Career day in Mr. Graves' fourth-grade class became more agonizing the longer Steve Unger had to wait for his turn. He'd never told his parents about Career Day. Dad had been laid off last year from a customer service job, and Mom was asleep this time of day from her night job. Things had been really rough. It was only the strange watch Steve had found a month ago that gave him hope everything would be okay.
The young man Steve had brought instead kept shifting his weight uneasily beside the wall, standing between Kaylee's mom, the lawyer, and Ray's dad, the biochemist.
Mr. Graves went through the class in alphabetical order, so it took forever to get to the U's. Finally Bronson Toma's father, an editor for the local paper, gave his speech, and Mr. Graves called Steve's name. "Who do you have for us today, Steve?"
Steve suddenly had twenty kids and twenty adults looking in his direction.
"Um, well…" Steve paused to clear his mind and said, "My mom and dad couldn't make it, so I invited my uncle. His name's Malcolm." That was the alias they'd decided on, Malcolm being Steve's middle name.
"All right, Malcolm," Mr. Graves said. "Come on up and tell us about what you do."
And 'Malcolm' stepped up to the front of the classroom. "Hi. As Steve said, I am Malcolm. And I don't so much have a career, exactly. I'm more in training for one. I'm a graduate student in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt."
So far so good. All this was true; Malcolm just wasn't technically a graduate student yet. He wouldn't be for another twelve years. It had been a longshot, but with no one else available, Steve figured as long as he had a watch that could travel through time, he might as well see how he himself was doing. And the future Steven Malcolm Unger seemed to be doing pretty well.
"Interesting. What drew you to that line of work?"
"Well, I'd had kind of a rough childhood. Not tragic, but difficult. That made me want to help people who also had it rough."
Sayla Bothas raised her hand. "What does a graduate student do?"
"I'm basically still in school, but all my classes have to do with psychology. I have to do a lot of reading, and take a lot of tests, but it's all stuff I want to read about, so it's all good. And this last semester, I started seeing actual patients."
Bill Grendale raised his hand. "Who's the craziest person you've seen?"
Little Steve felt his hackles raise. Bill Grendale was the biggest jerk in class. He had a snotty voice and he stole French fries off Steve's lunch trays and called Steve "Ungo" even though he knew Steve hated it. Of course Bill would ask an obnoxious question like that.
"We don't really like to use terms like 'crazy,'" Big Steve said. "It tends to unfairly stigmatize people who are coming to us for help. As for the most memorable, that would be—" Big Steve took another look at Bill and gave a start, his eyes wide. "Sorry. What's your name?"
Big Steve mouthed the name "Grendale," looking as if he'd seen a ghost.
"Is there a problem?" Mr. Graves said.
"No, it's nothing," Big Steve said. "Just looks like a kid I used to know. Just uncanny. Now, I can't reveal too much, for the patient's safety, but as far as most memorable, there was this lady who'd just gotten back from Japan…"
The presentations came at the end of the day. When class was dismissed, Big Steve, aka 'Malcolm,' walked with Little Steve through the halls toward the exit. "Thank you so much," Little Steve said. "You saved my butt today."
"I'm just glad I didn't bomb," Big Steve said. "At least now we know you're better at public speaking than we thought."
Little Steve laughed. "Imagine if they knew you were me."
"About that," Big Steve said, "does anybody else know about that watch?"
"Howie does. He lives across the street from me, and I've taken him on a few trips. He likes 2006 better than I do. I can't believe you don't remember any of it."
"I mean, I remember it, it's just, so much of the stuff I did with it is a blur now. I didn't even remember bringing older me back until you showed up. Maybe it's time's way of keeping paradoxes from creeping up."
As they came out of the building, Little Steve noticed Bill Grendale heading down the sidewalk toward his house a few blocks away. "Say, Big Steve, why did seeing Bill startle you so much?"
"Bill Grendale…" Now Big Steve saw Bill too, and gazed at him with a furrow in his brow. "It's nothing. At least I don't think…"
"Did you remember what a big jerk he was?"
"No… It's just… I saw his face, and suddenly, all I could think about was my fourth grade yearbook." His voice lowered. "His memorial…"
"Memorial?" Steve stopped in his tracks. "Is… is something gonna happen?"
Big Steve slapped himself in the forehead. "I think I've already said too much."
"Come on, something's gonna happen, isn't it? Is it gonna be him?" Fear battled with elation within Little Steve's heart. Sure, he hated Bill, and a life without him would be so much easier. But that didn't mean Steve wanted Bill to… to… "Is it today?"
"No, not today. But soon. I don't think there's anything we can do about it."
"About what? Just tell me what'll happen, and we'll figure something out!"
Big Steve gritted his teeth. "Okay. Fine." Big Steve placed his hand on Little Steve's shoulder. "I'll level with you. Sometime before the end of the school year, Bill is going to die. He'll be hit by a drunk driver right outside the school, right over there. Everyone will see it."
