An obnoxious knocking startled Dane awake. The raps continued — forceful, as if the guest had every right to enter his home. Rubbing webs of sleep from his eyes, Dane struggled to make out the display on his alarm clock. The rocky taste of the salvia still coated the back of his throat. An uncontrollable cough raked his lungs while the knocking echoed through the house.
“I’m coming! Jesus…” Dane’s mother cursed under her breath as she padded to the door. Her frail form flitted past his bedroom, pink threadbare bathrobe swirling around too taut skin and too visible bones. Skinny legs were covered in week-old stubble, comically capped with dingy pink slippers, each missing one of the bunny ears that used to adorn it.
The latch clicked and door opened. Dane strained to hear.
“Police, ma’am. Does Dane Kroft live here?”
“Yes,” his mother’s voice caught. “Is he in trouble?” she finally managed to ask. Dane silently thanked her for not asking what he’d done first.
“We found his name on a Quantum Form on the Upper Roads—”
Dane launched out of bed, blood thundering in his ears. Snatching an old t-shirt from the pile atop his dresser, he fought to don it while stumbling toward the window. The fabric stretched in protest as he forced it over his head and arms.
Why was my name on Riley’s pre-work?
He yanked at his window until it finally creaked open. Dane catapulted into their side yard. Leaping the fence and sprinting off, Dane didn’t look back.
A cruiser hunched outside Lee’s house, but everything inside was deserted. A dog barked behind a fence, bared teeth pressed between the slats.
Riley’s street lay empty. Dane crept to her bedroom window, searching all around to make sure no one lay in wait. Stepping up on his toes, he pressed his face to the dusty glass. Bed unmade, papers askew, posters stripped from the walls and cast onto her bed, edges still curling despite years out of their tubes. Usually Riley kept her room tidier than this.
Movement at the door made Dane duck behind the sill. When he tentatively peeked back he saw Riley returning from a morning shower, hair dripping in a silken rope down her bare back, nothing but a towel wrapped around her body. The shape of it stirred something inside Dane — how it wasn’t stick straight. Every edge was curve and undulation, her white skin perfect and unblemished, everything the perfect size underneath. Nothing was too big or too small…she was just perfect.
Riley scrubbed a towel into the underside of her hair. Dane ducked back down, embarrassed that she might see him watching her. Strange feelings swirled inside his body, from his throat to the tips of his fingers. He stilled his heavy breathing.
After a few moments, he dared look again. Riley had dressed fully and was squeezing the back of her still damp hair, staring idly at the fallen posters of her childhood idols. Dane tapped on the glass, making her jump. When she saw it was him, she rushed to let him in.
“What are you doing out—”
“We need to leave, the police found one of your papers last night.” Riley’s skin turned ashen.
“There’s no time. C’mon.”
Riley bounded through the window and they jogged for awhile. The anxiety gradually abated from the pit of Dane’s stomach.
“Where are we going?” Riley asked.
“I don’t know.”
“We have to go to school.”
“We can’t go there…that’s the first place the police will look.”
Riley stopped, refusing to follow any longer. A twinge of panic touched her voice. “But today is our Quantum…they have to let us look. If they don’t…” Riley dropped her head, shaking it at the ground. “…horrible things happen.”
“Jail?” Dane took an aggressive step forward. “Worse than that?”
Riley looked up, broad eyes boring into his. “Worse.”
Dane tossed up his hands. “They do let you reschedule, you know. People get sick. Cars break down. Life happens.”
“But we might not get that chance. Missing your Quantum for no reason is enough to lock us up in juvie. Add on whatever you and Lee did last night and…by the time you finally got out, it’d be too late.” Riley softened, stepping close to Dane. Her scent, too strong of floral soap, filled his nostrils. “Once we start, they can’t stop us. It’ll buy time. And maybe what we see will help us know what’s going to happen to us.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“We can be ready. We can know,” Riley insisted. Dane bit his lip and broke away from her intense stare. He was acutely aware of Riley’s hand on his arm. Deep down, he knew she was right.
“Let’s go,” Dane conceded. Riley gave him a quick nod before tugging him toward the school.
