What people never understood about Cole was that he never would have gone through with it.
He and Clay weren’t really going to do it.
Maybe it looked that way from all of the bombs they made. Maybe it looked that way from all of their notes to each other. Maybe it looked that way from all of the diagrams they’d drawn, figuring out exactly where to put the bombs to cause the most damage.
Maybe it looked that way, but it wasn’t that way.
Cole didn’t really want to hurt anyone. He only liked to plan it. It was an escape. There had been moments when Cole had worried that Clay was starting to become serious about the whole thing. Clay would get all fired up, talking about killing students and teachers, talking about blowing up the school, and there’d be something in his eyes, a level of intensity that Cole never felt, and Cole would think to himself, ‘It’s like he really thinks we’re going to do it.’
Cole liked to imagine the day, their own NBK, but when he imagined it, nobody died. They only ran scared, staring at Cole and Clay with wide eyes filled with a newfound respect. Because fear brought respect in a way that nothing else did, and that was all that Cole had really wanted back then.
Cole was short. That was his biggest problem. Guys weren’t supposed to be so short. Girls didn’t like short guys and that pissed him off. It pissed him off enough to let Clay talk him into making the bombs, enough to pretend they were really going to do it.
There were other things too. The asshole jocks who called him a ‘fag’ and threw bottles at him in the cafeteria while the teachers pretended not to notice. There were his hypocritical parents who always said Cole could talk to them about anything, but when Cole told them about how sad he was feeling, how all he wanted to do was sleep, they became irritated with him, saying he was only fifteen and had no business being depressed. It all clashed together, clamoring at Cole’s psyche until he found himself agreeing with Clay. Yes, humans were assholes. Yes, being alive was pointless. Yes, they could make a statement. They could stack more bodies than Reb and Vodka. They’d beat Harris and Klebold.
Cole had never thought it was real. It was a fantasy, and one that allowed him to imagine he had some power over the kids who looked down on him, over the girls who gave him dirty looks and rolled their eyes at his jokes, over the teachers who found any excuse to tear him down in front of the class.
Still, he’d always been glad that Katie had snitched. He’d spent so long in prison thinking about, agonizing over what he might have done. He could have killed people. Cole had never wanted to really go through with it. He only liked to plan it. But Clay....Clay just might have wanted to really go through with it.
Maybe, even back then, a small part of Cole had known this. It was probably why Cole had told Katie about the bombs in the first place. He had to admit it to himself; he’d wanted her to snitch. Katie had always been the good kid, the straight and narrow type. She didn’t break rules. She didn’t color outside of the lines. Cole had told Katie, and when Cole and Clay were both arrested, despite the fear and anger and total devastation, Cole had been relieved. He didn’t have to find a way to back out of it now. And as Clay had started to amp up his plans, Cole’s heart had filled with panic and dread. Really kill people? Really ruin lives?
In another world, in another life, Cole would have simply done his time in prison, been released, and gone on with his life. The domestic terrorism charges had been dropped after all, and the only charges he and Clay had been slammed with were ‘conspiracy to commit murder’ and a handful of illegal weapons charges. Cole got ten years, but was out in six. Good behavior and all. Clay got ten, but was paroled at eight. With the terrorism charges dropped, their records should be sealed. They were only fifteen when they’d done it.
Except for the Basement Tapes. They’d made their own cringe-inducing version of the Basement Tapes, and those tapes had been leaked after their arrest. Cole had thought they looked really cool at the time. But no. They weren’t cool. And now he was a meme. Tumblr had done some really creative stuff with the screenshots, making good use of ‘Pumped Up Kicks,’ of course. A lot of the memes captured the cringiest of Cole’s facial expressions.
It wasn’t just embarrassing; it was a death sentence. Cole had been out of jail for three years now, and he still didn’t have a life. He couldn’t get a job. He couldn’t get accepted into a real college. No administration wanted him on campus. He was twenty-four years old, working fast food, with nothing to look forward to, no redemption in sight.
Sometimes he wondered if he even deserved a redemption. He’d never been serious. It had never been real. Yet...he had made bombs. He had planned a massacre.
Still other times, it enraged him. He’d been fifteen years old. Should he really have to suffer for the rest of his life for something he hadn’t gone through with? And by telling Katie, he’d basically ratted on himself. He’d known she would tell an adult, when Cole would never have the guts to.
He’d never stop paying for the sins of his teenage self. Even though he would never have really done it. Even though it had been so long ago, and it was one small piece of his life, one idiotic six month period, even though it had all been really out-of-character for him, that he didn’t know where that Cole had come from, and ever since he and Clay had been arrested, his violent fantasies were gone.
None of it mattered. He’d been paying for his mistakes for years, and he’d never stop paying. He’d never have a real life.