"That… that's horrible!"
"It is horrible," Big Steve said. "Fourth grade was hard enough, what with Dad's layoff and Mom's work. This isn't going to improve things."
Little Steve stared at the watch on his wrist. He'd stumbled on it in front of a Civil War memorial during a trip with his grandparents to Vicksburg. The first time he used it, it had taken him ten years into the past. The second, twelve years into the future. It was only on this last trip that he tried meeting himself. He was just as relieved that he would become a kind, intelligent adult as he was that his parents would get back on their feet.
He had simply taken it for granted that the future would be bright for everybody.
"You sure there's nothing we can do?" Little Steve said. "Absolutely nothing?"
"I mean, I can't say it's impossible," Big Steve said. "Even if I told you to watch him like a hawk, I don't think it'd do any good. If it's like my other time travel memories, you'll forget I told you by the time it happens."
"But I can't just let him die." Little Steve could feel a sob welling up in his throat. "I can't…"
"I don't even remember liking him all that much."
"I know, but… but hit by a car? Who deserves that?"
Big Steve knelt down in front of Little Steve. "Of course. Nobody does. Look, it's going to be tough. Death always is. It's like with Dad's unemployment. He'll never get his old job back, and life'll never get back to what it was, but he'll get out of it someday, and it'll be great when he does. You just kind of have to let the bad stuff happen until then."
Little Steve rubbed his eyes. "You're wrong. I'm gonna find a way to save him. Bill may be a jerk, but he doesn't have to die."
Big Steve wrapped his arms around Little Steve. "I'm not saying he has to. I'm just saying he will."
"And you don't know when?"
"Memory's just a little fuzzy."
"And what about the watch? I can't use that once I know more?"
"To be honest, I don't even remember what happened to the watch. Believe me, I'd love to tell you everything you need to know. But this is all I have. I'm sorry." He gave his younger self a pat on the back. "I think it's about time for me to head home."
"A—all right." Little Steve set the dial on his watch, held down the red button, and pointed the antenna at Big Steve. "It was great meeting you, Steve."
"Same here, Steve. Not interested in one more visit to 2030?"
Little Steve shook his head. "Too rainy."
The antenna lit up, and its chrono waves rippled toward Big Steve. He shifted out of sight, leaving no sign that there had ever been more than one of him at school today. Steve headed around the school to the parking lot, where his dad was waiting in the family car.
When he got home, Steve borrowed Dad's phone and took it up to his room. However much he loathed the idea, Steve knew one way for certain to make sure Bill Grendale stayed safe. He'd have to stay close to him. Keep an eye on him. Hang out with him.
He found the Grendales' number in a PTA directory and called their number.
He asked Mrs. Grendale if he could speak with Bill.
Bill came on the line and said, "Yo, who's this?"
Steve winced at the voice. All he could think about when he heard Bill speak was a Jell-O bowl full of snot. "Um, it's Steve, from school."
"Oh, hey Ungo. What's up?"
Steve winced again. Come on, there were worse things than a stupid nickname. "I was just wondering if you could come over to my house this weekend."
"Really? Wow, thanks, I'd love to. But my mom's taking me to see my aunt in Mississippi. Maybe sometime next week, after school?"
"I guess that'll be fine," Steve said. At least Mississippi was far from the street outside the school. "Mississippi, huh? I went to Vicksburg a few months ago, you know."
"No kidding. Find any old Civil War bullets?"
"No, but I did find something cool." Steve searched the room for the watch, but couldn't find it. It must have wound up underneath some clothes or toys somewhere. It'd turn up. "Well, I can't find it, but anyway, have a good time down there."
Bill said, "Believe me, I'll try."
After the call, a weird feeling came over Steve. That was the longest he'd ever spoken to Bill Grendale. And it had actually been a fairly pleasant conversation. Maybe Bill wasn't the jerk Steve thought he was.
But what made Steve want to call Bill in the first place? Didn't it have something to do with the watch? It was really important, but now everything Big Steve had told him was a blur. Something would happen… but what?
Big Steve was right, time travel really did screw around with your memory.
Steve picked up clothes off the floor and threw them in the hamper, and felt through every pocket of his backpack, but never found that watch. He had to retrace his steps from his bedroom door. After he'd taken off the watch, he'd set it on top of his dresser…
There was a handwritten note in that spot now.
It was addressed "To whom it may concern."
"Thank you for finding my watch. It was a birthday gift from my grandson. Fortunately it has that newfangled TPS sensor that helps you find it from a different time period. I thought I could use it to help a dear friend, but I wound up dropping it by mistake. As for the friend, it seems history has already run its course. Sorry for the inconvenience. I hope you didn't get in too much trouble with it.
"Signed, Steven Unger."
Little Steve suddenly had to lie down.