A pair of police cruisers waited outside the rust-colored, nondescript building. From the outside, it could be anything — warehouse, dentist’s office, medical supplies outlet. But this was where Dane, Lee and Riley learned everything they knew about the world outside the city.
“C’mon,” Riley insisted, pulling him down an alley and cutting behind a bakery, steam and smoke belching from its orifices. Past a dumpster overflowing with damp garbage, the rear door to the school lay slightly ajar at the peak of three concrete steps. Mr. Gerhardt, the janitor, emerged with garbage bags slung over his shoulders. After he tossed them into the dark green bins, he leaned against the wall, eyes closed and head tilted back in relief.
Riley’s fingernails dug into his arm as she leapt forward, taking him with her. Dane cut short a hiss of protest and they cleared two steps before Mr. Gerhardt heard their frantic footsteps. A muffled cry of alarm came after they were safely inside and the door shut behind them.
They had emerged in an area of the school not meant for students — the walls and floor bare concrete, cleaning supplies and implements shoved into cluttered crevices. Fluorescent bulbs hummed overhead, casting a harsh pallor.
“Here,” Dane whispered, as Riley almost missed a closed door. Easing it open, light and voices filtered in. Dane peeked out, and saw they’d entered the wing housing the 6th grader’s lockers, the rear corner of the school. The students mingled with noses stuck into backpacks or huddled in tight circles, still unsure of their place in the school, even though school had been in session for almost a year.
“We have to do it first.” Riley whispered.
Dane nodded, and they stepped into the hallway, doing their best to appear normal. After a few minutes, it became clear anyone here was ambivalent to their presence.
The next hall of lockers was deserted, except for Lee, stuffing a social studies book into his one-shouldered backpack. A scarlet hat perched askew on his head, brazenly out of school uniform. Most of the teachers had given up trying to stop him from wearing it. He jumped a little when they walked up, but relaxed when he saw who it was.
“Guys! Why weren’t you at the bus—”
“The police are looking for us,” Dane interrupted.
Lee blinked, disbelieving. “C’mon.”
“Do you remember last night?” Riley accused. “We didn’t get all my papers. They found one.”
One with my name on it.
“Some of it. Look, no one’s said anything to me today.”
“There are police outside, right now.”
“That’s a load of crap.”
“Look for yourself. We’ll wait,” Riley crossed her arms across her chest, voice tight with impatience. “Dane and I are going to do our Quantums.”
Lee scoffed at that, and shook his head. “If the police are looking for us, that’s the worst thing you can do.”
“You’ll never get another chance. By the time they let you go, it’ll be too late.”
Lee looked worried for a moment, then shook it off, regaining his cocksure attitude. “I don’t need some machine to tell me what my life is going to be like.”
“You just don’t understand what you’re missing yet. Once you look—”
“What I’m missing? I’m not missing anything, Riley. I’m going to find out eventually.”
“People who don’t do their Quantum get sick and die,” Riley said.
“Everybody dies,” Lee shot back. “I’m not going to try and live longer just to spend it in prison. What did people do before they invented this thing? Hmm? I’ll wait,” his voice dripped with sarcasm. Riley and Dane stared back, not sure how to respond. “They did just fine, that’s what.”
“Just come with us, Lee,” Dane said quietly. “We’re all in this together. We were all there last night.”
“Is that what you’re going to tell the police? You guys are gonna give me up? Just like that,” Lee snapped his fingers.
“What else are we going to do?”
“Lie? Make something up?”
“We can’t do that,” Riley said. Lee laughed at her.
“You do what you want. I’m leaving. Don’t worry, if they catch me, I won’t say a thing about you two.” Lee slammed his locker shut and stalked away, shoulder length hair jerking frantically.
“We have to go after him,” Dane took a step after his friend.
“There’s no time,” Riley tugged him backward. “We need to take care of ourselves. Then we can go find him. First thing.”
Dane cast one more look at Lee, then jogged after Riley, stomach cringing at the thought of what he was about to do.
Before any of them had been born, some scientists had figured out how to safely manipulate the brain on a subatomic level. “It started out in the military, then trickled down to us civvies,” Dane’s father had said once around a half-empty beer can. At first, the treatments were used to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and a bunch of other diseases. Whenever anyone mentioned those names, foreign to Dane’s young ears, his mother got this look, like she was remembering something far off.
