SO IT BEGINS
It’s early. Real early. Dave and I were the first ones to arrive. It’s as quiet as a morgue, with most of the hallway lights still off. With no one else around, I’m surprised the doors were open since the place is usually locked down like the prison it vaguely resembles.
Dave picked me up right at dawn. Since he has a car and I don’t, I reluctantly agreed to roll out of bed way ahead of my regular schedule. Real early was still better than the dreaded school bus from hell I had to take on occasion when a ride from Dave wasn’t possible. Dave said he had “something to do,” and now I know what it is. Dave’s standing on a classroom chair, yelling into a security camera. Never mind that it doesn’t record sound; I guess Dave’s expression and unfriendly gestures are enough to get his message across. The chair seat is flexing and groaning under Dave’s weight and I’m standing by apprehensive, waiting for the seat to splinter and for Dave to come tumbling down like Humpty Dumpty, cradle and all and whatnot.
He’s still angry about some decision the school administration announced yesterday regarding student organization budgets or benefits or something. Not that Dave really cared about any of that; he just loves any opportunity to act offended at anything the administration does. I guess putting it all on tape for some unsuspecting security guard or secretary to see was his way of making his displeasure known.
The second week of our senior year and already Dave is in rare form. He’s screeching now in full rant, his face just inches away from the camera lens. It was a beautiful performance, gloriously obscene, a marvel of four-letter words strung together like a true maestro.
When he was finished, he gave the camera an obscene gesture with both hands.
Spent and out of breath, he climbed down from the chair and dragged it back where it belonged.
Dave calls our school “The Big Brown Box,” where we’re “processed” and “churned out like obedient zombies.” I guess its Dave’s calling to be a rabble rouser, but I’m not sure you can make a living at it. If you could, though, Dave would make a very good one.
“So. How was the rant?” Dave asked, still out of breathe but beaming with pride.
I thought a moment, comparing it to his past performances.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d give it a solid B, maybe a B plus.”
Dave seemed pleased with the grade.
“Thanks. It wasn’t a personal best, but it was pretty good, wasn’t it?’
“Sure, Dave. Sure.”
I patted the big guy on the back, and then we headed off to the cafeteria to sit at our favorite table and wait for them to open so we could get our usual morning cup of joe.
Our Big Brown Box was one of those sprawling eyesores of a building-- ominous, pompous and dreary, not unlike a few of our teachers. Built in what seemed like record time, it towered over the neighborhood. Metal detectors by the main doors were installed our sophomore year, as were the surveillance cameras and doors that locked electronically when classes began. The joke was they were either trying to keep the bad guys out or the inmates in. Even the drug-sniffing dog they brought in unannounced on occasion seemed afraid of the place and always bolted out the door when its job was done.
“Hear that, people?” Dave said loudly one morning when all those electronic locks kicked in with their usual thunk that reverberated down the halls. “Homeland Security cares about you.”
Even though our senior year had just begun, oddly enough I was already getting a bit nostalgic, and was thinking lately about my freshman year. Freshman year was essentially hell week that never ended. Yeah, we were the scum, the newbies, the dorks and freaks and nerds and geeks that nobody loved or wanted. There were notable exceptions, of course-- the few girls with supermodel looks already and an even smaller number of jocks with overactive thyroids who towered over the rest of us and made first team without even breaking a sweat. (Actually, Dave was one of those.) But like I said, they were the exceptions. The rest of us had to bow and scrap to the upperclassmen, even those who had little status otherwise. It got old fast to find all your stuff in the trash if you left it unattended for even a minute, or have someone cut in line in front of you just because you’re new.
At least no one ever beat me up cliché-style for my lunch money, although rumors that could actually happen resurface with every freshman class like some kind of cruel urban legend that just won’t die. It’s one of those stupid things you would think no one would ever believe, but it was always amusing to see the freshman lined up in the cafeteria with their money clutched tight in their fists while glancing nervously around for any sign of some lurking, hungry bully looking for a free lunch.
It would have been amusing, that is, if I hadn’t done that myself when I was a freshman. More out of pity than anything else, I leave the freshman alone. They’ve got enough problems.
