Discover more from Fiction by Bill Adler
A short story
Tommy Rolfe couldn’t believe the C that glared at him from atop his American history exam.
He was an A student who knew American history backward and forward. He read historical novels, essays, and diaries. He had watched every History Channel episode. Tommy consumed textbooks the way his friends scarfed Doritos. Walking down the street, he envisioned the world that had existed decades and centuries ago. He saw wooden storefronts from the 1900s and horses on cobblestone streets from the 1820s. He witnessed precariously perched construction workers high atop the Empire State Building in 1930. He spied men and women darting into speakeasies in the 1920s. Tommy probably knew more about American history than his teacher.
He wanted to be a historian and planned to study at Yale. He had the grades, the SAT score, and—hopefully, to come—stellar recommendations from his teachers. To Tommy, history was more than a window to the past. History was a roadmap to the future.
But a C? How is that possible? The grade put Yale in jeopardy. It must have been a mistake.
“I don’t understand how I got a C on this exam,” he complained to Mr. Stewart, his eleventh-grade American history teacher.
“I was surprised you blew such an easy question, too,” Stewart replied. He clicked his pen shut and looked up from the paper he had been writing on.
Tommy thought Stewart was sealing somebody’s permanent record, hoping it wasn’t his.
Stewart spoke in a staccato cadence, inhaling air and pausing for a fraction of a second on each proper noun. “The Vietnam War ended in January 1972. After the American withdrawal on December 25, 1971, the North Vietnamese army quickly quelled the South’s military, marched into Saigon, and captured the capital. The North and South were reunited.”
“What?” Tommy asked, his voice warbling.
“I don’t know what you were thinking when you wrote that the war ended in April 1975 with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese army.” Stewart whipped his glasses off and looked at Tommy with an expression of consternation usually reserved for somebody's dog when they found a bag of doggie treats ripped open and spilled out on the kitchen floor.
“I’m sure that the war ended in 1975,” Tommy said. “I reread the chapter on the Vietnam War last night in The Making of Modern America.”
“Did you?” Stewart raised an eyebrow. His desk drawer creaked as he opened it. Although the textbook was thick and heavy, Stewart effortlessly removed the book. He let The Making of Modern America drop with a loud thunk, flipped it open, and quickly thumbed to the page he was looking for. “Read,” he commanded.
Tommy subvocalized the words, his eyes darting like watching a ping pong tournament. It can't be! But there it was. And more: “Historians believe that the unification of North and South Vietnam, the development of a powerful Vietnamese army, the subsequent invasion of Cambodia, defeat of the Khmer Rouge, and execution of the Khmer Rouge's leader, Pol Pot, prevented a genocide.”
Tommy’s neurons swirled as if caught in a tornado that materialized on a clear, blue day. Something was wrong, and that something seemed to be him.
“I’m sorry." He glanced at the floor. "I don’t know what happened.” Tommy thought for a few seconds and then asked, “May I take a retest?”
Stewart offered a wry smile. “You know, Tommy, if it had been anyone other than you, I’d say no. I don’t allow retakes, but I’m going to today. Right now, in fact.” He slipped his glasses back on. “I hope you don’t have any after-school activities planned.”
“No, sir. Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”
“I’m going to assign you three questions. I want you to write three one-page answers.”
Tommy felt lighter; the heavy weight of destiny at a junior college no longer crushed him. He was confident he could write essays on any topic in American history.
“Oh, and Tommy,” Stewart said. “Please write neatly. I don’t want to spend the entire evening deciphering what you said. I teach history, not hieroglyphics.”
The first question was about World War I's impact on the Great Depression. The next was about the effect on America of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4,1957. And the last asked how Prohibition ended. Easy as pie.
He didn’t have history again until Thursday, so Tommy had to wait nearly forty-eight hours to find out whether his future was sunk. When Thursday came around, Tommy shot a fist into the air when he read “A+” on his make-up exam.
“I've deleted your previous exam score,” Stewart said. “Let’s chalk up that flub about the Vietnam War to too little sleep, shall we?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Tommy watched television news before dinner that night. He didn’t feel informed by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, but believed seeing the same news that many other Americans watched was valuable. History wasn’t just the past; humans made history every single second. People drove history, and understanding what people knew was part of a historian's job. Tommy gritted his teeth when television pawned trite and superficial reports as news. He cringed while watching twenty-four-hour news channels fill airtime with wild speculation and even conspiracy theories. But he knew it would make him a better historian.
