The screen door slammed behind John Rayburn, rattling in its frame. He and his dad had been meaning to fix the hinges and paint it before winter, but just then he wanted to rip it off and fling it into the fields.
“Johnny?” his mother called after him, but by then he was in the dark shadow of the barn. He slipped around the far end and any more of his mother’s calls were lost among the sliding of cricket legs. His breath blew from his mouth in clouds.
John came to the edge of the pumpkin patch, stood for a moment, then plunged into it. Through the pumpkin patch was east, toward Case Institute of Technology where he hoped to start as a freshman the next year. Not that it was likely. There was always the University of Toledo, his father had said. One or two years of work could pay for a year of tuition there.
He kicked a half-rotten pumpkin. Seeds and wispy strings of pumpkin guts spiraled through the air. The smell of dark earth and rotten pumpkin reminded him it was a week before Halloween and they hadn’t had time to harvest the pumpkins: a waste and a thousand dollars lost to earthworms. He ignored how many credits that money would have bought.
The pumpkin field ended at the tree line, the eastern edge of the farm. The treesold maples and elmsabutted McMaster Road, beyond which was the abandoned quarry. He stood in the trees, just breathing, letting the anger seep away.
It wasn’t his parents’ fault. If anyone was to blame, it was him. He hadn’t had to beat the crap out of Ted Carson. He hadn’t had to tell Ted Carson’s mom off. That had entirely been him. Though the look on Mrs. Carson’s face had almost been worth it when he told her her son was an asshole. What a mess.
He spun at the sound of a stick cracking.
For a moment he thought that Ted Carson had chased him out of the farmhouse, that he and his mother were there in the woods. But the figure who stood there was just a boy, holding a broken branch in his hand.
“Johnny?” the boy said. The branch flagged in his grip, touching the ground.
John peered into the dark. He wasn’t a boy; he was a teenager. John stepped closer. The teen was dressed in jeans and plaid shirt. Over the shirt he wore a sleeveless red coat that looked oddly out of date.
His eyes lingered on the stranger’s face. No, not a stranger. The teen had his face.
“Hey, Johnny. It’s me, Johnny.”
The figure in the woods was him.
John looked at this other John, this John Subprime, and decided he would be the one. He was clearly a Johnny Farmboy, not one of the Johnny Rebels, not one of the Broken Johns, so he would be wide-eyed and gullible. He’d believe John’s story, and then John could get on with his life.
“Who . . . who are you?” Johnny Farmboy asked. He was dressed in jeans and a shirt, no coat.
John forced his most honest smile. “I’m you, John.”
Johnny Farmboy could be so dense.
“Who do I look like?”
“You look like . . .”
“I look just like you, John. Because I am you.” Johnny Farmboy took a step back, and John continued. “I know what you’re thinking. Some trick. Someone is playing a trick on the farmboy. No. Let’s get past that. Next you’re going to think that you were twins and one of them was put up for adoption. Nope. It’s much more interesting than that.”
Johnny Farmboy crossed his arms. “Explain it, then.”
“Listen, I’m really hungry; I could use some food and a place to sit down. I saw Dad go in the house. Maybe we can sit in the barn, and I can explain everything.”
John waited for the wheels to turn.
“I don’t think so,” Johnny Farmboy finally said.
“Fine. I’ll turn around and walk away. Then you’ll never get to hear the story.”
John watched the emotions play across Farmboy’s face. Typically skeptical, he was debating how full of crap this wraith in the night was, while desperately wanting to know the answer to the riddle. Farmboy loved puzzles.
Finally his face relaxed. “Let’s go to the barn,” he said.
The stranger walked at his side, and John eased away from him. As they walked through the pumpkin patch, John noted that their strides matched. John pulled open the back door of the barn, and the young man entered ahead of him, tapping the light switch by the door.
“A little warmer,” he said. He rubbed his hands together and turned to John.
The light hit his face squarely, and John was startled to see the uncanny match between them. The sandy hair was styled differently and was longer. The clothes were odd; John had never worn a coat like that. The young man was just a bit thinner as well. He wore a blue backpack, so fully stuffed that the zipper wouldn’t close all the way. There was a cut above his eye. A bit of brown blood was crusted over his left brow, clotted but recent.
