Actions

Work Header

there's a joke here somewhere and it's on me

Work Text:

On a warm clear night in early May, the rolling lawns of Macdonald Hall seemed to glow bright like a field of emeralds under the light of the rising moon. It was just before ten o'clock, and with the exception of the unseasonably warm weather, everything at the school was quiet, peaceful, and blissfully normal.

In Dormitory 1, Wilbur Hackenschleimer meticulously crafted his evening snack, which consisted of three peanut butter and banana sandwiches on raisin bread. In the room next door, Dave Jackson buried his head in his chemistry textbook, trying his best to tune out the dulcet tones of his loquacious roommate, Myron Blankenship. Undaunted, the Blabbermouth continued to recount to Dave every juicy detail of George Wexford-Smyth III's recent colonoscopy.

In the infirmary, Sidney Rampulsky bedded down for the night. He winced in discomfort as the bed sheets dragged across his shins. The entire lower half of Sidney's body was currently swathed in bandages and covered in second-degree burns, the result of an unfortunate encounter with a clothes iron and a skateboard.

Meanwhile, in Dormitory 3, Mark Davies, editor of the school paper, put the finishing touches on his editorial for the upcoming week's edition. It was a wrathful indictment of the company that provided Macdonald Hall with its sports equipment, with damning evidence that the school may have been sold refurbished basketballs.

Down the hall from Mark, one room stood empty. Only a few minutes remained before lights-out, but the occupants of room 306 were nowhere to be seen. Instead, Bruno Walton and Boots O'Neal could be found across the lawn, huddled behind a bush directly outside of Dormitory 2.

In other words, it was business as usual at Macdonald Hall.

*

"Bruno, we can't walk back to the room like this," Boots hissed. "We're covered in tomato paste! We look like a crime scene and we smell like a pizza parlor, anyone who sees us will know we were the ones who broke into the cafeteria."

"Calm down, it's not that bad," Bruno said. "I'm sure you're just--" Bruno twisted his head and gave his t-shirt an experimental sniff. "Okay, never mind, it's pretty bad," he conceded.

Bruno leaned against Dormitory 2's ivy-covered exterior and tipped his head back in frustration. It was then that he noticed the window directly above them, which had been left open to accommodate the long lens of a large telescope. "Hey, look, we're saved!" Bruno said. He gestured up at the window, which could only have belonged to one student: Elmer Drimsdale, the sole occupant of room 201 and Macdonald Hall's resident multidisciplinary scientific genius.

"How's Elmer going to save us?" Boots asked, squirming at the unpleasant sensation of cold liquified tomato seeping through his socks and between his toes. "Can he help us travel back in time and decide it's a terrible idea to break into the cafeteria to steal the cook's meatloaf recipe, just so we can win a stupid scavenger hunt?"

"Hahah, very funny," Bruno said, already bracing one foot against the drainpipe as he felt for a handhold in the dormitory's brick façade. "We'll hose ourselves off real quick at Elmer's place and we can still get back to the room before lights-out."

"Oh, that's just great," Boots said. "So we won't smell like tomatoes anymore, but we'll be sopping wet, that won't be suspicious at all." Even as he said this, he moved seamlessly in tandem with Bruno, lacing his fingers into a foothold, which allowed Bruno to bridge the gap between the drainpipe and the window. "This is a terrible idea," Boots said as Bruno swung himself up over the windowsill. "Definitely one of the most godawful, hopeless, and harebrained plans you've had this week."

Bruno leaned back out the window, reaching down for Boots's already outstretched hands. "Gee, thanks," Bruno replied, "you always say the sweetest things."

"You're an idiot."

"Stop, you'll make me blush!"

Bruno hoisted Boots up through the window with the grace and agility of a choreographed dance routine. However, they had both forgotten about the presence of the telescope, which was now in danger of impaling Boots through the chest. Boots veered out of its way at the last possible second, sending them both tumbling to the floor of Elmer's bedroom.

When they landed, Boots was sprawled entirely on top of Bruno, with his elbow in Bruno's armpit and Bruno breathing hot into Boots's ear. Then they both instantly sprang apart, as though they were being repelled like magnets in one of Elmer's experiments.

"C'mon, let's go," Bruno said, hastily standing up and looking around. "We've got less than ten minutes 'til lights-out."

The room was empty and dark, and the only sound was the quiet hum of Elmer's fish tank. There was a crack of light under the bathroom door, and so Bruno walked across the room and gave the door a soft knock. "Hey, Elmer," Bruno said in a low tone. "It's Bruno and Boots. We don't mean to bust in on you like this, but we just need to use your shower for a second. We're gonna come in, unless you're on the can or something."

