After giving Mike one last teary-eyed hug, and ruffling his hair to his even louder protests, Tabitha went home. It felt like something big had changed deep inside of her, something she hadn’t felt in all the months since time-tripping back to 1998. For once that tense, almost frantic compulsion to do everything she possibly could, all at once, was gone—and in its wake there was only exhaustion. She felt her shoulders go slack as she re-entered her family’s mobile home, forgetting for a moment that her parents were—well, somewhere else. She had no idea where they were, today.
Still aching from this morning’s run, Tabitha realized, letting herself collapse onto the couch of their living room and sink deep into the cushions. Pain had been such a constant for all this time that it’d been shoved into a throbbing backdrop in her mind. The trailer was quiet, and she idly wondered to herself how she’d even managed to get this far. She was tired, more mentally spent than she’d ever realized, and it finally—finally felt like she was allowed to rest.
Cleaned and organized everything, lost all that weight. Made a real friend at school, maybe more friends soon. Saved the officer’s life, Tabitha thought, letting out a slow breath.
No Taekwondo, not for today. I can take it easy, just for a little while. I don’t need to run and practice forms every single day. She was already in trim shape, and unlike where she’d been at this age in her previous life, she didn’t suffer much in the way of cravings for food. After living through stomach ulcers that had hospitalized her more than once, she first associated eating with debilitating pain and nausea, rather than satisfaction.
She’d almost drifted off to sleep right there on the sofa when the phone began to ring, momentarily startling her. Combing errant red strands of hair out of her face, she wearily clambered up off the couch and found her way over to pick up the phone. Probably Grandma Laurie again, just getting the news.
“Moore residence, this is Tabitha speaking,” she said. “How may I help you?”
“Tabitha Moore?” A woman’s voice, and not one she recognized. “My name is Sandy—Sandra Macintire. Rob found me your number, but I didn’t—I wasn’t, um, I’m so sorry for not getting a hold of you until now. You saved my husband’s life. You saved my husband’s life, and I can’t ever, ever thank you enough.”
Mrs. Macintire’s voice was awash with emotion, and it sounded like she was beginning to cry over the phone, bringing tears back to Tabitha’s eyes and making her choke up.
“It’s okay,” Tabitha managed. “I just heard it was on the news, myself. I’m really glad he’s going to be okay. I, um. Wasn’t doing okay at all myself, until I knew for sure.”
“I wasn’t, either,” Mrs. Macintire tried to chuckle but had to stifle a sob instead. “Oh, honey, I wasn’t, either. B-but they say he’s, he’s going to be alright now. That it’s just going to be some time before—before he’s back on his feet, and up and around again and everything. Thank you so much, I can’t ever thank you enough. If there’s anything you ever need—”
“I just need him to be okay,” Tabitha explained, sniffling into the back of her hand. “I’d like to come visit him, if that’s alright. I’ve been having... bad dreams.”
One long, bad dream, where your husband bleeds to death on the way to the hospital, because no one was there to help him in time. A bad dream where the little trailer trash girl hears the gunshot and just goes back to watching TV. A dream where she grows up callous to his death, and starts to resent him for the way people treat her for being from the Lower Park neighborhood.
Except, it wasn’t a dream, really. It was a total fucking nightmare.
“Oh, of course you can, honey—I’m sure Rob would be happy to drive you out here to Louisville. Rob Williams, he was the officer first at the scene there with you, he told me everything you girls did. Thank you so much. I really—I don’t know what I would have done, what I was going to do, if. If.”
“He’s going to be okay,” Tabitha reminded her, wiping her eyes. “I can’t wait to meet you both, and see for myself.”
After profusely thanking Tabitha again, promising her that Officer Williams would be in touch with her parents about a trip to Louisville this Sunday, and suggesting they all share a meal together over Thanksgiving when her husband was fully recovered, Tabitha was finally able to say her goodbyes and hang up the phone. Not a moment too soon, she would discover—because several vehicles were pulling up to loudly park out front.
Stepping over to the window with no small amount of trepidation... she discovered Uncle Danny’s car had arrived. Tabitha couldn’t help but slump forward and knock her forehead against the glass in frustration. In her head, the vaguely-remembered events of her past life were supposed to follow some sort of episodic narrative, where the next chapter would begin only after the current one had concluded. In reality, however, occurrences overlapped in such a way that now she felt like she’d already missed out the first half of this Uncle Danny going to prison story, and completely lost any opportunity to take preventative measures.
