gramp F get control of the league. Andy's sister, Jill, was a lesbian and Andy actually got on pretty good with her. Not at first. Andy got picked on because of it, but people can make a choice there – be angry at the people making fun of you or mad at the person they are really aiming for. Andy's smart and he stood by his sister.
I like smart. It's why Andy and I get along. Not because I'm gay and he accepts it, but because we can be nerds and geek out together and he gets that.
Brady...dumb as a rock. I mean, I love him – in every sense. Brady will help you until he's exhausted, he'll show up for anything anytime, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks – which is great. Unfortunately, Brady doesn't think much, either. His mom is very weird – she's a flat-earther, anti-vaxxer and once told us that the pope had been killed and there was a robot in his place and that's why the Catholic Church was making some of the statements they were that seemed to contradict their own scripture.
So...sometimes I had to argue with Brady for his own good about things like the earth being flat. I don't care if he's dumb because he's lovable – I just won't want other people to be dicks because of his being dumb. I'm living proof that your parents aren't your fault. Problem is...everyone thinks I'm gay because I have gay parents. I mean, no one thought Cait was a lesbian for those reasons but somehow, because I'm a guy, I must like dick. They're not wrong, and that's what grates at me. How can I possibly come out when it’s so expected by these small-minded motherfuckers? Plus how will Brady react when he finds out I want him so badly?
Even Brady once said to me that I was raised gay, so I must be. “So?” I'd snorted. “Your mom liked D, does that mean you do?”
He always gets this cute look on his face when he's trying to think. It would be easy to dislike him if it weren't for him being so innocent when he says dumb stuff. So me, Bennett Turchin, this is who I fall for, and now I have these false memories of dying? What did I do to deserve this?
Thursday is such a wannabe day. People get all wound up about Wednesday being hump day, but they wait until Friday to get excited, so Thursday just hangs out in between like...meh. My Thursday started out with me waking up with a sore back from where the bullet hit me in my sleep. Like, psychosomatic pain from a dream? Can I get more weird?
I got ready for school and followed my nose to the kitchen, where Grandpa T was cooking up all kinds of good stuff. I don't even like sleeping over at other people's houses because breakfast is just cereal or a pop tart – and those things are gross. I'm spoiled by having good food, and I'll admit it to anyone.
I sat down and filled my plate.
“Jesus, Benny. Hoping you'll grow?” Cait teased.
I gave her a vacant look. “You're ugly and nobody loves you.”
“That's patently false,” Grandpa F said as he entered the room and kissed Cait on her head. “Don't say such things to her.”
“Uh huh. Gramp?” I pointed at my head and he made a mock shocked expression and then dramatically kissed the top of my head too. What? It's not weird.
Cait got a ride to school from her boyfriend, which I would totally ride with her because her boyfriend is a stud, but I'm not invited. I want a car so badly, but I have to earn it by saving – or so I'm told. I'm sure there is a loophole I haven't found yet. I know my Grandpa F has been dying to find a way to spoil both Cait and me. I think if we get him alone we might be able to convince him to help us out.
The idea was short lived, not just because it was selfish and stupid, but because Andy showed up to join me at the bus stop and immediately started geeking out about Dr. Who. He likes the lady playing her. I think it was kind of a bold thing to do, but it feels different to me. Every time they change the actor it takes me a while to adjust, so I don't know if that's it or not. Maybe it was just because I liked Torchwood better. Go Captain Jack!
“You're zoned out. Is today the day? Are you all spacey while you work up your courage?” Andy asked, needling me about Brady and the whole idea of asking him out.
“Do you have any idea how many people would be smug about me coming out? I bet the First Baptist on Meadow Lane would explode from disgusted satisfaction.”
Andy snorted with amusement. He turned to me with a thoughtful expression. “So...do you think Brady's clueless? Or is he being polite, not wanting to feed into the expectation that you're gay? Or is he just ignoring the way you bone up around him?”
“I do not. Not unless he touches me. Or breathes on me. Or looks at me.” I glanced at Andy, who was grinning at me. “What? I'm easy.” I paused. “Are you going to ask Haley out or what?”
“Or what,” he said promptly. “Or, I don't know. I mean, there is the Halloween dance coming. I can't dance, but then I don't really have to, right?”
“Right. The girls all just hang out together and listen to the music, mostly,” I confirmed.
The bus arrived and we boarded. We asked each other about school assignments we shared, weekend plans, and continued to troll each other about asking out our crushes. The odd part about crushing on Brady was that we'd been friends for a while, too. He was part of my friend group, and it felt both weird and natural to have developed feelings for him.
