In the beginning, God . . . nope. Newton said, ouch? Come on, Einstein said, I’ve got all these relatives and they’re driving me nuts. The beginning, I hear that’s usually the best place to start.
My beginning was the first day of college. Maybe it was the first week, because I definitely remember having already stolen a desk from an empty room to use as an entertainment center in our cramped, two-seater, dorm room. College happened so long ago the first week kind of blurs together with the rest of those crazy years. At the time every year seemed like it would never end, but now those four years are smashed into a few prominent memories and the rest fades into a distant mélange of the senses.
I’ll pick it apart for you. School started a few weeks early for me on account of soccer, or fútbol for you world travelers, and as a result I got into my room on an empty floor before any of the other students. The first couple days were spent getting my stuff unpacked between endless training sessions in the suffocating August heat. When I finally got tired, on the second or third day, of having the entire dorm floor to myself, I called my new room-mate. That call went out between the morning and noon sessions and I was helping him move in by dinner time.
Chet, short for Chester, followed by the last name Winchester. Talk about upper class irony. If only his father had been Chester as well, instead of Reginald, then he could have been Chester Winchesterson. Well, you have to say the full name with that aristocratic, snotty air of ‘offend me and I shall procure the land of your entire family and turn each meager parcel into a parking lot’ sort of way. You have to say it with the exact intonation his mother used every time she opened her mouth. Catch the way she ordered the chauffeur around as he lugged Chet’s matching, monogrammed, leather suitcases up the three flights of stairs to our room and you might just have it. I have to admit, it was pretty amazing how that guy took her berating, the awkward luggage, and the summer heat without breaking a sweat. He’s my hero and she, well she got under my skin real fast.
The wealthy are a mystery to me. Not that I’m poor or anything, but there’s a big difference between not poor and wealthy. My family and I have always gotten by pretty well, all said and told.
Fortunately, Chet’s not much like the rest of his family. For some reason I had assumed he would have that pinky flipped, tea sipping, aristocracy oozing from his pores, but aside from having a sweet flatscreen he dropped his ‘mummy-dear’ act as soon as she’d left the building. Once the pair of us got past that initial awkwardness we found that we fit pretty well together. Come to think of it, we were a perfect fit.
In retrospect, that is probably why we roomed together all four years of school and remained business partners beyond.
Well, that was the beginning, the set-up to the real story, which began a week or so after the start of classes. It happened fast. Not the moving in or the getting up to the story, although that did happen pretty quickly as well. I mean the story itself, real fast. No flash, or boom to usher in a new chapter to life, just us lounging on our dumpster-dive couch, intently focused on killing a horde of screaming, slavering monsters in a lovely shade of bilish green, and poof, there they were.
“What the heck are those?” Chet yelled over the death screams and explosions flowing from the game.
“What are what?” I asked, leaning towards him, but refusing to drag my eyes away from the screen for an instant.
Although for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what game we were pouring ourselves into, I can assure you that we were poised at one of those delicate gaming moments where my finger’s reflexes could ill afford any distraction. Chet would be able to tell you, but he’s wired that way. He could tell you what I was wearing, what the weather had been like that day and he could tell you what I ordered from which all night Chinese hole in the wall. In all likelihood he could tell you how long it had been since I had taken a shower and how many times I had worn my pair of shorts since the last washing. The only thing I can remember is that we had had Rancid’s. . . And Out Come the Wolves blaring on the stereo system we had cobbled together from an odd assortment of high-end parts pilfered from several friends, a car, and a few not so friendly locations. I wonder how loud that had to be for us to hear over the amped up game?
“What are those,” he yelled a little louder, pointing with his chin towards the coffee table while keeping his eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t know, pizza?”
In my defense there was a pizza, or what was left of it, lying on the table beside some fresh Chinese take-out, but that wasn’t what he was referring to. Beside my feet lay a pair of what looked to be the clickers from claymore mines. I’d say vintage 1963. I should definitely mention that Chet and I share an almost obsessional fascination with any military history, especially the Vietnam War. We’ll take the info in any medium that we can get it, but our preference lies in the cinematic format. Pretty soon after this point we would both declare History as our major.
