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    Elena didn’t know what to think when Mrs. Seelbaugh dropped off her and Alicia at Springton General Hospital to visit with Tabitha for a few hours. There wasn’t any secret Elena could think of that would justify what had happened, nothing that could absolve Elena of her own wrongdoing. But, against her better judgement, she hadn’t pressed the subject, instead allowing Alicia to defer the explanation to Tabitha.

    “Sorry! I can’t say any more—I really can’t,” Alicia had said, holding up her hands in a helpless gesture. “Not my secret to spill. I’m sorry. We DEFINITELY do need to talk with her about this real soon, though. Maybe your mom can take us after school today?”

    So Elena stalked after Alicia down the bright hallway of the hospital ward dressed in her new black attire. She didn’t walk anymore; she stalked. Simply walking was old Elena. She wasn’t quite sure yet how everything she did was redefining her, but it was helpful discovering and exploring the new outlook. People looked at her differently, an entirely different person was reflected in their eyes as they glanced at her. Even if it was just curiosity, even if they were just bored receptionists at Springton General, or the people idling about in the waiting room. What Elena wore and how she looked was making a statement about who she was.

    She just needed to figure out what exactly that meant.

    “Do you think she’s gonna freak when she sees you?” Alicia asked, giving Elena a look of excitement as they closed in on Tabitha’s room.

    “I don’t know,” Elena tried to keep her voice in a neutral tone. “If she does, she does.”

    Tabitha had still been groggy and delirious the last time they’d visited, so Elena couldn’t help but fill with unbridled terror at the thought of confronting her now for real. Her mind was made up, however, and even if Tabitha held nothing but hatred for her now, it was her responsibility to bear it.

    However she reacts—I need to face it, Elena took a deep breath and steeled her resolve. I’m just as responsible for putting her in here as Erica Taylor. I was the one who put her at risk. I—

    “Knock, knock,” Alicia called, rapping her knuckle on the already open door of Tabitha’s room and then leading Elena inside. “You still alive and kickin’ in here, Tabs?”

    “Oh! Hi, you guys! I wasn’t expecting any—uhhh, Elena?!” Tabitha exclaimed.

    Against all expectations, Tabitha completely lit up into a brilliant smile upon seeing them, possibly the happiest and most exuberant expression Elena remembered seeing on the girl ever. Elena had braced herself for any level of condemnation, she’d prepared herself to be berated or even screamed at, she’d readied her emotions to see raw hurt and anger written all over Tabitha’s face. What she’d failed to do was prepare herself for an eventuality where Tabitha was thrilled to see her, and Elena drew a total blank on what to do.

    “Oh my God, Elena!” Tabitha’s eyes seemed to dance as she admired Elena’s new look. “You look amazing! When did you do all this?! I thought the whole emo thing was—um, well I wasn’t expecting to see anything like this so soon!”

    “Right?!” Alicia smirked, shooting Elena a patent I told you so look. “You’re lookin’ pretty great yourself, Tabs. I see they already took away your snake-charmer turban!”

    “Oh my gosh,” Tabitha grinned, raising a hand to the remaining headband of bandage that wrapped around her head in a self-conscious way. “Can’t believe you all saw me when my head was all wrapped up like that—so embarrassing!”

    “If you think that was embarrassing, you should’ve heard yourself trying to babble out nonsense when they had you all doped up,” Alicia laughed. “I like you better this way, though. I’m… Tabitha I’m so glad you’re doing better.”

    “Yeah, I—it was a pretty close call, I think, hah,” Tabitha let out a nervous laugh. “Um. I didn’t… totally ruin the Halloween party, did I?”

    “You… what?” Elena blinked, totally dumbfounded. “No, no you didn’t ruin it, Tabitha—Tabitha, no one cares about the party! You almost died.”

    “I did die!” Tabitha said in a chipper voice, twisting on the hospital bed and leaning over to grab a framed certificate from the nearby end table. “Sorta. I won a certificate and everything. Legally dead, hah ha. Mrs. Williams and my Mom hate it, but Hannah thinks it’s really cool.”

    “Oh wow,” Alicia mouthed, accepting the frame from Tabitha. “This is awesome. They’ll really let you keep this? Don’t they have to, like, invalidate it, or shred it or something?”

    “Well, it’ll be valid someday,” Tabitha chuckled, giving her friends a cheeky smile. “They’ll just have to adjust the date, ‘cause it’s not gonna be soon. I’ve got way too much to do!”

    The growing dissonance between Elena’s expectations for this meeting and the current playful mood was a chasm yawning wide that all of her lines of thought were dropping down into. She couldn’t help but stare in disbelief at the completely nonchalant way Tabitha was brushing off everything that had happened. It was frustrating, the situation was making her feel increasingly uncomfortable, and the now raven-haired teenager felt so jarringly out of place that she had no idea what to do.

    “Elena?” Tabitha’s bright expression began to falter. “What’s wrong?”

    “What’s wrong?” Elena repeated, feeling stupid. “Tabitha. I—I almost got you fucking killed.”

    “What?” Tabitha looked utterly perplexed by the assertion. “How? What?”

    “She thinks it’s her fault that all that happened,” Alicia carefully mediated. “For like, convincing you to go to the party.”

    “I made her go,” Elena corrected. “She didn’t even want to. I made her. I—”

    “No, no—Elena,” Tabitha put on an exasperated smile. “You were completely right about the party, I had a lot of fun!”

    “What,” Elena uttered.

    “I mean, not counting what happened with Erica, obviously,” Tabitha rolled her eyes. “The rest of it, the dressing up and going with you guys, just, being there, it was great. I loved it.”

    “What,” Elena said again.

