Out of Sync



Two days after he was finished with chemotherapy, Jack pulled all his retirement savings to rent a room at TimeBubble Inc.

"Andrew, find your Mom's picture for me." Jack waved at the wall, exactly where he wanted to see Lorraine's smiling face. "It's in that green plastic box." 

"It's on the mantel," Mindy said. Jack's granddaughter was typing into his new computer console faster than Jack could ever manage at his age, making her braids bounce slightly. This room didn't even really have a mantel, because there wasn't a fireplace, but Jack scanned the walls for anything that looked like a mantel, then turned back to Mindy.

"The mantel back at home," Mindy added, just as Jack was opening his mouth. She looked up at him now, nine-year-old eyes tearing up. There was a staring contest for about five seconds, and Jack won it just as he realized it had happened.

"What?" Andrew asked. "Honey, why did you do that? If you like the picture, we can get a copy made, but that one is Grandpa's."

 "Come back home with us, Grandpa." Mindy jumped out of the chair. "Have dinner with us, and get the picture. If--"

"Grandpa can't come back for dinner," Andrew said. "It'd be too late for us to drive him back here by then."

"Then he can stay at home with us, one more night!"

There was a moment of silence before Mindy stomped out the door into the corridor, braids flying behind her.

Mindy's big brother Sebastian got up from where he'd been organizing the drawers in Jack's dresser. "I'll go find her." He followed Mindy out of the room.

"Maybe you should come back with us?" Andrew said. "This has been hard for her to adjust to. One night won't hurt you, Dad."

"You never coddled Sebastian like that," Jack muttered. He had never coddled Andrew either. "She'll adjust better if we show her that this isn't something she can negotiate or trick me out of. Sorry. I said I wouldn't tell you how to parent. But this is my choice, and I'm not going back to the house today."

"You're right," Andrew said. "It's your choice, Dad."

"Come on, kiddo." Sebastian's voice drifted in from outside the room. "You have to go inside to say goodbye to Grandpa. You won't get a chance for a while."

"No. Grandpa wants to say goodbye, he'll have to come out!"

 Andrew sighed and shook his head. "Two guesses where Mindy gets her stubborn streak from."

"Well, she's right." Jack headed for the door, grabbing the damn cane because of his shaky knee. The walls were thicker than ordinary walls, and he knew that they were stuffed with all the tech necessary to run a TimeBubble. Out in the corridor he was suddenly aware of the lemon floor cleaner and soft rock music playing somewhere down the hall. Mindy slouched against his neighbor's bright green doorframe, and he nodded to her. "Do you want to give me a hug right now? If you want to have dinner together, there's a nice cafe‚ downstairs."

"Come back home, we'll eat there."

"I've got food in the room," he said. "Hug?"

"I'll miss you, Grandpa," Mindy yelled, loud enough to elicit a muted "shush" from Andrew. "And you won't miss me at all." She shifted her feet and stiffened her shoulders, but stayed.

Jack wrapped his arms around her. "It won't be as long for me, but I'll miss you plenty, kid."

"Then why did you come here?"

Jack thought of his wife Lorraine, and of the black hopelessness that hit him when he saw her lying in the open casket. "Because I want you to miss me a little bit for a long, long time. Believe me, it's better than missing somebody all the way."

After a minute, Jack headed back into the room. Here, instead of lemons, dust clung to everything, and tickled his nose. With the boxes from his memories all flattened, and the standard issue TimeBubble bed tucked into the corner, the room looked more spacious and empty than he'd thought. Maybe he should have got them to bring the loveseat... no, dammit. Too late now, and he had nobody to sit in it with anyway.

"That's it?" Andrew straightened the pile of flattened boxes, then spread his arms wide for a hug before he picked them up.

"Looks like. See you tomorrow morning." Jack chuckled and shook Andrew's hand.

Andrew sighed. "I'll come by to pick you up in a month and a half."

Jack smiled. Tomorrow morning for him inside the TimeBubble, a month and a half for Andrew outside--it amounted to the same thing.

#

When his family left the room, Jack checked the TimeBubble settings carefully on the computer and clicked the control to turn it on. He listened for some sound and frowned. The lock on his door clicked and the air vent whooshed. He poked through the work bench to find his Swiss Army knife and a white ash dowel, sat down in the armchair, and whittled.