But after a few years, people claimed visions appeared while undergoing the treatments.
And that they came true.
Everyone thought they were crazy, until the two scientists behind the technology had visions too. With two Nobel prize winners backing it, more research was done, the treatment was commercialized. Then it was mandated by the government. All their teachers told them it was like getting a vaccination — just hop into the machine and you’d never have to worry about irregular brain diseases. “They want to sniff out the serial killers and deviants before they go crazy,” Dane’s father said around the same can of beer. “It’s never as simple as wanting to help anybody.”
Mr. Black waited outside the door. The assistant principal wore a crisp charcoal suit, his only one, one that would rumple and fade after two weeks presiding over students’ Quantum treatments. Hunching over the paperwork, his close-cropped hair formed an artificial bowl around his skull. Even sitting, he was a giant. All his height was in his torso and he peered down at Riley and Dane when they stood before him.
“I…wasn’t expecting you,” Mr. Black dropped his stormy gray eyes, flipping through sheaves of paper. “You two aren’t due until the afternoon.
“We need to go early,” Riley gripped the front of the table. Dane thought she was going to drop to her knees and beg in a moment.
Mr. Black closed the binder and folded his hands across it. “The police are looking for you.”
That took Riley and Dane back a step.
“We didn’t do anything,” Dane piped up. “It was an accident, we just want to explain.”
“So explain. Clear it up. They are waiting out front.”
“If they don’t listen…we don’t want to miss our chance,” Dane said, failing to stifle the whine of panic in his voice.
“You want to explain after,” Mr. Black stated, tapping a pencil on the table. “You two realize if I don’t get the police, I’ll lose my job.”
“Yes, sir,” Dane nodded.
“And evading the police, even for a morning, is going to raise questions about your innocence.”
“Yes, sir,” Dane nodded firmly.
Mr. Black sat motionless, eyes flicking back and forth between them for what felt like ages. A door opened and slammed shut behind them, far down the halls, and the assistant principal’s eyes jumped over their shoulders. “Stay here,” he said. “Both of you.” He held their gaze for an uncomfortable pause, raised his eyebrow and nodded almost imperceptibly.
Mr. Black rose, straightening his tie and smoothing non-existent wrinkles in his suit. He buttoned and unbuttoned it compulsively. Striding down the hall, his dress shoes echoed against the hard linoleum.
“What do we do?” Riley said.
Mr. Black had left their files out, a red card clipped to each.
“Come on,” Dane snatched up the cards and pushed through the door.
The Quantum room looked nothing like Dane expected.
A set of off-white machines, nearly the size of small cars, hulked in the middle of the room. A handful of men and women in khakis and black shirts sipped coffee and water out of Styrofoam cups next to a small, built-in kitchen. It had a discolored microwave, sink and laminate countertop strewn with creamer, sugar and napkins. One of the men noticed them, nudged a woman and pointed at Dane and Riley with his coffee cup.
She brightened at the sight of them and scampered over, both hands held daintily out to each side.
“Good morning! I’m Kaily. Did you two do your pre-work?”
“Yes,” Riley said, and Dane clamped his mouth shut.
“Great! We don’t need it — just needs to be in your head,” she tapped the side of her skull with a chubby finger, the ring encircling it no doubt grown too small long ago, before adulthood had grabbed hold. Dane wondered if she saw that in her Quantum, and if this was everything she expected. “If you can just give me your cards…”
Dane and Riley handed over the magnetized cards they’d stolen while Kaily hovered at a workstation, picking up a tablet and tapping in some information.
“How soon can we get started?” Riley asked, glancing back at the door. At any moment the police and Mr. Black could come storming in.
“Anxious to get it over with? Most people are,” Kaily nodded knowingly. “It doesn’t hurt, you know. And it’s over before you know it. Just like a dream.”
Riley and Dane nodded, shifting back and forth. After a few more painstaking minutes, Kaily clutched the tablet to her chest and popped up on her toes, chirping, “Who’s first?”
Riley stepped forward without hesitation, making a beeline for one of the machines. Dane watched one of the men strap her into a slide-out panel, attach leads to her face, neck, arms and legs to monitor her heart and vitals. Riley flashed a wan smile as they slid her in. She vanished inside the monstrous machine like a silverware drawer.