"No, don't!" Elmer could be heard saying, even as Bruno was already opening the door. "I am conducting a highly volatile scientific experiment!"

"Relax," Bruno said. "We just need to rinse ourselves off real quick, and then we'll be out of your hair." He reached back to drag Boots with him through the bathroom doorway, tugging him along by his tomato-stained shirt sleeve.

"Sorry, Elmer," Boots said weakly.

"You don't understand--" Elmer protested from his perch on the bathroom sink, but by then it was already too late.

Over the years, the bathroom in room 201 had been the makeshift laboratory for many of Elmer's scientific endeavors: his memorable foray into goldfish crossbreeding, his simulated mollusk environment, the ammonia vapor experiments that had stunk up Dormitory 2 for a week. And, of course, there had been his Young Mycologist Society Award-winning longitudinal fungus study, which had required Elmer to spend more than three months bathing and brushing his teeth in total darkness.

Which is all to say that Bruno really should have anticipated that every square centimeter of the bathroom floor might be covered with inscrutable test and measurement equipment. But, Bruno was distracted. And so he tripped, once again sending Boots and himself sprawling, this time directly into Elmer's bathtub with an undignified splash. The last thing Bruno and Boots heard was Elmer wailing in distress, and then what sounded like a crackle of lightening, and then everything went black.

***

"Ugh," Bruno said as he dragged himself up out of the water and over the edge of the bathtub. "I think I hit my head. Is this what it feels like to be Sidney?"

Boots lurched up slowly behind him, feebly batting the shower curtain out of his way. Elmer was waiting for them on the other side of the curtain, holding two bath towels and a digital wrist watch.

"Astounding," Elmer said. "Precisely 10:21 P.M. and 20.15 seconds!"

"What?" Boots said groggily. "Did you just say we've been out cold for almost a half an hour?"

"Er, no, not exactly," Elmer said. He held out the towels like a peace offering. "Why don't you dry off while I explain?"

They exited the bathroom, this time careful to step around Elmer's minefield of scientific gadgets. Elmer sat down on the edge of his bed. Bruno and Boots stood in front of him, continuing to dry themselves off.

"You see, on the night of May 6th of this year, I was performing an experiment that tested the effect of ionospheric conditions on a very controlled form of hydrogen fusion," Elmer said, hands twisting nervously in his lap. "I had hypothesized that the diurnal effect on ionization would--"

"Uh, Elmer," Boots said, toweling off the back of his neck. "No offense, but could you cut to the chase?"

"You interfered with my experiment at a critical point, and a previously undiscovered stage of low-threshold hydrogen fusion reaction caused a localized disruption to the space-time continuum."

"Okay, but in English this time," said Bruno.

"Today's date is December 17th. This ultimately very minor disruption to the space-time continuum relocated you 225 days in the future."

"What?!?"

"It was certainly not my intent," Elmer said primly, "but I seem to have inadvertently invented a form of time travel."

At first, Bruno and Boots could only gape at him, and then they both began to laugh.

"Hahah, very funny," Boots said incredulously.

"Maybe stick to science experiments," said Bruno, running the towel over his damp hair one last time before he tossed it on the bedroom floor. "Because your practical jokes need work."

"This is not a joke," Elmer protested. "It's very serious! The implications for temporal relativity alone are--"

"Oh sure, whatever you say," said Bruno as he moved across the room toward Elmer's window. "We'll just let ourselves out."

"Sorry we busted up your experiment," Boots said, looking sheepish. "We promise it won't happen again."

This only agitated Elmer further. "No, wait," he said. "I'm telling you the truth!"

At the window, Bruno froze. "Uh, Boots, I think you better come take a look at this," he said shakily. "Either this is the greatest prank in the history of all pranks or Elmer is telling the truth."

"Yes," Elmer retorted from across the room, "that is what I just said!"

Boots joined Bruno at the window. They were greeted with a scene that was markedly different from the one they'd fled when they had arrived at Elmer's room. To Bruno and Boots, it still seemed like that had only been a half an hour ago, but the evidence suggested otherwise. The school's rolling green lawns were gone and snow blanketed the ground as far as the eye could see. Here and there, the snow drifts were interrupted by well-trudged paths that snaked between the campus's various buildings, a sure sign that winter was well under way. North of the flagpole, a group of evergreen trees was festooned with sparkling lights, as they were each year in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday.

They both stumbled back from the window in shock. "Okay, so," Bruno said, looking dazed and shaking his head. "Elmer Drimsdale invented time travel in his bathtub. It's completely crazy, but it also kind of makes sense."

