I don’t know what I am. Maybe I’m a God. If so, I’m the worst excuse for a God that’s ever been. The only thing I can be sure of is that I’m not normal.
The first time it happened, I had just woken up from a nightmare. Something malevolent had been chasing me through a twisted corkscrew of a hallway. I lost my balance and fell. As I rolled onto my back, I caught a glimpse of something jagged descending toward my face.
I woke with a shout, my heart-racing, arms and legs tensed. I lay dazed, barely able to breathe, trying to remember my own name. Rain pattered against the window just above me, while gusts moaned to one another in the dark.
Lightning struck with a sudden flash of light and a loud crack. My mind clenched and a stab of pain pierced my skull. Something inside me lurched.
One moment I was in bed, an after-image swirling across my vision, and the next I was somewhere else.
I stood on a hill, overlooking a city. A giant mushroom cloud dominated my field of view. White hot at the base. Yellow as it extended up. Red as it billowed outward. Dark gray at the rounded top. Each color shot through with streaks of black. It was beautiful and horrific at the same time. Larger than I could have imagined.
Two more, smaller but no less ominous, perched on the horizon.
I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I tried to turn away, but I was frozen in place.
Nothing moved. Nothing at all.
Ahead of me, an older couple clutched one another. A woman in a bright pink coat cradled a dog, crouched on a nearby sidewalk. Two guys, roughly my age, one wearing an Orioles baseball cap, froze halfway out of their rusted Ford Mustang.
Terrified and awestruck, I stared at a picture of nuclear Armageddon, and felt very small.
Not a single sound intruded on the hellscape. Not one car horn, not a single voice, not even the wind. Just empty, eternal silence.
This isn’t real. It’s another nightmare.
But it wasn’t, and in a flash I knew why. I wasn’t Bobby MacDonald, senior at Robert Murrow High School, candidate for class valedictorian.
No. I was Benjamin Joseph Shelton, senior foreign relations adviser to the President of the United States. B.J. to my friends. Benji to my wife, Melissa.
I was both at the same time. I knew everything about Bobby MacDonald. Every last detail of my nerdy little life. I remember asking Jenny Byars to go to prom with me. I remember getting Eric, Jason and Glenn to come over on a Friday night to watch the premier of Battlestar Galactica. I remember cursing at my mom and the resulting slap across my face. I remember my dad breaking down in tears when my granddad died of a stroke.
Those memories were me. Bobby MacDonald.
But I also remember catching a quick out from Skip Morris at the goal-line just as time expired. I remember my Bar Mitzvah. I remember asking Melissa to marry me at my parent’s lake house, and the joy of holding my newborn baby girl for the first time. I remember bringing my dog, Buster, to the vet to be put down. I remember the giddy, surreal feeling of meeting President O’Neil for the first time.
And because I was Benji, I knew the city was Washington D.C., and I knew why, most likely, there were mushroom clouds blooming all over the United States.
Eleven days ago, from Benji’s perspective, one of our Dart-class surveillance subs, the USS Lansing, disappeared. Intelligence reports placed her in the East China Sea and the top brass were ninety percent certain the Chinese had captured her. I attended one high-level meeting after another. The Pentagon had to bump my security clearance for a meeting with the President and Joint Chiefs. If I hadn’t been so terrified, it would have been a thrill.
The White House got me a hotel room ten minutes away, and a town car to chauffeur me. I hadn’t seen Melissa or the kids since the whole thing began, though I talked to them on the phone each night.
The whole situation spelled disaster. The Chinese postured, we blustered. It spiraled out of control. The UN stepped in. President O’Neil took us to DEFCON 1 earlier today, Tuesday, September 21, 2027.
Queasiness overtook me. It wasn’t 2027. It was Monday, January 21, 2013. Barack Obama had begun his second term, the East Coast continued their recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and a sick horror clenched my stomach at the thought of Sandy Hook.
I stared at the freeze frame in front of me. Nuclear devastation. An event that Bobby MacDonald could barely grasp, but one Benji Shelton could.
This isn’t an XBox game or a movie. It’s real. All too real.
I desperately wanted to cry, but couldn’t. A wild panic grew in my chest, flooding me with an insane desire to scream, long and loud.
Pain shot through my skull again.
When I opened my eyes and saw the dim outlines of the ceiling in my room, a burst of relief overcame my fear. My room, not Benji’s. I twitched a finger, wriggled my toes and raised a knee. I let out a shuddering laugh before dissolving into helpless tears.
At some point, emotionally exhausted, I blacked out and slept.