    To her credit, Alicia didn’t make any comment, but the I told you so look that reappeared spoke volumes. Elena looked from Tabitha to Alicia and back again, but the discomforting sense of alienation just intensified. No one blamed her, no one at all. But, how was that possible? How were the feelings of guilt and grief that felt so true and real supposed to be invalidated? She opened her mouth to say something, but she had no idea what to say.

    “It… it was my fault,” Elena finally insisted, shaking her head. “What happened was my fault. You were at risk. You shouldn’t have even been there.”

    “No,” Tabitha refused her claims without pause. “No, it wasn’t your fault. If Erica didn’t find me at the party, she would’ve just found me at home, or out alone on one of my walks, or something. Can you imagine how bad it would’ve been if she attacked me when hardly anyone else was around?”

    “No, I—no,” Elena argued. “You can’t know that. She—”

    “Tabitha—you need to tell her,” Alicia said, giving the redhead a meaningful look. “Your big secret. I’ve already been through this with her, and like, nothing gets through at all. This whole thing is really messing her up.”

    “Um,” Tabitha squeaked, her expression turning apprehensive. “Has she… guessed anything?”

    “No, not really, but—I mean, just look at her!” Alicia gestured dramatically at Elena’s new fashion choices. “This is like, affecting her!”

    What secret can she even have? Elena frowned, watching Tabitha carefully. Was she... actually stealing stuff from the Taylors? That doesn’t seem like it fits her, like it fits what Tabitha would do at all.

    “I... thought that we were going to be careful about this?” Tabitha protested in a weak voice.

    “Yeah, well we were gonna—you were gonna have to tell her eventually anyways!” Alicia countered. “Better sooner rather than later, right? The longer you let the lie go on—”

    “—I haven’t lied about anything,” Tabitha interrupted. “Not exactly. I just—”

    “—Oh, come on,” Alicia retorted. “You know what I’m—”

    “—I just haven’t been open about certain unbelievable things that would necessitate lengthy explanations,” Tabitha finished with difficulty.

    “We need to tell her,” Alicia insisted firmly. “This is hurting her, and she needs to know. What happened at the party—that absolutely wasn’t Elena’s fault, right?”

    “Of course it wasn’t Elena’s fault,” Tabitha said, turning her gaze from Alicia to Elena. “Elena, you—”

    “It was. I made you go,” Elena said with a difficult shrug. “You didn’t want to. I practically made you. Talked you into it, all because—”

    “See?” Alicia waved her hands. “She thinks it was her fault. But, it wasn’t, right?”

    “Elena,” Tabitha started to say. “What happened wasn’t your—

    “Don’t,” Elena warned, shaking her head. “Don’t. Just… don’t. I’ve heard it. I’ve heard everybody tell me that.”

    “Yeah, maybe ‘cause it wasn’t your—” Alicia started.

    “I can make up my own mind,” Elena replied, crossing her arms and trying not to choke up. “On whether or not I deserve blame. For what I did. I convinced Tabitha to go, when she shouldn’t have been there. Mostly for selfish reasons. Okay? I was trying to, like, build us up as this thing. As part of—as this little group, taking advantage of Tabitha’s momentum. And then, when she withdrew from school—I didn’t know what to do. I was desperate for… leverage. Needed to feel in control of the social situation. It was selfish. Selfish, stupid games. Tabitha didn’t need to go to that party, I needed Tabitha to go to that party.”

    “Elena—” Tabitha tried.

    “—And you know what?” Elena bit out as tears formed in her eyes. “It didn’t even matter. It didn’t even matter! Matthew was already with Casey. For a long while, maybe, I just, I didn’t want to see or, or didn’t care, or didn’t want to notice. The school situation is—it’s fucking stupid and trivial and even thinking about it now makes me feel sick. Us going there, us being there to make a point, it wasn’t going to do anything—nothing was going to change with us being there. It would have been fine, you would have been safe, if, if—”

    “Elena, stop,” Tabitha held out her good hand. “Come here.”

    “No, I—no,” Withdrawing a step, Elena shook her head in refusal, hugging her arms closer to herself and beginning to cry.

    “Elena, come here,” Tabitha repeated, gesturing again. “I’m not supposed to get up. But I will, if you make me.”

    “No,” Elena shook her head. “No, no, Tabitha, Tabitha I’m—”

    “Oh, c’mon,” Alicia stepped forward, taking Elena by the arm and trying to force the unbudging girl over towards Tabitha’s hospital bed. “Both of you—Tabitha, you need to tell her.”

    “You blame me, too, Tabitha!” Elena stammered, trying to pull her arm out of Alicia’s grasp. “Tabitha, you asked me which Elena are you, when we came in last time. When, when you were, you were delirious from your painkillers or whatever. I said to everyone, I told them I couldn’t make out what you were saying. But, I heard. You asked me, which Elena are you? That’s when I knew—”

    “Alicia... let go of her,” Tabitha sighed, slowly settling herself back on the bed. “They’ll flip out if they catch you two rough-housing in here. Pull up the chairs closer, please, and we’ll—we all need to talk.”

    “There’s nothing to talk about,” Elena said in a bitter voice as Alicia hurried to rearrange the chairs in the small room. “I know what—”

    “If you were ever my friend, Elena, you’ll at least listen to what I have to say,” Tabitha decided. “I won’t ask you to believe me. I just—please, will you listen?”

    “Was I ever really your friend?” Elena challenged. “What does anything I’ve ever even—”

    “Yes, Elena, you are my friend,” Tabitha reached over to pat the armrest of the first chair as Alicia placed it beside the head of her bed. “Now, come here. Sit.”

    Feeling ashamed and furious at herself and unsettled all at once, Elena reluctantly stepped over to the offered chair and slowly—uneasily—sat down.

    “Elena… I’ve already lived out a different life, one that went past 1998,” Tabitha revealed in a slow voice.