Boots's face had gone white and his eyes were as wide as saucers. "What the hell, Elmer? What are we going to do? Are we stuck here now?" he babbled. "What about the versions of us who belong here? Where are they? What if we run into them? What happens then, does the universe explode?"

Boots's growing panic seemed to finally snap Bruno out of his daze, and he reached over to throw an arm around Boots's shoulder. "Hey, hey, hey, let's just take a couple breaths, huh, how does that sound?" Bruno said soothingly, leading Boots over to the unoccupied bed across from Elmer's own. "Why don't we have a seat," said Bruno, plopping them both down on the edge of the mattress.

Once Boots was no longer in danger of passing out, Bruno turned back to Elmer. "Okay, so," Bruno said, lips pursed. "If you could explain to us how the universe isn't going to explode, that would be just swell."

"You are in no danger of encountering future versions of yourselves," Elmer said. "I hypothesize that due to a previously unexplored branch of continuum mechanics theory, the reaction produced a relaxation time effect that demanded continuous mass equilibrium, resulting in--"

"Elmer, c'mon, focus," Bruno interrupted. "Small words. Short sentences."

"Of course, my apologies," Elmer said. "The versions of yourselves who belong in this time period traveled back to May 6th at the exact moment when you yourselves travelled here."

"What?!?"

"Wait, wait," Elmer said, waving his hands pleadingly. "I'm afraid I'm explaining this all wrong. The important thing is that I have every reason to believe that the effect is reversible, and I should be able to return you to where you belong very soon."

Boots slumped forward, burying his head in his hands. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said, "but next time you accidentally make someone time travel into the future, maybe lead with the part about how you can send them back where they belong?"

Elmer nodded, as though this were valuable feedback. "Fortunately," he said, "my past self wrote and arranged to deliver to me a letter that explains everything. His temporal model predicted your arrival exactly, to the hundredth of a second, and so I'm extremely confident his calculations will allow me to return you to the proper time very shortly."

"Great, why didn't you say so?" Bruno said. "Let's do it, let's go right now."

Elmer winced. "Unfortunately, we will need to wait for a specific set of atmospheric conditions," he admitted. "However," he continued before Bruno and Boots could begin to protest, "my counterpart's ionospheric modeling shows that there should be an optimal window tomorrow night between 11:30 and 11:45 P.M."

"Alright then," said Boots, "what do we do until then?"

Elmer clapped his hands together. "It's very important that you carry on as normal and allow no one to know what has happened. If the world at large were to learn what has transpired, it could have a devastating effect on the space-time continuum." Elmer paused for a moment. "There is also the possibility," he continued, "that, in the absence of definitive scientific proof, your story would not be believed. You would most likely be forcibly committed to the nearest local psychiatric facility and I would be unable to return you to your rightful point in time."

"Yeah, let's skip that," said Bruno.

Elmer reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small notebook. "Over the last several days, I've taken the liberty of closely observing the actions and behavior of your counterparts from this time period, so that you can avoid deviating from any of their pre-made plans." He flipped open the notebook and drew one finger midway down the page. "According to my observations at dinner this evening, you have scheduled one of your elicit poker games for tonight, beginning one half-hour after lights-out in the room of Wilbur Hackenschleimer. Tomorrow you will have classes as per usual, and then hockey practice." He consulted his wrist watch. "Oh dear," he said. "It's already 10:34 P.M. You should be on your way at once."

"That's it?" Boots said. "You're just going to send us along? Aren't you going to come with us?"

Elmer shook his head. "I need to stay here and continue to fine-tune my counterpart's ionospheric modeling. Return here tomorrow night at 11:15 P.M. And remember, no one can know that you are not the versions of yourselves who belong in this time period. The structural integrity of the temporal dimension may depend on it."

Boots looked at Bruno. Bruno looked back and shrugged. When it came to matters of science, there was no point in arguing with Elmer Drimsdale.

"Wait a sec," said Boots. "If it's poker night, we're going to need snacks."

Elmer frowned. "I'm afraid I don't see the correlation," he said.

"Snacks, Elmer!" Bruno said, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "How else are we going to play poker?"

"Hmm," said Elmer, wisely deciding not to argue. He stood up and went over to rummage through his desk. "Aha!" he said after a moment, holding up a small box. "I keep these granola bars on hand in the event that I find myself working on an experiment through lunch."

"Granola bars, great," Bruno said, rolling his eyes. "So the guys won't think we're time travelers, they'll just think it's an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation."