My clock’s alarm went off. Annoyed, I slapped at the snooze button. Sweet silence. My last thought, before drifting back into the warm depths of slumber was Melissa won’t let me oversleep.
“Bobby, get up!”
Bright light blasted me in the face. I grunted and rolled over.
“I don’t have time to drive you to school, mister.” My mother tore away the comforter. A wash of cold air flowed over me. “You need to be out the door, at the bus stop in twenty-five minutes.”
Groggy, I propped myself up on an elbow, and rubbed the blurriness from my eyes. “Are the kids up?”
“Are the … what?” Her question started out perplexed and ended annoyed.
“Sorry. Just waking up.” My head hurt, my eyes stung, and my mouth was dry. “Mom, I really don’t feel well.”
And I didn’t. I was not the type to pretend to be sick. I actually liked school. Last March, I dragged myself to class with a fever, against my mother’s objections so I could attend a yearbook meeting after third period.
My mother’s frown evaporated. She laid a cool, smooth palm over my forehead, and sighed. “You feel hot. Damn it, Bobby, I cannot get sick. I have a ton of client meetings this week.”
Client meetings. What a joke. Try looking into the pissed off face of a four star general. I swear to God, my testicles tried to crawl back inside my body.
I froze, unable to breathe. It all came back, rolling over me like one of those giant waves you see in surfer movies. My throat constricted as vomit threatened. I bolted out of bed and heaved over my trashcan.
Numb, I stumbled to the hall bathroom and rinsed out my mouth. The taste of bile lingered. My mom was waiting for me when I returned.
“Okay, you. Back in bed,” she said, her tone softened considerably.
My mother—no, Benji’s mother—passed away two years ago. Benji spoke the eulogy at her funeral.
Sadness, deep and dark, engulfed me. I let out a despondent whimper and hugged my mom for all I was worth. Tears leaked down my cheeks.
I knew I was Bobby MacDonald and I was hugging my mom. Yet at the same time I also knew I was Benji Shelton, and my mother died of an inoperable brain tumor.
Somehow my mind held both concepts, as incompatible as they were, and refused to let them merge. They crashed into one another, neither yielding. I had gone crazy. It was more awful than I ever imagined.
“It’s okay, sweetie.” My mom guided me to bed, laid me down, and produced a Kleenex. I drew a shuddering breath as she pulled the comforter up to my chin. “I’m going to get you some Tylenol and some honey tea. Just stay in bed.” A kiss to my forehead punctuated her statement.
She took care of me until nine, and then hurried out to her first appointment.
I laid in bed, listless, staring out at the cloudy sky and let shame blanket my mind. I had somehow developed multiple personality disorder. I thought people created different personas in their head to shield themselves from traumatic events. That’s what I had read, anyway, but I lived a pretty simple suburban life. Nothing horrible had ever happened to me.
A fully fleshed out person resided in my head, complete with childhood memories, embarrassing moments, victories, defeats and a fairly thorough understanding of sex. I had been a virgin before last night. My mind roved over memories of being with Melissa, as would any other teen-aged boy in my situation, but guilt intruded. It felt wrong to be aroused by Benji’s wife.
By midday I came to a decision. I wanted to know if Benji was real, but an insidious thought undermined me. What if other people with multiple personalities did the same thing? They’d want to know too, wouldn’t they? And when they couldn’t find any evidence of their invisible friends, they’d invent reasons why. Would I do the same thing? Was I that far gone?
I grabbed my iPad and scurried back to bed. Benji made a Facebook page, of course. I remember him doing it back when he was in high school. Mostly he just used it to play games. B.J. Shelton stared back at me from the glossy screen. Wavy chocolate hair, parted to the left. Long lashes over green eyes. Cleft chin. Awkward, off-kilter smile. Dark blue t-shirt.
My hands shook. I remember taking that photo of myself. It was, maybe, the twenty-third or twenty-fourth try, with that awful Nokia smart phone. The one I hurled into a ditch when Jessica broke up with me via text message. Really, it was the phone’s fault. It stung for a week, losing the phone, but I got over it.
No, that isn’t me. That’s Benji.
In 2013, Benji was a second year poli-sci undergrad at Stanford. He lived in a house apartment off-campus in Palo Alto and alternated between studying hard and playing hard. Benji didn’t do anything half-assed. During his freshman year he’d met Melissa at a friend’s party. They’d both been stoned, but their mutual attraction had been instantaneous. She broke it off in December of 2012, and in a fit of pain, Benji began a rebound romance with Jessica. Benji would eventually find his way back to Melissa, but not yet.