“Does it matter which one I pick?” Dane stared at the vacant machines. The trim on Riley’s glowed a dull blue, throbbing slowly.
“Not at all. The only thing that matters is you.”
Dane walked around the machines like he’d seen his dad walk around the used moped they’d bought last summer. He had no idea what his father had looked at, or what he searched for. Dane chanced a glance at the door. Mr. Black filled it, holding his hands up to ward off someone trying to enter. Dane made the same committal grunt his father had when he’d finally settled on the oxblood colored Honda. “This one.”
The man strapped him in and Dane heard voices now. The officers were in the room. The man helping Dane had his back to the door. His hands moved expertly, attaching everything with a routine deftness. To him, it was just part of his job. To Dane, this was his future. The man smiled and flashed thumbs up. Dane nodded, and the panel underneath rumbled as he plunged into darkness.
Dane will die of an incurable blood disease, bleeding out alone in a slum hospital that will bankrupt his
Dane will realize that his freshman year of college was the best time of his life, alienating a partner who pledged to love him
Dane will learn he is infertile at age twenty-six, devoting the rest of his life helping orphaned boys and girls gain self-
Dane will die of old age, asleep next to his wife of fifty-one years. She will pass away minutes
Dane will kill Lee, after Lee blur attacks Dane in a drug-induced rage because blur Dane put his best friend into
Dane lives at home until he is forty, taking care of his mother, crippled by a pickup truck on the blur way home from Dane’s
Dane meets his long lost love, Riley, at age eighty, twenty years after blur Dane dies of
Dane’s son introduces blur Dane and Lee to each other, after they enroll in the same
Dane dies when blur Dane lives after blur Dane becomes sick and blur Dane discovers that his entire life was a
The machine whirred to a standstill, not ejecting Dane after his vision cleared. Slivers of light beamed past his feet when he raised his head. Dane felt as if he’d slept for a thousand lifetimes. A thousand dreams, some clear as water, some gross transfigurations and mutations, blended and blurred until it was impossible to tell them apart.
All one life, looking at it through a thousand different windows.
His stomach lurched. Trying to grab at the inside of the machine, Dane fought to slide himself out. But it was impossible to grip the smooth plastic. The high-pitched squeaking of skin grew faster, mingled with dull thumping as he pounded on the sides.
Dane’s heart raced and blackness clouded his vision. He screamed, the echo reverberating back into his ears. The machine spit him out, Dane’s hands pawing at the air.
“Dane…it’s okay.” Riley’s smell enveloped him, followed by her warm arms. He shook against her, wanting to stop, afraid he might break her. “What happened in there?”
“Didn’t you…didn’t it make you…?” he drew back to look into her eyes. They were serene, and calm. And confused.
“No…I know exactly what I need to do now.” Worry filled her furrowed expression.
“How?” Dane begged, but Kaily trod on her answer.
“This is normal,” she soothed, placing reassuring hands on him. “You should come with me. It’s okay.”
Kaily led them to a set of beds, one for each machine. Freshly dressed in white linens, four identical copies of expensive medical equipment surrounded them. To one side, Mr. Black stood with arms crossed, toe tapping the linoleum. He dwarfed two policemen to his left and his right, patient.
Three hundred hours of community service.
Two hundred fifty complete, Dane and Lee hadn’t said a word to each other. The judge gave Riley something else to do, away from the Upper sewers where it all started.
“We got off easy,” Riley had said, almost happy to hear the sentence. “Besides, it’ll be fine in the end. You’ll see.”
Lee and Dane skulked as she walked off, pop in her step and books clutched tightly to her chest.
Three hundred hours. The long summer, gone. Stuck with someone who hated his guts.
August sauntered in and the summer thunderstorms clogged the sewers. That meant cleaning the gratings to remove branches and refuse.
The swollen flow pinned a car door to the first grate they found. Brackish water surged, swelling the duct to full capacity. Lee stared at the obstruction with a sneer on his face. Dane shook his head and grabbed the top, pulling with all his might. The door budged a fraction of an inch.
“You gonna help me?” Dane finally asked, after five minutes of fruitless labor. Normally Lee stalked over and finished the jobs Dane couldn’t do with barely a grunt, but this time he was content to watch his friend fail.