At school we exited the bus and went to wait for the school doors to open. My phone buzzed in my pocket and I dug it out.
“Brady?” Andy asked.
“Huh?” I looked up from my phone.
“It's Brady,” he said with finality.
“What makes you say that?” I asked defensively.
“Because you're smiling like a moron. What did he say?”
I narrowed my eyes, but decided not to fight this one. “He got a car! He drove to school. Let's go see!”
We both broke for the student parking lot. People milled about in clumps, and we dodged in and out to get to the edge of the sidewalk and cross into the student parking lot. Andy spotted him first, waving by his car from the last row.
“Check it out,” Brady said in his voice that always sounded like he had a head cold. He was grinning as he stood next to an ancient Toyota that looked decent despite its age. I mean – he had a car, which was way more than I had, so I wasn't going to troll him on it.
“Dude!” Andy said appreciatively. “You and your dad finally finished it?”
“Yup! I was keeping it a secret! Now I can get us in the morning for school – no more bus!”
I stared at him and let my lower lip tremble. “I love you, man.” I turned and stuck my ass out. “Touch my butt for good luck.”
He drew his arm back as if to hit me into next week so I quickly turned back and stepped away, laughing at him.
Morning bell sounded and he locked his car before we all turned to head into the school. “Bennett. So I talked to my Uncle Vic last night,” Brady said.
I groaned. “No, no! Why? Brady! What dumb ass thing did he say now?”
“Hey, I'm pretty sure this is true,” Brady said with confidence. “So he says that we don't need vaccines. He says-”
“No! You are not anti-vaxx!” I stated.
“Listen!” he said insistently. “Uncle Vic says viruses live in the back of your throat – that's why you get sore throats when you're sick. He says drinking hot lemon water washes them down into your stomach so they die in your stomach acid.”
“Brade!” I groaned.
“It makes sense!” he argued.
I turned and reached up to put a hand on each of his shoulders. “Brady. You passed science last year with an A. You know that's not how viruses work.”
“But Uncle Vic-”
“Is a moron and we don't listen to Uncle Vic, do we?” I stared into his eyes. “Do we?”
Brady hesitated. “Well he was right about-”
“Brades! No!” I said, breaking out in laughter. “Stop!”
The second bell rang and we hurried on our way to classes. Brady Andersen. Freaking adorable and freaking clueless. If I ever meet his Uncle Vic...flat earth, anti-vaxx, holocaust-denying, moon-landing-is-a-hoax, man-will-never-fly society lifetime member, who, of course, doesn't believe in evolution. He also told Brady pulling out was great birth control, but if he had to use a 'rubber' that he could wash them out and reuse them. First, no one needs to be giving Brady sex advice. Second...if I meet that guy...I'll probably just laugh at him after I tell him to quit filling Brady's sweet head with his shit.
The school day went fairly quickly, and Brady dropped Andy and I off at our homes. We talked about hanging out that weekend, but when I got inside all I could think of was what it would be like if Brady actually liked me. What if we cuddled? What if we kissed? Would he be a good kisser? Would I? I spent a few minutes thinking about a good movie or something we could potentially bro-cuddle to before I realized my sister was on the couch napping. I was thinking about tickling her to wake her up when she sat up with her hands frantically patting her chest and gasping for breath.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Not again,” she said, groaning and closing her eyes while flopping back onto the couch.
“What was that?” I asked, finally thinking to put my backpack down. I think about Brady, and all other thinking stops.
She opened her eyes and looked at me. “Bad dream. I haven't been sleeping well, so I ended up getting out early. Decided to nap.”
“Cool,” I said. “Where are the Gramps?”
“Fielding went to some auction where they had baseball gear. Stuff for the league, or that's what he hoped,” she said. “Turchin went to the store to get me some ginger ale and crackers. You know how he is.”
Grandpa T thinks the cure for every ailment is ginger ale and crackers. “Yeah. Why aren't you sleeping?” I asked, sitting on the arm of the couch like I've been told not to a million times – and will probably be told a million more, if I'm honest.
She sighed and looked away. “Bad dreams,” she said quietly.
I stiffened. I looked at her steadily while her gaze was aimed at the unpowered TV. It couldn't be. I mean it would be weird for it to happen to us both at the same time, but it couldn't be. That's like some weird 'Believe it or Not' shit. “What kind of bad dreams?” I asked, my voice a whisper.
I slipped down on my knees and moved into her field of vision. Sitting on my heels I asked, “Do you die?”
She looked up into my gaze and nodded slowly.
“Does our father...shoot you?”
Her eyes grew wide and she sat up. “How do you know that?”
My body tightened. No way. “I've been waking up the last week or so...Brian shoots me in the back.”