Realizing that Benji had unknowingly met his future wife, and mother of his children, sparked the idea that allowed me to verify my experience. Benji loved his Niners, but the one blemish on their Super Bowl history came in 2013 when they lost 34-31 to the Ravens.
The Super Bowl that would be played in two weeks.
All I had to do was wait and watch. If the big game played out the way Benji remembered, it’d prove I wasn’t crazy. But if I wasn’t crazy then nuclear Armageddon would occur in fourteen years. Which was worse? My personal world falling into disjointed fantasy or the outside world flaring into mushroom clouds? At the time, I didn’t know the answer.
During the next two weeks Benji took root in my mind and, like a cancer, spread.
I forgot about an important math test and flunked it, misremembered my chemistry teacher’s name to the delight of the entire class, and found myself wandering the halls when I forgot the location of my locker. I had to get the janitor to open it for me because the combination had evaporated as well.
Not everything was bad, however.
I took my driver’s test again, having failed it twice before. This time, I drove like a man who had been behind the wheel for almost twenty years. Parallel parking, which had been my nemesis, turned out to be a snap. One doesn’t work in the nation’s capitol for long without learning how to parallel park.
Girls were the strangest part. They no longer terrified me. However, Benji gave me the distinct feeling that it was creepy to lust after them. My teen-aged libido battled the sensibilities of a thirty year old man to a draw. It seemed particularly unfair to have gained the knowledge and confidence that I wanted so badly, only to find myself uneasy when it came to using them.
“The lights are going to go out,” I said. The words sprang out of my mouth before I could consider them.
“Huh?” Eric mumbled through a mouthful of Cheetos.
“The Super Dome is going to lose power. Half the stadium for thirty minutes.” It had been the first and last time such an event occurred. Benji remembered it well because afterwards the game’s momentum shifted to the Niners.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Jason asked. He hadn’t put down his damned phone the entire game. Texting with his girlfriend. I wanted to shove the phone where the sun didn’t shine.
“Just watch.” I sighed as Jason’s phone beeped again.
On TV, the lights went out, the announcers silenced. My heart sank.
Panic rose in my chest. I’m not crazy. Suddenly, I wished I was. I’d have given anything to be crazy. Nuclear disaster was too much. What could I possibly do with the knowledge I had? I was a high school kid, for God’s sake.
“Holy crap.” Eric stared at me, brown eyes wide. “How’d you know that?”
I got up and grabbed my jacket. “I gotta get home.”
Jason stood and gestured toward the TV. “Not until you tell us how you knew that.”
“34 to 31, Ravens.” I headed for the front door, scowling. I hated the world and everything in it.
It took a last minute safety to prove me right, but I didn’t stick around to watch. I knew it would happen.
I ran home like a coward, ignored my parents, and bolted for my room. I locked the door, kicked off my sneakers, crawled under the blankets, and let loose the tears. Someone, probably my mom, knocked on the door, but I ignored her.
It would have been so much easier just to tell my parents everything, but they wouldn’t believe me. They’d drag me to a psychologist and, under pressure, I’d have been forced to say I made it all up. I didn’t remember any more public events that could prove my sanity until 2015 or so. I knew Benji’s life like I knew my own, but that didn’t help.
“Leave me alone!” I shouted and buried my head under a damp pillow.
Benji. I’d have to go see him, tell him about the future, let him alter it. With my knowledge of his life he’d have no choice but to believe me. Once I did that, my role in all of it would be over. I could go back to a normal life. Benji wouldn’t accept my nightmare as his fate. I knew that for certain. When push came to shove he never failed to shove back.
Stanford was a two hour drive away, and I didn’t have a car of my own. I realized I’d have to steal mom’s keys. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It wouldn’t go well for me when I returned, but I was willing to accept whatever punishment they doled out. Annie, my sister, would be thrilled. With me in the doghouse, she’d have free reign.
Good for her. I had a world to save.
I chose a sunny Wednesday in April, knowing my mom intended to be out in the garden all morning. The bus belched its way to school, but I never went in. I jogged back to the house, heart thundering in my chest. The note in my pocket burned to the touch. It read:
Sorry Mom. I needed the car. I’ll be back for dinner. I have my cell phone with me, but won’t be answering it. If there’s an emergency, I’ll call. Don’t worry, everything’s fine. I can’t tell you what I’m doing, but I have to do it. It’s nothing illegal. Please don’t be mad.