Boots accepted the granola bars with half-hearted appreciation, and he and Bruno moved to make their exit. Right before he was about to close the window behind them, Bruno ducked his head back into Elmer's bedroom. "Hey, one more thing," he said. "You invented time travel, but it can only send someone 225 days into the future? That's it?"

Elmer looked affronted. "As I said before, it is a previously undiscovered stage of the hydrogen fusion reaction. Clearly, further experimentation and refinement will be necessary." And with that, he shut the window in Bruno's face.

***

Bruno and Boots may have been willing to concede that Elmer's bathtub time machine had truly sent them 225 days into the future. But, for the two of them, it still felt like it had only been an hour since the last time they were crouched in the bushes outside one of the school's dormitories. Except that this time there were more than 30 centimeters of snow on the ground and they were considerably underdressed.

"This is all just a bad dream, right?" Boots said, shivering as he tried to brush the leaves out of his still-damp hair. "We're going to get in there and I'll see my Grandma Lorraine in her underwear and then I'll wake up and it'll be time for breakfast."

Bruno shrugged. "Guess there's only one way to find out," he said. He was about to reach up and rap his knuckles against Wilbur's bedroom window, but paused when he saw that Boots looked vaguely nauseous. "C'mon, everything's gonna be okay," Bruno said, bumping one of his shoulders against one of Boots's. "It's The Hall. How much could have changed in seven months? And, hey, at least we're in this together, right?"

Boots managed a watery smile. "Yeah," he said. "I wouldn't want to time travel with anyone else."

Above them, the window slid open. "If you two lovebirds are finished," Wilbur called down in a loud whisper, "maybe you want to come up?"

Bruno and Boots climbed through Wilbur's window, this time without any of the mishaps they encountered forcing their entry into Elmer's room. They took their places on the floor in the makeshift circle already populated by Wilbur, Sidney, Mark, Larry, and Pete, and exchanged hushed greetings.

Bruno and Boots each tried to study the faces of their friends in an unassuming way, looking for the changes that seven months' time might have wrought. It was a comfort to discover that everyone looked pretty much the same. The most noticeable difference was that Sidney was fumblingly trying to shuffle a deck of cards with three fingers in splints, but that was more reassuring in its normalcy than anything else.

Boots held out the box of granola bars, leaning over to place them in a pile that already included two bags of corn chips, a box of Lucky Charms cereal, an assortment of chocolate bars, a puddling carton of ice cream, and half an apple pie. "Sorry," he said sheepishly. "We had a little bit of a snack shortage emergency."

"Yuck, tell me about it," said Wilbur, wrinkling his nose.

"What are you talking about, these are great," said Bruno. "They've got, uh," he quickly glanced at the packaging, "a low glycemic index."

"Whatever," said Larry. "Let's cut the cards before all the ice cream melts."

They managed to play a couple hands before the card game was derailed by an argument about whether Apple Pie à la Mode would still be good if the only available ice cream was chocolate peppermint. Wilbur, the consummate gourmand, insisted on a taste test. The results were mixed.

"This is awful," said Wilbur, looking at his plate mournfully. "It's a waste of good pie and good ice cream."

"I dunno," said Sidney. "It's kind of like eating an apple pie and a candy bar right after you brush your teeth."

Mark glanced at alarm clock sitting on Wilbur's desk. "Hey, it's almost midnight," he said. "Don't you two--" he nodded at Bruno and Boots, "--have to head over to Scrimmage's?"

"Hmm, really, do we?" said Boots, trying to hide his panic.

"That's what Bruno said at lunch today," replied Mark. "It was right after you told me you needed me to use the print shop to mock up a fake newspaper article that said the number one beauty secret among 1930s movie stars was eating toast with every meal."

"It's critical to the mission of Operation Grapefruit, the world's crumbling around us, if we don't stand together we'll fall apart, the viability of the Winter Holiday Dance depends on it," Wilbur said, parroting back what sounded like the highlights of a classic Bruno Walton stump speech.

"Uh, yeah," Bruno said slowly, as he tried to think of a reason why they would need to go over to Scrimmage's and what it could possibly have to do with the Winter Holiday Dance. "Gotta get over there early and get the jump on dates with the prettiest girls in the school?" he finally said, drawing a blank. He made a show of elbowing Boots in the side for effect.

Bruno's words were met by an uncomfortable silence. The reaction he got from the others was not what he would have expected. Sidney and Pete both looked confused. Wilbur and Larry exchanged glances of concern and Mark seemed strangely disappointed.

"Uh, sure, whatever you say," Mark said.