    “She’s from the future!” Alicia blurted out, scooting the other chair up closer to them.

    “I’m from... a future,” Tabitha corrected. “A different future. This time through is significantly different, because of things I’ve tried to change.”

    “She’s from the future!” Alicia said again. “Like, she’s for real from the future. She knows things that nobody else could ever, ever know. She knew about the shooting, she—”

    “Alicia, whoa,” Tabitha chided her friend, holding up a hand. “Not all at once, let’s let her process this bit by bit—it’s a lot to take in.”

    “Sorry,” Alicia said with a sheepish smile. “It’s true, though. She’s from the future.”

    “You’re... from the future,” Elena echoed in a flat voice, staring at Tabitha.

    “I’m from the future,” Tabitha nodded, wearing an unsure smile as she attempted to gauge Elena’s reaction.

    In all honesty, Elena felt no reaction at all. She registered the words her two friends were saying, but all the same they didn’t seem to parse at all. The meaning behind what they were trying to convey just wasn’t processing, and Elena didn’t find herself to be particularly in the mood to puzzle out what they were actually trying to tell her. Instead, she simply stared at Tabitha, waiting for the girl to explain herself.

    “Okay, here goes…” Tabitha took a deep breath and began to recount her story.

    “In my first life, I was Tubby Tabby. I was an overweight little... trailer trash girl, who grew up in a very low income neighborhood. After some circumstances with the older sisters of a friend of mine—the Taylors—and then some comparatively minor bullying incidents, I developed this rather crippling case of social anxiety. Kept to myself throughout school, my hobbies were just, like, watching TV and reading. Staying home. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have either of you.

    “Enrolled in the community college in Elizabethtown, eventually later transferred to Northern Kentucky University. My college years were all… still a mess. I was fat. Hated myself. Really struggled to interact with people. The major I was pursuing, secondary education English—at first I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but it—it.. well, it wasn’t for me. The more I learned, just… the more I realized it wasn’t for me.

    “My actual social development basically started throughout that time period, during my last years at Springton High and my first years at college. At least, if you could even call it development; I spent my time online. Livejournal. Fanfiction dot net. Gaia online, even. Dozens of little proboards forums, geocities webrings, messenger friends, mIRC—”

    “Wait wait wait,” Alicia scrabbled to retrieve her sketchpad and pencil. “Lemme write these down.”

    “Please don’t,” Tabitha looked mildly alarmed. “Please don’t, I—listen, I’m not proud of my history there. I was going through a difficult time, and there were a lot of internet communities for… those of us who were also going through difficult times.”

    “That doesn’t sound bad or anything,” Alicia tried to reassure her as she began writing furiously. “These are website addresses? Live journal, fan fiction something, and guy online? My Dad pays for a web service, so—”

    “You don’t—” Tabitha made a face. “Well. You’ll understand when we all get there. It was bad, it was this total cringeworthy… I can’t explain. I won’t explain. All my posts are gone like they never existed now, so I can safely pretend my dark past there just never ever was.”

    “...Go on,” Elena prompted.

    “Yeah, anyways,” Tabitha said with reluctance. “At some point, I thought I could be the next Rowling or Meyer, become the next big thing writing young adult fiction. Gave up on teaching and finished school with just my English major. Tried to write my Goblin Princess trilogy, got through the first two books with this Canadian publisher before all of that fell through. Was deep, deep in debt from school, because I wasn’t on scholarship, and also hadn’t been working.

    “So, after Northern Kentucky U, I just came back home and got a job at the Safety Plant. The one in Fairfield. Worked there for… years and years. Tried dating, because I was terrified of winding up alone, and, um. Well, dating was worse than being alone. I wasn’t comfortable being in my own body, let alone uh. Sharing intimacy with another person. Let alone the kind of person who—uh, okay yeah I’m actually not ready to get back into all of that right now.

    “Time went on. I got older, fatter, and more miserable. Just like my—well, uh. Moved out of the trailer when things got bad between my mother and I, and… um, she died not long after. We weren’t on horrible terms or anything when it happened, things had just been… difficult between us. She saw too much of herself in me, or… I don’t know. Complicated. Really complicated now, with some of this new perspective. Uh, anyways. My dad died—cancer, brain tumor. My one close writer friend died—suicide, actually. Started working at the Springton Town Hall when I got older—well, I was just old, really.

    “I was sixty years old, and I’d been having these persistent migraines—concerning, after what happened to Dad—and all Springton did was keep freaking prescribing different medications at the problem. When I eventually put my foot down, because I’m starting to miss work because of these headaches, they send me to Louisville for a more thorough check. I get into this big custom MRI machine… and something happens. It sends my mind back in time, where I’m in the same machine, but just a little girl getting her concussion looked at. The concussion from being pushed off of that trampoline, all the way back in middle school. Here in 1998.”

    “So, the MRI’s really a time machine!” Alicia gaped at the reveal. “Tabitha—oh my God!”

    “Maybe?” Tabitha nodded. “It sent my mind back, at least. I’m not sure how useful that is, though—I think the caveat was that my past self had to have interacted with the machine here, in this time.”

    “Wait, wait,” Alicia slapped her sketchpad on her knees. “Have you like, investigated it or anything? What’s special about that MRI, who made it? Has it sent anyone else back? If we get into that same machine here in 1998, isn’t there a chance our future selves could, uh, bridge through into our bodies here?”

    “Um… it’s possible,” Tabitha admitted. “I suppose. I thought about it a little bit, but I’m not sure what would happen. The MRI would maybe have to do the crazy screeching scraping metal freaking out thing, I think. And then, you’d… wake up with your mind overwritten by future you? Maybe. I’m not sure how it exactly works, and the apparent mechanics of it might be a matter of… perspective?”