Please don’t be mad. Right. By the time I got home, she’d be foaming at the mouth. But that’s what heroes do, right? They sacrifice for the greater good. Except I could never tell my parents. No one but Benji would know the greater good.
Cover stories flooded my brain as I crept around the house to find my mom, wearing rubber gloves and sweat pants, crouched in the middle of her garden. I circled back to the front of the house, used my key in the door, left my note on the kitchen island, and grabbed her car keys. If she were absorbed enough she might not hear the Camry start up. It didn’t matter. Even if she did I wouldn’t stop.
As luck would have it, a garbage truck trundled down our street. I timed my getaway with its rumbling racket. The engine hummed as I backed out of the driveway and left my house behind. At a nearby gas station I punched Benji’s address into the GPS and topped off the gas. I had become a car thief. There was no turning back now.
For two hours, as I followed the spoken directions, I ran through scenarios in my head, coming up with one dialog set after another. The uncomfortable reality was that I had no idea how Benji would react. He didn’t like science fiction, but didn’t dislike it either. Time travel, to him, was an overused plot device in bad movies. Not that our situation was time travel, precisely, but it was close enough. He liked techno-thrillers and espionage movies. Perhaps they were more analogous.
I didn’t remember what classes Benji had in the spring of 2013, but I knew he’d be home by lunch. Noon on Wednesday’s provided a window of opportunity for Benji and Jessica. During that time, neither had class, but Benji’s housemates did. Warm memories of sexual exploration warmed my cheeks.
The neighborhood’s layout rushed back to me when I got there. I parked a couple blocks from the apartment because there never were any spaces in front of the house. I walked those few blocks like a man on death row, ambling toward my fate, wanting to turn around, knowing that wasn’t an option.
Tall oaks billowed tents of cool shadow across damp sidewalks and spread platforms for the cacophony of chirping birds. A swirling wind, cool and flirtatious, brushed at my skin. Benji enjoyed his time at Stanford, and liked Palo Alto just as much. Though it should have been foreign to me, it wasn’t. Benji had embraced the city and made it a part of him. His emotions threaded through mine.
I smiled at the white picket fence surrounding the California Colonial house. Palo Alto was an expensive place to live. The cost forced most students to live on campus, but Benji was unapologetically well-to-do. He’d been born into money. It wasn’t his fault, and no liberal guilt would force him to regret it. He compensated by acting like a regular Joe, a performance he found occasionally exhausting. It was that sort of insight that led me to believe I could get Benji to listen to me.
I put on my bravest face, strolled up the walkway and climbed the steps to the porch. The knocker produced a cold, metallic clack. If he wasn’t there, I’d wait for him until he returned from campus.
That’s why I jumped when the door opened.
Benji stood in front of me, unruly hair longer than in his Facebook picture. He wore a rumpled gray T-shirt and dark blue sweatpants. I remember those sweatpants. Warm and comfortable. I couldn’t help but stare.
“Hello?” he prompted. His voice, so much different from mine, deeper and steadier, melted into my brain. Though we were thoroughly different people, physically and mentally, he was me and I was him. At least in my head we were.
“I—hello. I’m—are you Benji Shelton?” What an awful start. I had practiced my opening line in the car for two hours, and I had already messed it up.
He cocked his head to the side, and raised an eyebrow. “People call me B.J. Do I know you?”
“No. I’m sorry to bother you, but can we talk?”
His eyes narrowed. “’bout what?”
I swiveled my head, suddenly concerned someone would overhear. “I—can I come in?”
“Not until you tell me what this is about, kid.” Benji shifted, his hand gripping the doorknob.
Kid. I didn’t feel like a kid. I felt like a thirty-something year old adult with the weight of the world on my shoulders. “It’s personal. I can’t talk on the porch.”
“Can’t or won’t?” He paused, but I recognized the question as rhetorical. “I don’t know you, and I don’t know how you know me. So, if it’s personal, you should go work it out somewhere else.”
“It has a lot to do with you.” I had expected some resistance, but not so early in the conversation.
“Look, kid, I’m sick. I’ve got a cold, so say what you have to say.”
I heard the defensiveness building in his voice and I knew enough about him to know that once it got rolling, it’d be hard to stop. If I dithered any more, I’d lose him.
“I need to tell you some things, and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’m not. If you really listen, you’ll believe—”
“Stop right there.” Muscles tensed in his forearms. His eyes narrowed. “Kid, I’m going to give it to you straight. You look scared, and I don’t give a damn what you think I should believe. You are, without a doubt, the worst Jehovah Witness ever.”
