Ben had these little soaps I’d pick up and smell in his bathroom. They were like little seashells. Looked like white chocolate, smelled like I don’t know. Flowers or something. I’d always take one into my hand when I was peeing and think about taking a bite out of it. The night of Ben’s going-away party, I was like, I don’t know, maybe I should really do it this time. I’ll never be back here. I’ll never hold this little scented conch again.
But somebody knocked on the door and I flushed and left.
Everyone was there. People I hadn’t talked to since freshman year. People you wouldn’t think even remembered or gave a shit about Ben. But I guess everyone was pretty curious.
We got this big banner printed at Kinko’s for him. They let me design it, since I’m pretty good with Adobe stuff. It said “Get Out Of Here Already,” which I thought was pretty funny.
Anyway Ben was standing under the banner when I came back down. He had his phone out and like twenty people were crowded around him.
He’d go, “And this is my new apartment. It’s already furnished.”
And everyone would lean in and make comments on how nice it was.
Then he’d be like, “Here’s what they got for Arby’s over there. They call it ‘Marby’s.’ Isn’t that weird?”
I’d already seen all the pictures so I just drank on my pilsner off to the side.
Fiona asked if Marby’s still had curly fries or what.
“They’re way curlier. Like pube curly,” Ben said. “And the logo is a mariachi hat instead of a, y’know, like a cowboy hat.”
A bunch of people said, “Crazy!” and things like that.
Ben loved the attention. I thought, good for him.
“So when do you leave?” Reg or someone asked.
“My Gate call is at 6:00 in the damn morning, so I’ll be stepping through while you assholes are all still asleep.”
“Oh, that sucks.”
“Well, there’s no jetlag with a Gate, like you get with a plane here. And if I’m hungover, I’m hungover.” Ben snapped his fingers and pointed at me. “Nick, dude, what are you doing drinkin’ that? I got beers from over there. When I had my job interview I brought some back. You gotta have one, man, it’s a trip.”
He handed me this weird brown bottle shaped like a genie lamp.
“What do I do?” I asked. “Just like tip it into my mouth?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ben said. And everyone I noticed was watching me when I popped open the long nose on this oblong bottle and started drinking it. When it hit my tongue and I gagged and spat it out, I knew why. Everyone had a good laugh.
“Nasty.” I put it on the table.
“Hey, don’t waste it.” Ben took it and chugged.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Heather said.
“Better get used to it now.” Ben wiped his mouth and burped and held his phone up again. “Now, do you wanna see their freeways? It’s, like, so scary. You actually aren’t allowed to use a turn signal…”
I already knew all about the freeways in Kansas City-X7 so I went to see if Zane or anybody had a spliff or anything down in the basement. A couple guys were down there with him smoking. He handed it over before I could ask.
“Can’t believe Ben’s leavin’ us,” Zane said.
Between hits I said, “Yeah, it’s hard to believe.”
“Why’s he wanna go all the way to X7 anyway?”
“Well, he got a job out there.”
“So?” He started coughing like crazy. “They got jobs on our universe.”
“It’s a good job.”
“It’s a stupid universe. I looked it up. Beyoncé isn’t even famous there. She’s like a postman or somethin’.”
“Whatever, I don’t know.”
One of the other guys took the joint. Zane rubbed his eyes. “Where’re we gonna have parties now? Whose car am I gonna borrow? He doesn’t even have friends over there.”
“I think he just needs a fresh start,” some guy I’d never even heard of said. He looked super stoned. On his back and all.
Zane said, “That’s dumb.”
We both wanted some pizza so we went up to the kitchen to see what was left. This big crowd was all blocking the food huddled around a laptop. Hooting and hollering. I thought they might be watching the game so I pushed through.
Joanie was manning the computer and had Phasebook open. There was a profile up on the screen. It looked like Kurt. I say “looked like” because, you know, it wasn’t really Kurt. It was a Kurt, I mean.
“Now do me!” this girl said.
Joanie pulled up another page. She looked back at the girl. “You’re married over there!” Everyone went, “Ohhhhh!”