Sadder yet are the handful of recent graduates who just can’t let this place go. You see them the first couple of weeks of every new school year hanging around the hallways with their wistful little puppy dog expressions as if hoping they could fit back in somehow.
“Man, when I graduate, I’m putting this place in my rearview mirror and that’s it,” Dave said when we saw one being gently escorted out because classes were about to begin.
“Agreed,” Onion said. “High school’s not going to be the high point of my life.”
But enough about all that.
My name is George Wells. At home there’s my dad and my younger brother Kenny. My mom died when I was ten. We live in a ranch house in an older part of town, far from The Big Brown Box, which is why I depend on Dave to get there. I’ve got my own driver’s license, but never had any great desire to own a car, although on rare occasion Dad will let me drive his buzzy, bouncy econobox he bought for the fuel economy. And that’s good enough for me.
Before you write me off as too ordinary, I will admit to one obsession that’s a bit unusual. Actually, it’s one that drives both Dave and Onion nuts. They’re among the few who know about it since it is a bit…well, strange...and in high school, the last thing you want to be known as is strange. You get the whole shunned and scorned deal if that happens, so I mostly keep it to myself. I’m sure Dave and Onion wish I had a normal obsession like jogging or singing or something else totally mundane.
At any rate, here it is. Not long after my mom died, just by chance I saw the classic nineteen sixty version of The Time Machine, with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux. It was almost as if my whole life I had been destined to see that movie, as if that movie had been made expressly for me, and ever since I’ve been fascinated with the idea of time travel. That isn’t what drives Dave and Onion crazy, though. The problem is that I kept quoting from The Movie-- that’s all we call it now, just “The Movie”-- since I have the whole thing memorized. I think I’ve watched The Movie at least thirty times through and have yet to grow tired of a single minute. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must; if you haven’t seen it in a while, see it again; it’s an absolute masterpiece, easily one of the best movies ever made.
The Time Machine is based on the book by H. G. Wells-- no relation, sad to say. It’s the story of the far future, where the human race has been divided into two groups-- the peaceful though uneducated Eloi on the surface and the brainy but monstrous Morlocks, who live underground and prey on the Eloi above.
Spoiler alert here: the time traveler helps the Eloi win their freedom from the Morlocks and then rejoins them at the end to restore human civilization.
Shortly after I saw The Movie for the first time, I began collecting wind-up clocks that chimed-- mantel clocks, cuckoo clocks, you name it. The time traveler’s parlor was full of chiming clocks and I thought that looked way cool. After years of garage sales and gifts-- “Well, at least you’re easy to buy for,” Dave once told me-- I now had dozens lined up in our living room on the mantel, tables and walls. Basically, they’re everywhere you look, just as I had planned. My favorite is probably the miniature grandfather clock I found in a second hand store; that’s center stage on the mantel. It has a few dings and is missing a decorative piece on the front so it’s probably not worth much, but it has a nice loud chime. Unfortunately, my dad said no way was he going to listen to them all going off every hour on the hour, so I had to silence them. While none of the clocks are priceless heirlooms or anything like that, it’s pretty impressive to hear them all ticking, and whenever I was home alone I would un-silence them and try to synchronize them to all chime together. There was usually one or two that sounded a bit early and a couple that sounded a bit late, but still it was just like The Movie, as if the chimes were announcing that hidden somewhere in the house was a time machine of my own, just waiting for me hop on board and explore the far past and future.
My dad thinks my obsession with time travel has something to do with my mom’s death and my desire to go back and try to save her-- or at least see her again. But that’s not it at all. Sure, it would be great to see her again as she was, with her long brown hair and always glad to see you smile, but I know it would just be a visit, a moment in time that wouldn’t change the here and now. Besides, it would be sad to have to leave her behind again, knowing she was to die much too young, although with a time machine I could always pop in to see her again anytime I wanted.
There are lots of people I would like to meet throughout history, and while my mom and grandparents are at the top of the list, they aren’t the only ones. I like the idea of owning a time machine for three reasons, really-- first, it would be great to witness some of the big moments in history and meet famous people I could talk to, like Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Edison and Einstein. You know, the really super important people like that. Second, it would be fascinating to see what’s going to happen to mankind in the future near and far. And third and most important, because I want to find a friend like Filby, the time traveler’s faithful friend who never abandoned him. That was my ultimate quest. Filby was the best friend anyone could ever have, the nearly perfect friend. Filby and George had a friendship that transcended death and time itself, as you would know if you ever saw The Movie. Filby was forever loyal, Filby was forever caring, Filby would have done anything for George, the intrepid time traveler.
