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Chapter 14

The next couple of days went by slowly. This was expected due to the fact that Friday was the big Past Lives Letter delivery day and everyone was hopped up on adrenaline. However, I did find one thing that seemed to alleviate the escalating anxiety caused by the impending revelation and that was pickleball.

Had you asked me before the year began what I thought about the sport, I would’ve given you a blank stare. Now that I’d played several matches and started to get a real feel for the game’s nuances, such as ball flight, spins, slices, and serve placement, I found myself actually looking forward to gym class. You might say that I had a knack for the game, but the tournament was still in the early stages and there was always the depressing thought that I’d have to face Malton and Chuck sooner or later. Who knew what fireworks that would spark? They were constantly bragging about Malton’s dominance and it began to rub me the wrong way, as I’m sure it did the rest of the class.

Anyway, on Friday, just as we had done on Monday, the entire senior class – minus Matt, of course – gathered in the auditorium about mid-morning. The electricity in the room was palpable and it took Mr. Clayton five minutes to quiet everyone down and get them organized.

Sufficiently satisfied, Mr. Clayton introduced several former students who had recently been hired by the government in their respective fields. The one who stood out most was a guy named Augustus. It wasn’t his odd name that made me curious, rather the way in which Allison gushed over him. You see, he was a newly minted Library of Congress employee and this was her dream job.

I always found it interesting that Allison already knew what she wanted to do with her life. She was the only person I knew who had it all figured out. My ultimate pursuit in life, let alone my profession, changed from week to week and this week I wanted to make the Olympic pickleball team. Okay, I know that’s a joke, but you know what I mean. We weren’t even out of high school yet and still had college to go. I had no idea what I would want to do five years from now and neither did most of my friends. True, some of them had inklings like Steve, who would probably become an accountant or a finance guy, but not me – I was still searching.

Back to Mr. Augustus, who I already disliked, and this spell he had placed over Allison. I would definitely have to probe into what exactly they did at this congressional library.

After the three government workers finished explaining how their former life’s professions had allowed them to receive scholarships that eventually prepared them for their new jobs, Mr. Clayton reminded us that the senior college fair would start at 10:30 in the West Auditorium, which was on the other side of the school.

I had forgotten about that and wondered whether or not I should join some of the others and ditch instead. Then again, it never hurt to hear what the recruiters had to say and besides, what was I going to do during that hour that I couldn’t do after the fair. As I finished that circuitous thought process, Mr. Clayton pulled the trigger and let the games begin.

I located my line, waited fifteen minutes listening to the nervous chatter and stepped into the tent. The routine was the same. I confirmed my current identity and was issued my sacred envelope. It was crisp and stiff, yet at the same time light, as if it could easily float away … and with it, all of my problems. I don’t know why I thought that not knowing would solve anything. I guess it was a wish more than anything. As I contemplated the idea, I had to admit that this time around it was even more tempting, but I dug deep and resisted the Sirens’ calls.

“Dude, I can’t believe you’re not going to open yours,” Chris said loudly, trying to overcome the din.

“Not gonna do it,” I replied and glanced at the letter dangling in his hand. “So, who were you, an ice cream truck driver?”

“I wish. You’re not going to believe this, but I was actually a software engineer at one point. Janik’s gonna flip out when he hears that.”

“No way, where?”

“Taiwan.”

“Must’ve been a long time ago.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s no longer a country, dumb ass. It’s part of China.”

“Really? Wow, that’s interesting.”

Janik interjected, “That must’ve been the life where you weren’t dropped on your head as a baby.”

“Oh yeah, what about you, dickhead?” Chris snapped.

“I’ve only got two lives written down, which means there must be a couple of blanks. What’s up with that?”

“Looks like you’re gonna have to hire one of those past lives lawyers to investigate,” Chris jabbed. “But be careful, maybe it’s better left unknown.”

“So what were the two?” I asked.

“Technical writer in Korea and draftsman in Slovakia.”

“That’s pretty cool,” I replied encouragingly.

“Mr. Locke,” Mr. Clayton’s voice boomed over the loud speaker. “Mr. Locke, please come to the stage area.”