Swallowing down her frustrations, she opened the door and strode down the steps to see what she already knew was going on. The familiar car was finally here; no doubt to find its near-permanent resting place up on cinder blocks on their lot. To artfully complete that last missing piece of their long anticipated trailer trash decor. Both of her parents had followed behind in her father’s truck, likely in case Uncle Danny’s car broke down again on route.
Looking over it now, the thing was a relic. Already a full decade old even here in this time— Uncle Danny’s car was a sun-bleached and faded black two-door coupe; a 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Classic, perhaps one of the last fumbling grasps automakers made with gigantic boxy, rigid-looking notchback designs of the era. The loud but wheezy-sounding motor finally sputtered off, and Tabitha turned her attention to its driver as she disembarked, a sleazy-looking young woman with peroxide-blonde hair and uncomfortably revealing clothing.
There’s no way that can be Aunt Lisa… right? Tabitha found herself dumbfounded, forced to run the math in her head. Her Aunt didn’t look to be even twenty-five years old, but the eldest of her four cousins was Sam—and he was eight or nine years old. The woman wore a low-cut tank top that didn’t seem to cover up her bra at all, and crammed herself into cut-off jeans tight enough that they pinched her midsection into a noticeable muffin-top. The princesses of pop—Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Christina Aguilera—wouldn’t emerge until next year, but Aunt Lisa already seemed ahead of that trashy late-nineties fashion curve.
“Oh my wooord, Tabby is that you, darlin’?” Aunt Lisa crooned in mock surprise. “Goodness sakes, I wouldn’ta recognized you one bit if not for you havin’ yer Momma’s hair! Jus’ look at you!”
“Hi, Aunt Lisa,” Tabitha weakly waved.
“Why, I’m surprised you even ‘member me, you were just a little thing, last time we met,” Aunt Lisa seemed pleased, and she slapped the roof of Uncle Danny’s car. “Well, you go on and thank yer Daddy, ‘cause he just bought you a car for when you turn yer sweet sixteen! Soon as y’all get a new battery in there, it’ll be good to go!”
“Oh wow,” Tabitha tried to mask her disappointment with a look of shock. What a waste of money.
Over the next fifteen years, she remembered they would discover it was a problem with the alternator and not the battery, that there was a fuel line leak, and that both the electronic control module and controller for the idle air intake were shot, causing the engine to stall if the vehicle idled for a little bit too long… amongst other problems. By the time Tabitha had given up on finishing her Goblin Princess novels and started working at the Safety Plant, her parents decided the cost of getting the rusty old thing running ever again wasn’t worth it. Eventually, they paid to get it hauled to a junkyard in Sandboro.
“How are the boys?” Tabitha asked, trying to reign in the anger she was feeling rise up at this hussy.
Aunt Lisa ignored her question, instead turning away from her with a blank look on her face towards Mr. and Mrs. Moore as they climbed out of the pickup.
“You’re a lifesaver, Al!” Aunt Lisa squealed in a chipper voice. “Thank you so much, this li’l bit of cash is gonna get us through some of these hard times. You sure you’re okay with swingin’ me by over to Shelbyville?”
And, we never saw her again, Tabitha thought to herself. Sam, Aiden, Nick and Joshua wouldn’t see her again either for years and years. This woman was about to ghost all of them and start a new life elsewhere, now that Uncle Danny was locked up. To her own surprise, Tabitha realized... she actually felt no compunction to speak up or try to stop Aunt Lisa from disappearing.
It’s going to be hard on you boys, but you’re better off without her, Tabitha decided, her previous anger settling deep into the pit of her stomach in a cold feeling. Grandma Laurie takes better care of you anyways, and this time I’m going to be over there looking out for you as much as I can. I know it hurts, and I know it’s not fair, but…
She watched on with that icy feeling in her gut as Aunt Lisa said goodbyes to Mrs. Moore, sent Tabitha a cheerful parting wave, and then left, chauffeured away by her father in his pickup. When Mrs. Moore finally approached her silently staring daughter, the fat woman actually had the decency to wear a guilty look.