Somehow, somewhere, I was sure to find my own Filby. The only real question in my mind was when.
ONION AND DAVE
Her name was Nancy, but everybody knows her as Onion. Dave gave her that name early in our sophomore year, before the three of us had become best buds. Nancy always wore layers of clothes no matter what the weather. The look was definitely unique, almost to the point of being a classroom distraction.
So one day Dave says to a bunch of us in the cafe, “She’s like an onion. If you peeled off all her clothes, layer by layer, soon there would be nothing left.”
The name stuck.
Now you would think a girl would hate a name like Onion, what with the bad smell and bad breath connotations. But the day after Dave’s comment went viral, Nancy showed up wearing something like half a dozen blouses-- no two alike-- two hats, two pairs of pants and a skirt, willing to go along with the joke. She made of point of coming by our table at lunchtime to show us.
“You look like a pumpkin,” Dave said.
“Or a snowman,” I added.
“Why thank you,” Onion said. “Aren’t I glamorous?” And she spun about like a rock star, her arms raised as high as all those clothes would let her. “Besides,” she said, more serious now, “if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?”
Dave stared hard at her. “You mean you don’t care what the sheeple say about you?”
I could tell he was testing her the same way he tested me on the bus the day we first met.
She didn’t hesitate to answer. “Why should I? I live my life the way I want to, not the way the sheeple do.”
It was then that both Dave and I realized she was more than just okay. She was a kindred spirit. We cleared a space for her at the table and she’s joined us ever since.
In time, Onion became like the sister I never had and Dave the older brother I never had, even though Dave was older than me by only a few months.
Dave used to joke that Onion’s mom and my dad should get married so Onion can be my stepsister-- not that she practically isn’t already-- but I could never imagine it. My dad and Onion’s mom are two completely different people. While they say that opposites attract, there still has to be some basis for two people to get together in the first place. My dad only spoke when there was something to say; Onion’s mom-- like Onion-- was always talking. My dad never showed any outward signs of worrying about anything, while Mrs. Gordon couldn’t wait to tell you what was troubling her. Thanks to his stint in the Navy, my dad liked things orderly and ship-shape-- “A place for everything and everything in its place” as he said a thousand times-- while Onion’s house overflowed with their strewn belongings-- on the tables, the chairs, everywhere.
“Not too much more than this,” Dave once whispered during a visit as we stepped over a pile of Onion’s clothes, “and they’ll officially be hoarders.”
“Maybe that’s why Onion wears so many of them,” I whispered back. “Just to get them off the floor.”
When Dave persisted that my dad and her mom should meet “just to see what happens,” Onion finally shut him down.
“Please. Let’s not turn this into The Parent Trap or anything hokey like that, okay? Just stop already. Stop. That’s an order.”
Dave never brought it up again, which should tell you who’s in charge.
And if you ever have any doubt about that, you should see Onion in gym class. She doesn’t just want to win; oh no-- she wants to crush and thoroughly humiliate her opponents, and usually does. With every point or goal or score Onion makes, she cackles in delight like it’s the most fun she’s ever had. Needless to say, nobody wants to play against her, and when players are picked to form teams, she’s always picked first. Onion didn’t win any friends in gym class, but at the same time I think it makes all the girls show her plenty of respect both in and out of the gym.
“What can I tell you?” she said once at our cafeteria table when I brought up her total lack of mercy. “I’m a tough broad.” She grinned.
Dave and I just grinned stiffly at her in return like a couple of idiots when she said it. Neither of us would have ever dared call her that, even though it was absolutely true.
Every now and then, Dave would engage me in discussing The Movie since he had a vague interest in time travel from a philosophical point of view. Mostly, though, he just made fun of the plot.
At our usual table in the cafe one day, we were discussing the scene where George the time traveler rescued Weena-- one of the Eloi and the time traveler’s eventual love interest-- from drowning.
“So Weena’s screaming for help…”
Dave broke out in laughter.