We all exchanged curious looks.

“Dude, that can’t be good,” Chris stated.

“Yeah, man, what did you do?” Janik sniped. “Maybe you should open that letter before they take you away.”

“Whatever, ski guy,” I said, getting the desired rise out of Janik, much to Chris’s delight.

I pushed through the crowd, but couldn’t find Mr. Clayton. I scanned for Mrs. Chigusa, who was also coordinating things, but couldn’t spot her either. What was this all about, I wondered. Did it have something to do with Matt? Troubling thoughts ran through my head. Maybe they weren’t going to let him back in school or worse yet, maybe the police had discovered what he was up to. I always thought Matt’s hacking would get him in trouble. It was too easy to do nefarious things from the safety of your own room and even easier to hook up with equally nefarious people online. Part of me didn’t want to know who Matt was friends with in that mysterious world.

“Mr. Clayton,” I said, spotting him talking to a teacher. He seemed very busy, so I waited quietly. After a moment, he turned with a momentary blank stare. “You called for me?”

“Yes, yes, but never mind, Mr. Locke. It was a false alarm,” he stated. “Don’t forget the college fair starts at 10:30.”

“Okay, I know,” I said and walked away confused.

“Trenton,” a sweet voiced called. I quickly forgot about Mr. Clayton as Allison approached. “Did I hear them announce your name?”

“Yeah, but it was nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Clayton told me it was a false alarm ... whatever that means. Why, did you think I was in trouble?”

“I would’ve bet on it,” she replied with a devious and delicious smile.

“So you didn’t open yours, huh?” I said rhetorically, spotting the unopened envelope in her hand.

“No, of course I didn’t and you know exactly why.”

“I know, I’m just kidding. Tonight’s your party.”

“That’s right and you promised you’d be there.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” I joked and she slugged my arm.

“If you don’t show up you’ll wish you were someone else,” she said and looked suddenly excited. I didn’t know why until I followed her line of sight and my gut wrenched. This was unbelievable, I thought, as none other than Augustus, the library guy, joined us.

“Trenton, I want you to meet Augustus Sloan.”

The guy was tall and lanky, but had that polished grin of confidence so many sleazeball politicians carry. I nodded reluctantly and figured I should extend my hand, but he beat me to the punch and slapped my shoulder as if we were old friends.

“This must be the lucky boyfriend,” he said in a smarmy tone, which also smelled of devious plotting. I didn’t like him and I couldn’t for the life of me see what Allison saw in this guy. Okay, if I really tried to think of why, I guess I could come up with a few reasons, but I wasn’t in the charitable mood and wanted to kick his ass despite his approaching middle-age.

“Augustus,” Allison gleamed, “has been telling me all about his job and what kinds of interesting things they do.”

“Like what?” I asked sincerely and patted myself on the back for being the better man.

“Like he gets to research his mark for one year before observing him.”

“What’s a mark?”

“Good question, Trenton,” Augustus replied with a patriarchal tone.

“A mark’s the historical figure he’s assigned to,” Allison said enthusiastically.

“That’s right, Allison,” he agreed, meeting her smile. “I knew you were going to be a quick study.”

Now I wanted to throw up. I mean, wasn’t this guy too old to be hitting on her? Somebody get him a wheelchair. Then I noticed Allison throw him an odd look as if she was trying to tell him not to divulge something. It obviously had something to do with his job, I figured, which by the sound of it, had everything to do with the government’s use of time travel. If a mark was what they said it was and he was going to observe someone then it meant he was involved in the Time Travel Observer Project, or TTOP, as it was better known.

If memory served me right, TTOP was another Crimson James creation or at least it was his idea because it had only been around for about as long as I’d been around – maybe less. Regardless, without Crimson James’s theory on time travel, TTOP would not exist.

According to our history and science classes, time travel was a quantum leap forward and is a pretty big deal when it comes to how countries deal with each other. I guess all the powerful countries which have been able to develop it to some degree have been using it as a competitive advantage. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s a big reason why the U.S. is so powerful.