Her eyes, now wide and fearful, focused on me as she said, “He did. While you were running to your room. He'd already shot me and Mom, but I fall down and I can see you running for your room.”
I stared at her. “How can this be happening?” I said, my voice a whisper.
We went back and forth, sharing additional details, but there was no doubt she and I were having the exact same dream. Is that even – well, yeah it had to be possible. But how? Why? We hadn't seen Mom in a few years at least, and Brian was probably in jail or something – he wasn't even allowed near us due to his drinking and being abusive to people.
Our creepy shared moment was broken by Grandpa Turchin coming home and immediately setting up Cait with ginger ale and crackers while I wandered into my room and tried to relax. It was futile, because my mind ran like a hamster on a wheel, thinking about the dream and Cait sharing that dream and what it could mean. When that got to be too much my mind went to its – my – happy place: Brady.
Not wanting to fall back into thinking about the nightmare – it would come back later anyway – I texted Brady to ask what he was doing.
His stock reply was 'not much, how about you?'
I waited a beat, because he always says something else afterward.
Vic says he doesn't have asthma anymore.
I'm not sure I knew Ole Vic has asthma.
He doesn't? How?
I knew I shouldn't ask, because the answer would be batshit crazy, but how could I not?
He said smoking helped his lungs build up a tolerance so his attacks wouldn't be so bad. His lungs are used to the strain.
Dude. That's so sus.
He also said you're wrong about there being no bone in the dick. Why do you think it's called a boner? Kind of duh, really.
I groaned, glad for the distraction and started madly typing to him about how, why and what-in-the-hell he was wrong about. That Vic guy – how did he live this long? He must need a hockey helmet to go out in public.
Brady went back and forth with me, but later I was lying in bed and the only thing that would come to me was the nightmare. That Cait and I were seeing the same thing where we both died. Is it a premonition? I sat up in bed. Shit. What if it was some kind of paranormal warning? I was about to climb out of bed and go talk to Cait when I realized that sounded like Uncle Vic. I sat my ass in bed, but I thought on it. I thought really hard.
More, I was terrified to sleep.
TGIF – Thank God It's Friday. What a load of crap. I know Monday gets a deservedly bad rap, but Fridays? Friday is the day that people love even though it didn't earn it. Most of the time it fails hard. Like who hasn't thought about having the weekend free when Friday dumps homework or a project on you? Even the big Fridays, like the ones before a week break, and you suddenly get assigned an essay or work project? Or when other people are going on dates and you're sitting home with your dying gaming console wishing you were out dating Brady Andersen.
When I woke that Friday I was sitting up and scared awake – I couldn't believe I'd fallen asleep sitting up! I was feeling phantom pains in my back from where the bullet had passed through me in my nightmare. I figured it was likely the thing went right through my heart, but that didn't exactly help. Anyway, I was up and I heard my Grandpa T speaking urgently, but keeping his voice down. It carried far enough that I knew something was wrong. Glancing at the clock – 4:30am – I slipped from under my covers and went out to the living room and to their bedroom door, which was through the side of the kitchen.
Their door was open so I poked my head in. The light was on and Gramp F was gasping, holding his stomach.
“They said forty-five minutes, Lee. I told them not to bother – I'll get the car warmed up.”
“What's wrong?” I asked, fully entering the room.
Grandpa T turned to look at me and he sighed. “Lee isn't well. I'm going to take him to the emergency room. Will you help him get some socks on?”
“I don't-” Gasp. “Need help for my damned socks!”
“No problem,” I said. Grandpa F always got ornery when he was sick. I opened a few drawers until I found socks and went to his side while Grandpa T went to find his keys to start the car.
“I can do it,” Gramp said.
“I know,” I replied. “But I've never put socks on someone before. Are you going to move a lot while I try this? It ups the challenge level,” I said flippantly.
“Brat,” he grunted.
I smiled in victory and slid the socks on. He wiggled a little, just to mess with me. Grandpa T came back in the room and pulled off his pajama pants and pulled on jeans. “Ben? In the closet, shelves on the right, grab some sweatpants would you? It's too cold to go out in pajama pants.”
“Not to – ugh – mention, I won't go anywhere in pajama pants. Sweats are pushing it!” Grandpa F said.
“Drama Queen,” Grandpa T said affectionately. “I'll bring your royal robe when you get done at the hospital.”
“Asshole,” Grandpa F replied.
I helped Gramp to his feet and steadied him to the car while Grandpa Turchin pulled the car up to the door.
After they left the enormity of watching Grandpa Fielding sick – seeing him leave – hit me in the heart. What if that was the last time I saw him? What was wrong? Why hadn't I asked more questions?