“I’m... sure you have some questions,” Mrs. Moore managed, not making eye contact with her. “‘Bout what’s going on with your Uncle Danny.”
NOW you say something?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about all of this, now? It’s too late. It’s too late to figure out how to keep Uncle Danny’s nose clean. Too late to talk Aunt Lisa into remembering she’s a fucking mother of four, and needs to fucking act like it. It’s too late for me to trust you— and that’s what really makes this all so tiresome. Because I probably could have figured something out. Or, at least tried. Everything’s too late, Mom.
“Questions? No,” Tabitha said flatly, turning to head back inside. “I don’t.”
“What’re you doin’ for Halloween?” Alicia asked. She was sitting on one of the planter ledges alongside Springton High’s quad area, while Tabitha sat on the bench of a nearby table. It was a crisp morning, and the two girls had taken to hanging out with each other there among the crowds of students before the first bell sounded. Alicia frowned, furrowing her brow, and deftly flicked her pencil over in her hands to quickly erase a few lines of her drawing. “Any big plans?”
“I’m going trick-or-treating,” Tabitha said, flashing her friend a genuine smile. “I’m really excited.”
“Trick or treating?” Alicia scoffed, smirking at Tabitha. “Tsk, tsk. At your age? Shame on you.”
“Yeah. I really want to, though,” Tabitha admitted. “I remember it being awkward and miserable, back then. Trick or treating stops being a thing in a few more decades, so I want to really experience it properly back in its heyday. Not... awkward and lonely and miserable.”
“What.” Alicia was forced to slap her drawing down into her lap. “Bullshit. How does trick or treating stop being a thing?”
“Things change,” Tabitha gave her a listless shrug. “Stops being acceptable to let your kids run around free range like that, even on Halloween. Whole different social dynamic, with the helicopter parenting thing.”
“Helicopter parenting?” Alicia rolled her eyes and chuckled, returning to her drawing. “Okay, I do believe you just made that up.”
“It’s when parents just kind of hover over their kids for their entire lives, making a lot of noise,” Tabitha grinned. “You can’t even leave your kids in the car while you grab groceries, in the future. They could get heat stroke, so other parents’ll call the cops on you.”
“Speaking from experience, I guess?”
“No. I, uh,” Tabitha’s expression wavered, and her grin began to disappear. “I never had kids.”
Surprised, Alicia looked back up from her drawing just as Tabitha looked away from her.
“Did you ever get married, or anything?”
“No,” Tabitha answered in a neutral tone. “Nothing like that.”
“Uhh,” Alicia cleared her throat. “You’re getting real convincing with all that. But, maybe quit making every cool future thing into some... monkey’s paw wish gone wrong sort of deal, okay? You’re bumming me out. Helicopter parenting is when you raise your kids to fly choppers, and nothin’s gonna change my mind.”
“Choppers?” Tabitha gave her a confused look. “Doesn’t chopper mean motorcycle?”
“Since when? Chopper means helicopter, and always will,” Alicia bantered back, gnawing on the tip of her pencil distractedly as she examined her half-finished drawing. “Nice try, though. What’re you gonna dress up as for Halloween?”
“Um. I want to be Ariel,” Tabitha gave her a sheepish look. “Ariel, from the Little Mermaid.”
“Of course you do, I should’ve guessed,” Alicia arched an eyebrow. “And, you’re gonna rock the coconut bra in this weather?”
“No no no, I was planning on doing the human version. Like she wears in the little boat for the ‘Kiss the Girl’ scene. Long-sleeved open neck blouse. Bodice, long skirt. Big bow for my hair. I think I might be able to find a really good pattern for everything at the library,” Tabitha confided. “And, Ariel wore sea-shells, not coconuts!”
“Yeah, whatever,” Alicia conceded with a chuckle. “You’ll make a really good Ariel—you’re already like, ninety percent there. Lame that they don’t have a black Disney princess.”
“They will,” Tabitha said. “Princess Tiana.”
“What?” Alicia blinked, immediately pausing her pencil mid-stroke. “Yeah, who?”
“Princess Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog, maybe… ten or so years from now?” Tabitha revealed. “I think it’s the last hand-drawn animation they did, before their films were all either computer-animated or live-action.”