At the beginning, the U.S. surged ahead, making the foray into the field around twelve years ago. The journey to get to that point wasn’t easy, though, as traveling back in time was the simple part. Traveling forward, on the other hand, proved to be much more difficult. Despite this constraint, there was only one way to test a new proposal and volunteers never lacked. I had no doubt that Allison would have been one of them had she been older at that time. I just wondered how many test monkeys found themselves somewhere back in time wondering when their ride home would show up.

Anyway, the U.S.’s closest competitor, China, acquired the technology to travel back in time a couple of years later. However, they too were unable to overcome the constraints of forward travel and, as far as we know, have still not succeeded.

The big breakthrough for the U.S. came four years ago when it was announced that we had solved the riddle and were now able to safely travel both ways in time. With that, Congress instituted TTOP, establishing a program for observation and recordation of historic events and individuals. The program allows for travel stemming back to Ur, the first known civilization situated in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East – sometimes I amaze myself with the boring things I remember from class.

Anyway, no one knows whether we have actually sent someone back as far as Ur, but I wouldn’t put anything past our government. They know China is on our heels and wouldn’t hesitate in doing so, if it meant they could somehow stick it to us in a bad way.

That said, there is one restriction that everyone believes the government does stick to and that is that forward travel can only go as far as returning people back to the present time. Are we to believe them? All I know is that there hasn’t been a rash of government employees winning the lottery, so that’s saying something.

I glanced at Allison and Augustus and decided to let their curious exchange pass for the moment.

“So who’s your mark?” I asked.

“Bill Gates,” he responded.

“Who’s that?” I asked innocently. Allison’s eyes widened. “Oh wait, he’s some computer guy from way back when, right?”

“He’s a little more than that,” Allison exclaimed.

“Yes, I’d say he’s much more than that, Trenton,” Augustus embellished satisfactorily.

“I just figured they wouldn’t give the new guy anyone too important on his first assignment.” My shot across the bow felt good, but I immediately regretted it when I caught Allison’s glaring eye.

“Oh, don’t mind him,” she said. “He’s just worked up because he got his letter today and won’t open it.”

Now she’s hitting below the belt, I thought. She must really like this guy. I didn’t think she had it in her.

“Why in the world wouldn’t you open your letter?” Augustus reproached. “I mean, I wouldn’t have gotten into the Library and especially TTOP without having opened mine. What are you hiding from?”

“That’s exactly what my father says,” Allison snapped, continuing to swing hard. My birth-father and his demise flashed before my eyes.

“That’s none of your business,” I exclaimed. “Besides, try dating someone your own age ... you’re old enough to be her father.” They were stunned. “Don’t get stuck back in time, jack-ass,” I said and walked away.

I left the auditorium feeling proud. Truthfully, I didn’t think I had it in me to react that way and I was as shocked as Allison had been. I just hoped it didn’t feed into the portrait her father was trying to paint of me. It would probably be a good idea not to complement his caricature, but sometimes a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, right?

Anyway, I checked the time and there was still fifteen minutes before the senior college fair started, so I went to the cafeteria to grab a drink and maybe a snack. Not seeing anyone I wanted to talk to, I left and eventually found myself in the gymnasium, which was surprisingly empty. I figured the class in session was outside, which was verified when I glanced out the window and saw them jogging toward the running track. Imagine the sweat they were going to build up – awful!

I took refuge in the bleachers and tried to clear my thoughts. I’d never experienced the gym so quiet and empty. It had always been full of activity and loud. In fact, it was always very loud. Voices, bouncing balls, screeching gym shoes and every other kind of activity was the norm. To see it absent of those things was creepy in a way. It seemed to go against its very nature. I clapped and waited for the loud echo just to make sure I hadn’t slipped into the twilight zone.

I sat for a while, enjoying my orange juice and last bit of string cheese and thought about my birth-parents. I wondered where Sterling Mendoza and Mrs. Mendoza had gone to high school. Had it been here? Had they ever sat in the very same seat I was sitting in now? I guess I might never know and then I wondered what the use was in knowing their names.

Before I could carry the thought any further, I heard the class outside making its way back. Not wanting to get caught or have to answer any questions, I skedaddled.

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