“Ben? What's going on?” Cait asked, eyes squinting.
“Fielding is sick. Turchin took him to the hospital,” I said quietly.
Her face dropped. “Oh my God. Is he – shit, of course he's not all right.” She took a few calming breaths. “Okay. Well, I'm not getting back to sleep – not that I want to risk getting shot again.”
“Me either,” I said. Cait went to the kitchen and pulled out her double-caffeine Nicaraguan blend and started the coffee pot. If we drank that shit there was no way we'd sleep – for the weekend. I went out to the kitchen island and sat on a stool, exhausted and yet not wanting any part of going to sleep.
“I think school is out the door today,” I said quietly. “I was trying not to go to sleep, but I drifted off anyway,” I said.
She grunted. “I had the lights on, but it didn't make any difference. I was thinking...should we call Mom? Is this some kind of...I mean, do we know where Brian is? Maybe we should call Karl? Wait, Karl's not in my dream – yours?”
“No, no Karl. I'll search up some arrest announcements. See what turns up,” I said as I slipped off the stool and went to retrieve my phone. I noticed the light was blinking on my phone, telling me there was a waiting text. Brady. I thumbed the message open.
Vic told me ¼ is actually larger than ½. Makes sense, right? 4 is bigger than 2.
Your Uncle Vic is everything wrong with modern ignorance.
I pulled up a search engine and typed 'Brian Downing arrest' and let the results load while I retook my seat.
“Brady's Uncle Vic is still a moron, in case you wondered,” I told her.
With a roll of her eyes she asked what he'd told Brady lately and I relayed the latest string of bullshit to pass from Vic's mouth. We had a good few minutes with no nightmares talking about how you could never fix someone like Vic. I found nothing about Brian, so I texted Mom, even though she might not be up for a little bit. Unless she was having nightmares, then maybe she would be. Who knows?
Cait and I sipped our coffee and sat in relative silence as we looked up various things on our phones. Well, that's what I did – I have no idea what she was doing, actually. I put my cup down and glanced at her, catching her in a frown.
She glanced up at me. “I was just thinking...the place we're dreaming about. The apartment or whatever where we get shot. Do you recognize it?”
I thought for a minute. “It seems like it should be familiar, but I don't know why. I've never seen it, that I can think of.”
“Me either,” she said thoughtfully. “If only we saw it from outside. It has to be in town, right?”
I shrugged. “What difference does that make?”
She shook her head. “Maybe none. I don't know. I'm just turning things over in my head.”
A car's tires crunched on the gravel driveway outside and we both stood to see if it was our Grandparents, but it was just her boyfriend's car.
“Crap. I forgot to tell him I wasn't going to go in,” she muttered and wandered out to speak with him. I set my phone down and thought about what Cait had asked about the place where we were dying in our dreams. Struck with a thought, I went into the master bedroom and over to the sort of closet on steroids where Fielding kept his computer. On shelves to one side he had his assortment of little treasures – dust catchers he called them – and below that were photo albums. We had most of our pictures stored digitally, but the baby pictures had been developed.
I pulled them out and took them to the island and laid them out, opening the first one and flipping idly through the images. The first book was Karl front to back, so too early – they tried to keep things in chronological order. Cait in the hospital after being born. Mom holding her. Some little goofy outfit people think babies – who get no say, but honestly have no taste either – look cute in. I should call her boyfriend in to see it. Within the first ten pages of opening the third book I found pictures of me in the hospital. Fuck, I was small even then. I've managed to hit five foot eight, but that's in line with Fielding. Turchin was over six foot, and I actually had his genes.
Speaking of Fielding, there he was sitting in a chair with Cait in his lap and me in the crook of his arm. The look on his face said it all – he loved us from the moment he saw us. Water rushed into my eyes as I thought of him in pain that morning, wondering how he was. I wiped my eyes as the door closed behind me. Cait sat on the stool beside me and looked down at the images.
“Look at him,” she said fondly. “You'd think he'd just given birth.”
Slightly choked up I said, “We were already his, at least in his eyes.”
Sensing, perhaps, that we were on the edge, Cait decided on a course correction. “Where are you at with Brady? Ever going to ask him out? His face is kind of flat.”
“So's your chest,” I snapped.
“I'm rubber, you're glue, eat shit and fuck you,” she said sweetly. We both laughed a little.
I slipped a few more pages and suddenly stopped. “Cait. Look at this.”
“What?” she asked tiredly. “I think I'll take a shower and – holy shit. Where is this?”