“Are you for real?” Alicia asked, hugging her open sketchpad against herself defensively. “In ten years? That’s a long time. Do you think I could be an animator by then?”
“Um,” Tabitha appraised her friend for a moment before giving her honest opinion. “...Yes. I think that you really can, you’re incredibly talented. In my last lifetime, I know you drew illustrations for different magazines.”
“What kind of illustrations?” Alicia asked. “Like, political cartoon sorta stuff?”
“No, not like that at all,” Tabitha shook her head. “Beautiful ones.”
“Uh, describe them?”
“The piece that really stood out in my memory was a woman’s nude back,” Tabitha frowned, trying to recall everything she could. “Her head was turned, so that you could only see the profile of her face. It was like a sketch with the way you had your lines, but not in an… unfinished way, if that makes sense.”
Alicia stared hard at Tabitha, still clutching her art pad against herself.
“It didn’t seem anatomical, exactly,” Tabitha continued, now struggling to put what she’d seen way back then into words. “All of the little muscles and the curls of her hair hanging down were detailed in like... a light map, kind of? The drawing itself was composed of crosshatch in the different shadow areas, to define everything, without putting in solid outlines..”
“Tabby! Alicia!” Elena waved cheerfully as she approached. “Morning! I want to introduce you to some people at lunch today, if that’s cool with you guys. Are you both gonna be in the library again?”
“Who?” Alicia scowled, hugging her sketchbook protectively against herself to prevent Elena from catching a peek of her work.
“Matthew Williams, he’s a sophomore, and Casey… uh,” Elena paused. “I don’t remember Casey’s last name. She’s a junior, and she helps run art club stuff.”
“Are they your friends?” Tabitha asked, curious.
“...No, not really,” Elena shook her head. “I’m crushing on Matthew, and he’s interested in you. Not interested interested, I don’t think. His dad’s a policeman, and he had something to do with the shooting stuff you were involved in.”
“Ah,” Tabitha nodded in understanding. “Rob Williams. Okay. I was hoping he could drive me down to Louisville this Sunday.”
“Have you met Matthew already?” Elena froze.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” Elena let out a slow breath, giving Tabitha a wary look. “I really like him.”
“I have no interest at all, there,” Tabitha assured her with a smile. “Trust me.”
“Pfft,” Alicia made a point of going back to work on her drawing, disregarding the conversation with an exasperated shake of her head. “Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about Tabitha going after boys at all.”
“Why?” Elena arched an eyebrow at Tabitha. “Are you gay? There were some rumors going around about that.”
“I’m not,” Tabitha sighed. “I just don’t plan on entering into any relationships in the near future.”
“Okay, cool,” Elena gave her an appraising look. “I don’t like gays, I think they’re really weird.”
It was a struggle for Tabitha not to wince and hide her face in her palms at hearing that. She probably shouldn’t have expected a teenage girl in nineteen ninety-eight to be quite as politically correct as she’d grown accustomed to over her previous life, but hearing the girl’s thoughts laid out so bluntly was still... unexpectedly jarring. Worse yet, Alicia seemed to find the misunderstanding she’d helped foster incredibly amusing.
Going to have to ease them both into a talk about some things later on, if we’re all going to be friends.
“Casey’s an artist,” Elena continued, turning now to address Alicia. “I don’t know how your stuff measures up against the upperclassmen, but I think you can impress her and get in with the art club crowd. She’s apparently real close with all of them.”
“And, what does the art club do?” Alicia challenged, not looking up from her sketch.
“I actually don’t know,” Elena admitted with a shrug. “I only went to the Poetry club open house, and I don’t even know that I’ll go back. I’m assuming art club meets in one of the art rooms someday after school, and that they organize activities and stuff. It could mean some sort of opportunities for you, I guess.”
“Okay,” Alicia tried to look indifferent. “Where’s Matthew and Casey now?”
“I didn’t say anything to them yet,” Elena said. “You and Tabitha’ve pretty much kept to yourselves since school started. Didn’t want to intrude on you guys or anything without asking first.”