Before she found out about Jack moving to TimeBubble, Mindy had been reading some books about teenage wizards and couldn't shut up about them. Jack would make a proper wizard's wand for her.

But it was hard to get back to work after taking a break for dinner, and soon he was so tired he had to go to bed. The next morning he only had enough time to take a shower and grab cold cereal for breakfast. An alarm chime went off, and the door clicked. Jack took the Panic Button off his belt, dropped it on the charging pad, put on his beacon and made sure it was broadcasting a-ok, and checked in the mirror that his shirt was straight. In a minute, Andrew and Sebastian came around the corner.

"Good, you're up," Andrew said when he saw Jack. "We had to sign in at the front desk to get past the lobby; they said that your TimeBubble was still on. Weren't you supposed to meet us down there?

"Yeah, sorry, I must have slept in a few minutes."

"Okay, here, put this in your room so we don't forget it." Andrew handed Jack the framed picture of Lorraine.

"Okay." Jack smiled at the picture as he went back inside to drop the picture off on the nearest flat surface.

Soon Andrew was driving them up to the cabin by the lake.

"Did you get the grand tour of the TimeBubble building since we dropped you off, Grandpa?" Sebastian asked.

"No, I stayed in my room last night, and all morning before you came to pick me up. Why?"

"Are you trying to find out about the distillery thing, Sebastian?" Andrew asked, shaking his head. "Sorry, Dad. While you were sleeping, well, there's been a new commercial on the video networks. Some distillery is using a fast-forward TimeBubble to age whiskey overnight. It sounds like a publicity stunt, but some of Sebastian's friends were asking him if he could find out whether it was happening at your building."

Jack considered. "If I spot anybody moving whiskey around, I'll let you know."

"It's not just that," Sebastian said. "I'm really curious about the whole thing. It's only been twelve hours for you, not six weeks. I mean, I know that's the point, but still. It's a good thing Mom drove Mindy, or we wouldn't have any peace the whole way."

Jack winced. "I forgot Mindy's wand! It's not finished yet, but I wanted to show her anyway."

"A wand?" Sebastian repeated. "Oh, like in the wizard books?"

"Yeah. It was going to be my peace offering."

"I'm sure she'll be happy just to have you around all weekend," Andrew said. "And I can't remember the last time I caught her spell-dueling Lord Villainous. It's been  basketball non-stop for weeks."

For a second Jack clung to the idea of Mindy holding the finished wand with a big smile on her face, and then realized he had to move on. "Basketball?" He'd never thought of Mindy as athletic. "Maybe I can get some bigger wood and make one of those backboards to go behind a basketball hoop. You know, for your driveway."

"We've already got a backboard," Sebastian said. "It's plastic. And it's a lot of work to install a wooden backboard."

"I'm sure she'd love one from you, Dad," Andrew said, shooting a warning look at Sebastian.

Jack's father had brought him up to this cabin by the lake for Labor Day weekend when he was a kid.

Mindy came over to Jack while he was sitting at the picnic table checking his Med-Alert beacon again. "Is that your TimeBubble, Grandpa Jack?" she asked.

"No, I can't take the TimeBubble with me. It's as big as a room. This is to let the hospital know if something goes wrong. Then they can send an ambulance shuttle for me." Of course, Jack knew there wasn't much the hospital could do if things got bad even if he was in the hospital, or at TimeBubble, when it happened.

"What's living at TimeBubble like?"

"Well, kind of like staying at a nice hotel. You stayed at hotels when you guys went on that road trip to the North country, right?"

"Motels, not hotels. They weren't so nice."

Jack shook his head. "Well, anyway. I've got my own room, like you saw. When I close the door and the computer turns the TimeBubble on, the door locks and I can't go outside without pushing a Panic Button to turn it off. That makes sure that the TimeBubble is turned off safely."

"And because of the TimeBubble, for you it's only one day since we movedyour stuff into the room."

"That's right. Time moves slowly inside my bubble, so I can live longer. I want to still be around to stand up and cheer at your next graduation. Or at least, sit there and cheer, if I can't stand up any more."

