The art room is in a high-ceiling studio with large, uncovered windows that let in the sun. You love being in here, all the natural light, the smells of paper and paint, soap and wood, the artwork on the walls, the big work tables with all of their scratches and stains. You miss it. There wasn’t space in your schedule for art this year, but the teacher, Ms. Avery, lets you hang out here sometimes, no questions asked.
The room is already humming with activity when you get there. People are retrieving works in progress from the back shelves, gathering paints and brushes, setting up their work spaces. You find an unoccupied table in the back of the room and settle in like you belong there.
A few minutes later, Ms. Avery, making her rounds, notices you. “Hello Matthew,” she says. “You’re more than welcome to start a project of your own. You know where I keep the blank canvasses. Help yourself.”
“Thank you, Ms. Avery, but I have a lot of reading to catch up on. Maybe next time.”
She looks at the paperback in your hand and smiles. “Okay, suit yourself.”
You like it when she smiles at you, as if she’s actually glad to see you, as if she understands your need to be there, or at least your need to not be somewhere else.
Ansgar stood on the bow of the fast-moving ship with the floor rising and falling beneath him, the wind in his hair, and the salt-spray of the sea on his face. Behind him, the rolling hills and jagged mountains of his home were all but gone, a grey smudge on the horizon.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that none of this belonged to him, this borrowed existence, this other man’s body. Even so, he missed them. The jasmine-honeyed scent of his wife’s skin, the doe-eyed faces of his children, and the sound of their laughter were already beginning to fade like a distant memory.
Ansgar of Holgur was going to war.
By the time the bell rings, Ansgar is in the thick of his first battle, a bloody clash on the shores of some faraway land he cannot name, against men with whom he holds no particular grievance. Outnumbered and surrounded, he and his men are pushed back, almost to their ships.
You fold the corner of the page over and shove the paperback into your bag. Oh well, you sigh, back to reality.
You shuffle toward the exit with the rest of Ms. Avery’s students, but as soon as you’re out the door you turn and head behind the art buildings. Sometimes, when the ceramics kiln is fired up and the smell of burnt newspaper fills the air, people will sneak back here to smoke out.
You sniff the wind. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the oven today, and anyway, you’re not interested in that. You just want to avoid the students getting out of PE and the alley behind the art rooms will help you do just that, even if it does make you late to your next class.
As you make your way around the stacked pallets and battered garbage cans lining the walkway, you spot someone just ahead, a lone stoner maybe, leaning up against the building with his back turned to you. Even from behind, there is something familiar about this person. And then it hits you. It’s the shirt. He’s wearing the exact same blue-plaid shirt as you. You look down at your own long-sleeves rolled halfway to your elbows, just like the Miller’s Outpost mannequin in the mall, just like this stoner in the alley.
“Dude,” you remember Eric saying. “Everyone has that shirt.”
“Whatever,” was your reply. “It’s on sale and I like it.”
You keep your eyes forward as you pass, but as soon as you do, he calls your name, not Boot, or Lil’ Boot, or even Matt, but, “Matthew.”
You turn. It’s like looking in a mirror, not just the shirt, but the jeans too, even the same blue, worn out Top-Siders on his feet. You know you should be scared, but for some reason the sight of him makes you angry. “Who the fuck are you?”
He steps forward, cautiously, with his hands open in front of him. “You know who I am, Matthew,” he says. “I’m you. We’re the same person.”
Something in you wants to laugh, only you don’t get the joke.
“Look,” he says, continuing to move toward you. “This isn’t an illusion, you’re not dreaming. I’m you. I’m here from the future.”
Keep walking, you tell yourself. You don’t have to play along. But your legs won’t move. Your mouth takes over. “Oh, okay. Cool. You must have a message for me then, right?”
He seems relieved. “Well, yeah.”
“Wait,” you say, just as he’s close enough to touch you. “Don’t tell me. I’m in some kind of terrible danger.”
A look of confusion comes over your imposter’s face. “How did you—?”
You shove him hard, both hands against his chest. “Get the fuck away from me,” you say, and turn to run.
Not hard enough. “No, wait!” He grabs you by the shoulders, spins you about. “Just listen,” he says, “I don’t have time to explain it and you wouldn’t understand.”
You try to push him away, but now his arms are tangled in yours.
“I’m not stupid,” he says, his face so close your noses touch, “so neither are you!”
You stop moving and take it all in, his brown hair parted down the middle, the feathered bangs falling into his hazel eyes, the angry pimple forming in the round crease of his nostril that you were sure you popped this morning. You are looking in a mirror.
“Trust your senses,” he says, his face still level with yours. “You’re not on something, not hallucinating—wait, you’re not are you, on something?” He reaches out and takes you by the chin, turning your head to one side. You let him. “No,” he says, leaning close again, his thumb pressing into your cheek, tugging at your lower eyelid. “No, not yet.”
“When?” you ask. “When in the future?”
He lets go of you, steps back. “Today,” he says, looking over his shoulder, “later today.”
“How later? Tell me, do I go to the dance?”
He frowns. “The dance?”
“With that girl on the dance team?”
“Yeah her. Do we go?”
“Dude,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s not even the half of it.”
“Well then what the—"
“Look,” his hands are on you again. “I don’t know how long I have, but…” He pulls you with him up against the back of the building. “I do know no one can see us together.”
He’s frowning again, shaking his head. “Because we look like identical twins. Do you have an identical—”
“Jesus, already!” you almost shout, shrugging free of his grip. “What’s the message?”
“Look,” he says, “Whatever happens, don’t—”
One moment he’s there and the next he’s not, then he is again, flickering and wavering in the air in front of you like bad reception on a television screen. His mouth is moving but there’s no sound. Then, in a fizzle of static, he’s gone for good.
Somewhere in the distance a siren begins to wail.
You want to run, tell someone … but who? Not even Eric would believe you. Suddenly you feel surrounded. You spin about but no one is there. You are completely alone … maybe you always were.
You turn and go back the way you came. As you make your way out from behind the art building and back toward the front of the gym, the howl of the siren grows even louder. That’s when you see the ambulance pull up in front of the gym. You guess you made the right decision to ditch PE this morning, only what did you miss?
(A) Go to class.
(B) Check out the ambulance.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.