The image showed a living room so similar to the one from our shared dream that it was positively chilling. Our mother sat in a chair smoking, and Turchin sat across from her. On the floor I was playing with blocks, while Cait, ribbons in her hair, was standing next to Mom's chair as if waiting for something or getting ready to ask a question. The rest...the couch, the chair, the carpet – it was all as if it had been ripped from our nightmares.
“What...the fuck,” Cait muttered.
“What's going on,” I said to myself. The surrealness was its own kind of stress. I picked up my phone to see if my mom had texted back, but no dice. Given all this funky shit, how likely was it that she was having nightmares, too?
“Christ. Two week's worth of nightmares and now this – whatever it is? What the hell are we supposed to do with this?” Cait demanded.
Something she said stuck in my mind. “Hey. You said two weeks?”
“The nightmares, you've been having them for two weeks?”
I shook my head. “It would be...too weird. Even for this.”
“What?” she insisted.
“It's just...in my dream, you die first. Then Mom, then me. And you started with the nightmares first, then me...what about Mom?”
She picked up her phone and dialed. Moments later she was talking, obviously, with my mother. I wanted to listen, but I was distracted by a knock at the door. I answered the door, surprised to find Brady on my step – and looking God-damned fine. Haircut, this vanilla-creme colored sweatshirt that made him look like prime cuddle material and snug joggers that just defined his lower half.
“Brades? What's up?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I'm here to drive you to school. Why aren't you dressed?”
My jaw dropped and I lifted my hand to the side of my face. “Shit! I forgot all about your car!”
“Well, okay,” he said agreeably. “But still. Andy's mom won't let him ride with me – thinks I'm too young – and if you're not getting in my car, I may get my feelings hurt.”
I sighed. “I'm not going to school today. Grampa F had to be taken to the ER this morning and...I didn't get much sleep. I'm sorry. I should have texted you.”
“All good,” he said and stepped in the house. I backed up to let him in and he closed the door and toed his sneakers off on the mat kept beside the door for that purpose. “Let me call my mom. I'll chill with you until we get some news, okay?”
God I love you, Brady.
“That'd rock. Thanks, Brade.”
“All good,” he said again and called his mom. I went back to the kitchen just as my sister hung up. She put her hand flat to her forehead and let out a slow breath.
“Your theory is right, even if we don't know what it means,” she said.
“The one where this nightmare is waking up people in the order they die in,” she said miserably.
“She's having the same nightmare?” I asked, my voice rising.
“What nightmare?” Brady asked as he joined us.
Cait shook her head. “I'm going to go see if I can find anything out about this...whatever it is. You explain.” With that she headed off to her room.
I turned toward Brady and my mouth opened, but I wasn't sure how to tell him about any of this. This sounded like something his Uncle Vic would make up.
“Wait,” he said with a little smile and raising his hand. “You smell like drama and a headache. And you just smell. Go shower first, at least.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Be a unicorn, not a twatopotamus.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Have I ever been a unicorn?”
If you only knew.
“As if. Okay, showering,” I said. I breezed past him and went to my room to get things to change into once I was clean. I took my time in the shower, making sure I looked decent for Brady – even if he didn't care one way or another. I looked in the mirror and thought of Grampa F. I thought about how Grampa T would be worried for him. I thought about how Brades was staying with me, to be there for me when I was hurting and something in my chest trembled and my eyes watered.
“No,” I whispered and smashed the tears away. “I will not break down. Not right now. I need to figure shit out.”
Exiting the bathroom, I spotted Cait on the couch, cross-legged with her laptop. Her tongue was pushing at the side of her cheek as she does when thinking deeply, so I let her be. Brady was in my room, sitting at my desk and just looking around my room.
“Okay, I'm clean,” I said, more to say something – anything – than for a real reason.
He smiled easily.
Feeling as if every move I made made me look like some low-res gaming character with a bad internet connection, I sat down on my bed and leaned against my headboard. Brady flopped next to me and propped his head up with his hand.
“So. What's up with Gramps?”
I told him about waking up and the quick effort to get them out the door and on their way to the ER, and how we were waiting up to hear.
“What nightmare?” he asked.
Shit. Did I just say I had woken from a nightmare?
He rolled his eyes. “The one you and your sister were talking about?”
Oh. Right. That nightmare.
I fidgeted and Brady moved up a little. I glanced at him and slowly started to reveal the nightmare, what we'd learned so far and not understanding what any of it meant. He listened patiently and let me talk until I ran down.
“So you're telling me you haven't slept all night in a week?”
I paused, thinking it was odd that he'd pulled that nugget out of this mess. “Uh, no. Not all the way through the night.”
He shifted up and put his head on my pillow, then started yanking on my arms and shoulders. I fought him, confused, but eventually he pushed me down the bed and pulled my head onto his chest.