"I only just graduated junior high, Grandpa. I won't have another graduation for--oh, for years!"

"I know, but I still want to be there." There was a moment of awkward silence. "So, you're playing basketball now?"

"Yeah!" Mindy's whole face lit up, and she jumped to her feet as if it were impossible to sit still while she talked about it. "The official team try-outs aren't until next Friday, but they've been holding open practice, getting an idea what it's like, and doing a few drills. The coach used to be a sports extra in videos before she came to coach at our school. That's kinda cool, huh? Ooh, I brought a ball, it's back in the car. We should get a game going. Two on two? Anybody else for two on two?" She was off and running for the gravel field where they'd parked the cars before anybody else caught up to what she was saying.

"There really isn't anywhere to set up a court, sprout," Sebastian called after her.

Jack thought about it, wondering how he could help this work out for Mindy. "There's the paved road. We can see anybody coming in time to get out of the way." A mosquito had landed on his arm. Jack slapped at it, but didn't get it in time. He'd have a bite mark by dinnertime.

"Who's we?" Andrew asked. "Don't tell me you'll play hoops, Dad, not with your knee. And we don't even have hoops to put up."

"I'll referee," Jack said, standing up. "We can take those tire swings from next to the pier, and hang one up on each side of the road."

"Tire swings?" Mindy repeated. "Tire swings aren't like basketball hoops. The tire swings hang sideways like a wall. A basketball hoop is flat like the floor."

"When you say 'we' can do all that," Andrew put in. "Just who do you mean, Dad?"

"Hey, I can do my part." Jack looked around. "I can't do it all by myself though, so if nobody else is interested, then--then never mind, I guess."

Andrew turned away, not quite quickly enough that Jack wouldn't catch the smirk on his face. Sebastian turned to Mindy. "I can live without playing basketball on a country road, so I guess it's up to you, kiddo. Do you want me to lug tire swings around?"

"I said I'll help," Jack insisted.

"Tire swings aren't basketball hoops!" Mindy called out even louder.

"I guess that settles that," Sebastian said, as his mom hurried out to see what Mindy was so excited about. "How about chess, Grandpa?"

They all played a round-robin tournament of chess, followed by a best of three series between Jack and Sebastian, as the sun set over the water. Jack won, but that didn't help him feel any better about the basketball game that didn't happen.

#

The night he got back to TimeBubble, Jack couldn't do any woodwork because of the mosquito bites on his hands. He hadn't bought any wood for the backboard either. He fell asleep reading in bed, woke up to a siren blaring, and rushed out into the hall.

"Oh, sorry, Grandpa." Sebastian smiled weakly at him. "I didn't mean to scare you. They said that if I wanted to see you and you didn't have me on your schedule, I'd have to push this." He pointed to the little push-switch next to the door, which looked like a red doorbell but had "Panic Button" written on the placard above it.

"What... what's going on?" Jack muttered, looking around. Andrew was standing there, smiling tight-lipped and shifting his weight from foot to foot. "You woke me up! What time is it?"

"Just after six," Sebastian said. "Umm, that is, Friday evening. Last week of September."

"And what was so important that you had to wake me up?"

Andrew gestured for Sebastian to go ahead and talk, but he shrugged, so Andrew spoke instead. "We have great news and wanted to invite you to an impromptu celebration. Sebastian got accepted to a student exchange program. He'll be in France next semester."

"Well, congratulations." Jack wondered how much it would cost to study in France, but decided not to ask.

"We're going out to dinner tonight," Sebastian said. "At Barton's. You'll come with us, right?"

"It's the middle of the night for me," Jack insisted, heading back into the room. His bug bites itched like anything, and his fingers twitched, so he had to concentrate on not scratching. With a wave he invited them to follow him into the room.

"Are your bug bites still bothering you, Dad?" Andrew asked. Jack glared at him. "Oh, right--sorry, I guess I forgot for a minute.”

Jack settled into the armchair. "Listen, Sebastian, when do you leave for France?"

Sebastian approached, one tentative step at a time. "My flight's on January the fifth."

"Then we'll have a proper farewell party for you. I know it's awkward timing, so close to the holidays, but..."

"Yes, of course," Andrew said.

"I'll be there."

"That's it?" Sebastian asked.