    “Tabitha… how serious are you about all of this?” Elena asked, trying to be as tactful as possible.

    “Very,” Tabitha winced. “Completely. I do realize how crazy it sounds.”

    “I didn’t believe it at first,” Alicia admitted. “But like, she will fucking convince you. Back when I met her in the first weeks of school, she was in the school library at lunch every day, reading up on treating emergency gunshot wounds and police response stuff. Then, out of the blue she knows right where to be to save Officer Macintire.”

    “That was… actually a fair amount of luck,” Tabitha let out a slow breath. “I only remembered that it was after school early-ish October, so my plan was to be out there at that spot every day. And, I didn’t save him, I just... managed to get it called in a little earlier and prevented some of the blood loss.”

    “You saved him,” Alicia refuted. “Literally. Like, he was supposed to die, and then because you intervened, he didn’t. Right? That’s literally you saving his life.”

    “I mean… I guess,” Tabitha said with an uneasy expression.

    “He was supposed to die?” Elena asked.

    “I can’t speak for what was supposed to happen, but... he did die in my first lifetime,” Tabitha said. “I was watching TV and heard the gunshot, but I didn’t go outside to see what happened, or anything. I heard he bled out in the ambulance on route to the hospital, and… they couldn’t resuscitate him. He passed away.”

    “But, this time, he didn’t,” Alicia said with excitement. “Because, Tabs here was ready and waiting, right there when it was about to happen. She ran up and knew what to do right away, was shouting all the medical whatever to me to tell the dispatcher, the—”

    “—I wasn’t shouting at you—”

    “—make and model of the shooter’s getaway car and everything,” Alicia continued. “‘Cause Tabitha knew it was gonna happen, and she’d been holed up in the library every day researching the like, gunshot wound trauma and stuff. Like, I knew. Somehow, I knew that she knew about it in advance. It was just too convenient.”

    “Elena?” Tabitha prompted, apparently noticing Elena’s terrible expression. “Are you okay?”

    “No, I’m not,” Elena let out a bitter chuckle. “I just—I don’t get it. It’s not funny, and I don’t like it. After how worried I’ve been, and how much this whole thing with us has been tearing me apart—I just. I don’t get it. The people who I thought you were wouldn’t do this to me. Did the both of you think it would be, what, funny? It’s, it’s not fucking funny, and if—”

    “Elena,” Tabitha’s expression began to fall. “It’s… it’s true. We’re not making this up, and it’s not a joke. I really, honestly, truly did come back in time, from the year 2045.”

    “Bullshit,” Elena shook her head. “I… I honestly can’t believe you’d try to pull this on me right now. This bullshit.”

    “I wouldn’t try to pull anything on you,” Tabitha prompted with an encouraging smile. “I think you know that. But, I don’t blame you for being skeptical. Ask anything, please, and I’ll answer as best as I can.”

    “Okay,” Elena scoffed, crossing her arms in front of herself. “What do I invest in to become a billionaire?”

    “Well, Alicia and I will be investing in Alphabet Incorporated,” Tabitha explained. “The initial public offering for their stock should be in either 2004 or 2005, at about a hundred dollars a share. I think.”

    “Not oil? Or silver?” Elena pressed. “Not electronic frontier stuff, like IBM or Microsoft?”

    “Oil prices should spike up in the next year or two because of the war in Iraq,” Tabitha admitted. “Well, the next few years. 2002? But, Alphabet Inc’s Google becomes one of the most successful internet services, and I’m putting all of my money on it.”

    “Google,” Elena repeated, trying out the word for size. “It sounds… just even the name sounds really dumb and made up, Tabitha. You could’ve gone with, I dunno, Max Corporation, or MicroTech Enterprises—”

    “—Omni-Corp, InGen,” Alicia threw in helpfully. “Uhhh, Umbrella Corporation—”

    “—but instead, you go with Goo goo ga ga?” Elena ridiculed. “Like, really? That’s what you’re going with? Someone in the future’s gonna have a huge, successful company and it’s gonna be called Googily Moogily?”

    “You’ll both get used to it,” Tabitha gave them both a helpless shrug. “Google. Everyone and anyone uses it. It’s so common it turns into its own common verb, becomes a facet of our culture.”

    “Becomes its own verb?” Elena couldn’t keep the doubt out of her voice. “Google becomes a common verb, that everyone uses? Do you... realize how stupid that sounds?”

    “So, like, I would Google Elena in the face? Or, something?” Alicia grinned. “That’s verbs, right—action words? I’m so bad with English stuff.”

    “If you were to Google Elena, it would mean you searched for her name online,” Tabitha explained. “Google could present you with her information, photos of her, links to her profile or accounts on different major websites.”

    “Uh-huh,” Elena sounded unconvinced. “And, people are going to do that a lot, apparently?”

    Something about this conversation was starting to not feel right to Elena. As she carefully studied the frail-seeming redheaded teen that was sitting up in the hospital bed... Tabitha seemed a little too composed. Elena knew all about mentally preparing for a debate, covering her bases and readying herself for potential arguments her opponent might pose to her. Tabitha wasn’t really the type. But, this girl also didn’t seem to have grown tense or on the edge of becoming flustered by running into an inevitable question she wouldn’t be able to answer. Instead, her friend seemed... serene and almost a little wistful, and the disparity between that and Elena’s expectations almost lent a tiny sliver of credence to the absurdity of Tabitha’s claims.

    But, it’s impossible. It’s a stupid, pointless FARCE to even consider it, and I don’t understand why we’re even…

    “Sometimes,” Tabitha answered with a small shrug. “To Google something means to search for information on the internet, so it’s more broad than just looking someone up. Google is where you’d go if you had a question about anything—or even if you don’t know how to properly phrase what you want to ask, because it will have this autocomplete field.