My jaw dropped. That dialog had never come up in the car. “I’m not a Jehovah Witness.”
“Right.” The door began to swing shut.
I panicked. “Jessica’s cheating on you.”
The door flew open. “What did you just say?” Benji pushed the screen door open and stormed out in bare feet, nearly knocking me over.
My mouth went dry. I tried to wet my lips with my tongue. It gave me time to measure my next words. “I’m sorry. It’s just that … she is. I need to talk to you about things that are going to happen in the future.”
Arms akimbo, he glared down at me. “How do you know Jessica, and why do you think she’s cheating on me?”
“I don’t really know her.” But I did. I knew her very, very well. I knew she was selfish with all the empathy of a coffee table, and I knew she was high maintenance. All of that came from Benji circa 2027, though. “I just know she’s screwing some guy named Daryl. But that’s not why I need to talk to you. It’s really important.”
“It’s important that she’s screwing a guy named Daryl?”
“No, I mean, why I have to talk to you. Inside.”
“Talk to me right here. Do it, or get off our porch.”
OK, fine. I drew a deep breath. “I had a dream. A nightmare of the future. In it, I was you, and I saw some terrible things. Things you need to know about.” Benji’s look of utter disgust made my stomach sink. “I know you think I’m crazy, but I’m not and I can prove it.”
I had to use my ace in the hole. His biggest secret. “I was you. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t know about the drunken hit-and-run.”
His eyes opened wide just as his face went red. There was a blur of motion. A sudden jarring against my jaw sent my glasses flying off my face. The world flipped and I fell down the porch stairs. The back of my head hit the cement of the walkway. The impact hurt worse than the punch in the mouth.
Benji towered over me, fists clenched. “You have to the count of ten to get out of my sight.”
I scrambled in the grass for my glasses, trying to regain my equilibrium. “You’re going to be an important adviser to President O’Neil, but there’s going to be a nuclear exchange if you don’t—”
“Ten … Nine … ”
He wasn’t bluffing, and I knew it.
In that moment, with Benji’s glare raking over me, I remembered the crazy, babbling Jehovah Witness on my front porch. The one who had clued me in on Jessica’s antics. It was a good thing I hadn’t eaten anything that day. If I had, it would have come up. I choked down a cry and fled.
I botched it. The most important thing I’ve ever tried and I botched it.
I sat in my mom’s Camry, forehead on the steering wheel, letting one breath after another shudder out of my body. Scrapes on my elbows and the back of my head throbbed my failure. Even so, I considered going back.
Fourteen years in the future, nuclear detonations would end life in the United States as we knew it. Didn’t I have a responsibility to try? Yes, but I had to be smarter about it, and not with Benji. I had just burned that bridge.
I need to think of another way.
My parents were as furious as I expected. My father raged at me for a half hour, threatening to drag me down to the police station. When he was through, my mother started in on me. Her tirade slashed, calling my integrity into question.
Shoulders slumped, I confessed to an online romance, and an overpowering urge to see the girl in the flesh. I told my parents I knew they’d refuse a request to visit her, so I did it without their permission. As it turned out, I told them, my online girlfriend had an unmentioned boyfriend. A jealous boyfriend who punched me in the mouth.
Benji was a good liar, and because of him, I had become one too.
I promised the romance was over and nothing like it would happen again. Although the story was a complete fabrication, the tears were real. They softened my parents ire, and reduced my sentence. Annie, as predicted, smiled ruefully at my torment and disappeared into her room, presumably to spread word of my humiliation.
In May I received an acceptance letter from UVA. It took me about ten minutes to decide that Virginia was where I wanted to go. My six week grounding ended with a celebratory dinner out and when asked what my major would be I knew it immediately. History. If I had to name one thing I learned from Benji Shelton, it would be that I wanted nothing to do with politics. But if pressed for a second thing, it’d be an appreciation of world events.
That same month I came to the inescapable conclusion that the real Benji was a lost cause. But the six o’clock news gave me my next course of action. The catalyst was a simple news story about a bill that failed to pass the Senate. Senator Katherine O’Neil was mentioned, or as she’d be known in fourteen years: Madame President.
Virginia was a whole different world than California, but I liked it. College life agreed with me, and I didn’t feel the least bit homesick. I missed my friends, but I kept in contact with them by phone and e-mail. My college roommate, Chuck, had a goofy southern accent and a wild, playful streak that made him easy to like. We became friends early on.