He could have passed as John’s twin.
“So, who are you?”
“What about a bite of something to eat?”
John went to the horse stall and pulled an apple from a bag. He tossed it to the young man. He caught it and smiled at John.
“Tell the story, and I might get some dinner from the house.”
“Did Dad teach you to be so mean to strangers? I bet if he found me in the woods, he’d invite me in to dinner.”
“Tell,” John said.
“Fine.” The young man flung himself on a hay bale and munched the apple. “It’s simple, really. I’m you. Or rather I’m you genetically, but I grew up on this same farm in another universe. And now I’ve come to visit myself.”
“Bullshit. Who put you up to this?”
“Okay, okay. I didn’t believe me either.” A frown passed over his face. “But I can prove it. Hold on a second.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Here we go: That horse is named Stan or Dan. You bought him from the McGregors on Butte Road when you were ten. He’s stubborn and willful and he hates being saddled. But he’ll canter like a show horse if he knows you have an apple in your pocket.” He turned to the stalls on his left. “That pig is called Rosey. That cow is Wilma. The chickens are called Ladies A through F. How am I doing so far?” He smiled an arrogant smile.
“You stole some of your uncle’s cigarettes when you were twelve and smoked them all. You killed a big bullfrog with your bb gun when you were eight. You were so sickened by it you threw up and haven’t used a gun since. Your first kiss was with Amy Walder when you were fourteen. She wanted to show you her underwear too, but you ran home to Mommy. I don’t blame you. She’s got cooties everywhere I go.
“Everyone calls you Johnny, but you prefer John. You have a stash of Playboys in the barn loft. And you burned a hole in the rug in your room once. No one knows because you rearranged your room so that the night stand is on top of it.” He spread his arms like a gymnast who’d just struck a landing.
“Well? How close did I come?” He smiled and tossed the apple core into Stan’s stall.
“I never kissed Amy Walder.” Amy had gotten pregnant when she was fifteen by Tyrone Biggens. She’d moved to Montana with her aunt and hadn’t come back. John didn’t mention that everything else he’d said was true.
“Well, was I right?”
John nodded. “Mostly.”
“Mostly? I nailed it on the head with a hammer, because it all happened to me. Only it happened in another universe.”
How did this guy know so much about him? Who had he talked to? His parents? “Okay. Answer this. What was my first cat’s name?”
“What is my favorite class?”
“What schools did I apply to?”
The stranger paused, frowned. “I don’t know.”
“Why not? You know everything else.”
“I’ve been traveling, you know, for a while. I haven’t applied to college yet, so I don’t know. As soon as I used the device, I became someone different. Up till then, we were the same.” He looked tired. “Listen. I’m you, but if I can’t convince you, that’s fine. Let me sleep in the loft tonight and then I’ll leave.”
John watched him grab the ladder, and he felt a twinge of guilt at treating him so shabbily. “Yeah, you can sleep in the loft. Let me get you some dinner. Stay here. Don’t leave the barn, and hide if someone comes. You’d give my parents a heart attack.”
John watched Farmboy disappear through the door into the night, shuddering and then exhaling. He hadn’t even come to the hard part yet.
It would have been so easy to kill Farmboy, a blow to the back of the head, and it was his. But John wouldn’t do that. He hoped, not yet. He was desperate, but not willing to commit homicide. Or would it be suicide?
He chuckled grimly to himself. Dan the Man nickered in response.
John took an apple from the basket and reached out to the horse. Suddenly his eyes were filled with tears.
“Hold yourself together, man,” he whispered as he let Dan gingerly chomp the apple from his hand. His own Dan was dead, at his own hand.
He’d taken Dan riding and had tried for the fence beyond the back field. They had flown. But Dan’s hind left hadn’t cleared it. The bone had broken, and John ran sobbing to his farm.
His father met him halfway, a rifle in his hand, his face grim. He’d seen the whole thing.
“Dan’s down!” John cried.
His father nodded and handed the rifle to him.
John took it blankly, then tried to hand it back to his father.
“If the leg’s broken, you must.”