    “You would Google a recipe if you were interested in trying to make something new, you’d Google the route to the airport and then your phone would verbally guide you to your destination, by comparing your current GPS location to online maps of the area. I used Google daily when I was writing, because it’s basically a thesaurus, dictionary, and Wikipi—uhm, encyclopedia all at once. Or, at least, it’s connected to all of them.”

    “Wait, Wikipeep, what’s Wikipeep?” Alicia laughed. “What were you about to say?”

    “Err… Wikipedia,” Tabitha said, making a face. “Yes, I realize how silly that must sound now, too. The whole internet concept is… a rabbit hole that really leads all the way down into wonderland. People search for what they’re interested in. Movies, pictures, research, studying, celebrities, fashion, finance, current events, cultural trends, funny pictures of cats, videos to watch, and… yeah, a whole lot of pornography.”

    “Ooh la la!” Alicia waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “Funny pictures of cats, you say? Go on. Tell us more.”

    “I’m going to actually have to try to explain what memes are,” Tabitha sagged back on the bed, covering her face with her good hand. “Jesus. How do I even…?!”

    “How much does Google cost to use?” Elena asked.

    “For searchers? Nothing,” Tabitha said. “But, by profiling both the individual searchers and the overall market trend, companies can make an obscene amount of money via ad revenue, targeted advertising and all that.”

    “Commercials?” Alicia guessed. “You’re saying they basically run commercials?”

    “Pop up ads,” Elena corrected. “That’s what they are on the internet. We have our own computer at home. I have my own email address, Tabitha, you’re not going to be able to—”

    “Not… exactly pop-ups,” Tabitha winced. “But, you’re close. Pop-ups and spam emails were an early internet thing, they were too obnoxious to be effective for long. Malware blocking addons, intuitive spam filters. Google algorithms are a lot more subtle. Say a searcher has Googled information on baby care; maybe a young mother wants to know about… teething tips, or when to wean them off baby food, or something like that. Google remembers their search, and from that point onwards the ads this searcher sees—on Google itself or on any number of sites that use Google’s advertising—will be all the cutest baby clothes, the hottest best-selling baby toys, or parenting books guaranteed to impact their child’s development.”

    Okay, now she’s even trying to double down on things by actually trying to use it as a verb and a noun…? Elena narrowed her eyes. Does she not somehow realize how stupid the Googly name sounds?

    “Likewise, a guy searching for how to fix his engine problem would get ads related to his make and model of car, local auto services, cheap car parts, accessories, et cetera. A Star Wars fan Googling Star Wars stuff would get—you know, advertisements for toys and memorabilia, I guess. Google figures out what you’re looking for, and then profits by presenting advertisements, articles, and whatnot based on what you’ve clicked on in the past. They’re very good at getting clicks. The whole clickbait culture gets frankly absurd after a while.”

    “Clickbait. Culture,” Alicia spread her hands out in the air. “It’s crazy how she does this—all of these sound like they could be totally real things, right? Once you get her going, she’s completely full of this stuff. Like, I don’t think she could keep making these up nonstop, Elena.”

    “Okay then,” Elena sighed. “What’s ‘clickbait culture,’ exactly?

    “That’s… oof,” Tabitha made a face. “It’s a whole thing. Resorting to certain kinds of sensationalism to bait people into clicking on links. Headlines that promise to reveal something interesting—like, say, college professors HATE it when students use this one simple trick! Or, a purported list of fifteen student tricks that college professors HATE!

    “Tricks, tips, secrets, life hacks, reveals, or even just framing a set of information as something that shocked other people, or made their jaws hit the floor. Media sites on the internet will resort to just about anything to get you clicking on their link and earning them their fractions of a penny in advertisement revenue. They’ll lie and slander, frame opinion editorials as fact, extrapolate crazy stories from skewed, completely misleading, or downright fabricated statistics.”

    “Okay, like tabloids, then,” Alicia laughed. “Like the Sun or the Enquirer you’d see at a checkout line.”

    “Yes! A lot like tabloids,” Tabitha nodded quickly. “I’d forgotten about them. Only, when in the privacy of their own home and at no apparent cost to them, people are a lot more likely to carelessly click on things like that. It’s the same for porn—they might not go out of their way to buy it in real life, but when they have free and anonymous access to it through the internet…”

    “That’s gross,” Alicia looked thoughtful. “But, yeah, I’d believe it.”

    “Setting… all of that aside,” Elena decided to return to their earlier subject. “How much will this Google stock be worth in the future?”

    “Twenty years should turn each hundred dollars we put into Alphabet Inc... into about three grand,” Tabitha said. “I know it keeps going up after that, but I’m hazy on the amounts, because all of this was from some random article I remember reading at some point, and… the value of a dollar becomes a whole lot more variable as time goes on.”

    “A hundred bucks becomes three grand—three thousand dollars?” Alicia exclaimed. “Tabitha—holy fuck!”

    “Over twenty years,” Tabitha cautioned. “But, yes. It’s not by any means the best investment, or even the highest payoff, probably. But, it’s a good one, and it’s the one I’m absolutely sure of.”

    “Then, you’re set for life, basically,” Elena asserted. “If you already know you’re going to have this unlimited amount of money.”

    “Not unlimited,” Tabitha shook her head. “You can’t make money without first investing money, which I don’t have yet right now. I think Google will be a popular stock, and I don’t remember at all how many shares will be available, or how much their price will fluctuate early on. The cost of buying property is going to quadruple in the near future, both of you are likely going to face a steep rise in tuition costs, and there’s an economic depression coming up with nine-eleven.”

    “...Nine-eleven?” Elena repeated.

    “It’s… a large-scale terrorist attack coming up soon,” Tabitha revealed with a grimace.