“Brades? What are you doing?”
“You're over-tired. You can't think like that. You rest, I'll stay here with you.”
I was going to protest – and then I yawned. Well. Not the worst place to sleep, not for me. Hesitantly I put an arm across his stomach and snuggled a little closer, and he moved his hand behind me and started rhythmically rubbing my back. God, so soothing. In moments I was asleep.
I woke up in my room, but it wasn't my room. It was that room. The room whose door I had just opened as I was shot in the back. In fact, there I was. Dead. Dead on the floor. My eyes were open, looking at dust bunnies or some shit. It was gross and upsetting, but I took a few breaths and looked around the room. It was tiny – no furniture outside of a single bed. A small closet door stood open and a few floating shelves were on the wall, but that was it. There was no room for a desk or dresser. I carefully stepped around my dead body and went out into the nightmare apartment.
I wasn't surprised to see my mother's and Cait's bodies, but it was still very upsetting. It took me a few minutes to get control of myself and stop shaking. I tried not to look at the bodies. I glanced around and spotted the front door standing open. No sign of Brian, so the coward had probably run instead of putting the gun in his mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to think, wondering why the nightmare had changed. As I did I slowly became aware of a sound – a sound like a small fan running.
I opened my eyes and gingerly made my way past the corpses of my sister and mother and into a small kitchen. On the counter was the weirdest computer I have ever seen. The screen had no border, and the keyboard was all kinds of screwed up – no function keys, no number pad, no arrow keys. On the right side there was a row of keys running up and down – Insert, Delete, Home and End. No enter key, shift or control key on the right where you'd expect them – not even a backspace key!
The cursor was blinking on the screen and I stared at it, wondering what this meant. It was so futuristic on some ways – the screen, for instance. The keyboard, though, looked very retro. There was a badge on the top, a snake eating its own tail and what must be a brand name – Retron – on the top left. There must be something special about this system, because it was beyond me in the nightmare. Why was it here?
I typed on the keyboard and the letters floated on the screen: WHY ARE YOU HERE?
The only key that made any sense at all was the Insert key, so I pushed that.
The words flashed on the screen and I thought for a moment. Context? It didn't understand the question, that much was sure. I thought for a moment. It responded almost like there was an intelligence in the system. I typed again: WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS COMPUTER?
The screen went deep black and a light in the center grew to the symbol I'd seen earlier of the snake eating its own tail. It spun in the center, ever faster as sparks appeared at the edges and then it exploded. Script floated on the screen.
RETRON CHANGES REALITY!
Well what – and I cannot stress this enough – the fuck? What does that even mean? Before I could ask another question the screen filled with letters with no spaces to identify words, then numbers flowed up down and sideways before the cursor appeared again. Then more words.
RETRON INITIALIZED; ALTERATION FOURTEEN YEARS. AFFECTED PARTY ALTERED. CONFLICT. SECONDARY PARTY MUST RESOLVE.
I blinked a few times and stared, trying to make sense of it – any sense at all. Fourteen years? That sounded vaguely important. Who was an affected party? Who was the secondary party? None of this made sense. I typed: DEFINE INITIALIZATION.
The cursor blinked and then the screen darkened before resolving into a grainy video, something like the quality of a mini market security camera. On it I watched a short film about a version of my grandparents I'd never seen before – because it hadn't happened. Grandpa Fielding and Turchin were married – to other people. Grandpa Turchin's wife died, but I knew she was remarried and fine. Grandpa Fielding was married to this rotten gold digger.
The movie was set in the springtime – maybe earlier this very year. I saw myself wearing the orange team jersey as I had this past spring. Then it got weirder – as if seeing lives as if they were spied on wasn't enough. I saw Brian spit on Grandpa F, then later he beat him up. I heard Grandpa F call the cops on him. I saw Brian getting drunk, then high, then going to the apartment – this apartment – and murdering everyone.
But then I saw Grandpa F with a computer – this computer – and reality changed. I could feel these old events like a cut that had scabbed over, but not healed to the point that you forget it happened. Instead it was at the stage of still being itchy, and if you scratched you'd reveal that cut again. My mind raced. Had this version where I'd died been...real? Grandpa Fielding loved us so much that he found a way to change reality?
If that were true – and that was a fucking whopper of a thing to think – what was happening now? I heard something out near the front of the apartment, but I dismissed it as I focused on the screen. So the initializing event for this machine had happened fourteen years ago, when Grandpa F changed reality to give us – and him – a better life. Who would want to change that back? Grandpa T's ex-wife lived instead of dying young. Nothing seemed to be worse off for my mom or uncle out in California. Cait and I were happier than pigs in shit. So who would want to alter this?