The girl leaned in. “Oh my God, I have a baby. He’s so ugly!” Only she was pretty drunk so it sounded more like, “Ommagaw I’ve baby! Heesogly!”
Zane nudged my rib. “I’m so sick of this game, bro.”
I was too. Every party since Phasebook came out, it seemed like we were checking to see what we all were like on the other universes. It never makes anyone feel good. I’m, like, a trust fund kid on K-19. My brother died on Z-Z1. It just kind of sucks to think about.
“Hey, do Nick,” someone said. Zane handed me another beer.
We gave each other a look like, “Let’s get this over with,” because the more you act like you don’t want to be Phasebooked, the more everyone wants to do it.
Joanie already had me up. “Oh, Nick, you’re pretty much the same over there. Senior year at Kansas State. Journalism major… You’re still a Dave Matthews fan. Nose pierced. Single. Only thing is it looks like maybe you’re going bald?”
“So like you said, the same,” some asshole called out. Everyone laughed: ha, ha.
“And Zane?” Joanie said. She clicked around and hunched over, all serious. Everyone got kind of quiet, like, waiting.
Finally Joanie went, “Weird.”
“What?” Zane shoved some guys out of the way and leaned over her. It was funny to me. I mean, for all that talk about not caring, and then he got all serious and charged Joanie?
She said, “There is no you on X7.”
“Seriously?” Zane reached over and clicked around. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, jerk, I know how to work the internet. God.” She yanked her laptop away. “Who’s next?”
That’s when I stopped thinking it was funny or fun. When I saw Zane’s face. He was like white as a sheet and it really stood out, you know, because his eyes were so red. He marched right into the living room. I followed him.
Ben was still in there, under my Kinko banner. He had his little circle around him, holding court. The man.
But Zane went in there and—well, he’s normally this real quiet guy. But he went in there and just stopped everyone cold, the loudest I’ve ever heard his voice get.
He went, “Ben, what the hell, man?”
Ben looked over. Totally innocent and just, like, no idea what was going on. “What’s up?” he said. If you ask me, he looked surprised to even see Zane.
“There’s no me there.”
Ben put his drink down. “No you where?”
“On X7! On your new, your little—! Your shitty little universe you just can’t wait to move to.” Zane took a long drink. Several gulps. “They don’t have a me.”
“Well, that’s weird.” Everyone was looking at Ben.
“You move to a new plane of existence and don’t even check to see if they got your best friend there first?”
Ben walked over to Zane and put an arm on his shoulder. “I really never thought to check. Look, man—”
Zane fake-laughed. “Oh, right! You didn’t check.” He jerked his shoulder away. Some people were starting to whisper and stuff.
Zane said, “So, what, you’re gonna get to your new apartment and invite everyone over over there and all hang out? You and X7 Joanie, and X7 Nick who’s goin’ bald maybe, and X7… um. Um, um, Reg? And you’re all gonna have a big X7 party! Is that what you’re gonna do?”
Ben sighed. “I don’t know, man. Do you want to step outside?”
“Only if you don’t.”
So Zane did go outside to the porch. Ben held up his hands and gave me this sad smirk like, “Eh, what’re you gonna do?” And I gave him this little nod like, “I’ll see about it, you keep having fun. It’s your night, bro.”
Zane was leaning with his arms folded over the rail, a few feet away from all the porch smokers. He spat a big hocker into the bushes and dragged his hand across his nose. He acted like he didn’t see me coming, but I didn’t want it to be awkward, so I said, “Hey.”
“Oh, hey,” he said. I let him think I thought he didn’t know I was there already.
I said, “It’s so stuffy in there,” so he’d think I came outside because I wanted to, not to check on him.
We were both standing there for a long time, all quiet. Finally Zane went, “Maybe I’ll move to X7.”
“You would never.”
“No, no, yeah.” He stood up all straight. “Maybe I’ll move too, and then X7 will have a Zane Donaghan. Imagine the look on his face if I showed up.” He pounded the rail a few times. “Ha! The look on his asshole face.”