Well, there they were, a pair of army regulation remote detonators. Drab green rectangles with a heavy-duty black trigger mounted on the front. The whole device would fit in the palm of your hand and almost looked to be a military version of those Grip-Master hand exercisers we all used to mess with as kids. The pair, instead of being in a movie, was sitting on our coffee table atop a heavy piece of stationery.
I dragged my eyes ever so briefly away from the game and shot Chet an eyebrow raised look and a shrug.
“You’re an idiot,” he snapped, hunkering down in the doorway of an abandoned building as he did so. Chet reached over me, jamming me down into the side cushions in the process and when he returned to his spot he had the piece of stationery in one hand and an eggroll in the other.
“It’s from you,” he said around the half eggroll he had stuffed into his mouth as he scanned through the note.
“No way,” I replied with a quizzical look in my eye. “Will you get back in it already?”
“You are Michael T. Havisham, right?”
“I’ve never used the T in my life,” I laughed, curiosity led me to go prone in some tall grass near Chet’s buxom avatar. “But I was born with it, so yeah, it’s my name.”
“Then this is you,” Chet stated with indifference. His focus was drifting back to the eggroll.
“It’s my name, but I’ve never seen that note before in my life. . .”
“Then it’s settled. It’s from you, Jubei,” he said with that infuriating conversationally concluding smile. Then he shoved the other half of the eggroll in his mouth and began to munch.
Okay, for those without a degree in gaming, Jubei was a character in a game I played around the beginning of college, and strangely Chet had taken to calling me by that name. I remember the name being pronounced Joobay, and Chet always seemed to add a little emphasis on the -ay part of the name.
“Here Jubei,” he said in a food muffled voice, tossing the note in my lap. “If you don’t believe me take a look. Handwriting look a bit familiar?”
The note was from me.
For a few moments I sat studying the script, puzzling over whether the handwriting really matched my own. I was deluding myself. It was a perfect match and I knew it the moment the note settled in my lap. What made it most aggravating was that Chet knew faster than I had myself. Still I could not understand why I would sign my name with a T, and when I had ever written the note. Then I took the time to actually read the note.
We figured you might be able to have some fun with these. They are obsolete now, but maybe you could use them to jumpstart a thought or two in your own thick skulls. Be careful with them. Do not use them wrong or let them out of your sight. That would be catastrophic to us all.
Michael T. Havisham/Chester Winchester
“Hey, you signed this too,” I exclaimed, suddenly offended that he’d decided to leave out that part of the discovery.
“No, I most certainly did not,” Chet said flatly. “That clearly says C-squiggle Win-squiggle. I claim no legal responsibility for whomever this Mr. or Ms. Win-squiggle may happen to be. Maybe you have a friend named Carl Winthrop or Carol Windell with whom you have been in collusion with.”
He had slipped into his mother’s aristocratic tone. I simmered.
“Did you read it?”
“I clearly did not have to,” Chet replied flippantly. “Your name is first, therefore you are the addressor and as I am not a ‘Boy-O’ cannot possibly be the addressee.”
Blowing a puff of air out my nose as my mouth thinned to a line, I decided all I could do was ignore Chet’s airs. He charged back into the game and for a while all I could do was stare at the screen as my heavily armored avatar was hacked into a bloody smear on the screen by a charging horde of enemies that Chet led right to my hidden position.
I didn’t care.
My mind was miles, if not years away. At the time I remember thinking I should be mad at Chet, but I think I was too startled by the random appearance of a note from myself to stay mad. My curiosity was peaked. There was a mysterious crisis at hand. The first clue sat in my lap. I had to understand where the note had come from and both how and why it had appeared now. Thinking hard I couldn’t even figure out when it had arrived. Had it come in with yesterday’s pizza, like one of those coupon flyers that are always stuck to the outside of the box? No, the coupons were there, ripped up when I unsuccessfully tried to peel them off in one piece. The signature was mine, albeit with my middle initial. The other was unmistakably Chet’s, whether he would admit it or not.