I heard the noise again, but recognized it as shambling steps. What the fuck was that? I glanced at the computer. So this thing could change reality? It wanted to have a conflict resolved? I typed: WHAT IS THE CONFLICT?
PARSE REALITY. REALITY A? REALITY B?
Parse? What does that mean? It wants me to choose a reality? Wait. Wait a damn minute. If I parse data that means I figure out what's there – like organizing it. So if there was an original reality like the A the computer is referring to, and then Grandpa F comes along and creates reality B and then someone comes along and...I don't know, fucks up the undo feature then both of the realities are trying to merge. That means I'm living – for now – in B, but dying repeatedly in A.
But if I go back to B, my Grandpa dies. Or he's majorly sick. He's in the hospital. Do I dare risk that?
I heard the steps again, and now a groan. “Should have...fixed things.” A chill ran up my neck. That voice sounded familiar, a voice I should be afraid of, and yet one I didn't know. That could only mean one person.
My father had somehow stumbled on a way to try and reverse the reality we'd been living in, but why? Had he thought things were so bad for himself that he had to try and swap things back? Did he remember them like I was? Was he reliving murdering his kids and the mother of his children? Was he also having nightmares, or was he here now, stuck in the nightmare with me?
I looked at the screen and tried to think. A means I'm dead. B means Grandpa F is sick. I closed my eyes and thought to myself, trying to calm down. I know what Grandpa would say – he always wanted the best for us no matter what. But I couldn't do that to him. I know he'd be heartbroken if Cait and I were gone, but at least he'd be alive. Other kids would benefit from him with the ball field. Maybe he'd even have a chance for other kids like me and Cait, kids who'd appreciate him for who he is. Yeah, that made the most sense.
I opened my eyes, sad and resigned, but feeling as if I were making the right choice. I looked over at the wall above the tiny dinette and saw family photos. There was one hanging there that was also on the wall in my reality – the reality where I was alive. Cait was upset because she'd gotten an award and the person had spelled her name with a K – Kate. The grandparents had swung into action and done something about it – I can't remember, I was little, but they were proud of her for getting the award so they kept the picture. It's C not K, Cait would tell people.
Hey, wait. Wait a damn minute. If there is an A and a B, could there be a C?
“You,” that scary, tired voice said. I looked up, startled to see Brian in the doorway. He was flickering like they do in scary movies – a bad projection. Except the gun looked pretty real. “Is this hell? Why do I keep living this? Why am I here now?”
I don't know who Brian was in his past life – maybe he didn't have what we got with my grandparents. Maybe he got down on his luck and somehow got one of these machines and fucked everything up.
“I'll fix it,” I said to him as he flickered.
“Please,” he said softly. “I can't take it anymore. I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
I looked down at the screen and began to type: FORMAT REALITY C.
The cursor blinked for about ten seconds.
REALITY C READY.
I typed: INSERT REALITY B. I hit the Insert key.
I typed: REALITY C. GRANDPARENTS HEALTHY. I hit the Insert key.
REALITY C UPDATED.
I typed: DELETE REALITY A. I hit Insert but nothing happened. Looking around I heard Brian again.
“What are you doing? I don't feel right. Stop. Stop!” he lifted the gun. In a panic I hit the Execute key, and the command disappeared. I looked up and Brian was gone. My breath was coming hard. What if he'd shot me here? Would I have been dead? Either way, Brian could probably make this situation happen again so I typed a new entry: REALITY C; BRIAN DOWNING RECEIVED HELP HE NEEDED.
I figured open ended was best. I hit Insert, satisfied I'd done what I could – if this meant anything at all. The walls around me were starting to fade. I looked down at the screen and had a last minute thought.
I typed: REALITY C. BRADY ANDERSON LOVES BENNETT TURCHIN. I hit the Insert key.
ERROR: DUPLICATE FILE FOUND
I reached for the keyboard in a panic, but it had become insubstantial. The walls faded to gray and my fingers couldn't feel the keyboard. I looked around in a panic and then everything went black.
“Bennett? Bennett what's going on?”
I stirred slowly from a deep sleep. I stretched, pushing myself against the warm body beside me. I opened my eyes to see Brady blinking owlishly as he had fallen asleep, and I was on top of him. Man, wish I could have stayed awake instead.
I rolled over to see my Grandpa F in the doorway.
“Gramp?” I sat up, a feeling of dread stealing across my spine and making me shiver. “Are you okay?”
He frowned lightly. “Of course I'm okay.” His expression shifted to something thoughtful. “Although, I kind of have the feeling like I wasn't okay not that long ago. It's a strange feeling. Something...I feel like I felt it before.”