“Maybe. . . .” But he stopped. Dan was whinnying shrilly; he could hear it from where they stood. The leg had been horribly twisted. There was no doubt.
“Couldn’t Dr. Kimble look at him?”
“How will you pay for that?”
His father snorted and walked away.
John watched him trudge back to the house until Dan’s cries became too much for him. He turned then, tears raining down his cheeks.
Dan’s eyes were wide. He shook his head heavily at John, then he settled when John placed the barrel against his skull. Perhaps he knew. John fished an apple from his pocket and slipped it between Dan’s teeth.
The horse held it there, not biting, waiting. He seemed to nod at John. Then John had pulled the trigger.
The horse had shuddered and fallen still. John sank to the ground and cried for Dan for an hour.
But here he was. Alive. He rubbed Dan’s muzzle.
“Hello, Dan. Back from the dead,” John said. “Just like me.”
His mother and father stopped talking when the door slammed, so he knew they’d been talking about him.
“I’m gonna eat in the barn,” he said. “I’m working on an electronics experiment.”
He took a plate from the cabinet and began to dish out the lasagna. He filled the plate with enough to feed two of him.
His father caught his eye, then said, “Son, this business with the Carson boy . . .”
John slipped a second fork into his pocket. “Yeah?”
“I’m sure you did the right thing and all.” John nodded at his father, saw his mother look away.
“He hates us because we’re farmers and we dig in the dirt.” His mother lifted her apron strap over her neck, hung the apron on a chair, and slipped out of the kitchen.
“I know that, Johnny . . . John. But sometimes you gotta keep the peace.”
John nodded. “Sometimes I have to throw a punch, Dad.” He turned to go.
“John, you can eat in here with us.”
“Not tonight, Dad.”
Grabbing a quart of milk, he walked through the laundry room and left out the back door.
“Stan never lets anyone do that but me.”
John turned from rubbing Dan’s ears. “Just so,” he said. He took the proffered paper towel full of lasagna, dug into it with the extra fork Farmboy had fetched.
“I always loved this lasagna. Thanks.”
Farmboy frowned, and John recognized the stubbornness; he did the same thing when presented with the impossible. He decided to stay silent and stop goading him with the evidence. This John needed a softer touch.
John ate in silence while Farmboy watched, until finally he said, “Let’s assume for a moment that you are me from another universe. How can you do it? And why you?”
Through a mouthful of pasta, he said, “With my device, and I don’t know.”
“Elaborate,” John said, angry.
“I was given a device that lets me pass from one universe to the next. It’s right here under my shirt. I don’t know why it was me. Or rather I don’t know why it was us.”
“Stop prancing around my questions!” Farmboy shouted. “Who gave you the device?”
“I did!” John grinned.
“One of us from another universe gave you the device.”
“Yeah. Another John. Nice looking fellow.” So far all he had said was the truth.
Farmboy was silent for a while, his lasagna half-eaten. Finally he said, “I need to feed the sheep.” He poured a bag of corn into the trough. John lifted the end of it with him. “Thanks.” They fed the cows and the horse afterwards, then finished their own dinner.
Farmboy said, “So if you are me, what do I call you?”
“Well, John won’t work, will it? Well, it will if there’s just the two of us, but as soon as you start adding the infinite number of Johns out there . . . how about John Prime?”
“Then who gave you the device?”
“Superprime,” John Prime said with a smile. “So do you believe me yet?”
Farmboy was still dubious. “Maybe.”
“All right. Here’s the last piece of evidence. No use denying this.” He pulled up his pant leg to reveal a long white scar, devoid of hair. “Let’s see yours,” John said, pushing down his panic. The last time he’d tried this, it hadn’t been there.
Farmboy looked at the scar, and then pulled his jeans up to the knee. The cold air of the barn drew goose bumps on his calf everywhere except the puckered flesh of his own identical scar.
When John Prime had been twelve, he and Bobby Walder had climbed the barbed wire fence of old Mrs. Jones to swim in her pond. Mrs. Jones had set the dogs on them, and they’d had to run naked across the field, diving over the barbed wire fence. John hadn’t quite cleared it.
Bobby had run off, and John had limped home. The cut on his leg had required three dozen stitches and a tetanus shot.
