By Paul Melko
Back to Chapter 1
John sat in the fishbowl -- the glass-enclosed room outside the principal's office -- ignoring the eyes of his classmates and wondering what the hell John Prime was up to. He'd left his twin in the barn loft with half his lunch and an admonishment to stay out of sight.
"Don't worry," he'd said with a smirk. "Meet me at the library after school."
"Don't let anyone see you, all right?"
Prime had smiled again.
"John?" Principal Gushman stuck his head out of his office. John's stomach dropped; he was never in trouble.
Mr. Gushman had a barrel chest, balding head, and perpetual frown. He motioned John to a chair and sat behind the desk, letting out his breath heavily as he sat. He'd been a major in the Army, people said. He was strict. John had never talked with him in the year he'd been principal.
"John, we have a policy regarding violence and bullying."
John opened his mouth to speak.
"Hold on. Let me finish. The facts of the matter are these. You hit a classmate -- a younger classmate -- several times in the locker room. He required a trip to the emergency room and stitches." He opened a file on his desk.
"The rules are there for the protection of all students. There can be no violence in the school. There can be no exceptions. Do you understand?"
John stared, then said, "I understand the rule. But--"
"You're a straight-A student, varsity basketball and track. You're well-liked. Destined for a good college. This could be a blemish on your record."
John knew what the word "could" meant. Gushman was about to offer him a way out.
"A citation for violence, as stated in the student handbook, means a three-day suspension and the dropping of any sports activities. You'd be off the basketball and track teams."
John's throat tightened.
"Do you see the gravity of the situation?"
"Yes," John managed to say.
Gushman opened another folder on his desk. "But I recognize this as a special case. So if you write a letter of apology to Mrs. Carson, we'll drop the whole matter." Gushman looked at him, expecting an answer.
John felt cornered. Yes, he had hit Ted, because he was a prick. Ted needed hitting, if anyone did; he had dropped John's clothes in the urinal. He said, "Why does Mrs. Carson want the letter? I didn't hit her. I hit Ted."
"She feels that you showed her disrespect. She wants the letter to address that as well as the violence."
If he just wrote the letter, it would all go away. But he'd always know that his mother and Mrs. Carson had squashed him. He hated that. He hated any form of defeat. He wanted to tell Gushman he'd take the suspension. He wanted to throw it all in the man's face.
Instead, he said, "I'd like to think about it over the weekend if that's okay."
Mr. Gushman's smile told John that he was sure he'd bent John to his will. John went along with it, smiling back. "Yes. You may. But I need a decision on Monday."
John left for his next class.
The city library was just a couple of blocks from the school. John wandered through the stacks until he found Prime at the center study desk in a row of three on the third floor. He had a dozen Findlay Heralds spread out, as well as a couple books. His backpack was open, and John saw that it was jammed with paper and folders.
To hide his features, Prime wore a Toledo Meerkats baseball hat and sunglasses. He pulled off his glasses when he saw John, and said, "You look like crap. What happened to you?"
"Nothing. Now what are you doing? I have to get back to the school by five. There's a game tonight."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Prime picked up the history book. "In every universe I've been in, it's always something simple. Here George Bush raised taxes and he never got elected to a second term. Clinton beat him in '91." He opened the history book and pointed to the color panel of American Presidents. "In my world, Bush never backed down on the taxes thing, and the economy took off and he got elected to his second term. He was riding even higher when Hussein was assassinated in the middle of his second term. His son was elected in 1996."
John laughed, "That joker?"
Prime scowled. "Dubya worked the national debt down to nothing. Unemployment was below three percent."
"It's low here too. Clinton did a good job."
Prime pointed to a newspaper article he had copied. "Whitewater? Drug use? Vince Foster?" He handed the articles to John, then shook his head. "Never mind. It's all pretty much irrelevant anyway. At least we didn't grow up in a world where Nixon was never caught."
"What happened there?"
"The Second Depression usually. Russia and the US never coming to an arms agreement. Those are some totalitarian places." He took the articles back from John. "Are there Post-It notes in this world?"
"Yes. Of course."
Prime shrugged. "Sometimes there aren't. It's worth a fortune. And so simple." He pulled out his notebook. "I have a hundred of them." He opened his notebook to a picture of the MTV astronaut. "MTV?"
"The World Wide Web?"
"I think so."
"Never heard of it."
Prime checked the top of the figure with a multi-colored cube. "Ah ha. That's a big money maker."
He turned the page. "Dungeon and Dragons?"
"You mean that game where you pretend to be a wizard?"
"That's the one. How about Lozenos? You got that here?"
"Never heard of it. What is it?"
"Candy. South African diamond mines?"
They worked through a long list of things, about three-quarters of which John had heard of, fads, toys, or inventions.
"This is a good list to work from. Some good money makers on this."
"What are you going to do?" John asked. This was his world, and he didn't like what he suspected Prime had in mind.
Prime smiled. "There's money to be made in interdimensional trade."
"Not in actual goods. There's no way I can transport enough stuff to make a profit. Too complicated. But ideas are easy to transport, and what's in the public domain in the last universe is unheard of in the next. Rubik sold one hundred million Cubes. At ten dollars a cube, that's a billion dollars." He lifted up the notebook. "There are two dozen ideas in here that made hundreds of millions of dollars in other worlds."
"So what are you going to do?"
Prime smiled his arrogant smile. "Not me. We. I need an agent in this world to work the deals. Who better than myself? The saying goes that you can't be in more than one place at a time. But I can."
"And we split it fifty-fifty."
"Listen. It's not stealing. These ideas have never been thought of here. The people who invented these things might not even be alive here."