So the question was not who had written it, but when we had written the note?
At the time there was really no way we could know or understand when the note had been jotted on that fine piece of vellum or how it had come to be sitting at my feet like a mysterious Christmas present. Looking back I have to laugh. I wouldn’t have a clue what vellum was for another decade or so. All I could assess at that time was the note and the pair of army green clickers that had sat atop the paper like non-functional, antique paper weights.
Remember when Chet had shoved me into the couch, well when he had snagged his eggroll he had dumped those clickers onto the floor. I looked his way, but he was immersed in some digital world, so I picked one up and began to examine it closely.
“I think this is plastic,” I said to Mr. Nobody.
It was some sort of plastic, but without any of the usual flex you can get out of most man-made objects. I looked at it from every angle. Tapping it against the table I decided it was a hollow olive drab chunk of plastic. No wires connected it to anything else. Heck, there weren’t even the usual entry points for wires to be attached. It was light, like one of those empty fast-food salt shaker levels of light, and the whole block easily fit in the palm of my hand.
Out of curiosity I pushed the button. It clicked.
I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I can say with certainty that whatever I had been envisioning didn’t happen. Nothing happened. Nothing, unless you consider Chet snorting at the occurrence. To this day I couldn’t tell if he snorted at me or at the game, but at the time it sure felt like it was directed at me, and to tell the truth I’m not sure I’ve ever thought to care about it until right now. Nope, I still don’t care, because the next thing I did blew any former thoughts right out of the water.
That next thing I did was what they always do in the war movies. In hindsight I probably should have tried that first. I have seen my fair share of those war movies I just mentioned, but who could fault me with the most anti-climactic moment of my short life. Thing were about to go full climactic. So I gave a nice solid double click on my new toy.
Click-click. No boom. The air in front of me seemed to shimmer a bit, but I chalked that up to it being three in the morning and my eyes were more than a little fried from a night of computer screens and video games.
I don’t really have any idea what I expected. Surely it couldn’t have been a real explosion, although I was a college student and probably would have found anything loud and bright beyond awesome. Explosions would have been ludicrous, but beyond that I don’t have any idea what I could have been waiting for. Whatever happened to cross my mind as I clicked was as far as possible from what actually occurred.
With a hesitancy born of uncertainty I glanced over at Chet to ask him what he thought the clickers might be for, but he was so lost in the game he seemed frozen. Not until I stood up did I realize the air really was shimmering and my eyes weren’t just messing with my mind.
On top of that it took me standing up to realize everything had gone silent. It’s funny how you can fail to notice the sudden muting of the world when you’re intently focused on the task at hand. I think it’s like always having music on when I’m working on a paper. When I’m in that zone I could what’s happening in the world around me. Half the time I don’t even know what I’m listening to. It all just fades.
I’m not really sure when sound stopped, but I’m assuming it coordinated with the double click I’d laid on the clicker’s trigger. The silence encompassed not just the music, but also the game, and Chet, and the whole world. The more I listened, the quieter it got. It slowly dawned on my why I thought he’d been so absorbed in the game.
I glanced around, not really sure why the world should be frozen. Then I took a step forward. The shimmering air seemed to press out in front of me. It was like I was moving around in some sort of elongated bubble. I laughed. It felt almost like I was a cartoon character and some lightning rod on a sky-scraper was going to pop the bubble. I reached out to try and touch the bubble, but it always managed to keep just out of my reach.
Without another moment of hesitation I hopped over the coffee table and walked the ten or so feet to the doorway of our dorm room. Not a sound came from any of the other rooms on our floor. Looking behind me I found a tunnel of shimmering air that stretched back to where I’d been sitting moments before.
