The fun fair began to numb the impending doom. I was in heaven. Not only because I was able to enjoy 1958 for basically the first time since I had been there, but being with John was all laughs and smiles. He made everything adventurous and new. And he made me laugh a lot. More than any guy from 2109.
Really. This was so much better than the dates I had back home. Meeting someone in a virtual cafe only to realize that they’re an unconvincing AI marketing bot, suggesting weirdly specific products to you. Sometimes I’d figure it out within the first few minutes and still finish out the date, because that’s how much of a lonely loser I was.
The smell of popcorn lingered everywhere we went. I went on a few archaic death trap rides with John and clung onto his arm for dear life. After he nailed a few milk bottles with a baseball, we passed a roped off cage that had attracted a small crowd of families.
“What’s over there?” I asked tugging on John’s hand.
“Oh, that’s the circus tiger on display.”
I stopped right in the middle of the walkway, nearly pulling John off his feet. “Like an actual, live, living tiger?”
“Yes, living.” John laughed. “Be a bit depressing if they put the dead ones out for all the kiddies to see.”
My eyes were as wide as they could go. “Can I please, please see it?”
“Certainly.” John gestured to the cage, obviously amused by my unsuppressed excitement.
I skipped to the cage, bowling over the kids to get as close to the mysterious cat as possible. There it was. An actual non-extinct beautiful tiger napping on his side. Sleek orange and black stripes. His huge white paws twitching as he dreamed. I teared up and tried to choke back my emotion. This was the kind of thing I had yearned of when I became an apprentice for the department of time travel.
After a good solid gawk, I noticed John hunched over a thick wooden post, scribbling on the back of the fun fair flier.
“What are you drawing?” I asked leaning to see around his arm.
“Oh no you don’t!” He dodged me and folded the flier into quarters
“Come on! Let me see it,” I said, trying to grab it from him as he held it out of my grasp.
“No, no. You’re having far too much fun. This is a secret note. For bad days only.” He pulled on the pocket of my jacket and tucked the flier deep inside. “Next time you find yourself having a rotten day, you’ll remember, ‘Ah, yes! John’s given me a goodie! And now I can’t feel sad today because I can finally read my secret message, you see’.”
He leaned his elbows on the wooden railing, a finger pressed against his mischievous smirk and his eyes gleaming as they peered into mine.
I traced the outline of the folded pamphlet through my pocket. “I can’t—” I laughed. “I’m dying to know what this says now.”
“Patience is a virtue. As they say.”
I shot him a look, but he kept his closed grin. “Well, you should know. I’ve been having a terrible day today,” I said.
“A likely story.”
“It’s been the most awful, no-good, horrible day ever.”
I went to poke him in the side, but he wrapped his arms around my waist and gave me such a tight squeeze that it lifted me off my feet. Where is that portal malfunction? Please let me get stuck in a time loop! Please let this day never end! How could I ever bring up Paul? How could I even mention another boy on a day like this?
Up behind the fair were hills and hills of sand dunes that stretched for miles. Once we had run around a significant amount at the fair, taking carnies for what they had, we climbed up to explore the secluded dunes. John flopped on his belly and pretended to swim through the sand, all while barking ferociously like a seal. I started an unintentional sand fight, before he knelt and suggested that we build our own Buckingham Palace.
For the first time that day things were calm and peaceful. We happily worked away, patting the dry sand into shape.
“I’m glad you came with me,” he said. “I know I’m not Stu, but I think we have a lot of fun, you know?”
I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean you’re not Stu? Who said anything about Stu?”
John put his fist to his cheek. “I mean, it’s Stu. Mr. Talent. Mr. Everything. And me, Mr. Nothing. Mr. Nowhere. Going nowhere. Doing nothing.”
I was stunned. If only he knew the future like I did. If only he knew he would change the world in another reality. And if only he knew that poor Stu would have a deadly aneurism by age twenty-one. Crazy what we worry about in the moment, and how those things can drastically flip.
“I’m glad you’re not Stu,” I said, letting a handful of sand rain down on our palace.
“Are you really though?” he asked, biting his lip. “I mean, truthfully. Are you glad?”
“Yes. Stu is Stu. But he’s not a John Lennon. He doesn’t make me laugh. He’s not you.” I rested a fist on my chin. “And besides, what about this Cynthia girl? Are you glad I’m not her?”
“Tremendously,” he said. “Miss Prim and Proper, wanna be a nun. She would never do this kind of thing with me.”
“No, I think she would,” I said under my breath.
“Hey.” Suddenly John leaned across the palace and kissed me gently on the mouth. My whole chest lifted at his touch. I had almost forgotten how great of a kisser he was.