“Sorry,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “The name just struck me as funny. Who names their kid Weena, anyway?”
I stared at him. “It’s thousands of years from now, remember?”
“So what? It will always be a stupid name.”
The one thing Dave never laughed about was when I started talking about Filby. Dave seemed to grow uneasy if I gushed too much about what a great friend Filby was, an ideal friend whose friendship was unparalleled.
“Nobody’s that perfect,” Dave would argue, refusing to look at me.
“But he supported George no matter what other people thought.”
“So? George was an eccentric inventor. Of course everybody thought he was crazy. Who wouldn’t?”
“Filby,” I countered.
Dave didn’t respond.
Why Filby was such a sore point with Dave I didn’t know. I guess he thought that kind of unwavering friendship was impossible, while I still hoped to find my own Filby someday.
Dave’s mom and dad are nothing like Dave. Nothing. He didn’t even particularly resemble either of them, especially in width or height. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was adopted, and sometimes I still wonder. Dave’s parents are a matched pair of always well groomed, well-dressed optimists who just laugh at Dave’s cynicism, as if he can’t possibly be serious. Oddly, Dave takes it all in stride.
“What can I tell you? They’re old people,” he would say, even though they were both younger than either Onion’s mom or my dad. “I’m related to them, but I can’t relate,” was his mantra.
Dave lived even further away from The Big Brown Box than I did, in a neighborhood with sprawling homes on spacious lots with fancy street names like “Diamond Court” and “Country Club Lane.” Me, I live on Pine Street. I don’t know if Dave’s cynicism is due to his embarrassment at his parent’s wealth or his rejection of their preppy ‘sold on suburbia’ attitude. Either way, it sure seemed like he was trying hard to be and do the exact opposite.
Something of a physics scholar, Dave once referred to where he lived as “the anti-neighborhood. If it ever came in contact with a real neighborhood, they would explode.”
I’m not all that familiar with the inside of Dave’s house because Onion and I were seldom invited over. Not because Dave or his parents were ashamed of us or anything like that, but because Dave’s parents led very active social lives and were always hosting fancy dinner parties that Dave avoided like the plague, which was why he was usually available to drive us wherever we wanted to go. The few times I’ve been there, it almost seemed like Dave didn’t belong, as if he were an imposter in his own home. With his usual rumpled, untucked shirt and big, baggy jeans with tattered cuffs, he looked like a lost soul wandering the wide hallways and spacious rooms with their tasteful, expensive furnishings and pricey wall art. His bedroom was the only place that was a reflection of the Dave I knew-- strewn with papers, books, a couple of acoustic guitars he barely knew how to play and piles of unwashed clothes on the floor almost identical to the ones he was wearing.
The first time I saw his room, I had to call him on his hypocrisy.
“And to think you make fun of how Onion lives.”
He shrugged as if that wasn’t a valid comparison. “This is just one room. With them, it’s their whole house.”
The last time I was there, Dave’s mom smiled and said, “Isn’t he such a silly boy? But we love him anyway,” which gave Dave a scowl for the rest of my visit. Not surprisingly, Dave hasn’t invited me back since.
The last but most important thing you had to know about Dave was his car.
Dave’s car was large, old and noisy, and sucked up gas the way a boat with a hole in its side sucked up water. A kind of sickly green, it had a once-black vinyl covered top that was now a mottled gray, with scratches and gouges galore. And a radio with a cassette player, even though not one of us had ever owned a cassette to play in it. That kind of car.
“I tell you, they don’t make them like this anymore. And it’s a good thing, too,” Dave liked to joke.
Over time Dave had personalized it with seat covers, bumper stickers, books, papers, clothes and trash that seldom got taken out until it was a one of a kind, rolling home away from home you could spot a mile away in any parking lot.
“What, no fuzzy dice?” Onion asked him when she saw it for the first time.
“Too corny,” Dave said, “although one of those flat pine tree air fresheners would be nice. It stinks in there.”
For Dave’s next birthday, unbeknownst to each other, both Onion and I gave him half a dozen. After we laughed about that, Dave unwrapped all twelve and hung them up like a miniature forest or something, making the inside of his car smell like Christmas every day of the year. A very potent Christmas.