Even if I tried, I don’t know if I could ever fully explain the sensation that rolled through my body as I walked across the room. Where in nature does time freeze? Where does all sound cease, all motion fall motionless? When in the long annals of history has a person been able to describe this? I felt like Neil Armstrong, Erik the Red, or Chris Columbus; conquering the unknown. Maybe someone in a sensory deprivation chamber could make an attempt at the silence aspect, but on everything else they would fall sadly short. It would be like comparing a solitary candle on a pitch dark night to the radiant glory of the sun on a cloudless summer afternoon. Maybe someone who’s life flashes before their eyes? I don’t know. I’ve never been that close to death. That infinite split second could be like this, but only a little.
This was different. My life wasn’t in jeopardy. I was standing safely in the doorway to my room. At least I thought I was safe. It was as if I had double-clicked and then stepped through an invisible doorway. My question was: where had that doorway led me? I could move. Apparently Chet couldn’t. He sat there frozen on the couch, a day old piece of pizza dangling unceremoniously from his mouth as he stared with unseeing eyes at the game on the flatscreen.
I may be crazy, but I will swear to this day that as I took a step forward, I could see the streams of light particles lazily wafting out into the room from the screen. Because of the shimmer’s distortion I could never be certain, but it really did look that way.
A step at a time I moved forward. Curiosity trumped caution. Throughout the slow advance I continued to look at the world around me. For the first time I felt like a bird, maybe an owl, trying to take in as many angles as possible by swiveling my head from side to side. Every angle looked exactly like it would normally. It was the same, except for things that normally moved was frozen. Then something hit me. Every step I took met with slightly more resistance than the one before. It was almost like one of those games at the fair where you put a harness on that’s strapped to a bungee cord and try to grab a flag at the far end of the field. If I’d been moving at a regular pace I don’t know that I would have noticed so soon, but I was nervous and moving one slow step at a time. Was I gradually walking into some sort of gravitational pool? That’s kind of what it felt like, or just any old pool. That feeling of moving into deeper water where you have more and more trouble keeping your feet grounded on the slippery floor, that was me. I pushed forward and someone or something was pushing me back.
I reached the door and looked back. Chet hadn’t moved. He hadn’t even dropped a crumb from that piece of pizza locked between his teeth.
Panic. It would have been nice if I could have controlled that fear, but I don’t think it would have been panic if I’d been able to. That fear leapt into my throat. Brain induced, gut-shot style fear left me soundlessly screaming for air. I could say fear blinded me, but the truth is I had no way of knowing the outcome of using the clickers. How could I fear the unknown?
Afraid of what I was getting myself into I double clicked again. Well, I sure as aces wasn’t ready that time either.
Time snapped back like a rubber-band. I swore as I was launched through the doorway to land in an unceremonious heap across the hall, against our neighbor’s door. With no serious injuries, I felt like a world-class, cross-hall tumbler. I might have injured Paul’s sleep some, though. He ripped open the door after a few stumbling moments and I could tell from the look in his eye that he really wanted to inflict some bodily harm. Good thing I’m so charming.
“Sorry Paul,” I said from my unnaturally inverted repose. I flashed my most innocent, lop-sided smile. “Chet can be kind of a jerk when he gets killed.
Paul didn’t say a thing. Maybe the smile had won him over. I doubt it though. He drove home his apparent dislike with a slam of his door that rattled my teeth.
I laid there in the hallway, trying to wrap my mind around what had just happened. I clicked, I walked, I clicked, and then I found myself thrown fairly violently into my neighbor’s door. What’s to wonder about, right? It’s all common sense. Tapping my teeth together I continued to think. Nothing there, so I lifted my head and looked over at Chet. He sat there on the couch with an unprecedented look of idiotic shock on his face. Somehow through my laughter I managed to sit up and lean against my own doorframe. The pizza fell from his gaping mouth. He died, but without the usual flair of choice words he put the controller on the table. His head snapped almost violently from where I had been sitting next to him and then over to where I currently sat and then back to my now vacant seat. He repeated the process like a shampoo bottle.
“How the. . .” he managed to sputter, but all I could do was shake my head.