“Are you okay now?” I asked, sliding from the bed and walking to him as he stood in my doorway.
“Me? Yes, I think I'm fine. I'm wondering how come you two juvenile delinquents are sleeping the day away.” He raised an eyebrow.
“Haven't been sleeping well,” I replied. “Bad dreams.” I frowned. “I think. I can't...I feel confused.”
“You're not the only one,” he said with a sigh. “Must be the weather. Cait is asleep on the love seat – legs crossed, working on her laptop. How she can sleep like that is beyond me. Sitting that way would give me cramps, let alone sleeping!”
“You were having bad dreams?”
“I was. I feel like I was.” He paused and shook himself. “Well. I'm going to get some things for dinner.” He looked past me. “Brady, shall we expect you for dinner?”
He smiled. “Yes, please. I'll just check with my mom.”
“I'll call her.” He paused in the doorway. “Oh. Will you be staying over? I may as well get more breakfast things, too.”
“Definitely,” Brady said with a grin.
“Settled that, then,” he said with a sharp nod and headed off. I let the door drift closed and walked back to the bed.
“I didn't even ask you to sleep over.”
“Bold,” I said with a laugh. “When did you get pushy?”
“When did you get dense?”
“I'm not dense!”
“The fuck you're not!” he said with a laugh.
I flipped him off. Both fingers.
“Get over here,” he growled, yanking me down and pinning me. I fought him like a tiger, of course. I mean, a tired one. Okay, didn't fight that hard. Just enough to make it look good. He looked down at me and said, “I think I'm going to date you.”
Every part of my body froze for a split second, like when someone jams on the brakes in a car really hard for just a second – like in panic.
“Is that a fact?” I asked, trying not to sound interested. “Seems kind of bold.”
“I'm feeling bold.”
“What makes you think I'd date you?”
“Because you'll date your crush six days a week and twice on Sundays.”
“My crush?” What the hell?
“Bennett.” He looked down steadily. “Are you seriously going to lie to me and say I'm not your crush?”
Damn it. I can't lie. How can I squirm around this though?
“Look. I'm done waiting for you to get around to saying something, okay? I've given you plenty of time to make a move and I'm out of patience. Even though the Uncle Vic stuff was, I admit, funny as hell – I'm done with the circling each other.”
I paused. “Really?”
He leaned forward and kissed me, nothing crazy, but still – it was an honest kiss, not some peck. He leaned back and looked down at me again.
“Holy shit,” I said in a tiny voice. I pulled him down, and to my absolute delight he didn't resist a little. No joke we had a nice little make out. I'd deal with school Monday, the people who were sure I was gay already – fuck them. I had Brady.
We had dinner with my grandparents, and later we cuddled and watched a scary movie in my room. Cuddling Brady is so awesome. We were both yawning kind of early and I shut the light off, snuggling in and in heaven over the feel of him pressed to me.
“You're the perfect size,” he said softly. “I'm glad you didn't get your Grandpa Turchin's height. I can tuck you right next to me.”
Huh. Maybe being five eight isn't the end of the world. “I just can't believe we're dating. I'm so...happy. Ugh, I shouldn't have said that. Too sappy, right?”
“Nah. I'm pretty pleased myself. I mean, and finally. You move too slow.”
I blew a raspberry. I had my head on his chest with my hand on his stomach, one leg thrown over his and soaking in his warmth and scent when a stray thought sparked across my conscious mind like a shooting star.
“Hey. When you said earlier...something about the 'Uncle Vic' stuff being funny...what did you mean?”
“See? You're a dumb dumb,” he said, and I could sense his grin.
“One second,” I said, resisting. “Explain.”
He sighed and let out a little laugh. “Well, you were taking so long I just wanted to keep you talking, and you love an argument. So...every day I'd search up stupid things people believe, and then I'd go tell you my Uncle Vic told me whatever it was, and you'd argue with me.”
I sat up. I looked down where his head should be in the dark. “You mean...there is no Uncle Vic? You were trolling me the whole time?”
His giggles said it all. We pushed and shoved a little; I'd poke him and make demanding statements, and he'd just giggle helplessly. Eventually we got the cuddle back on and then started making out. I thought, as I kissed him, I'd been waiting so long – and for what? Because of what other people might think? Brady had always loved me – and I'd loved him. I wasn't going to wait for anything else.
“Yeah?” he asked, panting.
“You know how people say stuff like 'three dates before you get past first base' or something?”
“Yeah, heard stuff like that.”
I leaned down and whispered in his ear. “Your boyfriend's not like that.”
And then I proved it.