Tommy was half-paying attention to CNN when a golden-voiced anchor announced, “NASA reported today that average global temperatures have stabilized at a .2 degrees Fahrenheit increase for the past twelve months and look to be on a declining curve. Massive Antarctic glacier melting is no longer forecasted, and the planet is no longer in danger of tipping into unthinkable climate change. This is a direct result of the Global Climate Treaty between the United States and China that the Obama Administration pursued a decade ago with vigor during the first year of its administration….”
“What!” Tommy shouted at the television.
“Tommy? Are you okay?” his mom called from the kitchen.
“Fine,” Tommy called back. Though he wasn’t. The world was 1.4 degrees hotter this year than it had been a century ago. Arctic and Antarctic ice were melting. Coral reefs were dying. Extreme weather in the form of massive hurricanes, violent tornadoes, and horrific monsoons was the worldwide norm. The US withdrew from a global climate agreement in Paris under the Trump Administration and rejoined when Biden became president, but there was no American-Chinese bilateral agreement.
Tommy pulled out his phone. He googled “Paris Climate Conference,” “United Nations Climate Agreement,” and several other combinations of what he knew to have happened not too long ago. Nothing. There were only reports about the American-Chinese climate treaty and how it inspired other nations to reduce their fossil fuel use, sparing the world from a catastrophic future. The Economist wrote, “Political capital is a scarce resource. Barack Obama had to choose where to spend his: fix the world’s climate or America’s broken healthcare system. Obama worked tirelessly to save future generations from global warming, but in doing so, he could not save this current generation of Americans from the ravages of not having health insurance."
Tommy’s belly knotted, and he had heartburn for the first time.
Why don’t I remember any of this?
Maybe I am tired. I'm stressed about college. I need to sleep. I need to spend more time watching junk television like most kids.
But Tommy couldn’t stop his escalating dread because he was not the boss of his anxiety. He wanted to become a historian more than anything, but he forgot important history. Worse, he was getting facts wrong he knew perfectly well.
Tommy went to bed but not to sleep. His eyes remained wide open and fixed on the ceiling until his alarm sounded at 6:45 a.m.
“Yahoo Profits Exceed Expectations,” blurted a Friday's New York Times headline. “The search giant’s profits have made Yahoo the world’s most valuable company….”
“No!” Tommy shouted, spewing cereal over the kitchen table.
His father looked up from his phone. “What’s the matter?”
“Um. I think I left my homework on my desk. Can I get it?” His heart thundered like an approaching giant. The air was thin and sour.
“Yes. And when you’re back, please clean up that mess on the table.”
Tommy sprinted down the hall. He pressed a key on his laptop to wake up the screen so he could google “Yahoo.” Only there was no Google. He searched for Google on Yahoo—the only search engine—but the results were zip. How could that be? How could there not be any company called Google, no Google search engine? Tommy opened his online calendar, which had been a Google calendar—but “My Yahoo Calendar” now glowed on the top of the monitor, a lavender YAHOO! on the right-hand side of the screen. The calendar entry he’d made the night before, “Hang out with Chris,” was still there. The time was still there: “3:30 PM–10 PM.” But it was a Yahoo calendar, not his Google calendar.
Think! He felt like he was in a whirlpool in a dark rainforest. He was alone, with only primordial sounds around. The vortex swirled faster, pulling him deeper, cold water compressing his chest, making it hard to breathe. He reached for a tree branch but missed.
“Tommy?” his dad shouted from the kitchen, snapping him out of his daymare. He remembered the cereal mess he’d left on the table.
Tommy surfed on his phone during his subway ride to school. He Yahooed “climate treaty,” but there was nothing about a climate treaty between the United States and China. But there was! I just saw it yesterday! Tommy shouted silently, though on this noisy, crowded New York subway, though nobody would have heard him or cared if he’d screamed those words at the top of his lungs. He opened the New York Times app and searched for “Obamacare,” which he knew that Obama had shepherded through Congress. Numerous search results popped up. Yesterday, Obamacare had never existed. But today, it does. To Wikipedia Tommy went. The Vietnam War had ended in 1971, and there had never been the slaughter and death of 1.5 million Cambodians—the history that Tommy never knew.