"Yes!" Jack sat down and ran his hands over the smoothly carved arms of the chair. "This is the way my time works now. If I'd arrived from, I dunno, New Zealand and had jet lag, would you expect me to come out to your impromptu dinner?" He looked up at Sebastian, hoping that the kid would understand.

"If you'd arrived from New Zealand," Sebastian said softly, "you'd be over your jet lag in a few days."

Everybody was quiet for a few seconds. "Yeah, I know, kid," Jack muttered. "It's not a perfect analogy."

Sebastian nodded. "So how about in a day or two? A week? I'd really like you to be there. You can adjust your TimeBubble settings to make tomorrow morning any day you want, can't you?"

"You know how important it is to keep myself on a fixed schedule!" Jack shot back. "The therapist kept telling me that, before I moved here. I'll see you at Thanksgiving, and I'll be there at your going-away party."

Sebastian's shoulders slumped as the corners of his mouth dropped. "Okay, Thanksgiving. I'll look forward to it." He headed back out, and Andrew followed, after shooting a cold glare at Jack. Jack felt a coldness spread all over him, and was too struck by what a mistake he'd just made that he couldn't say anything in time. When he finally got to the door, Sebastian and Andrew were nowhere in sight.

He went back to the desk and picked up the phone. "You can do this," he muttered out loud. Be the kind of man you always taught them about becoming. Dial, and apologize, and set a date for the party. 

But instead, shaking his head, he put the phone down and turned the bubble back on.

#

The next morning, Jack was tired, he had a headache, and his bug bites were itchy. Andrew came to pick him up for Thanksgiving, and Jack tried not to complain, sensing that the family tension hadn't gone away.

The smile on Mindy's face when she saw him was enough to make Jack feel better. She ran up to give him a hug. "I need your help."

"What can I do for you, kiddo? Need a workman to build a better basketball court for you?"

"No, it's about school. I have to write a paper about a family member who's my hero."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I chose Grandma. I need to ask you some questions about her."

Jack's breath caught for a second. "Sure, go ahead. What do you want to know?"

Mindy had lots of questions: Where was Grandma born? How had he met her? Where had they lived when Daddy was little?  Jack enjoyed answering and telling the stories, but deep down inside he wasn't quite sure what to think. Hadn't he told Mindy these stories already? Had she been too young to remember?

After dinner, Mindy came over to Jack again. "Can you come out to one of my basketball games? I'm gonna be on the starting lineup December the sixth, and I thought if I asked now, you'd be able to put it on your schedule."

Jack hesitated, and looked over at Sebastian. If he said yes to his little sister, would Sebastian be pleased or angry that Jack hadn't changed the schedule for him? "We'll see, kiddo." Mindy's face fell right away. She thought he was saying no. Something clenched at Jack's chest, but he didn't open his mouth to prove her wrong.

#

Christmas was awkward that year. Andrew's wife, Zoe, had been having headaches for a few days already when Jack came to visit. Mindy and Sebastian spent a lot of time helping her with the cooking, and Andrew seemed to think that keeping Jack busy was his chore. Jack didn't mind the opportunity to spend time with him. They played games of chess and checkers, and Andrew talked about some of the things that had been going on with the kids since Jack moved into TimeBubble.

Even after the dinner dishes had been cleared away and the presents opened, Mindy didn't seem to want to get too close to Jack. I must have really hurt her feelings, he realized. Maybe he should find out when her next  basketball game was, and put that on his schedule after all.

Jack asked Andrew, on the drive back to TimeBubble. "Oh, her team doesn't start up again until the New Year. We can talk about it at Sebastian's going-away party."

There was a moment of silence. "How have you been feeling?" Andrew asked. "Are you getting enough rest lately? You've been having busy days, every day, not much downtime."

"I feel great--lots of energy."

"Then maybe you don't need to be there at TimeBubble, Dad. You got a clean scan after the chemo. You could live twenty, thirty years--more, and living every day."

"No, I can't take that chance. You know what the doctor said--if this stuff  comes back, it'll come back quick."

They drove the rest of the way in silence.