“So we got the rope tied to the back of Bill’s dad’s car, and he guns it.” Chuck made the revving sound of a tortured motor, as if I couldn’t have imagined it without the audio cue. “The truck gets about half-way out of the ditch when the car’s bumper snaps off.”
I laughed, but it might have been the beer. “The rope didn’t break?”
“Nope, and I knotted it nice and tight. Just ripped the bumper off. The truck tipped over and rolled back into the water. Bill goes ‘well, damn, I didn’t see that coming’.”
I dissolved into more laughter. It felt good. Two days previous, I had the Benji Shelton nightmare again, complete with the skull-splitting pain. The whole situation weighed on me. Chuck was a pretty observant guy, and I knew that he knew something was wrong. He smuggled a case of cheap beer past the RA, and announced it was just a primer before we hit the bars.
Chuck gestured toward me with his Budweiser. “So, what’s up with you, man?”
“Nothing. I may have failed a calculus test.”
“You know that’s not what I’m asking.” He put his beer on table next to our TV and leaned forward. “I was right here, on this bed, five feet away from you, the other night. You get nightmares like that a lot?”
“No,” I mumbled, taking an interest in my shoelaces. Suddenly I wanted to tell him.
I had kept the whole thing to myself. I hadn’t told Eric, Jason or Glenn, and I felt like a terrible friend because of it. I just didn’t want them thinking I was crazy. I didn’t want Chuck thinking that either, but keeping a secret that big for that long was just too much. Maybe it had something to do with the beer. I don’t know, but I threw caution to the wind and told him everything.
At first he looked skeptical, then awestruck. “You’re not lying to me, are you?”
“No. I wish I was.”
“If I hadn’t seen your face the other night, I’d think you were.”
“I’m not.” I took a swig of beer. It tasted sour.
“You predicted the Super Bowl? And the lights going out before it happened?”
“Yep. About nine months ago.”
“And this guy … ”
“He looked like a younger version of the guy in your dream?”
“I didn’t see him. I was looking through his eyes. But I know way too much about him, and about other things, for it just to be a dream.”
“I don’t suppose he remembered PowerBall numbers.”
Chuck ran fingers through dusky blonde hair. “You think it’s going to happen?”
I took a long breath, closed my eyes, let my head spin from the beer. “Yeah, I do.”
“For what it’s worth, man, I believe you. What are you going to do about it?”
“I can’t go back to Benji. He wouldn’t believe me.”
“Screw him. You should have punched him back.”
Benji had been bigger, stronger and angrier than me. He’d have flattened me if I’d tried and it wouldn’t have gotten me any closer to my goal. “I could talk to O’Neil.”
“Katherine O’Neil. She’s a Democratic Senator from Vermont.”
“She’s going to be President in 2024.”
Chuck scoffed. “A woman President? Now you have gone crazy.”
“It’s true. She’ll be the first. It’ll get a lot of talk. Just like Obama being the first black President.”
“The first woman President, and we get nuked on her watch. Great.”
“Don’t be an ass.” His joke irked me. Benji knew Katherine O’Neil pretty well and admired her. She had fought through two hundred and thirty eight years of embedded male chauvinism, and an opposition party determined to use every available negative stereotype. They failed and she became the forty-seventh President of the United States, or would.
Chuck stood, swaying on his feet. “Just joking. Let’s find out where we can meet her.”
“The alternative is just letting us get nuked back to the stone age. You want that?”
“Of course not.”
Chuck pulled out the chair to his desk and flipped open his laptop. “Then we’re doing this thing. Buckle up, roomie, we’re going on a road-trip.” He grinned, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
The plan took longer to arrange than either of us thought. The entire time, Chuck maintained a remarkable fervor even when I expressed doubt. There wasn’t much to do for three hours while we drove up to Washington. I turned the radio down and asked him about it.
“I believe in you, man,” he said. “I’ve known you for a semester and a half now. If you were acting or were nuts, I’d have seen it by now.”
I stared out the passenger-side window at the cars flowing along I-66. “Yeah, it happened … twice … but don’t people who lose their minds believe they’re sane?”
“Maybe, but it’s a good thing ole Benji was a sports fan. Let’s sum up. You knew the Super Dome would lose power and you knew the score.” A spot opened up in traffic and we changed lanes to pass a slow-moving flatbed truck. “You could’ve lied to me about that, but you predicted this year’s World Series and Super Bowl too. And all that stuff you know about Shelton and O’Neil. You’re not imagining it, Bobby. I can’t think of a single way you’d know all that. The only sensible explanation is that you’re telling the truth. So, I’m on your side.”
