Outside of a giant dome building, Greggs was waiting for me sitting at a small round table on the patio. A chair across from him was all pulled out and ready for me to sit on. He gestured to it and I complied, shielding my eyes from the sun until the sensors of the umbrella caught on and expanded for more shade.
“We’re going to be practicing today,” Greggs told me.
Okay, I nodded and then shifted my eyes. “What are we going to be practicing?”
“Oh.” I dropped my hands into my lap. Ah! The gift of deceit. A talent that I did not possess in the slightest. But everyone has to start from somewhere, don’t they? I just wish that I didn’t have to start from scratch.
“Alright,” Greggs clasped his hands and faced me. “Let’s do a little role play.”
Cool. No problem. I love role play. Love it. I starred as the lead in my school’s videogram. Ten whole views. No big.
“I’ll be John’s Aunt Mimi,” he said. “And you be yourself.”
“I can do that,” I said with a little grin. “Been being myself from day one.”
“So, you saw the advert for a lodger?” Greggs asked not even changing his voice or adding in any kind of an acting oomph whatsoever.
“Yes,” I said, wiggling proudly. “I’m hoping to rent the room from you.”
“You sound American,” he said, leaning in his chair. “What are you doing here in Liverpool?”
“Oh, you know,” I said, rotating my wrist trying to think of a good lie. “I have family here. So… yeah, I came to visit my family for the summer.”
“Why don’t you stay with them if you’re visiting them?”
I stared at Greggs dumbfounded. “Uh, because their house is very moldy,” I said. “You guys have mold in 1958, right?”
Greggs gave me his iconic eye. “Your family is here in Woolton? What’s their last name?”
“Their name is …” I shifted my eyes. “Smiiiiiiiith.”
“Oh, Smith? I’m a Smith. I know all the Smiths in the area. Which ones are you related to? I’m sure John will be delighted to get to know a long-lost cousin.” He said the last little bit like a punch in the gut.
I gave him a dirty look then sucked in a deep breath. “Okay. I mean ‘The Ricardos’.”
“Do you often get Ricardos mixed up with the Smiths?” he asked with a laugh.
“Ricardo-Smith. With a hyphen. Super hermit people. You wouldn’t know them. And definitely, definitely not related to John in any way.”
“Uh-huh.” Greggs rubbed his bottom lip with the tips of his fingers probably reprimanding me in his mind.
“Well, okay,” I said, defending myself. “Like she would actually ask me those things. You’re just guessing.”
Greggs gave me a smile. “Right. Let’s do a different kind of role-play,” he said and nodded to the doors of the dome building. I grabbed my things and followed him in.
Inside was a virtual reality rink. Everything was a uniform off-white color, the floor, the ceiling. It was impossible to tell where the wall ended, and the room began. The door swooshed behind us and Greggs handed me a VR helmet.
“So what?” I asked. “Practice lying to Aunt Mimi or…”
“No,” he said, using his IND to activate the system. “The lying is only part of it. Your main mission is to woo John Lennon.”
“So, you better practice romancing him.”
I slipped on my VR helmet. The clean, white room blinked away, and I was in the hallway of a moving train car. A hazy smoke filled the air but still smelled as clean as the sterile VR rink. The footing underneath me swaying gently side to side and the sound from the wheels on the track were all around me. Chick-koo-Chick-koo. Chick-koo-Chick-koo.
Dr. Greggs appeared at my side and led me to the window of a passenger car. Inside, sat Lennon, with full Beatles haircut wearing a perfectly tailored black suit and a skinny tie. I raised my brow at Greggs.
“That’s not historically accurate,” I said. “This is like circa 1964 John, he’s not going to look anything like this.”
Greggs ignored my historical audit. “Go in there and talk to him.”
“It’s not accurate but okay,” I muttered under my breath and opened the door. I strode my way in, taking big confident and sexy steps as I made my way to John. I sat directly across from him on the unsupportive cushion. Lennon didn’t seem to notice as he was holding a book too close to his face. That part was probably historically accurate, but still.
I tossed my hair a little to get him to look up. He didn’t. So I flipped my hair harder and cleared my throat. He turned the page of his novel.
I know it was just a simulation, but something about his presence wanted to intimidate me right out the door. This was the lead singer of The Beatles. Thousands of girls have fainted in his presence. One had actually crawled through the sewer under Abbey Road just to hear him in the recording studio. Why did I think I could attract this guy? Why would he ever—
Greggs elbowed me in the ribs.
“Hi!” I finally blurted.
He brought those big hooded eyes up to mine, gave me a smile-less nod and returned to his book.
I looked hopelessly at Dr. Greggs, who made circles in the air with his hand, edging me to say more.
“So, how are you, twenty-four-year-old John Lennon?” I asked, again putting it out there that my unsuccess was in part due to the inaccuracy.
Awkward silence apart from that loud click-clacking from the train. The muscles holding up my fake smile were burning.
“Okay, so, is that it?” I asked.
“Fine is fine. And that’s what I am,” he said without so much as flinching.
“Well, I’m just trying to have a conversation with you,” I said, keeping my stiff smile and hiding the frustration bubbling inside of me.
“Well, that was the conversation, wasn’t it?” John brought his book back to his long, hooked nose.
I blinked. “Are you seriously going to be this rude?”
“And it’s not rude to interrupt a man while he’s readin’?” he asked, throwing me that iconic scowl. “I wouldn’t get so much of a sentence read if I were polite to every weirdo who waltzed in here.”
“Oh, I’m weird? Goo goo g’joob, you son of a bitch!”