"Well, we better get going, then," said Boots. He wasn't looking forward to risking his life by making a midnight visit to Scrimmage's but he was suddenly anxious to exit the room.

***

When Bruno and Boots got to the edge of Macdonald Hall's campus, just as they were about to scamper across Highway 48, Boots said, "I just don't think this is a good idea. We don't have a clue about Operation Grapefruit and we have absolutely no idea why we're supposed to be going over to Scrimmage's."

"Here's the thing, though," said Bruno. "If we don't go over there, Cathy and Diane might get worried, and then they could try to come over here, and--" He waved his hand in vague iterations to imply the disaster that would result.

"Yeah, good point," said Boots.

They made it across the highway and onto the Scrimmage's campus without incident. A handful of pebbles later, they were climbing up into Cathy and Diane's bedroom.

"Welcome back to the Valley of the Dolls," said Cathy cryptically. She and Diane were sitting cross-legged on Cathy's bed, with what appeared to be an entire makeup kit spread out between them. They both looked a little bit haggard, but Bruno and Boots knew well enough to keep this observation to themselves.

Boots plopped down on the floor in front of Diane's bed and Bruno helped himself to Cathy's desk chair. Cathy paused, looked back and forth between them and then gave an exasperated sigh. "You guys, seriously, we've talked about this," she said.

"Um, talked about what?" said Boots.

Cathy gestured broadly between Boots and Bruno. "The two of you," she said. When they didn't display immediate comprehension, she continued. "We know that you have to hide your big gay love when you're at school, so they'll let you keep being roommates, and that's awful, but you don't have to do that when it's just us."

"Really," Diane said brightly. "It's fine. We're happy for you!"

"Anyway," said Cathy, like she hadn't just dropped the conversational equivalent of the atom bomb. "What do you think?" She pointed at Diane's arms, which were covered in faint red spots.

Both Bruno and Boots stared at Cathy with glazed expressions, like she'd been speaking in Swahili or at a high pitch designed to melt brains. "It looks, uh … it looks," Boots managed to stammer out, both sounding and feeling like he'd swallowed a cannon ball. He squinted at Diane, who seemed to have a pile of lipstick tubes in her lap. "What is it, exactly?"

Cathy shook her head in annoyance. "It's like I told you last week," she said. "If Diane shows up to breakfast covered in hives, Miss Scrimmage will have to believe the allergy story."

"And," Diane added, "since I don't actually have a citrus allergy--"

"--we're just working a little bit of makeup magic," Cathy concluded, looking proud.

"Looks good," Boots said, nodding vigorously. "Very … allergic."

Cathy turned her attention to Bruno. "Hey, more importantly," she said, "did you bring the plastic wrap?"

"There were, uh," Bruno croaked, frantically racking his brain for any possible excuse, "technical difficulties."

Cathy frowned. "Well, sorry guys, but if you don't have the plastic wrap, you might as well go home," she said, sounding deflated. "You know Miss Scrimmage has been an avenging angel about beauty sleep lately."

"Sure, yeah, okay, sounds good," Bruno said, unable to stop himself from rambling. "We'll just … do that."

Cathy tilted her head, studying Bruno. "Are you alright?" she asked. "Do you have a concussion or something?"

"Hell, I don't know, maybe," Bruno said truthfully, wiping his clammy brow with the back of one hand. "It's been a really long night."

***

Bruno grunted as he heaved himself up over the windowsill and into room 306. Temporal relativity aside, it was the fourth time he'd performed this maneuver in one night and his arms were like wet noodles. Boots followed behind him, looking similarly wilted.

"Thank God," said Bruno. "Back in good old room 306."

But even room 306 was not quite as they remembered it.

There were still two desks and two chairs, with one shared lamp between them. There were still two beds, one Electric Catfish poster, and two similarly-sized piles of hockey pads and equipment on the bedroom floor. Boots's bed, though, was buried under a pile of junk and assorted debris. They both stared at it, surveying the mountain of textbooks, dirty socks, an inexplicable pile of serrated tip silver spoons, what looked like most of a Batman Halloween costume, a pile of old newspapers, and sixteen rolls of plastic wrap. Under it all, Boots's bed looked neatly made, though perhaps a little dusty. However, his pillow appeared to be missing.

Across the narrow room, Bruno's bed was clear of clutter, though the sheets were rumpled and the bedspread was pooled halfway onto the floor. At the head of the bed was Boots's missing pillow, squashed up next to the pillow that belonged to Bruno.

As to be expected, the stretched out awkward silence got to Bruno first. "Huh," he said. "There's that plastic wrap Cathy wanted."