    “The one with the airplanes, right,” Alicia remembered, turning to Elena. “It’s not Russia, either, this time.”

    “Alicia,” Tabitha groaned. “You’re really not helping.”

    “Sorry!” Alicia smiled. “I’m just excited. I’ve—we’ve both really missed hanging out with you, Tabs. Everything around you gets just absolutely crazy.”

    “...Okay,” Elena said slowly. “Tabitha. I think you should—um, have you been keeping a notebook of these supposed major events that we’ll be seeing? A diary? I feel like if you are actually trying to be serious about this, you need to sort out future events by their… significance.”

    “I thought it would be dangerous, so I wasn’t really writing things down,” Tabitha shrugged. “It’s still dangerous, kinda, but… I almost died for good, there. I think it’s important to have both of you know what I know, or at least as much as I can remember. Just in case… something happens to me.”

    “Yeah, or we could just make sure nothing happens to you?” Alicia scowled. “I know it’s like, the elephant in the room or whatever, but holy fuck, Tabitha. You almost died, it’s a big fucking deal, and it affects all of us in a big way. Okay?”

    “Right. That’s… that is right,” Tabitha looked down at her hands in a slightly guilty way. “Sorry. None of this happened in my first life. I’ve been… kind of sticking my nose in some events this time, and getting… unexpectedly severe reactions.”

    Absentmindedly letting her gaze travel from Tabitha’s hands to the folds of the blanket that covered the girl’s legs, Elena for the first time started to see how this whole claiming to be from the future thing Tabby was espousing connected to the events of the Halloween party. But why, literally WHY? Why make all of THIS up? Why run with this unbelievable and impossibly convoluted tall tale? If I don’t buy it, there’s no way any of the adults ever will. It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense.

    “Tabitha,” Elena looked up at her friend. “Why exactly was Erica Taylor so out to get you?”

    “Well,” Tabitha hesitated, appearing for the first time to be gathering her thoughts. “Erica and Brittney Taylor have a younger sister, Ashlee. She should be our age. In fifth or sixth grade. She was… she was like me, like I was. Kind of a social outcast. I was overweight and… well, my clothes probably smelled like body odor and I had no clue how to interact with other people, they terrified me. Ashlee Taylor, on the other hand, was a very pretty young girl, except… she had this mild case of amblyopia. I… yeah, I think that’s how you’re supposed to refer to it.”

    “Uhhh, pretend real quick that we have no idea what that means,” Alicia prompted after a glance towards Elena.

    “Amblyopia is… when one eye doesn’t develop quite properly,” Tabitha explained. “One of Ashlee’s eyes was—only very slightly—misaligned, but everyone treated her like she was—”

    “Ashlee, with the lazy eye,” Elena suddenly remembered. “From Laurel Middle, I remember her. Wait, she was the Taylors’ sister?”

    “Okay, lazy eye,” Alicia nodded. “That’s—yeah, okay. This kid Norman in Fairfield had that, eyes that pointed in different directions. People were mean to him, always called him crazy eyes, they—”

    “Amblyopia,” Tabitha insisted firmly. “Don’t call it lazy eye, that’s not… listen—I know we’re in 1998 right now, but please just call it amblyopia. Please.”

    “So—what,” Elena couldn’t help but cast a skeptical look at her friend. “You’re saying being politically correct about everything actually gets to be a thing in the future?”

    “Short answer; yes,” Tabitha answered bluntly. “Long answer… that gets extremely complicated with how societal norms ended up progressing over time. I mean, Elena. Just put yourself in her shoes. Imagine growing up disadvantaged, growing up with people constantly saying cruel things about you, for something you have absolutely no control over. Imagine how often she gets reminded of being different from everyone else.”

    If Ashlee’s sisters are actually Erica and Brittney Taylor, I imagine the reminders are constant, painful, and… yeah, downright abusive, Elena thought, feeling a pang of guilt. I... wasn’t exactly nice to her back then, either.

    “Okay, so this Ashlee has Amblyphobia,” Alicia summed up. “How exactly does that—”

    “Amblyopia,” Tabitha corrected. “And, yeah. Anyways, Ashlee and I were friends. Friends, by virtue of the fact that no one else would ever be our friends. I kid you not, not only were we the last two picked whenever the class had to form teams in Laurel, but when the choices got down to the two of us, the teams stopped wanting to pick anyone.”

    “Jesus,” Alicia snorted, quickly covering her mouth and immediately looking horrified. “Oh, I—sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s actually not funny.”

    “...It turned out the Taylors lived nearby to my trailer park,” Tabitha pressed on. “We didn’t ride the same bus, but they lived in the neighborhood just behind that Hardees near Sunset Estates, close enough for me to walk to. They were, um. This Taylor family was… things were bad. I didn’t realize it back then, but when I look back on it with the hindsight of living a fairly long life…

    “I think all three of the Taylor girls were living in fear. Ashlee, she got the worst of it because of her sisters. She, uh, she couldn’t let herself be touched without flinching back and recoiling. I asked her one day if she was okay, she gets evasive, I was a dumb kid who didn’t read social cues and kept asking about it, and... yeah, she finally pulled up her shirt and showed me.

    “Bruises. Really bad bruises. Fresh ones atop old ones, some of them were so dark, and—um. Never where it would show when she was wearing clothing, but— yeah. She was being beaten. Maybe daily. I don’t know. I don’t even know if the parents were, um, in on it or what, I just remember that she was terrified of Erica and Brittney.”

    “Jesus…” Alicia murmured, sharing a concerned look with Elena.

    “In my original timeline, we were playing on their trampoline when… okay I’m fuzzy on the specifics after all this time, but Erica and Brittney come out and start being mean, one of them ends up shoving me off the trampoline. Because, I think to them, pushing us around was okay to them, fair game because of who we were. What we were to them. Only, my fall’s unexpectedly bad, severe head trauma and parents will have questions bad, so they panic and threaten us into silence about it.