#

On the morning of Sebastian's going-away party, a wave of remorse crashed into Jack about skipping the midnight dinner (as he thought of it.) He did his best to make up for that, thinking up all the funny stories he could remember about his grandson. Even though Sebastian kept protesting that nobody wanted to hear them, Jack thought he was a hit with Sebastian's friends from college who hadn't heard those stories before.

Once everybody else had gone home, Jack turned to Sebastian himself. "How much longer before you leave? I want to spend some time with you."

"Well, my flight isn't until the day after tomorrow, but I'm going to be really busy until then. There's a lot to get ready--not just packing the stuff I'm taking with me, but getting all the rest of my stuff ready for storage, brushing up on my French and everything I need to know to travel from the airport to my dorm..."

"You could come along to drive him to the airport, Dad," Andrew suggested. "It'll be an early drive for us; he has to be there for seven AM to check his luggage and get through all the lines."

"Yeah, but that doesn't matter for you, Grandpa," Sebastian said with a smile. "You can sleep in late and still be up early for the day after tomorrow."

"Okay, yeah, that'll work," Jack said. "I'm sorry I was such a crank when you came to tell me about your celebration dinner, Sebastian."

"Hey, it's okay. I understand, it was the middle of the night for you, and you weren't expecting anything like that."

When the time came to drive Sebastian to the airport, Jack was well-rested and wide awake. Unfortunately, he couldn't say the same about his traveling companions. Even though the car was doing most of the driving, Andrew seemed to pay more attention to the controls and the road than anything else. Sebastian teased him a little about not trusting the car in full automatic mode.

For Sebastian's part, he tried his best to be sociable and talkative, but Jack could tell that the boy was feeling dopey so early in the morning. Sebastian rambled on and on, sharing everything he'd learned about the university in France, and Jack let him chatter, enjoying the sound of his voice even when he couldn't follow the thread of the monolog.

Once Sebastian had unloaded all his luggage and disappeared into the terminal building with it, the drive home was very quiet. 

#

Once Jack got back home, he looked at the schedule. Sebastian would be able to fly back home for the Fourth of July. Jack could hardly wait, but at least he had some control. Valentine's day? That was a day for the younger people, not an old widower. He took some pleasure in cutting it off his schedule. Next, he deleted the mid-January winter party. Like a grumpy bear, he slept through the worst of the winter, only waking up for Andrew and Zoe's anniversary, which was in early March. He'd promised to babysit Mindy so they could go out to dinner, and refused to back out of that commitment. Zoe thanked him with a big smile, and Mindy didn't avoid him, but she kept talking about her basketball team, which was doing really well.

Before the cancer, Jack had babysat Mindy and Sebastian on Saturdays, so Jack and Zoe could have their "date night". Sebastian often had other plans, but if he didn't, he'd come up to Jack's place for Saturday night, bringing homework with him. Mindy never left her homework for Saturday night, so Jack had to find games for her to play or something else to keep her busy back then. How many date nights have happened since I first went to TimeBubble?

But I haven't lost that time, I've saved it up for later. If I spent that time on babysitting for date night or basketball games, how much would I remember of them when I didn't have any more left? Would Mindy remember those ordinary days when I'm gone?

#

Jack's Panic Button went off from outside again, the night after the anniversary, and this time nobody was at the door. He picked up the phone to complain to the front desk, but it rang before he could dial. "Good evening, Mister Cooper. I hope we didn't disturb you."

"Well, if you don't want to disturb people, maybe you shouldn't make sirens go off when you push your Panic Button."

"I'm afraid I don't make corporate policy, sir. This is Lina Rooke, with Guest Services."

"Good evening, Lina." It probably wasn't evening outside, but he didn't care. "What did you disturb me for?"

"Umm, yes. We regret to inform you that there's a minor glitch in the Master Panic Button controller for east eight. There will be a routine maintenance window, in which you cannot activate or inactivate your room TimeBubble."

Uh-oh. "How long a window?"

"Very close to a week, sir. From April third to the evening of the eighth."

"Okay, so--" The implication of that hit him right away. Mindy's birthday was April the sixth. It fell on a Saturday this year, and she was excited about having her party on a weekend. "Umm, I don't suppose it'd be possible to switch rooms for that week?"

"I'm afraid not. We don't have many spare rooms, and..."