That’s… surprisingly thoughtful of her, Tabitha thought, blinking at Elena. She wasn’t sure what to make of the long-legged blonde. After returning to nineteen ninety eight and having almost each and every hour of the day allotted to various planned endeavors, Tabitha could appreciate Elena’s aggressive enterprising. The girl was definitely a go-getter, but Tabitha hadn’t ever thought to consider nebulous concepts like friendship something you could really plan out. I suppose we’ll just have to see?
The first bell sounded, a long ringing warble that prompted the scattered students idling around the patio area to disperse towards their individual classes.
“I’d like to meet them,” Tabitha decided, glancing towards Alicia. “What do you think?”
“Sure,” Alicia said, feigning total disinterest. “It’s whatever, I’m cool with it.”
“Great!” Elena’s eyes lit up. “Awesome. I’ll let ‘em know when I see them in class. Library at lunchtime?”
“Yeah,” Tabitha said.
“Great,” Elena said. “I’ll let you two discuss, then. See you in first period, Tabby.” The blonde left with a wave, pointedly giving the two some space to talk without her.
“What do you really think?” Tabitha gave Alicia a wry smile.
“I don’t know,” Alicia dropped her sketchpad back into her lap, no longer pretending to draw. “I still don’t really like her. But, it was cool of her to ask first. I guess.”
“Any interest in art club?” Tabitha asked.
“Maybe?” Alicia lifted her hands in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know, never really even thought about it. Crap. Should I grab my good portfolio out of my locker before lunch?”
“Alicia still doesn’t like me,” Elena reported, leaning towards Tabitha from her desk a row over in Marine Science. “What do you think I should do?”
“She doesn’t really know you, yet,” Tabitha laughed. I don’t really know you yet, either. “Give her some time. She didn’t warm up to me right away.”
“Okay,” Elena said. “You don’t think it’s because I’m white, do you?”
“...What?” Tabitha cocked her head, shooting Elena a look of disbelief. She held out a forearm, so pale that she could trace the slight blues and greens of veins along the inside of her wrists when she inspected closely enough. “No? I’m significantly whiter than you.”
“No, you’re not,” Elena scoffed, pointing at herself with both fingers. “I have blonde hair.”
Tabitha was rendered speechless, tilting her head in confusion even further.
“I’m kidding, Tabby,” Elena laughed.
“Both of y’all need to get a tan,” Amber, the brunette girl who sat in front of Tabitha, spoke up. “Y’all are embarrassing.”
“Your face is embarrassing,” Elena smirked.
“Your Momma’s embarrassing,” Amber shot back.
“Those shoes are embarrassing,” Elena glanced down at Amber’s muddy Reeboks with disdain.
“Your outfit is kinda embarrassing,” Amber retorted. “Slut.”
“Your boyfriend was pretty embarrassing,” Elena snorted. “Trust me, I know.”
“You sucking up to whoreface back here is what’s embarrassing,” Amber shot back with a laugh, twisting in her seat to give Tabitha a skeptical once-over. “What’s your whole deal supposed to be, anyways? Think this was like, the first time I’ve even heard you talk to anyone.”
“Running your mouth all the time is pretty embarrassing,” Elena scowled at Amber. “Fuck off. You don’t even know Tabby, and you’re already tryin’ to jump in and talk shit. Mind your own goddamn business, hoebag.”
What… is happening? Tabitha looked from girl to girl with wide eyes.
She didn’t want drawn into the surprisingly childish squabble at all. Having someone else immediately leap to her defense, however, was… different. Tabitha wasn’t sure if she felt touched or if she felt alarmed, but it was a very strange experience for her, and when she opened her mouth she realized she had no idea what to say in this situation.
“Bitch, please,” Amber spat. “You think I don’t—”
“Ladies, ladies!” Mr. Simmons called over helpfully. “Save the Jerry Springer for next period, this is Marine Science. If you girls absolutely must bicker, at least say you’re gonna go subtidal on her beachface. Something like that—we have appearances to keep, here.”
Casey was already waiting in the library when Tabitha arrived at lunchtime. With light brown hair cut in a shaggy bob, the girl wore a yellow tee with a summer camp logo emblazoned on it and a rather plain pair of shorts. With her now finely-tuned sense for differentiating the ages of various fellow students, Tabitha could tell she was at least sixteen or seventeen, and Casey was also putting off that flagrant too-cool-for-school vibe. The teen was rocking back dangerously in her chair, with her sneakers up on one of the library tables, while she idly played with her smartphone.