The car was less his pride and joy and more an extension of who Dave was. When Dave slipped behind the wheel, he became the car; the two seemed nearly indistinguishable when he was in it.
I met Dave on the school bus the beginning of our sophomore year, just a few weeks after school began. Since I had barely made it to the bus stop before the driver closed the doors, the bus was packed. The only open seat was next to this intimidating looking guy with a full beard who was so wide, there wasn’t much room next to him. But since I didn’t need much room, I approached him cautiously. He sat staring out the window with kind of a stoic look.
“This seat taken?” I grabbed the overhead shelf to brace myself as the bus roared around a corner.
He turned to me, seemingly surprised that someone was talking to him.
“Could be. Are you a nitwit?”
“No, no I’m not.”
He nodded and tried to scrunch over as far as he could. “All right then. Just so you know, I don’t tolerate fools.”
I was beginning to understand why the seat was available.
“Thanks,” I said, and slid in next to him. “I’m a sophomore.”
Why I felt it necessary to reveal that I’m not sure. It kind of sounded like an apology or something, but I guess I thought he would appreciate knowing.
“So am I.” He looked away.
Two things happened when he said that. First, I was kind of startled by that news; he looked old enough to be a fifth year senior, maybe even older. And second, I wondered if he never had a seatmate on the bus because of his appearance, especially his imposing beard. If so, that was kind of sad.
We didn’t speak for a while after that, and then we both spoke at nearly the same instance.
We both laughed a bit at the awkwardness. I racked my brain for something intelligent to say so he didn’t think I was a nitwit after all and eject me from the seat.
“Man, I hate getting up this early. It’s like death. How about you?”
That seemed like a safe conversation starter, since everybody on the bus looked like they hated getting up early. Some even looked like they were falling back to sleep despite the swaying, noisy ride.
Dave didn’t answer. Instead, he just stared out the window again with a faraway gaze.
Complaining about the food in the cafeteria was another safe bet, I figured, since it was uniformly awful day after day. I had yet to have anything either nutritious or delicious from the place.
“Do you eat in the cafe? The food is just horrendous, isn’t it? They seldom serve anything edible.”
He seemed to stir a bit at that remark, as if he was overhearing me talk to someone else.
I sighed quietly to myself, determined now to either be accepted or labeled a fool.
“You know, you could try a few ice breakers yourself just to be a little friendly.”
He turned his head slowly-- very slowly-- towards me.
“Do I look friendly?”
I accepted the challenge.
“Actually,” I said, looking him up and down, “I was hoping there was a nice guy in there somewhere just waiting to bust out.”
His grin was faint. “Good. You’re sarcastic. That scores points. Yes, I hate getting up this early, and yes, the food in the cafeteria could kill you and might yet. Anything else you want to talk about? Anything…meaningful?”
Studying his cold expression, I had the feeling he was daring me be to friends with him, testing me to see if I was worthy. He struck me then as one of those perpetually dissatisfied souls, always angry at the world, always complaining about some injustice somewhere whether it affected him personally or not.
That was only a hunch, but I went with it. I could be a dissatisfied soul too at times. Besides, now he had me feeling feisty no matter how intimidating he looked.
“Sure,” I said, “Let’s talk about how were not just being educated, but indoctrinated, forced to conform to somebody’s idea of what it means to be a solid citizen, a contributing member of society, as if that’s all that really matters when what we should be learning is to embrace our individuality, only they’ll never teach us that because then we might be a real danger to the regime. Should we talk about that?”
While his expression didn’t change, his eyes betrayed him as they fleetingly registered his astonishment.
“You don’t mean that,” he said, and looked away again.
I knew right then my hunch was right.
“Sure I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
He turned back to me. “Come on. You’re like everybody else,” he nodded once to our fellow sleepy bus passengers. “Follow the rules, be a good boy, don’t rock the boat whatever you do. That what I peg you for.” It was his turn to look me over, only he didn’t look so sure of himself-- in fact, he almost looked like he wanted to be proven wrong,
“Yeah, I play along with the school’s little mind games,” I said. “The thing is, I know it’s just a game. The truth is, I’d rather think for myself.” I tapped the side of my head. “You can’t take everything you hear at face value. I mean you can, but then you really would be a fool, wouldn’t you?”