I smiled. It felt good to hear him say that. But I couldn’t stop the tide of worries. “Do you think the vision caused us to do this or do you think our actions caused the vision?”
“What?” Chuck sounded lost.
“I mean, we wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t get a look at the future, but if we succeed why would I have gotten that look? It’s a causality loop.”
Chuck chuckled. “You get that from Star Trek?”
“Well, yes,” I admitted, “but science fiction writers have been playing with that one long before Star Trek. What I’m really asking you is this: if it’s all coming true, doesn’t that mean the nukes’ll be launched no matter what we do?”
“You’re over-thinking it, man. We’ve got the knowledge to change things, and the free will to act as we see fit. You and I change stuff all the time, whether we know it or not.”
“True. Though, except for the nightmare, I’ve never had a premonition about a change.”
“Doesn’t matter when you see it. Stuff we see changes. None of it’s carved in stone. You know the U.S. wouldn’t hold back her nukes if China launched against us. So we can reasonably assume that what you saw was a full-on exchange. If that’s the case, it’s The Day After forty years late. So, you and I are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.” He glanced over at me, quirking an eyebrow. “You get what I mean?”
“Yeah. But with the Senator, don’t bust out the story until we’re certain we have her. OK?”
“I ain’t stupid, Bobby. If I’m not sure, I’ll let you do it.”
“I know. I was just saying. I’m nervous. We can’t screw this up.”
Chuck honked the Ford Expedition’s horn, cursed under his breath, and changed lanes again. “We won’t because we can’t,” he mumbled.
Katherine O’Neil was taller than I expected and had a presence that was hinted at in her bios, but could only be felt in person. She had completed a tour in Afghanistan, having served in the early years of the war. You could see the military training in her precise, confident movement. Brown hair, streaked with gray, fell in precise waves to her shoulders. Thin rimmed glasses perched over a delicate nose. An emerald green blouse gave way to black slacks at her waist.
She held out a slim hand and gave me a surprisingly strong handshake.
“Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Tanner. It’s good to meet you both. Please, sit.” She motioned to two high-backed chairs in front of her desk. “I’m always glad to make time for ambitious college students.” Her events coordinator had found twenty free minutes for us just after lunch, four months after we’d called.
“Thank you for seeing us,” I said and sat. Chuck did the same to my left.
Orderly and clean, her personal office was smaller than I expected. Translucent, beige drapes diffused sunlight, giving the room a warm, homely glow. A towering bookcase dominated the wall behind us, while brown file cabinets hunched on either side. Her desk was clear except for an inbox full of neatly arranged papers, an ink blotter, and pictures of her husband and kids.
“You’re both poli-sci undergrads, I take it?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. I’m poli-sci. He’s history,” Chuck said. “I’m doing a project for Professor Thurman, and I thought to take the initiative.”
She gave Chuck an easy-going smile. I knew it well from Benji. “Commendable, Mr. Tanner. So, how can I help you?”
Chuck proceeded to interview her, showing a deftness that I didn’t know he had. He scribbled furious notes that neither one of us would read. Katherine, as Benji thought of her, replied with a smooth deliberation. Benji had spent several years as a staffer in her office, and had come to know her well. She impressed me with her direct answers, something I hadn’t expected from a politician. I chimed into the conversation when I could, but I was distracted. My opening would come, and when it did, I’d have to take it.
A clock on the wall to my right drew my attention. Our time was dwindling. Sweat gathered at the collar of my button-down shirt.
“Yes,” said Katherine. “I’m one of thirteen members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. We have jurisdiction over DoD programs and policies, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Department of Energy non-proliferation programs.”
If it hadn’t been for Benji’s knowledge, my head would have spun with all the names, but it all seemed pretty straight forward. Or at least as straight forward as Washington would ever be.
“Nuclear weapons?” Chuck asked.
“WMD’s of all types, but also hacking, drug trafficking and the like.”
“You must read about some pretty scary things,” prompted Chuck.
“I do.” Katherine’s easy smile formed again. “Most of it classified. Sorry.”
“That reminds me. My roomie here isn’t just a historian. He writes too.”
I gripped the sides of my chair to still the trembling in my hands, and glanced at Chuck. “She’s not interested in that.”
“Of course she would be.” Chuck leaned forward in his seat. “He’s really good too. It’s a techno-thriller, like Tom Clancy. I’ve been helping him get the political stuff right. I mention it because you’re in it.”
“I am?” Her smile and the tilt of her head gave me the impression she was genuinely pleased, maybe even flattered.