    “After forty-seven years, I don’t remember a lot of those details so well,” Tabitha said in a small voice. “What I do remember was that they promised to make life living hell for Ashlee, if I didn’t stay away and keep my mouth shut. I remember… I remember seeing Ashlee sort of go quiet and withdraw completely into herself, and that was the first time dumb thirteen-year-old-me actually connected all the dots in what was going on. How Ashlee always had bruises for no reason, and always acted the way she did.

    “Well, it worked,” Tabitha admitted in a bitter voice. “I kept what I saw to myself. I didn’t go back and see Ashlee ever again—I was terrified. I knew, deep down, how horrible it was to not tell someone about it, but… with who I was back then? I felt like no one would care what I had to say about anything. Girls like Erica and Brittney, their words had more weight than mine, parents and adults would believe them first and not me. Never me.”

    “So, when you came back in time, this time you did something about it right away?” Alicia guessed.

    “I… no, I didn’t,” Tabitha admitted with difficulty. “Not immediately. I—I know it isn’t an excuse for inaction or anything, but… right when I came back to 1998, I was not fucking coping well. With the, um, the transition. Reliving certain horrible, uh, everything. I spent the first several months pretty much just obsessively cleaning things and exercising. Trying to, um. Regain any semblance of control around my own body and my immediate environment. I won’t blame you if you think less of me for that.”

    “No, no,” Alicia said quickly. “I, uh, I shouldn’t have just assumed that—”

    “It’s okay,” Tabitha gave her friend a forced smile. “I, um. A lot of little things came back to bite me because of that. My neglecting interpersonal relationships, and, uh. Private misunderstandings between me and my mother. What happened all those many years ago with Ashlee and them—I honestly had it all just walled off and repressed. Didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to acknowledge it. Wanted to pretend that my do-over was this completely fresh new start for me. I mean, isn’t that what a do-over’s supposed to be?”

    Elena watched in confusion and disbelief at the regret on Tabitha’s face and the guilt she seemed to carry. It wasn’t feigned. None of this was making sense to her, because certain nonsensical portions seemed to contain slivers of very real truth to them. Elena could see that, now. Time travel was impossible, but it was clear that some of these situations had actually happened, or at least Tabitha actually believed they happened.

    It’s... a coping mechanism? Elena realized. It has to be. Some of these bad things really happened, but she formed some complex about revealing it to anyone, and it got twisted up in her head into this… fanciful story. But, there’s TRUTH hidden in there. Whatever happened… it really fucked her up.

    If not for her own recent experiences, Elena didn’t think she’d have been able to relate.

    “So, um. This time through,” Tabitha cleared her throat and continued, “I think it was my new look that changed things. Changed the way the Taylor sisters bullied me. From what I gather, all along, I think Ashlee was hiding their things and blaming it on me. She was too afraid to directly confront them, and it might have also been... kind of retribution, for me abandoning her. Originally, I was bullied in high school maybe because Erica and Brittney thought I’d taken some of their things. This time, it got worse, because now they thought, I don’t know, that stealing things from them this time was really benefiting me. To the extent that I looked different, acted with more confidence, could apparently afford new clothes.”

    “They felt threatened,” Elena agreed. “I can see now why they had a more personal stake in needing to take you down a notch with the rumors and everything.”

    “Take her down a notch?!” Alicia spat out. “Fucking hell, they did a lot more than—”

    “I know, I know,” Elena gave the girl an expressive shrug to illustrate her helpless agreement. “I’m just saying.”

    “It wasn’t that extreme at the start, though,” Tabitha shrugged. “I think the tiny little differences in timelines were enough of a change for the situation to… escalate, this time through. After getting pushed on the bus loop and getting the fracture, I faced some realities about myself I didn’t really ever want to face. Decided to come clean about some things. When this woman from the school board dropped by about my withdrawing from school, I told her about Ashlee’s bruises.

    “I’m guessing they discovered them right away, and someone or other separated Ashlee from her family while they sorted out what’s going on,” Tabitha said. “Erica in particular panicked, showed up at the Halloween party where I’m supposed to be—”

    “You weren’t supposed to be there,” Elena grimaced. “I—I shouldn’t have ever told everyone you were going to go. I just thought that—”

    “‘You think you can fucking take our sister away from us?!’” Alicia recalled. “That’s what Erica was screaming when she went going ballistic. That didn’t make… any goddamn sense to me all this time. Not until just now.”

    “Yes,” Tabitha winced. “That. So, Erica Taylor kills me, and—”

    “She didn’t kill you,” Elena cut in. “Just. Don’t ever say that.”

    “I… I think she actually did,” Tabitha said slowly. “Because, I definitely shuffled off my mortal coil somehow. Like, a few seconds after I blacked out there on the floor of the lakehouse... I started the timeline over again from the waking up in MRI. May of 1998. Again.”

    “Wait—you what?!” Alicia exclaimed.

    “I, uh, I didn’t handle it well,” Tabitha let out a nervous chuckle. “At all. I, um, I thought I lost all of our moments together. Things and circumstances that came about by happenstance I couldn’t recreate. And, I couldn’t handle sorting things out with my mother all over again from the beginning, and, well. The way things went, I didn’t have to.”

    “What happened?!” Alicia demanded.

    “I’m not sure,” Tabitha said after a moment of thought. “Some sort of… damage from the previous timeline—this timeline—carried through, somehow. My nose kept bleeding, I had these intense sort of migraine episodes. I’m… pretty sure I ended up having an aneurysm and dying, mid-conversation with my mother. All at once it was like… like reality stuttered, and it went from being a movie about my life to suddenly cutting away to a surreal making-of montage. Some behind-the-scenes featurette, with weird dream nonsense stuff mixed in.”