Anger rising, Dane yanked on the door, tearing at the metal with everything he had. His right foot slipped in the slick covering the concrete and he plunged into the water.
The shock sent a spasm through him and he gulped for air that didn’t exist. He fought and clawed at the rushing water, but it’d already pinned him against the door. The knobby plastic dug into his spine, sending a fresh shoot of pain when he uncoiled to reach for the surface. Tight. Everything felt tight. Amid the froth, inches from his face, Lee’s blurry shadow danced and waved in the current.
Bright colors flashed and Dane grew frantic. He thrashed against the current. Fire filled his lungs. If he stayed down much longer, the world would go black.
A hand gripped his wrist and pulled, grating him against the irregular shape of the door. His face burst from the water, gulping brackish spray and fresh oxygen. Lee dumped him on the concrete next to the channel.
An uncontrollable fit of coughing took Dane, and Lee put a hand on his back. He smacked it away, balled his hand into a fist and swung wildly, praying to connect with Lee’s face.
“What was that?” he shouted when the first shot missed. Dane cocked back for a second. “You shithead!”
Lee growled and lowered into a crouch, springing after Dane missed. They slammed into a wall, the top of Lee’s head thudding against the concrete and the impact knocking the last bit of air out of Dane.
They writhed on the ground, groaning in pain. Dane backed against the wall, holding his side and eyeing his friend.
“You should have come with us,” Dane panted. “They gave us all more because you ran.”
“We wouldn’t be here at all if you hadn’t got caught,” Lee spat.
“They picked you up first! You didn’t last ten minutes.”
Lee glared, but said nothing.
“I don’t know why you don’t just do it,” Dane continued after a minute of silence. “You’ll just end up worse.”
“I don’t care what they think,” Lee said quietly.
“I know what Riley says. She’s scared.”
“She wants to understand.”
“And I don’t! I don’t want to know everything before it happens.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Oh, it’s not? So you have no clue what your life is going to be like?”
“Then what was the point, exactly? So you can fill out a form and someone else can tell you what it means?”
Dane stared back at his friend, unable to answer.
“What if I don’t like what I see? What do I do then? Give up?” Lee’s voice strained, on the edge of tears. “There’s no point. You can’t change it. Knowing just locks you in.” Lee shook the water from his sleeves and stalked away, leaving Dane behind.
When Dane regained his strength, he pulled on the submerged door. Their struggle had knocked it loose, and it roared from the water like a lost ship.
The next day was Sunday. Dane arrived at the police station to check in. Like always, Riley was there too. A rusted, white van rumbled in its exhaust fumes outside, waiting to take them away.
“Where’s the other one?” the police officer poked his head through the door. His eyebrows furrowed deep, no doubt failing to understand why someone with so much community service would decide not to show up after completing nearly all of it.
Dane shrugged, keeping his eyes downcast. The police officer disappeared into an unmarked door. Riley slid next to Dane, eyeing the door as if anyone would care if they talked.
“Where is he?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.”
“Did something happen?”
“No,” Dane said, cracking when Riley didn’t back down. “We got in a fight.”
“And he almost let me drown.”
Riley frowned. “Did you tell him he was being stupid?”
“He doesn’t want to do it. And he does have a point — I’m no clearer about what I’m supposed to do now than I was before.”
“That’s because you haven’t had it interpreted yet,” she said. “It happens all the time.”
“No…mine was pretty clear,” she said. A tinge of rose blushed her cheeks.
“I just hope he’s okay. You know how he gets when he’s mad.”
“Well, it’s too late for that,” Riley said, as a trio of police officers emerged, hopped into the van and sped off.
Another officer popped her head from the door. “You two stay put. The investigator will have some questions for you.”
They both quieted while the officer flipped through their forms and disappeared into the station.
Riley broke the silence. “All you have to do is pick the right path. It’s not meant to confuse you or tell you how to live your life. It’s supposed to help you learn.” Riley eased closer, until she crowded Dane. There were no more seats and he didn’t fully understand what was happening, until her warmth enveloped his right side. “It’s supposed to help you follow your heart,” she breathed, ducking her head under his, pushing up with her lips. Her mouth found his mouth and everything flashed: the lights, the heat on his skin, her too sweet taste on his tongue, the overpowering smell of the soap she used this morning. Everything but the sound — all the other sounds dropped away, like he was underwater.