Wait. Tabitha lurched to a sudden halt, stunned. She has a SMARTPHONE… ?
“Oh hey, what’s up?” Casey noticed Tabitha’s abrupt stop, giving her an enormous grin. “You must be Tabitha, right?”
“Uhh,” Tabitha worked to regain her composure. “Yeah, hi. You’re Casey? Is that a phone?”
“A phone?” Casey rolled a thumb across a dial on the side of the device, and the distinct sound of electronic chipset music was audible in the library for a moment. “It’s a Gameboy Pocket. Cool, huh? I’ve got Pokemon Red. They’re coming out with the Gameboy Color sometime this Christmas—I’m super stoked.”
“Yeah! That’s, um. Wow,” Tabitha laughed, feeling the knot of unexpected tension slowly loosen itself. I completely forgot Gameboys were a thing. “That’s really cool. It just runs on double As?”
“Triple A’s, actually,” Casey smiled. “Crazy how small they can pack it all into now, right?”
“Crazy, yeah,” Tabitha agreed. You have no idea. In just a few years, a smartphone’ll have more processing power than all of the Apple II’s in this computer lab put together. Forty years from now, a tiny little finger ring’ll have more computing power than all of the machines in the world here combined.
Before she could further ruminate on the bounding leaps of technology, Alicia showed up, her leather-bound art collection under one arm.
“Alicia?” Casey guessed, pulling her feet off the table and arranging herself in a more normal sitting position.
“Yeah. Hi,” Alicia stood awkwardly, looking nervous.
“Elena said you’re prospective art club material, so let’s have a looksie at each other’s stuff,” Casey proposed, setting her Gameboy aside. The upperclassman pulled a worn spiral notebook out of a backpack at her feet and slid it across the table towards them.
Gingerly passing her own portfolio across to Casey, Alicia sat down with Tabitha at the table, and they opened up the offered spiral notebook between them. Within, they discovered each page was packed with squares upon squares of different panels filled with stylized doodle animals and speech bubbles—unlike Alicia, Casey was a cartoonist.
Cocoa Cinnabun was a pet bunny, drawn in a style reminiscent of old Garfield comics. In fact, as Tabitha’s eyes flicked down the page, she found the plot of the comic storyboards was collectively something of an amateur homage to Garfield. Cocoa Cinnabun lazying about, Cocoa sometimes chewing through things he wasn’t supposed to, or knocking over the waste can in the background, which was drawn as a simplified trapezoid shape.
“Holy shit,” Casey whispered as she leafed through Alicia’s artbook opposite them. “You drew all of this? This is like, this stuff’s serious.”
“Those are from last year, yeah,” Alicia said. “I have my recent stuff in this one, if you wanna see.”
“Gimme it all, I wanna see!” Casey laughed. “This is all like… wow. Hah, ashamed that you’re looking at my awful garbage, now.”
“Your stuff isn’t bad at all,” Alicia said with respect, flipping from page to page. “Just, y’know. Stylized, totally different direction.”
“I think Cocoa’s really cute!” Tabitha added carefully. “He kind of reminds me of Garfield, Garfield crossed with Hello Kitty.”
Wait. Would people in the US know about Hello Kitty, back in ninety-eight?
“I love Hello Kitty!” Casey broke into a beaming smile, putting Tabitha’s concerns to rest. “Oh, hey! Matthew! Elena! You guys’ve gotta come check this stuff out!”
Tabitha turned in her seat to see Elena ushering a young man through the library’s metal detector, and—
A single loop of tension slipped out of the knot she felt earlier and then her anxiety constricted the whole thing, forming what felt like a tight noose around her chest that made it difficult to breath.
Matthew had mesmerizing blue eyes that immediately stole her full attention, a steely heaven-eyed gaze she could wax poetic about—if not for her mind immediately turning to sugary molasses on her. Besides those unfathomable eyes, Matthew possessed strong, masculine features; distractingly broad shoulders, stern eyebrows and a lovely jawline. His wavy hair was a mottled dirty blond, and playfully swept back in what she thought of as a surfer cut. Tabitha felt her heart pound and blood rush to her face.
Goddamnit. You’ve got to be kidding me…