“Alright, not off to a great start,” Greggs said. The session paused itself. “Let’s try it again.”
In the blink of an eye, Lennon had reset himself. Legs crossed. Book up to the nose. But, hey, I hadn’t reset myself. My arms were tight across my chest and I had to close my eyes to keep from rolling them.
I took a deep breath in through my nose.
“Hi,” I tried again.
My eyes darted around the train car as I desperately thought of something else to say. I came up with something so suddenly that a little gasp peeped out of my mouth.
“Okay, I know! Do you want to hear a joke?”
His eyes flashed up to meet mine, although his stoic expression remained.
“Why was World War I so fast?” I asked, giving him a giant opened mouthed grin. “Because they were Russian!”
Lennon stood and tucked his book under his arm. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read in the dining car.”
“Don’t you want to know why World War II was so slow?” I yelled after him as he left the passenger car.
“Alright, let’s take a break.” Dr. Greggs terminated the session.
The VR powered down with a bloop. I took my helmet off, sat on the ground and scrunched my fist into my cheek. What was I going to do out there in 1958? I couldn’t just terminate my session early. That means I would be killing someone. And I didn’t want to do that, even if he was a mean old fart.
“It wasn’t even accurate,” I grumbled.
“Your problem is that you get too sensitive,” Greggs offered without my having asked him. “You can’t be emotionally involved like that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I thought you didn’t like the council’s position on things, because they’re too emotionally removed.”
“Yes, but you still have to be careful to protect yourself.” Greggs sat next to me on the white floor. “There are people and situations that you’re going to have to change and leave behind. You’re going to have to learn to emotionally remove yourself from that.”
I slapped my hands against my thighs. “Not sure if you noticed, Greggsy, but that’s not really my forte.”
Greggs gazed at his interlocked fingers for a quiet minute.
“One of my earlier travels, I was working with Marilyn Monroe. I also was introduced as a subject. Er, briefly, before the end. She befriended me quickly. She would tell me things about her life that I had never read about in the files. Things about her family that I could relate to, despite the 150-year age gap. I felt that we had a real connection. A deep friendship. And there were many times that I had to step back and imagine a glass wall between us,” he said, stopping to sigh. “One time, I was at a dinner party. And she dedicated and sang me a song.”
“What did you do?”
“I said, ‘wall of glass’, out loud. And I got up and left the room.”
“You just left?” I asked with a squeak.
“I kept that glass wall up even until the moment I—” His voice caught in his throat and he shook it off. “You have to go through with this mess, okay? You have to change things. Change the missions that come through that council. And to do that you’re going to have to distance yourself from this kid.”
“Glass wall.” I gave him a thumb’s up. “Be emotionally distant but also get him to propose to me. Got it.”
“You can do it,” he half-reassured me. “And you’ll know when you do. You’ll be able to feel it.”
My whole nose and forehead wrinkled. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Greggs got this grin on his face that I had never seen before. “When the timeline splits, you can physically feel the split happen.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “What does that feel like?”
“Like your rib cage is being tugged in two different directions.”
“Yeesh.” I clutched the center of my chest. “That doesn’t sound very fun.”
Greggs laughed and hopped to his feet. “You’ll see,” he said. “If I were you, I’d brush up on my flirting though.”
His footsteps echoed through the void as he left me alone on the floor. I looked at my helmet in my hands. Flirting had never been one of my strengths. If I couldn’t flirt with the computer, how would I handle him in real life?
“Ah, man,” I whispered to myself.
The next day, law class ended on time despite Thorne’s insistence that it began fifteen minutes before schedule. As all the other time travel apprentices deactivated their IND’s and got ready to leave. I had my eye set on the sharp-shouldered handsome guy who usually sat kitty-corner to me.
I awkwardly timed it so that when he got up to leave, I slid from my chair and rushed at him like a linebacker.
“Hi! Hey! How’s it goin’?” I asked, in a frantic desperate kind of way.
He stopped and kind of raised a brow. He was probably used to women throwing themselves at his feet. C’mon, Emmeline, you can do this. You can catch a man. Be confident.
“Sooooo…” I went to lean my arm against the desk, but it was too low, and it made me slump like a loose paper doll. “You’re in my law class, right?”
His brow remained at full attention as he looked around the very obvious travel law classroom. Right. Derpy, derpy duh. Okay, try again.
“Sooooo…” I crossed my arms on the table, but it kind of made me lose my footing. Instead of tripping I started swaying. As if swaying were the magical end all flirting move. See how cool and relaxed I am? I don’t trip over my own feet. No. Just imagine me swaying to a sexy saxophone jazz solo.
“Anyway,” I said. “The name’s Emmeline.”
“Okay,” he said and shifted his eyes. Acting uncomfortable and disgusted by me. Oh, my Galactica. Do you think he was actually disgusted by me? Everything about his body language said get me away from this scary clown.
“So, like,” I scratched behind my ear. “Do you want to hear a joke?”
Before he could say no, I crammed my joke down his throat. “Why was World War I so fast?”
“Uh, I have to go,” he said, zipping up his temperature-controlled jacket and leaving me in his rejection dust.
Just before the door of the classroom could slam shut behind him, I called out, “Where’d you learn your manners? The AI Lennon?”
At the front of the classroom, Thorne was watching me with a grim expression. I pursed my lips and scrunched my nose.
“I’m going to have to shoot John, aren’t I?” I asked him.
Thorne stuck a hand in his suit pocket and deactivated the classroom system. “Just as it is with any mission, it’s best to prepare for the worst.”
I buried my face in my arms and groaned.
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