“You aren’t going to any X7,” I said.
“What if I am?”
“First of all,” I said, “it’s like ten grand just to go on a scouting trip to any of these places. Just to walk through the Gate for like an hour and poke around. That’s not even for all the screenings and vetting and red tape to make sure you’re even allowed in. I’m sure the Ben over there got a big payout to sign off on our Ben moving in. His new company pays for all that. You got that kinda money?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Second,” I said. “You don’t know why there’s no you over there or what would happen if all a sudden there was. You could upset, like, nature. Start a war. You could, uh, y’know, cause the collapse of society or somethin’.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
“So, what, I’m Hitler over there? Is that what you’re sayin’?”
“Man, screw you!” Zane kicked a rail and it popped out all splintered. The smokers started watching us and pointing. “He’s just leavin’ like it’s the easiest thing in the worlds. And I’m stuck here—nothin’ goin’ on, nothin’ to wake up for, and you think I would ruin an entire universe just by existing in it?”
I didn’t say anything. Because I was thinking what to say.
“I didn’t ruin this one, did I?”
I just kinda looked at him.
Why didn’t I say “no?”
Zane said, “If he didn’t wanna hang out anymore, he coulda’ just said so.” He spat again. “He didn’t have to wipe himself outta reality.”
“That’s not it,” I said. “That’s not why.”
“And if you go to X7, what are we left with here, huh?” I clapped him on the back. “We need a you.” That, I felt good about. Happy I thought of it.
He just kind of snorted.
All the gawkers went back inside. So it was just me and Zane looking across the street. There’s that gas station there. A bunch of us would always sit out there and watch the people come and go. We’d seen some crazy shit out there, real late at night.
“Hey, remember when that skateboarder ran into the glass door?” I said.
Zane smiled a little bit. “His Combos went everywhere.”
“And that prom limo where three girls all poked their heads out the top and started puking?”
“I wasn’t here that night,” he said.
Someone walked out of the gas station with a kid in a Spider-Man mask. It wasn’t even close to Halloween or anything. I think the kid just liked Spider-Man.
I said the first thing that came to mind. “You know the number one movie of all time there is Batman Versus Superman?”
“Yeah. And all their Marvel movies bombed.”
“Well, is their Batman Versus Superman, like, really good or somethin’?”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “They’re the exact same movies.”
“That’s the stupidest shit I ever heard.” Zane laughed, I thought, a little too hard. “And I told you about the Beyoncé thing, right?”
“Yep.” I balled up my fist and showed him. He did the same. We bumped. “I’m goin’ back inside,” I said. “I wanna say goodbye and stuff. It’s his last night.”
Zane got on the ground and started trying to reach through the rails to pick up the one he’d busted up. “I’ll be in in a minute,” he said. “This adorable old lady just walked into the gas station and I’m, hm. I dunno how to explain it. I’m super worried if I’m not here to watch her walk out, she won’t be able to leave? She’ll only exist in the gas station, forever.” He blinked a bunch. “I dunno, man. I’m really stoned.”
So I told him: “All right. Hang in there. I’ll see you later.”
But you know what?
It’s been a couple months and I still haven’t seen him. Hasn’t texted back. Doesn’t pick up on calls. Everyone else says the same. Reg told me he showed up at Zane’s apartment once and thought maybe he saw someone moving around inside, but—
Okay. Remember that theory, it was around for years and they debunked it a while back? Goes like this: Every decision a person makes creates a splinter universe where they made a different decision, and that’s where all these worlds were coming from.
I never really bought into it myself, even before they disproved it with that algorithm thing. I mean, how could some asshole like me, like you, really have that much power? To create a new reality every time I open another beer or jerk off or don’t put my seatbelt on? No, that’s stupid. No one matters that much.
Still. I can’t help but wonder.
That night, at Ben’s party. If I had found the right thing to say to Zane. Had come up with the perfect words to make him feel better.
Where would we all be now?