“Now do you believe?” John Prime asked.
John stared at the scar on his leg. “I believe. Hurt like hell, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” John Prime said with a grin. “Yes, it did, brother.”
John sat in the fishbowlthe glass-enclosed room outside the principal’s officeignoring 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 admonition 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?”
John 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 liked to be 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 classmatea younger classmateseveral 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 just 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.
John walked past the librarian, his Toledo Meerkats cap low over his face. He didn’t want to be recognized as John Rayburn. At least not yet. The reference section was where he expected it to be, which was a relief. If the little things were the same he had hope for the bigger things. He’d tried living in the weird places, but sooner or later something tripped him up and he had to run.
He needed a place like what he remembered, and so far, this place seemed pretty close.
He reached for the almanac. Sure an encyclopedia had more information, but he could be lost in the details for hours. All he needed was a gross comparison.
He ran his finger down the list of presidents, recognizing all of them. He already knew this wasn’t a world where Washington served four terms and set a standard for a king-president serving life terms. Turning the page, he found the next twenty presidents to be the same until the last four. Who the hell was Bill Clinton?
The deviation was small, even so. It had to be, he was so tired of running.
John found a quiet table, opened his backpack, and began researching.
The city library was just a couple of blocks from the school. John wandered through the stacks until he found John 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 of books. His backpack was open, and John saw that it was jammed with paper and folders.
To hide his features, John 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.” John 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?”
John Prime scowled. “Dubya worked the national debt down to nothing. Unemployment was below 3 percent.”
“It’s low here too. Clinton did a good job.”
John 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.”
John 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.”
John Prime checked the top of the figure with a multi-colored cube. “Ah ha. That’s a big money maker.”
He turned the page. “Dungeons 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 John Prime had in mind.
John 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?”
John 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.”
John 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?” John Prime looked genuinely concerned.
“I beat up a kid, Ted Carson. His mother told my mother and the principal. They want me to apologize.”
John 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.” John 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. John 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.
John 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.”
“Casey, Casey, Casey,” John thought as he watched Johnny Farmboy depart. Casey Cheerleader was the best Casey of all. She smelled so clean. And it was all wasted on Johnny Farmboy.
He had planned on working until the library closed, but the idea of seeing Casey was overwhelming. He halfheartedly perused a few microfiched newspapers, then packed his things up and headed for the school.
Once again he was hit with nostalgia as he walked through the small Findlay downtown. He had spent his entire life in this little townwell, not this particular town. For a moment he wanted to run into Maude’s Used Books and rummage through the old comic books. But the counter clerk would surely recognize him. Not yet, he thought.
The junior varsity team was playing when he reached the high school stadium. He found a seat at the top of the bleacher and made sure his ball cap covered his face. The sun was just dipping below the far end zone, casting long violet shadows as the JV teamsFindlay High was playing Gurion Valleymoved the ball haphazardly up and down the field. Watching the shadows was more interesting.
But then the game was over, and the stands were filling. He recognized faces, year old memories, but still vivid. He shrank down on the bench, pulled up the collar on his ski coat. Then he laughed at himself. Always hiding, always running. Not this time.
The varsity cheerleaders came on the field. He spotted Casey immediately and he felt a spurt of hormones course through him. Across universes he’d come for her, he thought. How was that for a pickup line?
Goddamn, she was beautiful. He stood to get a better look.
“Hey, John!” someone shouted, two rows down.
John looked at him, shocked. He had no idea who he was. A wave of doubt shook him. He’d been gone a year; how much had he missed in that time?
“Shouldn’t you be down with the team? I thought you were keeping stats.”
“Yeah, I was just going.”
John took the bleacher steps two at a time, nearly running. He had things to do before he could gawk at Casey.
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 John 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 John Prime.
“Where are you?”
John paused in his scanning of the newspaper and gripped a shovel. It might have come to violence anyway; Johnny Farmboy looked pissed.
“You went to the football game,” he accused as he climbed the ladder.
“Just for a bit.”
“My dad saw you.”
“But he didn’t realize it was me, did he?”
Farmboy’s anger faded a notch. “No, no. He thought he was seeing things.”