"Right, okay. I've got some time before I have to decide, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, then. Can you figure out the right TimeBubble factor to get me back in sync with outside time, by eight AM tomorrow, and just punch it in for me? I've got quarter to ten in the evening on my clock here, and I'm sure that's not right."

"Yes, sir. Have a good night."

Jack hung up, groaned, and tried to relax and sleep.

#

"I hate to say it, Dad." Jack could hear the strain in Andrew's voice over the phone line. He hadn't been able to reach him until after Andrew got to the office and dealt with some kind of 9am crisis. "Of course we'd love for you to spend more time with us, but that'll be a crazy week for Zoe at the school, and it doesn't look like things are going to get any calmer around here."

"Well, maybe I could help out around there, watch Mindy if both of you are working late, that kind of thing."

"That could work." Andrew took a moment to consider the idea. "The problem would be the shuttling. I don't think we can commit to picking you up at TimeBubble every day and sending you back at night. And if you moved back, and took some stuff into Sebastian's old room, just for the week--what would you do while you've got the house to yourself and Mindy's at school?"

"I guess I hadn't thought about that part."

I've messed up everything. What's the point in coming out at all? I'm completely disconnected from everybody! In the evening, Jack programmed the TimeBubble to take him to the Fourth of July in a single night. Sebastian will be back then--I'd like to hear what France was like for him.

But he couldn't bring himself to push the 'On' button and miss Mindy's party. If he keeled over before her birthday, at least she'd know he'd tried.

#

Jack woke with sunlight filling the room; he hadn't bothered to draw the blinds because there were usually metal shutters over the window when he slept with the TimeBubble on. This was it. He was stuck "in time" for six days, and nothing at all on his schedule except for Mindy's birthday. What was he going to do with the time until then?

He got himself set up at the worktable, but couldn't think of what to make. Mindy didn't want her wizard's wand, and certainly she'd gotten used to the plastic backboard by now. He needed nothing for himself, and he couldn't think up a welcome home gift for Sebastian.

Then there was a faint tapping sound. Jack got up, checked the bathroom, and looked high and low before he thought of the door. By then the tapping had stopped, but he opened it and looked out anyway.

"Oh, good morning." The short lady with a head full of white curls reminded Jack of Lorraine's mother. She turned her roller-walker around and rolled back to Jack. "It's Jack, right?"

"Um, yeah." Jack chuckled to himself. "I'm afraid you have the advantage on me, my lady?"

"Hmm, what's that? Oh, my name? I'm Cheryl, and it's so nice to meet you. Thought I'd just drop by and welcome you to the floor, long past time I know, and invite you over to the day lounge if you wanted to come and play some cards with us. At the moment, the game of choice is Solo Whist, but we're open to just about anything?"

"The day lounge?" Jack repeated. "Now, I may not have been paying the best attention to the spiel when I first came here, but I asked about amenities, and they didn't mention a day lounge. Is it new?" Somehow the thought made him smile.

"Well, yes. And temporary, I suppose, just for the length of this outage. 842 has been vacant for months, so I asked Lina if we could use it as a common room to gather in. Since, for a few days, we've become a neighborhood, you know?"

"Right." Jack grabbed his cane and stepped out the door. "You know, that was something my Lorraine used to say, that neighborhood meant knocking on the doors. And when TimeBubble is working right, what's the point of knocking on somebody's door? It could be weeks before they show up at the door."

Cheryl smiled. "Yes, that's it exactly. And Lina's such a dear, she was able to give me a list of whose TimeBubbles are off. I still haven't knocked on all of the other doors in East Eight. Do you want to tag along with me and knock some, or go straight to eight-forty-two?"

"I think I'll come along. I'm sure I can knock louder than you did."

Cheryl giggled and poked her elbow into Jack's arm.

#

"Hey Jack!" Jack looked up from his cards as Wally came into the day lounge. "You're in 811, right?"

"Yeah, that's my place," Jack shot back. "Did you go and raid it for more snacks?"

"Not yet. But there's a girl knocking on your door."

"Huh? Wait a second, a little girl? Nine--no, almost ten years old with really blonde hair?"

"Blonde, yeah. Little, yeah. Could be that old."