Still Yahoo, not Google.
Is this what crazy feels like?
For the first time, Tommy was happy he didn’t have history class. He couldn’t cope with any more confusion.
Today he had English, math, chemistry, Spanish, and gym—all good. All safe. He needed that time to chill and declutter his mind.
Tommy walked into a nightmare. Gone were his gym’s basketball hoops. Instead, white mats with red suns covered the floor: Gym was a Sumo class.
Tommy’s wrestling partner was Takeshi Mori, a student he was sure hadn’t existed yesterday. Takeshi beamed as their gym teacher paired them off for a match.
“When did we start doing Sumo wrestling in gym class?” Tommy asked Takeshi in a hushed whisper as they crouched on the mat.
Takeshi’s eyes fixed on Tommy’s face. He appeared ready to strike, pounce, punch, pressure, or wrestle—Tommy had no idea what came first or at all in this sport.
“Huh?” Takeshi replied. “Are you trying to throw me off my game?”
The gym teacher blew his whistle.
Tommy spent the next hour in the nurse’s office, icing his shoulder. During that time, he discovered so much was different from how he remembered things—or thought he remembered. Franklin Roosevelt had never issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced internment of 110,000 Japanese during the Second World War. Instead, Japanese Americans fought beside Anglo soldiers. Japanese Americans supported the war in myriad ways, including helping innovate weapons and spying on Tokyo. The Second World War ended in 1942, and in its aftermath, America embraced Japanese culture. Almost every high school had Sumo wrestling and Ramen Street, a restaurant chain, which drove McDonald’s out of business in the 1970s.
Tommy rested his head on folded arms. Two days ago, if you had asked him what he wanted most, he would have said, “To study history at Yale.” Today all he wanted was his sanity back.
Tommy rode the bus home because the subway, though faster, was a closed space packed with thousands of strangers, noisy, hot, sweaty, more than he could handle.
At Madison and 79th Street, a girl his age boarded the bus. She had short, black hair, wore a woolen skirt that belonged to the uniform of a private school he couldn’t identify, and carried a backpack bulging with textbooks. She sat beside Tommy and pulled a spiral notebook out of her bag. On the top of the page, she had drawn the Hudson River bisecting Manhattan. Below that picture, the girl wrote: “Why can’t I Google this?”
Tommy held his breath, tapped her notebook, and with a weak whisper, said, “I used to be able to Google, too.”
She looked up from her notebook. “You're not insane."
“What do you mean?” Tommy asked.
“Yahooing, the Vietnam War, Japanese internment, DB Cooper’s capture, weed legalized in 1969, Trump impeached and convicted...history is different from what you remember."
“I don’t know about DB Cooper, Trump convicted, and pot being legalized in the sixties.”
“You must have started skipping recently,” she said. “I’ve been skipping for five weeks. Events happened that never happened, and events that never happened happened. History is mixed up and disordered.” She paused to give Tommy a moment to process. “Do you understand what’s going on?”
“Yes. History is wrong here. Sometimes history reverts back to how it was, but never all the way.”
“That’s partially correct,” she said. “I’m Mae, by the way.” She extended her hand.
“Right. Let’s get off this bus and go to a Starbucks to talk.”
They got off at the next stop. There was always a Starbucks nearby, or so he assumed.
The Starbucks at 52nd Street and Third was unusually crowded for four o’clock on a sunny April afternoon. Their footsteps echoed on deserted streets—not even a dog walker or hurried businessman rushing from one meeting to another. It was as if everyone wanted an afternoon caffeine fix simultaneously.
Coffees in hand, Tommy and Mae found a table.
“Let me see your fingers,” she said, reaching to pull his hand toward her even before Tommy had agreed. “You have silver spots on your fingernails like I do.”
“What does that mean?” Tommy asked. There were four shiny, silver circles on his forefinger and index finger, both about the size of a pencil point, and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed them before.
“Our fingernails get one silver spot each time we skip.”