For a moment, all Boots could manage was a weak chuckle, but then he began laughing for real, and then he was doubled over with it and Bruno was laughing, too. Before long, they were both on the floor, practically in hysterics, and in serious danger of waking up the notoriously sound-sleeping Mr. Fudge. Eventually, their laughter died down and they both sat up from where they'd collapsed, leaning their backs against Boots's bed frame.

"Do you want to talk about--" Bruno started to ask, before trailing off.

"Um, not really?" said Boots.

"Okay," said Bruno. He stretched out his legs and started toeing off his sneakers. "Gross," he said, face scrunching up with displeasure. "I think my shoes are still wet."

"I mean, well --" Boots added quickly, "what I mean is, just, not right now."

"Yeah, I get that."

"There's just so much going on, this whole thing is crazy, if we get caught we could end up in a psych ward, and there's the space-time continuum to worry about, and--"

"Absolutely."

"It's not because I think there's, like, anything wrong, or--"

"Hey," Bruno said. He reached over to give Boots a cautious pat on the arm and Boots looked ready to jump out of his skin. "It's okay. I get it. Right now, let's worry about getting home, and then we'll destroy Elmer's bathtub, and then, I dunno. But, it's gonna be okay."

"How do you know that?" Boots asked in a small voice, sure that his flushed face must be lighting up the room like a night light.

"I just do," Bruno said.

They sat in silence for a few long minutes. After a while, the wide-eyed shock of the last couple of hours began to wear off, and a wave of exhaustion seemed to hit them both instantly. Still leaning back against the bed frame, they both slumped over into sleep sitting up.

*

Bruno infamously prided himself on never waking up before 8:45, but he normally slept lying down in a bed, not sitting on the floor leaned up against one. And so, discomfort roused him awake at just after 7:30 the next morning. He opened his eyes, groaned, and then leaned over to poke Boots in the shoulder. Boots's head snapped up from where he'd been drooling on his chest. He looked around blearily and said, "It wasn't a bad dream?"

Bruno shook his head. "Afraid not."

"Well," said Boots, lolling his head from side to side as he tried to stretch out the crick in his neck, "let's go eat breakfast, I guess."

"Oh sure, that's hilarious," Bruno said. "We're supposed to be maintaining the continuity of the timeline, or whatever. If I show up to breakfast, the universe will probably implode."

"It's a risk we'll have to take," said Boots, dragging himself up to standing and then offering a hand to Bruno. "Because I am not going to face this day on an empty stomach."

***

Bruno and Boots set down their breakfast trays at a table with Wilbur and Pete, and Bruno deflected their razzing about his rare appearance at the morning meal. Elmer, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. It was unclear if this boded well or poorly for the state of the ionospheric modeling process and Bruno and Boots's plans for a return trip that evening.

Across the room, Larry spotted them and hurried over to their table. "Hey, what are you guys doing here?" he asked, pointing at Bruno and Boots. "The Fish is looking for the two of you and he seems pissed."

"What?" Boots yelped. "Why?"

Larry shrugged. "No idea," he said. "But this morning I heard him on the phone with Mrs. Sturgeon, asking her if she'd ever heard of the Grapefruit Diet, so that's probably not a good sign. Anyway, he just told me to go find you, and that you should come straight to his office."

Bruno stabbed his stack of pancakes savagely, wondering not for the first time what could have happened over the last few months to make grapefruit such a vital concern. "See," Bruno said, "nothing good ever comes of showing up to breakfast."

Larry walked with Bruno and Boots back to the Faculty Building, which severely limited their opportunities to either plan for or panic about their imminent encounter with Mr. Sturgeon.

"What's the rap for, do you think?" Larry asked.

"Not a clue," Bruno answered honestly.

Right before they entered the Faculty Building, Larry paused, looking shifty. He gestured slightly between Bruno and Boots. "Do you think he found out about--"

"What?" said Boots.

"What?" Larry answered. "Nothing. Good luck, guys. See you in English if The Fish doesn't put you in the stocks."

Larry walked down the hall in the opposite direction of Mr. Sturgeon's office, leaving Bruno and Boots to wonder if there was anyone who didn't know what was going on between the two of them besides Bruno and Boots themselves.

*

"Walton, O'Neal," Mr. Sturgeon said, scowling at them from behind his desk. "I seem to recall that yesterday evening I told you I wanted to see you both in my office at precisely eight o'clock this morning, did I not?"

One thing that was exactly how they left it was the Headmaster's office. The hard wooden bench that faced Mr. Sturgeon's desk was every bit as unforgiving as Bruno and Boots remembered.