“What was that for?” I asked softly.
“A warning, Em. But if you do it again there’ll be bigger consequences next time.” He stuck a small stick upright into the top of our palace as if it were a flag.
“Stop that,” I said.
“That face you make,” I said, trying to imitate it myself. “With the eyebrows and the half-closed eyes and the smile. Just knock it off. It’s way too handsome.”
He laughed. “I can’t help it! It’s the face I was born with, I haven’t got another one!”
John beamed. And it twisted into my heart like a corkscrew. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be convincing him he was the only one in my life. I was supposed to be telling him that I was now falling for Paul and whatever else.
I swallowed a mouthful of guilt. It felt like a spoonful of hot ash squeezing down my throat. But I knew that Thorne was watching and waiting. Waiting for me to bring up Paul and break John’s heart into a million tiny little pieces. But if I didn’t do it, he would die. So, I absolutely did not have a choice.
“John,” I said solemnly. “I have to admit something to you.”
“Hold on,” he said, scooting closer. “I think I know what you’re going to say, but I’m going to go first…”
“Okay,” I said, eager to put off telling him.
“Em, I love you,” he said. “I love, love, love you.”
I felt a yelp rise into my mouth and get stuck at the top of my head. Oh no, no, no. What? Love? Actual love? I couldn’t believe it. I had done it. I had gotten John to love me.
“Yeah, see? Nyah!” He stuck out his tongue. “I beat you to it, didn’t I?”
I stumbled around for the words. “You love me? Like actual love? Or is it just that you really like me a lot. Like a precursor for love or something.”
“I think about you every moment I’m awake. And when I’m not awake, you’re in every dream I have so I don’t even get a break then,” he said.
“Sounds like love,” I said, my face stoned over in shock.
“I knew I was going to fall in love with you from the moment we went to Strawberry Field together. That’s when I knew I had really flipped for you,” he said. “And the pirate pig song, of course, was icing on the cake. I don’t know. There’s just something about it. About you. I feel like I was supposed to fall in love with you. Like it was my destiny or something.”
I was horribly stupefied, and I didn’t know where to begin. I knew I didn’t want to begin at ‘Hey, never mind about you, I like Paul now.’ I felt a little sick to my stomach, but there were other layers of emotions. Relief for one. I had successfully done what I came here to do. But also, relief in a different way. I didn’t know quite what it was, but there was this tension ease listening to him talk. Not the tension of the mission, but a tension I held long before that. I was loved. I was loveable. I wasn’t sure if that were ever going to be possible again. Or was in the first place. But here we are, John Lennon fell for me. I was fallable.
Tears were welling in my eyes. I covered my IND camera with my hand and silently mouthed to him, “I love you, too.”
He gave me a curious tilt of the head, but his eyes brightened at my reciprocation.
“I’m dead terrified!” he said. “I don’t know what your family is going to think of that. Of me and everything else.”
My family? Well, yeah, my mom didn’t approve of the match but not why John probably thought. “Why are you worried about that?” I asked. “My family would love you.”
“Families don’t really love me. Parents don’t really love me,” he said with a small laugh.
“Everyone loves you,” I said returning the laugh. “What are you talking about?”
He pinched one of his eyes shut. “I don’t know who you think you’re talking about, Em, but this is me. John Winston Lennon, remember? Not even my own family likes me. No one likes me! I’m a completely unlovable loser, so you’ll just have to admit to that one.”
I scoffed so loudly it probably could be heard from the Fun Fair below. “Are you actually kidding me? John. No. You are so loved. You don’t even know how many people are obsessed with you.”
As in, no you literally don’t know. Millions and millions of people who know everything about you and all your songs. You are one of the most adored people in history.
He shook his head. “Come off it.”
“It’s true,” I said. “I have this theory that you are cursed.”
“Charmed,” I said.
“Oh, charmed,” he laughed. “Well that’s alright then.”
“I’m serious,” I said, nudging him with my elbow. “I really think you were charmed as a baby or something, that no matter what you did or how much of a cheeky buggar you were, everyone around you would just fawn over you. Love you to death.”
“That is so far off from the truth,” he said. “You must have fallen from your pram a few dozen times.”
He drew his fingers over my knee and my heart did a full barrel roll. The sounds from the fair faded away, even the soft sand lost its warmth as my nerves concentrated under John’s fingers.
“What was it that you were going to tell me earlier?” he asked.
I leaned forward and gave him a weak kiss, trashing everything that Thorne had wanted me to do and ruin.
“My shoes are full of sand,” I said. “Should we head back to the ferry?”
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