Maybe he didn’t deserve one....At times, it terrified him how close he had come to really hurting people. Blood and brains and bodies. Had he really almost done that? Had he really set events into motion that could have ended with trauma and death? He’d had so long to sit and think about it and still it didn’t feel real.
Unfortunately for him, it was. Twenty-four years old and he’d spend the rest of his life paying for those six months of teenage insanity. He’d never have a career. He’d never have a good life. Never have a house and family. Never be important. He had wanted so badly to do something noteworthy, to be important. He’d spent his life feeling small and insignificant. Shy. His shyness was like a cage. The real him was stuck inside. It was so difficult for him to talk to people, to look them in the eye. How would he ever do anything really important when he was such a pussy he couldn’t make eye contact?
Then Clay had come along and put all those ideas in his head. ′We could be infamous. They’d talk about us forever. Like Klebold and Harris.′ And Cole realized now that being remembered like Klebold and Harris was worse than never being known at all. Because everyone knew him now. But he hadn’t done anything important. He’d done something evil, and while back then he’d wanted infamy so badly, now he’d give anything for obscurity. He wanted to disappear. If he couldn’t be important in some decent way, then he didn’t want to be known at all.
That was why he applied for the time portal position. The opportunity came from the same lab that had introduced super powers to the world two years before, selling off the power to fly and make fire and read minds to anyone who had enough money. Now they were working on time travel. They said they’d found the link between consciousness and the physical world. It had something to do with quantum mechanics. Something to do with spooky action, the way a particle on one side of the universe somehow affected particles on the opposite side.
They’d been searching for people to send through one of their time portals for over a year now. It was because of that link between consciousness and the physical world, a person had to truly want to go back in time in order for it to work. So far, nobody had wanted it badly enough.
The company wasn’t selling time travel the way they’d sold the superpowers. Instead they were searching for volunteers. Cole was an ex-con. Cole was an infamous failed mass murderer. He didn’t think he’d be chosen, but when they kept looking, when they kept appearing on news outlets saying they had to find people with no qualms at all about leaving this time, he started to think he might have a chance.
And three weeks after submitting his application, he received the email he’d been waiting for.
Still covered in grease and grit from his shift at McDonald’s, Cole stomped through the house, ignoring his mother’s probing questions about his day. He kicked his bedroom door shut and sat down at his desk.
The day was hot, but his bedroom was cool, the blackout shades keeping the room at a comfortable temperature. He fired up the computer and pulled the McDonald’s hat from his heat, tossing it onto the floor where it became part of the mosaic of debris, mixing in with all of the crushed cans of seltzer, dirty underwear, and tattered mangas that traversed the small space.
Cole had been checking his emails every day since putting in his application. In a new time, he could be a new man. He could leave his life behind. He’d never have to see that look of recognition, and then disgust, and then fear that flickered over the faces of nearly everyone he met. He’d never have to watch his mom throw out unread hate mail. He’d never have to stumble across a meme of his own face, paired with a caption that cut too deep, that struck him as far too true.
He didn’t expect to see anything in his inbox. Except for maybe a notification from Reddit. Maybe there would be a message from Clay, who sometimes reached out to him discreetly, despite their strict no-contact order. These were the things Cole expected to see in his inbox.
No....there it was... an actual response from Speculative Science Enterprises.
There it was.
Cole stared at the screen, glowing brightly in the artificial darkness of his room. His heart thrummed. Somewhere in the distance, a lawnmower roared. From out in the kitchen, Cole’s mother hummed lightly, and the sound of drawer slamming shut told him she was preparing dinner.
Cole took the mouse in hand, but paused, finding himself unable to click.
Right now, time travel, a new life, a new beginning, it was all possible. It was still a hope he had. Once he opened this email, that hope could be gone, and what would he have once that hope was gone? For now, he still had it. He lived in a world where he had been both accepted and rejected, either one was equally possible.
Cole grit his teeth together.
“Coley, you want some lasagna?” his mother called.
His tension mounted. His lungs tightened.“Coming Ma! Gimme a minute.”
He steeled himself. He braced himself for disappointment, already feeling the fires of anger smoldering deep in his belly.
Dear Mr. Velardi,
After reviewing your application for the position of Time Portal Volunteer, we have determined that you may be a candidate for a successful Time Travel experiment. We would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience to talk further about the possibility, and conduct some preliminary screenings to determine if this would be a good match.
Are you available to meet in our Boston office the week of July 16th? We are hoping to screen yourself and one other candidate over the span of three or four days.
Should you be interested in meeting with our team, travel and accommodations will be taken care of by the Speculative Science Team.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Project Lead and Anomaly Coordinator
Speculative Science Enterprises
Cole stared hard at the email, his body rigid as the words on the screen sunk in.
And then he jumped from the folding chair and started to whoop.