"Sorry, sir," Boots offered meekly. "We must have lost track of time."

Mr. Sturgeon fixed them both with a particularly cold, fishy glare, but seemed to conclude that their tardiness was small potatoes compared to whatever was coming next. "Recently," he said. "I received a telephone call from a very distressed Miss Scrimmage, accusing Macdonald Hall of harboring a caped crusader who had stolen her best silverware."

Still not entirely sure that The Fish couldn't read minds, both Bruno and Boots carefully tried to avoid thinking about the mysterious pile of junk they'd found on Boots's bed the night before.

"That sounds awful, sir," Bruno said.

"At any rate," said Mr. Sturgeon, leaning back in his chair, "it may interest you to learn that as part of an effort to mend fences over this incident, Macdonald Hall has agreed to cater the upcoming Winter Holiday Dance, and I have been assured by our cook that citrus is not on the menu."

"That's, uh, great news, sir," Boots said cautiously.

"As you can imagine," Mr. Sturgeon continued, in a light and pleasant tone that set off alarm bells in both Bruno and Boots's heads, "this endeavor will involve a great deal of planning, preparation, clean up and, of course, dishwashing. I thought that I might volunteer the two of you for the latter."

There didn't seem to be much to say in response to that, so Bruno and Boots smartly chose to say nothing.

Mr. Sturgeon eyed them over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. Eventually, he said, "Very well, then. I will not keep you from your classes. Dismissed." Not needing to be told twice, Bruno and Boots fled the Faculty Building and started walking in the direction of first period English.

"Since I still don't know exactly what it was that we did, it's hard to know for sure if we just got off easy," Boots said, scratching his head. "But," he added, "I think we just got off easy?"

"For sure," Bruno said, nodding. "One measly day's worth of dishwashing, and the best part is that as long as Elmer sends us back tonight, we don't even have to do it!"

"Not exactly," said Boots, "We'll still have to do it. Just not for another seven months. Unless … I guess the act of us going back could be enough to change everything that happens going forward. Maybe we've deep-sixed this future just by experiencing it."

Since they woke up that morning, they'd each been studiously avoiding the big gay elephant in the room. Both Bruno and Boots had started out believing that not much could have changed at The Hall in seven months, but one humongous thing had changed, and still neither of them had any idea what had happened to get them to that point.

Bruno rubbed his temples with thumb and forefinger. "Trust me," he said, "don't think about it too hard. You'll give yourself a headache."

***

After being forced to bluff their way through their meeting with The Fish, the gods of time travel seemed to take pity on Bruno and Boots, and the rest of the day was fairly smooth. Their classes were a lost cause, but hockey practice was fine and at dinner it was Taco Night. Before they knew it, they were right back where it all started, Elmer Drimsdale's bathroom.

Before they could climb into the tub, Bruno leaned over and began to untie his shoelaces. "No matter what happens, I don't want to have wet shoes again," he said.

"Agreed," Boots said and began to do the same.

"And by the way, Elmer," Bruno said as he peeled off his socks, "so much for closely observing our actions so that we wouldn't deviate from the timeline! Sure, you told us about poker night and hockey practice, but you left out the part about Operation Grapefruit, or that we were supposed to be in The Fish's office at 8 o'clock this morning, or, uh … y'know," Bruno added hotly, "other stuff."

Elmer's face fell. "My apologies," he said, looking chagrined. "As you are most likely already aware, social cues are not my strongest suit, and so it's possible that I may have missed--"

"It's okay, " Boots said, cringing. "Let's just get this show on the road, alright?"

"Indeed," said Elmer. "According to my calculations, we have already entered the optimum window, so we should begin at once."

Bruno and Boots took their places standing in the bathtub, each with their shoes and socks tucked under one elbow. Elmer began to make slight adjustments to the equipment scattered around on the bathroom floor.

"What do you think the other you and me have been doing?" Boots said to Bruno, not realizing how it sounded until the words had already spilled out of his mouth. At that point, though, Boots was running out of the energy it took to be embarrassed. So, when Bruno smirked at him, Boots just rolled his eyes.

"You mean, what do I think they've been doing in our time while we've been stuck here?" Bruno asked.

"Yeah," Boots said. He peered at the caddy hanging from the shower head, which he hadn't noticed when they'd landed in the tub last night. The only contents were a plain white wash cloth and a plastic bottle with a label that read "PH BALANCED ALL-PURPOSE CLEANSER TEST SAMPLE #6" in Elmer's neat block printing.

Bruno looked thoughtful. "I don't know," he said. "I hope they won the scavenger hunt, though."