“See? No one will believe it even if they see us together.”
Farmboy shook his head. He grunted.
John added, “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?”
“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,” Farmboy 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,” Farmboy said. “Going to the library today was too much.”
John 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!”
John frowned. It was time for the last shot. 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.
John began unstrapping the harness and said, “John, maybe it’s time you saw for yourself.”
John looked at the device. It was tiny for what it was supposed to do.
“How does it work?” he asked. John envisioned golden wires entwining black vortices of primal energy, x-ray claws tearing at the walls of the universe as if they were tissue.
“I don’t know how it works,” John Prime said, irritated. “I just know how to work it.” He pointed to the digital readout. “This is your universe number.”
“My universe is 7433.” He pointed to the first blue button. “This increments the universe counter. See?” He pressed the button once and the number changed to 7534. “This one decrements the counter.” He pressed the second blue button and the counter flipped back to 7533. He pointed to a metal lever on the side of the disk. “Once you’ve dialed in your universe, you pull the lever andPow!you’re in the next universe.”
“It looks like a slot machine,” John said.
John Prime pursed his lips. “It’s the product of a powerful civilization.”
“Does it hurt?” John asked.
“I don’t feel a thing. Sometimes my ears pop because the weather’s a little different. Sometimes I drop a few inches or my feet are stuck in the dirt.”
“What’s this other button for?”
John Prime shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve pressed it, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. There’s no owner’s manual, you know?” He grinned. “Wanna try it out?”
More than anything, John wanted to try it. Not only would he know for sure if John Prime was full of crap, but he would get to see another universe. The idea was astounding. To travel, to be free of all this . . . detritus in his life. Ten more months in Findlay was a lifetime. Here in front of him was adventure.
John Prime frowned. “I can’t. It takes twelve hours to recharge the device after it’s used. If I left now, I’d be in some other universe for a day before I could come back.”
“I don’t want to be gone a day! I have chores. I have to write a letter.”
“It’s okay. I’ll cover for you here.”
“I can do it. No one would know. I’ve been you for as long as you have.”
“No. There’s no way I’m leaving for twelve hours with you in control of my life.”
John Prime shook his head. “How about a test run? Tomorrow you’re doing what?”
“Picking apples with my dad.”
“I’ll do it instead. If your dad doesn’t notice a thing, then you take the trip, and I’ll cover for you. If you leave tomorrow afternoon, you can be back on Sunday and not miss a day of school.” John Prime opened his backpack wider. “And to make the whole trip a lot more fun, here’s some spending money.” He pulled out a stack of twenty dollar bills.
“Where did you get that?” John had never seen so much money. His bank account had no more than three hundred dollars in it.
John Prime handed him the stack of cash. The twenties were crisp, the paper smooth-sticky. “There’s got to be two thousand dollars here.”
“It’s from another universe, isn’t it? This is counterfeit.”
“It’s real money. And no one in this podunk town will be able to tell me that it’s not.” John Prime pulled a twenty out of his own pocket. “This is from your universe. See any differences?”
John took the first twenty off the stack and compared it to the crumpled bill. They looked identical to him.
“How’d you get it?”
“Investments.” John Prime’s smile was ambiguous.
“Did you steal it?”
John Prime shook his head. “Even if I did steal it, the police looking for it are in another universe.”
John felt a twinge of apprehension. John Prime had his fingerprints, his looks, his voice. He knew everything there was to know about him. He could rob a bank, kill someone, and then escape to another universe, leaving John holding the bag. All the evidence of such a crime would point to him, and there was no way he could prove that it wasn’t him.
Would he do such a thing? John Prime had called John his brother. In a sense they were identical brothers. And John Prime was letting John use his device, in effect stranding him in this universe. That took trust.
“Twenty-four hours,” John Prime said. “Think of it as a vacation. A break from all this shit with Ted Carson.”
The lure of seeing another universe was too strong. “You pick apples with my father tomorrow. If he doesn’t suspect anything, then maybe I’ll take the trip.”
“You won’t regret it, John.”
“But you have got to promise not to mess anything up!”
John Prime nodded. “That’s the last thing I’d want to do, John…