Jack left the card table in a rush, realized after a few steps how unsteady he was, and went back for the damn cane. As soon as he was out in the hallway, he called out. "Mindy?"

"Grandpa?" She looked around and spotted him. "Did I go to the wrong room?"

"No, that's fine. What's wrong?"

"Something's wrong?"

Jack waited, leaning against the wall as Mindy hurried up to him. "Um...sorry. When I heard that you were here, I guess that was the first thing that I thought of, your parents were in an accident or something."

"Grandpa, don't say things like that! Mom said that your TimeBubble was broken and you wanted to spend more time with me, so I came here on the first bus after school."

"The bus? You rode the city bus by yourself?"

"Not my first time. Dad shadowed me on this one last week, just to make sure I had it straight, but it's not that hard. Walk down the street from school to the rain shelter just outside of the Chinese take-out place. Wait for the bus that says 23 Franklin Street. Swipe on the pay machine, watch out the right side for the big waterbed sign, and..."

"Yes, I can see you knew how to get here," Jack said with a grin. "Come on into the day lounge; I've made some new friends. Do you know how to take the bus home? Did mom say when she was expecting you?"

"Yeah, I can't stay here past seven, or six if you don't have dinner for me. Hi, Grandpa's friends! Whatcha playing?"

"Well, it's called Solo Whist," Cheryl said.

"It's a bit like Euchre," Jack added. "Except that there are different bids you can make and you're not always partner with the person across the table. Sometimes one person makes the bid. . ." He sat down. "Hey, why don't we just finish this hand and then switch to Euchre?"

"Well, I want to try Solo Whist," Mindy said. "Maybe you'll teach me tomorrow?"

"Sure," Jack said.

"You guys got pizza?" Mindy said, pointing at the boxes on the dresser. "Is there any left?"

"Sorry, honey," Wally said from over on the bed. "You're a few hours too late. But we'll be ordering dinner soon."

Mindy could win every game of Euchre, no matter who she partnered with. She wanted fries and breaded chicken, but Jack bargained her down, and found a restaurant that would deliver garlic-grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and veggies.

The next night, they were all waiting for her to show up, with a reference card printed out of the different bids in Solo Whist.

#

The birthday party took up all of Saturday. Mindy taught Jack how to pass the first level of her favorite flying mutants computer game on the big wall screen in the morning, and then all her friends came over in the afternoon to play hide and seek all over the house and watch her open her presents. Mindy didn't say much when she opened the wooden chess set from Jack, but looked over at him and smiled, and that made it all worth it.

Jack finally saw her play basketball in the driveway, laughing as the ball bounced off that plastic backboard, and had to admit that the plastic somehow worked in a nebulous way that a piece of wood hanging off the edge of the garage wouldn't.

He went into Sebastian's room to sit down before dinner, and after a minute he couldn't stop his hands from shaking. He pulled out the medic-alert beacon, but couldn't focus on it. That had to be a bad sign, right?  He put it to his ears and didn't hear anything. Wasn't it supposed to chime if he was having an episode?

But his sleeve was wet, and he was brushing tears against his nose. 

Why am I crying?

He heard soft footsteps coming into the room. "Grandpa?"

"Yeah, Mindy. I'm here."

"Grandpa, you're crying."

"Yeah, sweetie, I am, and I don't even know why."

"Maybe you're crying because you miss us?"

I'm missing pieces of them. Every time I came out of my room I was with them, but there were so many pieces of their lives that I wasn't there for. That I chose to be away for.

"And what do I do now?" He groaned. "I wish I could stay in the day lounge with Cheryl and the others. But once the Panic Buttons are fixed, they'll disappear into their own bubbles. I don't think I can talk them out of it now, any more than you could convince me otherwise."

"I think I know where you can find a day lounge, Dad." Jack turned, saw an Andrew-sized blur standing in the doorway, and smiled as the tears came down his cheeks.

#

Two days after TimeBubble fixed the controller for his floor, Jack moved into Sunset Towers retirement home. It wasn't as easy to fit in right away as he'd hoped, but he found enough Euchre players to fill a table by the end of the week, and started to go to the finger painting class. Mindy came by to visit him every day after school, and on Friday night Andrew drove over to take them back to his house for a family dinner.




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