I did mean that, although I wasn’t about to take up arms over it or anything. My mom had said to always keep an open mind, which seemed like good advice for anyone.
Dave’s tough guy facade broke right then and he sat back relaxed, looking at me with newfound respect.
The bus lurched into the main drive to the school. People stood up to gather their belongings as the driver pulled behind a long line of buses parked by the main doors.
Dave and I got up too. He tapped me on the shoulder as we inched our way forward down the aisle.
“Far corner of the cafeteria, last table. Meet me there at lunch. We’ll talk more.”
And that was the beginning of our friendship.
KENNY AND MOM
I remember well the day my mom brought Kenny home, even though I was only six years old. Kenny was a good baby, meaning he slept most of the night and wasn’t fussy like they said I was. It probably wasn’t until Kenny was three that we started to notice Kenny was kind of zoning us out, refusing to make eye contact and no longer paying attention to anything we did. When the doctor suggested that Kenny might be on the “autistic spectrum,” I don’t think any of us were really too surprised, although Mom still cried off and on for a few weeks and spent hours on the internet nearly every day looking for a treatment. Dad said that she had to be careful because there was a lot of snake oil out there, and I could see for myself that was true. They had magnets you wore on your head, herbal pills, weird potions and dubious injections, even though there was no real scientific evidence that any of them actually worked.
It seemed incredibly cruel to sell false hope like that to people who were desperate. I guess some people are willing to try anything, even though they probably know deep down that they’re just throwing their money away. Maybe they figure that’s better than doing nothing at all.
Mom didn’t fall for any of the online bag of tricks, but she did realize we couldn’t afford the kind of intensive tutoring that really could help Kenny to some degree. Mom and Dad talked about moving to another state where Kenny might qualify for some assistance, but Dad didn’t think at his age that he could give up all his clients and start all over at some new insurance agency in some unfamiliar town. Instead, Mom taught herself some of the things that the tutors did, but then she died so Kenny didn’t have a chance to get much better than he is. He seemed to come out of his shell for a little while after Mom was gone, probably because the daily routines we all had changed drastically. Kenny kept asking where she was and we kept telling him she wasn’t coming back, but it took months for Kenny to understand that our new routines were permanent and that none of us would ever see her again. Once he seemed to finally understand that, he returned to his normal self-- meaning withdrawn-- although at times he was incredible perceptive about how Dad and I were feeling, reminding us every now and then to not feel so sad and to “be happy like Kenny.”
I think Mom would have been proud of Kenny for reminding us to keep our spirits up. At times we needed Kenny’s reminder-- especially on holidays-- and he seemed to know it even before we did.
Kenny is skinny-- even skinner than I was when I was his age-- and has this stubborn swirl of red hair that never looks combed no matter how much we try. He wasn’t much for personal grooming except for showers-- Kenny would stay in the shower all day if we let him, although he would run out of hot water long before then. Many a time I took a cool or lukewarm shower after Kenny was done because he had drained the hot water tank and I didn’t have time to wait. Still, it was hard to get mad at Kenny given how he was. Whenever I got upset over something he did and snapped at him, he just stared at me with his distant, soulful eyes and I would realize that Kenny would never deliberately do anything wrong as far as he was aware.
One day my dad said something to me that seemed unbelievable, and made me glad I wasn’t around back when he was young. He was reading the paper at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning when Kenny let out a laugh for some reason known only to him.
Dad put the paper down, shook his head and said, “You know, when I was young, kids like Kenny were either bullied or beat up, usually both.”
I was shocked. “For being autistic?”
Dad shrugged. “We didn’t know anything about autism back then. If you were different somehow, eventually someone would hit you, and that was it. People like Kenny were institutionalized or kept hidden away so nothing bad would happen to them.” He went back to reading his paper. “But that was some time ago.”
I was glad to hear that; it would be terrible if Kenny was punished just for being Kenny.
One thing I make it a point to do is not tell anyone that Kenny is autistic. I just tell them that I have a brother since that’s all that really matters. When they finally meet him, I watch them closely for their reaction. If they’re warm and friendly towards him right away, then I know we can be friends; if they avoid him or-- worse yet-- seem disappointed, then I know that we can’t. Needless to say, both Dave and Onion passed the test with flying colors.