Dane pulled back out of reflex. The look on Riley’s face could only be described as disappointed.
“I don’t understand…”
“You’re…my friend…” was all Dane could muster. He wasn’t sure if that meant they should stop kissing or keep kissing, but the confusion was enough to paralyze him.
“My Quantum…you and I…” Riley shook her head, talking to herself now. “Didn’t yours…no…it didn’t,” tears sprang to her eyes, and her bottom lip quivered. Without intending to, Dane knew he’d broken her heart. “I was so sure…”
The investigator emerged, halfway through his questionnaire before he noticed sobs silently racking Riley’s body. The man did a double take, then returned to his form. To everyone’s relief, the questioning was over soon.
“You’re free to go back to your community service,” he clicked the pen and slipped it into his wrinkled trousers. Once more, no one remained in the lobby but Riley and Dane.
“You should choose,” she said. “On your own. Don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life.”
And his friend stood up and left, unable to say or do anything.
Dane spent the rest of the day alone, not knowing if they ever found Lee. If they did, they certainly didn’t make him finish his work day. It was just him, the sewers and his thoughts. All he wanted was for things to be simple. Back the way they were. Maybe that was impossible. By sunset, Dane had a plan. He had chosen what he was going to do.
This wing of the school lay silent, forgotten and dusty from disuse over the summer. The machines were too bulky to move anywhere else. So they remained, locked. The security guard checked on them every hour or two and central dispatch monitored the room from downtown.
After the security guard ambled to the next wing, he wouldn’t hear Dane forcing his way into the room. And after Dane slipped the metal poles carrying EEG machines through the door handles, the guard wouldn’t be able to bust in without help. That left him at least ten minutes before reinforcements arrived and their bulk would overcome Dane’s pathetic tricks.
Plenty of time for him to take a second look.
The whistling of the security guard faded, and Dane rushed toward the doors. Ramming a metal strip between the jamb, he jiggled until the latch released. He set about removing the deadbolt lockset. This was the noisiest part; it involved shattering metal and forcing it through the other side. It went easy, and everything clattered inside the room. That would set off the alarms at dispatch.
Dane slipped inside, searching frantically for the metal poles. At first he couldn’t find them, and he feared Kaily had returned them to whatever hospital or psych ward she worked at.
But when he spun, there they were, right next to the door, as if left just for him. Dumping the equipment, he shoved one, then two, and then two more into place just as the guard rattled the door, banging and shouting.
Dane ignored it, walking calmly over to the hulking machines. The hard part was over. The first step toward breaking the law, that was easiest. If he chickened out now, they wouldn’t care if he got in the machine or not. He might as well get his answers.
The only trouble he had turning the machine on was setting it into motion. It wouldn’t slide in without his weight on the platform, and the controls were impossible to reach from inside. So he piled medical equipment on the drawer while he got everything set, then tossed it out like a hound scattering spare dirt as he crawled into the already engaged Quantum.
They’d brought Riley to the police station for some reason. Dane sat on the steel bench across from the interrogation room. Armed officers to either side, his feet and hands were cuffed to the legs. An awful lot for a kid in middle school, he thought. But then again, Dane had a reputation now.
Riley walked toward him, arms clutching her sides, still crying. Had she stopped since she tried to kiss me? The officer motioned for her to enter the room, extending his arm to guide her in. Riley nodded, but paused, turning to Dane. Her eyes surprised him.
“You could have died,” she said. “And now they’ll send you to juvie. How can you—” she choked back the end of it, dropping her head in sadness.
“We’ll be back together someday.”
Riley stared, disbelieving, but then the vision of anguish changed to happiness, the kind that hurt so much you couldn’t help but cry. A lump choked his throat, and he didn’t break away as she walked inside.
When she was gone, an uneasy feeling remained in the pit of his stomach. A life with her wasn’t anything the Quantum showed him, but it was what he wanted. It felt right.
He’d seen horrible, terrible things in the second Quantum. Things that not only clouded the future, but made him never want to live it.
Dane tried not to think about it.