“Why do you call this skipping?”
"I call it skipping because we’re skipping into different timelines. Events aren’t actually changing in the world. Instead, we’re moving into different worlds, or more precisely, different universes with different timelines. There are an infinite number of timelines with an infinite variety of events, so some physicists believe. My dad’s a science reporter for the Times, and he’s one of those who think that our original Earth is just in one universe in an infinite multiverse.”
“If there are an infinite number of universes with an infinite variety of events, why are only one or two things changed every time we ‘skip?’ Why don’t we see things like dinosaurs roaming the streets or everyone speaking Old English?”
“Because we only skip to nearby universes. According to my dad, it takes energy to move from one multiverse to the next, and the more distant the universe, the more energy is needed. We skip to an adjacent universe where things aren’t too different. In universes farther away from ours, you'd see more dramatic differences. If we keep skipping, we’ll eventually end up in a totally weird world, possibly where we can’t survive, like with a low oxygen atmosphere or orbiting a brown dwarf. Skipping can happen at any moment. I don’t know if there’s a pattern to how often we skip into other universes, but I’ve skipped in as short an interval as thirty minutes. Often, it can take days between skips. That’s assuming you can tell when you’ve skipped because sometimes you can’t.”
“Except for the spots.”
“Yes, a new universe, a new spot.”
“I guess in this world, Starbucks' coffee could be flavored with lime or garlic.”
“Right. Or worse. The coffee could be poisonous to us but safe for the native inhabitants.” Mae squeezed her lips together. “We can't take our survival for granted. If there was a way to stop skipping, even in a world that wasn’t my original one, I’d stop there. As long as it was safe.”
Tommy nodded. “That makes sense.”
Mae continued, “I haven’t told my dad in this universe about what’s happening to me because I’m sure he wouldn’t believe a word of what I said, even though he believes the science. If we can figure out where that energy is coming from, why it affects us, and block it, we may be able to stop skipping before we land on a deadly Earth."
“Why are you smiling?”
“I guess because this means I’m not crazy,” he answered.
“Probably not,” Mae said and smiled back. “Listen, I have to go. My parents eat early, and they expect me to be home. But tomorrow’s Saturday, so we can meet, okay?”
“Great, yes. We need to talk more. I want to get off of this broken Ferris wheel. Maybe we can figure out a way."
“See you tomorrow at ten in the morning. Let’s meet here. Sound good?”
“You bet.” Tommy waved at Mae as she turned around and mouthed goodbye from the door. Hope smelled sweet.
The moment Mae exited through the Starbucks-logoed doors, massive claws scooped her off the sidewalk like an arcade claw catcher game. The taloned hands, covered with granite-gray mica that oozed a thick, yellow oil, appeared and disappeared before Tommy could complete a blink.
Puddles of red dotted the sidewalk where Mae had stood a blur before. Tommy didn’t see the rest of the creature and didn’t want to. He didn’t hear Mae scream through the thick window, though he was sure that she must have during the few seconds between when the creature grabbed her and when she ceased to exist.
Tommy spread his fingers out on the table, his hand shaking, and counted five silver spots where there had just been four when he met Mae on the bus.
Adults and children flew by the window on bicycles that were very much like the bikes on his home Earth, except that these floated six inches above the pavement.
Flying bikes, how cool is that?
Tommy didn’t have to think about it. Carpe diem. Seize the day. There may be no tomorrow.
A girl wearing red pants and a blue t-shirt sailed by, her yellow-as-the-sun hair flowing in the breeze.
Tommy dashed out, spinning his head backward—it still was a Starbucks—raised his hand and said in a fast clip, “Hi. Excuse me. May I ask you a favor?”
The girl twisted the left grip. It clicked once, and her orange bike with tires three times as thick as what Tommy was used to riding drifted down to the sidewalk, landing with a soft hiss like a balloon slowly expelling air.
She blinked at Tommy as he said, “Sorry to interrupt your ride. May I ask you a question?”
She shook her head and replied, “Gluqwe lyft troggo frakzen nimbuxflazzor woruld xyvexplaxor ri hbroihewe.”
If you enjoyed Passing History, I think you’ll also like A Second Chance.
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