"The scavenger hunt, seriously, that's your biggest concern?"

"Sure, why not?"

"You're an idiot," Boots said fondly.

The bathtub was crowded accommodations for two, even standing up as they were this time around. Boots shifted his feet and his hand accidentally brushed against Bruno's. Instead of moving away, Bruno briefly hooked his little finger around Boots's, like a pinky swear. Neither of them knew exactly what it was that they were swearing to do, but it seemed implied that there'd be plenty of time to figure that out later.

"Hey, Drimsdale," Bruno called over to Elmer, who was either replacing electrocircuits or playing a very inopportune game of Tic-Tac-Toe. "I just have one last question," Bruno said. "Explain to me again why I'm not allowed to go back and bet on the outcome of Stanley Cup?"

Elmer's eyes bulged wildly. "As I have stated repeatedly--" he started to say. But before he could gather a full head of steam, a spark of lightning raced across the bathroom floor and everything went black.

*

The next thing Bruno and Boots knew, they were collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the tub. When Bruno opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was his shoes and socks, bobbling next to him in the shallow bath water.

"Aw, c'mon," said Bruno. "Wet shoes again?"

The next thing Bruno saw was Elmer, leaning over the bathtub with rapt anticipation.

"Yeah, it's us, it worked, we're back," Bruno rattled off tiredly. "Future you says don't forget to include the ionospheric modeling parameters in your message, it's imperative that you complete the causal loop, blah blah paradox, something something temporal incongruity, I don't know, I stopped listening, I'm sure you'll figure it out."

"This is all so fascinating!" said Elmer, practically giddy with excitement. "It would be extremely valuable for my research if I could perform a few brief physiological tests, perhaps take a few measurements of your tetanic contraction response."

"Elmer, don't take this the wrong way," said Boots, finally beginning to show signs of life, "but not in a million years."

***

Room 306 was exactly as they'd left it, both beds messy and unmade. The only difference could be found on Bruno's pillow. Said pillow was sitting alone at the head of Bruno's bed, and placed on top of it was a sheet of loose leaf paper, covered in Bruno's own unmistakable scrawl.

Dear Bruno,

If you're reading this, it means that Elmer's calculations were correct and everyone is back where they belong. And since Elmer is a genius, I'm sure everything worked out fine.

If I know you (and I think I do, hahah), I'm sure you're wondering what happened to get you and Boots together. I know Elmer said we shouldn't give you guys too much information about your future. But I think it's okay to tell you this, because here's the answer: NOTHING HAPPENED. There was no brilliantly executed plan, the two of you didn't get stranded alone on Die in the Woods II, you weren't handcuffed together as part of some weird new punishment detail, none of that stuff you used to imagine when you couldn't fall asleep. (Don't bother denying it -- I'm you, remember?)

All that happened is that you woke up one day and decided to stop being such a coward. That was all it took. But I think that, deep down, you already know that. Good luck with everything. Elmer's worried we're going to break the space-time continuum, but I already told him -- I never get caught!

yours truly,
Bruno

P.S. Boots and I kept things under control here in the past. We made sure you guys won the scavenger hunt, so you're welcome.

P.P.S. Hopefully you were able to keep Operation Grapefruit on track, you know how it's hell on the girls every time Miss Scrimmage discovers a new fad diet.

Bruno looked up from the letter, and found Boots watching him expectantly from across the room.

"So, hey," Bruno said. "Do you, uh, do you want to be my date for Scrimmage's Winter Holiday Dance?"

Boots raised an eyebrow. "The one that's not happening for another seven months, you mean?"

"Yup, that's the one."

"What are you trying to do," Boots asked, tucking his hands into his pockets, "get a jump on getting a date with the prettiest girl in the school?"

Bruno shrugged. "Something like that, maybe," he said. Bruno took a step toward the center of the room, and so did Boots. And the room really wasn't that big, so two steps was all it took for them to be fully in each other's orbits.

Bruno leaned in, quick as a bolt of lightning, and kissed Boots right on the mouth. Bruno moved to pull back just as quickly, but Boots grabbed him by his shirt collar, keeping them anchored together.

"You're not just doing this because Elmer told you that you had to complete the causal loop, right?" Boots teased, tucking his forehead in the crook of Bruno's neck.

Bruno snorted, reaching up to rest a hand between Boots's shoulder blades. "Melvin," Bruno said, smiling brighter than green grass under moonlight, "don't be an idiot."

Boots lifted his head, and this time he leaned in to kiss Bruno. Maybe they were in danger of breaking the space-time continuum, but they were both willing to risk it.