    Elena stared, an increasingly incredulous expression becoming evident on her face.

    “I sat in a Perkins I remember from the future, and talked with my friend Julie,” Tabitha went on. “Then, the girls I remember bullying me in middle school and high school, including middle school Elena—that’s probably what I meant back when I asked you which Elena you were—chased me through an endless parking lot nightmare. I ended up getting in a junkyard F-22 fighter jet that got mixed in from this other fever dream I had once, and tried to escape. I think it worked maybe, because I got pulled back to my original timeline, in 2045, where they were trying to pull me out of the MRI that was breaking down.”

    “Wait, wait, what?” Alicia pressed fingertips to her temples as she tried to follow along. “An... F-22? You went back to the future? Were you able to grab more information about things? Lottery numbers, stock market shit? A sports almanac? Did you look me up in the future? Wait, and how do you know which of all that stuff was a dream and which wasn’t?”

    “I... don’t,” Tabitha shrugged. “Not for sure. All I have, um, is my interpretation of the experiences to go off of. I felt very confident that the timeline starting over was really happening, but, like I said… in the middle of talking to my mother I think I just kind of croaked, or something. Bleed on my brain? Everything after that was very inconsistent and dream-like.”

    “Wait, so you didn’t go back to the future? Or, no?” Alicia asked.

    “I… maybe?” Tabitha held up her hands. “I feel that I did, but I can’t say for certain. At the time, I was, um, freaking the fuck out. Like, flailing and fighting hospital staff and trying to climb back into the dream, or the other timelines, or anything but being stuck back in 2045 like none of this ever happened. It worked, maybe, because I think my brain was hemorrhaging and it seemed like I watched my future self, um. Pass away. Most of the dream or nightmare or whatever seemed to... drain away and disappear at that point, and I was just kind of hanging in the empty darkness when I heard Hannah calling out to me.”

    “So… when you put it like that, it’s like maybe all of that was a coma dream,” Alicia suggested. “Right?”

    “It’s certainly possible,” Tabitha spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “But, I think certain parts of it were real. The timeline restarting at the MRI, I think all of that—that day and a half, maybe two days of that really happened. I mean, aside from the headaches, I was very cognizant of everything around me. Aware of my surroundings, thinking at my usual capacity, and everything—everything was very real, as real as this is here right now. It was distinctly different from the dream-like portions where—”

    “Can I just be real blunt?” Elena interrupted. “I’m not… gonna call you a liar or accuse you of making up this whole wild story, or anything. But, isn’t the whole ‘time travel’ thing maybe this Uncle Vampire sort of metaphor for you to, uh, express some traumatizing situations you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?”

    “You’ve read Uncle Vampire?” Tabitha asked, eyes lighting up.

    “I—uh, yeah,” Elena confirmed. “I didn’t pick it out. My Mom wanted to kind of see how I dealt with more mature reading.”

    “Uncle Vampire?” Alicia asked, throwing each of them a look. “Is that... anything you two wanna share with the rest of the class?”

    “It’s a book about a girl who seems to think her uncle is a vampire,” Elena explained. “But, that turns out to be a metaphor for—”

    “Wait, wait—don’t spoil it!” Tabitha interjected, waving her hands. “Don’t spoil it. Alicia, I can find you a copy at the library. I want you to read it for yourself.”

    “Uhhh, okay,” Alicia agreed. “Vampires are cool.”

    “No, that one wasn’t,” Elena scowled.

    “Let her read it for herself,” Tabitha insisted. “But. I see what you’re getting at, Elena. No, my situation isn’t a metaphor for something else—I have actually, honestly traveled back through time from 2045 to here in 1998.”

    “Then…” Elena felt her throat go dry as she saw Tabitha’s look of resolve. “Then, I can test you. There’s like, a million different ways to test your knowledge, on millions of different little things you should know in advance, Tabitha. Are you really sure you’re ready to get into this with me?”

    “Yeah,” Tabitha gave her a self-assured smile. “I am. Because you’re my friend, and… your trust really is that important to me. Ask me anything, anytime. Whenever you want! Well, maybe not whenever, I’d appreciate it if you were a little discreet. I know I won’t remember everything, but I absolutely remember enough to convince you.”

    Elena had been riding the ups and downs of an emotional roller coaster for this entire hospital visit. Meeting Tabitha’s steady gaze now, an irrational spike of fear jolted up in the pit of Elena’s stomach. Fear that against all odds and rationality, her friend Tabitha actually... might be telling the truth.

    But, there’s no way. There’s completely no way… right?

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A note from FortySixtyFour

    We did it! Achieved the goal set back in February of getting our 4.69 up to a 4.70! Trash the score now if you want, I already took my screenshot, lol. Very proud to say that that we've dropped down in ranking not because of a decline quality, but simply because so many incredible new fics are rising up this season.

    Seaborn, The Humble Life of a Skill Trainer, Dungeon Crawler Carl, and Gilded Hero all rose up this year to help break up the stagnant Best Rated list, and each of them is worth your time. The fictions I loved in the past remain great, the ones rising up now are even better, and I firmly believe that the best is yet to come. If you have a fiction idea and you're stuck at home because of the quarantine—why not give writing a shot? Everyone has to start somewhere, and many started right here on Royal Road.

    Anyways, Top Web Fiction link for those who want to cast a vote for RE: Trailer Trash. Thank you everyone for your rates, reviews, and kind words, and a big thank you to all the other writers out there working to bring us awesome stuff to read when times are tough and we just want to escape it all for a while. Stay safe out there, everyone.


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FortySixtyFour

Bio: Avid reader, reluctant writer.

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