“I had him win you the 2024 Presidential race. Makes sense, if you think about it.” Chuck actually winked.
The tremor in my voice was not an act. “I have the novella right here. I printed a copy for you if you’d like to see it. I worked really hard on the details, trying to get them right.”
Katherine gave us a small laugh. “I actually would like to read it, Mr. MacDonald.”
I reached into my backpack and pulled out the prepared manuscript. “The main conflict is a dispute between America and China when the Chinese capture a Virginia class fast attack sub in their waters. The USS Lansing, SSN-797, is a Block IV with the high speed caterpillar drive, mid-section VPM, and Lockheed Martin CCSM.”
Thank you, Benji.
Katherine’s eyebrows rose. “You’ve done your homework.”
“Yeah,” I gave her a big geeky grin, only partially an act. She had a charisma about her. Just a way of making you want her approval, and not in a sexual way. “The story starts off in present day and follows you through to 2027 when the Chinese capture the Lansing.”
She took the packet of papers from me. “And I won the 2024 election?”
“Yes, you become … became the first woman President with the slogan Great Ambitions.”
“I like that.” She pursed her lips and hummed. “I like that a lot. Washington has a way of eroding our idealism, but that slogan sounds determined to keep it.”
We shared a nervous laugh, and I knew we were in deep now. I needed to provide more details. If she dumped the story in a trash can after we left, all would be lost. “I’m sorry I had to kill one of your colleagues. Congressman James Varnell.”
“Oh, no,” she exclaimed. “What’d you do to poor Jim?”
“I had him as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but a month before the primaries were settled, I gave him Huntington’s Disease.”
Her eyes narrow, eyebrows flattening, as if she saw a subtle threat in my plot device. In that moment, I had no doubt she had served as an officer in the military. “I’m not familiar with that condition.”
“It’s a neurodegenerative disorder, like Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t trying to be mean,” I said. “I needed to add a tragedy that’d give the story some real humanity.” Congressman Varnell would, in fact, be diagnosed with Huntington’s exactly when the story described. I needed those details to sink in and stick, even if she tossed the story.
“Like I said,” Chuck chimed in, “he’s good. I’m hoping for an acknowledgement when he gets it published.”
“But since I used real people, especially you Senator, I thought I should show it to you first. I think you’ll like it.”
“I’m sure I will. I’ll read it tomorrow night, when I have some free time.” Katherine stood, and circled around the desk. Chuck and I got to our feet and shook her hand. “It was a pleasure meeting the two of you. I’m sorry we can’t chat longer but I have a scheduled meeting in a few minutes.”
I nodded. “Of course. If you have any concerns, my name and number are on the manuscript.” If she began to realize the truth, that the story was an exact description of the future, and she wanted to speak to me, even if my address and number had changed, I was confident she’d find me.
“Thank you for the interview, Senator,” Chuck said. “I’m sure to impress my professor with this.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Tanner.” She led us to the door.
I glanced back at the manuscript sitting alone on her desk. Those printed pages, words I had pored over for months, held the key to changing our future.
I’m 32 now, married and divorced, childless, a history teacher and a part-time writer. I lost touch with Chuck, something I said I’d never let happen, seven or eight years earlier. He’s a good man. An executive for an advertising firm in Atlanta, last I knew. I should look him up.
My phone rings at 4am in the morning. I’m awake, of course, and my heart begins to hammer in my chest. It could be only one of two people.
I pick up the handset in the dark, barely able to breathe.
On the other end of the line, I hear muted music and laughter.
“Hello?” I ask.
“Is this Robert MacDonald?” Katherine O’Neil asks, her voice trembling.
“Yes, Madame President.” I marvel that the President Elect, the woman I saw give a victory speech hours before on network TV, is talking to me on the phone. I did it. There’s no other reason she’d be calling me tonight. “Congratulations. I know you have Great Ambitions.”
“Thank you, Rob. I’ve fought for this for years, but now that I’ve won, it all seems so surreal.”
“You’ve made history.”
“I think you made some too. I read your story.”
For reasons I can’t quite explain, I want to cry. “I know.”
“I have it right here in front of me. I had a staffer race back to my house and tunnel through stacks of boxes to find it. She thinks I’m crazy, by the way.”
“We’re both sane, Madame President. Heed it well.”
“I will.” Solemnity laces her voice. Silence on the line stretches for several heartbeats. I know the next question before she utters it. “How?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve had a recurring nightmare for over twelve years, but I think I just got rid of it.”