"I never said it was stealing," John said. "I'm just not so sure I believe you still."
Prime sighed. "So what's got you so down today?"
John said, "I may get suspended from school and kicked off the basketball and track teams."
"What? Why?" Prime looked genuinely concerned.
"I beat up a kid, Ted Carson. His mother told my mother and the principal. They want me to apologize."
Prime was angry. "You're not gonna', are you? I know Ted Carson. He's a little shit. In every universe."
"I don't have a choice."
"There's always a choice." Prime pulled a notebook out of his bag. "Ted Carson, huh? I have something on him."
John looked over his shoulder at the notebook. Each page had a newspaper clipping, words highlighted and notes at the bottom referencing other pages. One title read, "Mayor and Council Members Indicted." The picture showed Mayor Thiessen yelling. Another article was a list of divorces granted. Prime turned the page and pointed. "Here it is. Ted Carson picked up for torturing a neighbor's cat. Apparently the boy killed a dozen neighborhood animals before getting caught." He glanced at John.
"I've never heard anything about that."
"Then maybe he never got caught here."
"What are we going to do with that?" John asked. He read the article, shaking his head.
"Grease the gears, my brother." He handed John a newspaper listing of recent divorces. "Photocopy this."
"It's the best place to figure out who's sleeping with who. That usually doesn't change from one universe to the next. Speaking of which, how does Casey Nicholson look in this universe?"
"Yeah. Is she a dog or a hottie? Half the time she's pregnant in her junior year and living in a trailer park."
"She's a cheerleader," John said.
Prime glanced at him and smiled. "You like her, don't you? Are we dating her?"
"Does she like us?"
"Me! Not us," John said. "And I think so. She smiles at me in class."
"What's not to love about us?" He glanced at his watch. "Time for you to head over to the school, isn't it?"
"I'll meet you at home tonight. See ya."
"Don't talk to anyone," John said. "They'll think it was me. Don't get me in trouble."
"Don't worry. The last thing I want to do is screw up your life here."
After the game John left a copy of the stats with Coach Jessick and then met his father in the parking lot.
"Not a good game for the home team," his father said. He wore his overalls and a John Deere hat. John realized he'd sat in the stands like that, with manure on his shoes. Soft country and western whispered tinnily from the speakers. For a moment he was embarrassed, then he remembered why he'd had to fight Ted Carson.
"Thanks for picking me up, Dad."
"No problem." He dropped the truck into gear and pulled it out of the lot. "Odd thing. I thought I saw you in the stands."
John glanced at his father, forced himself to be calm. "I was down keeping stats."
"I know, I saw. Must be my old eyes, playing tricks."
Had Prime not gone back to the barn? What was that bastard doing to him?
John nodded in the dark of the cab. "I figured."
"Said you were gonna' write an apology."
"I don't want to," John said. "But...."
"I know. A stain on your permanent record and all." His father turned the radio off. "I was at the U in Toledo for a semester or two. Me and college didn't get along much. But you, Son. You can learn and do something interesting with it. Which is really what me and your mother want."
"Hold on a second. I'm not saying what you did to the Carson boy was wrong, but you did get caught at it. And if you get caught at something, you usually have to pay for it. Writing a letter saying something isn't the same as believing it."
John nodded. "I think I'm gonna' write the letter, Dad."
His father grunted, satisfied. "You helping with the apples tomorrow? We wait any longer and we won't get any good ones."
"Yeah, I'll help until lunch. Then I have basketball practice."
They sat in silence for the remainder of the trip. John was glad his father was so pragmatic.
As they drove up to the farmhouse, John considered what he was going to do about Prime. He'd gone out in public, he was sure of it. That was too far.
His dad pulled the truck into its spot next to the house, and John slid out of the front seat.
"Where you going?" his dad called.
"Check on stuff in the barn," John replied over his shoulder. He slammed open the door. The barn was dark, except for a bulb above the center post. Prime was nowhere to be seen.
"Where are you?" John called.
"Up here," he heard. There was a faint glow from the loft.
"You went to the football game," John said as he climbed the ladder. He expected Prime to deny it.
"Just for a bit," he said. "It was no big deal."
"My dad saw you."
"But he didn't realize it was me, did he?"
John's anger faded just a notch. "No, no. He thought he was seeing things."
"See? No one will believe it even if they see us together."
"Nothing was harmed, John. Nothing," Prime said. "And I have something else. This Ted Carson thing is about to go away."
"What do you mean?"
"A bunch of cats have gone missing over there."
"You went out in public and talked to people?" It was worse than he thought. "Who saw--"
"Just kids. And it was dark. No one even saw my face. Three cats this month, by the way. Ted is an animal serial killer. We can pin this on him and his mom will have to back off."
"I'm writing the letter of apology," John said.
"It's better this way. I don't want to screw up my future."
"Listen. It'll never get any better than this. The kid is a psychopath and we can shove it in his parents' faces!"
"No. And listen. You have got to lay low. I don't want you wandering around town messing up things," John said. "Going to the library today was too much."
Prime smiled. "Don't want me hitting on Casey Nicholson, huh?"
"Stop it!" He raised his hand. "That's it. Why don't you just move on? Hit the next town or the next universe or whatever. Just get out of my life!"
Prime frowned. He paused for a moment, as if considering something important. Finally, he lifted up his shirt. Under his grey sweatshirt was a shoulder harness with a thin disk the diameter of a softball attached at the center. It had a digital readout which said 7533, three blue buttons on the front, and dials and levers on the sides.
Prime began unstrapping the harness and said, "John, maybe it's time you saw for yourself."
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