Chapter 160

Nick’s ancient VW Bug protested his attempts to turn maneuvering simple neighborhood streets into a smash ‘em up video game, but the grinding cries from its engine went unheeded as its owner jerked the wheel and sent his passenger bouncing against a door that miraculously held closed.

“Fucking shitty drivers,” Nick mumbled, revving past the blue Ford that had committed the unforgivable sin of slowing down to take a right turn. The Bug gave out a weary sputter and lurched into a higher gear, sounding as if the effort had taken several years off its already dwindling lifespan.

“Are you sure you should be going so fast on these streets?”

“Hey, I don’t want to hear shit from you. I pull up and honk and it takes you five minutes to get to the car. You know damn well I run on a very efficient schedule with no wasted time. That five minutes has got to come out of something else now, but we both know morning practice shouldn’t be that spot. I doubt twenty laps for every minute late are good for someone recovering from a head injury.”

“Right... maybe I shouldn’t be practicing in the first place,” Vince pointed out.

“Of course you’re not practicing. Jesus, even your coach isn’t that big of a dickbag. He just requires everyone be present, even the injured. Thinks even the act of watching your team helps you get better at assessing strengths and weaknesses,” Nick reminded him. “I’d call bullshit, but the man produces results.”

“I guess so.” Vince was having trouble keeping the memories straight in his head. He knew their undefeated football team had won a championship that year, he could even remember holding the trophy with the rest of the team. What he couldn’t remember were the small details, like what plays they’d used to pull off their come-from-behind victory. Shouldn’t he remember something like that? Meanwhile his dream memories kept popping up, making him wonder why Nick wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. He’d opened his mouth to ask several times, only to realize how insane that question was since the real Nick only wore them when he was driving and it was bright out.

The Bug gave one final burst of speed as Nick maneuvered it into the east Lander parking lot. It was a sizable university, and much of the student body lived off campus, so there were parking facilities set up all over the place. With the approach of finals, many were choosing to use their daytime hours holed up at home and buried in books, which meant Nick was able to score a spot near the front of the lot, drastically cutting down on their walking time.

“All right, Cinderella, this is as far as the carriage takes you,” Nick said, snapping up his backpack from the rear seat and killing the sputtering engine. “I’ll meet you at the cafeteria in Hoffman Hall for lunch at eleven. Try not to go all mentally-deficient boy and get lost before then.”

“I’ll do my best,” Vince said, a little more honesty in the statement than he would have preferred. He was having real issues with keeping everything straight, so it was seeming increasingly possible that he could get mixed up and go to the wrong place. At least his next destination had been laid out for him. The Lander Stadium loomed before them, just a few minutes’ walk from the east parking lot. He needed to get to practice. Hopefully a little time to just sit and watch people play would give him a chance to clear his head.

*    *    *   

“How’s it going?”

“How the hell should I know? All I do is provide the framework, their mind usually fills in the rest. I did what she told me, but if I had to guess it’s probably not much fun to be him right now.”

“Why not?”

“I usually put them in a place without any doubt. The world they see is the real one. They just accept it since the assurance is coming from their own brain. She made me keep some doubts in there this time, so I’d guess it feels a little bit like he’s losing his mind.”

“Damn. Is Mary almost ready to go in?”

“Yeah, we’re about to start.”

“Good. Fucking hell, I really hope this works.”

*    *    *

“Nice hit, Daniels!” Coach George’s voice boomed across the field; somehow the barely-above-average-height man produced enough sound in his body to fill an entire stadium with his usually critical shouts. “But keep that shit confined to the big guys. I can’t have you cripple my whole fucking team before next season.”

“You got it, Coach,” Roy called back, helping Thomas Castillo back onto to his feet. The tan boy accepted the gesture wordlessly; holding grudges for being tackled in football made as much as sense as getting angry at a waiter for bringing you the food you ordered. Both lined up on opposing sides; in this scrimmage, Thomas was acting as quarterback for the jersey wearing team, who were currently on offense. It seemed a little unfair that Coach George would put Chad, their first string quarterback, on the same team as Roy, who led their league in sacks, but he was a man who believed you forged a better blade by putting it in a hotter fire. He was demanding, unpleasant, and at least halfway insane. People fought like drunken weasels for the chance to play under him.

“How you feeling, Vince?”

Vince turned his head away from the scrimmage to see Hershel Daniels, the towel resource manager, take a seat next to him. The world went tilty for a moment as everything seemed to lose cohesion. How could Hershel be here when Roy was on the field? Because they were fraternal twins, not two people sharing the same body. Vince was slowly getting a handle on re-imposing reality over the dream delusions that dogged him.

“I’m better than I was yesterday,” he replied after his brain stabilized. “The doctors don’t think it was anything too bad. Just got my bell rung.”

“Glad to hear it. Roy felt awful last night. He has a hard time gauging his strength on the field.”

“Tell him I’m fine. And remind him I intercepted the ball, so he was supposed to tackle me. That’s why we practice.”

“I’ll try and get through to him.” Hershel turned his own attention to the field. “Looks like we’ll have another strong team next year.”

No, we won’t. We’re fighting just to stay afloat. Nick says if we don’t decimate in the final match we could lose people from the program. They need me. No, they don’t, because they aren’t real.

“Sure does,” Vince agreed, flashing his friend a large smile. “Hey, this may sound like a weird question, but I have history after this, right?”