I couldn’t sleep.
My body was tired, but my mind had just returned from three mornings ahead. An awful cocktail of disbelief, fear, and disgust churned in my stomach.
Everything was exactly how I remembered. One moment fixed in time, standing out from the rest. Eleven P.M., according to my alarm clock.
I sat in bed, propped on a pillow, staring at the clock. My journal rested on my lap with my pen cradled between its open pages, still uncapped. I looked over my handwriting without really reading it, knowing I’d written everything in the wrong order. One of the sentences grabbed my attention.
Hope I make some new friends and have a great first day at camp tomorrow!
I really needed to stop jinxing things like this.
My parents were still awake, but I couldn’t bother them with this. Although they’d try their best to comfort me, they didn’t know about the save points. Dancing around the topic would not settle my nerves.
I reached for my cell phone and opened my text messages.
“Cya 2morrow!” Kaitlin had typed an hour ago. 80 hours ago. What was the difference? I was mixing it all up again.
I fumbled with the number keys on my flip phone to type, “Are you still awake?” and then I erased it. This was too weighty to talk about in a text message.
And my journal couldn’t talk back to me. It was just some dead tree skin held together with glue. So the only one left to talk to was God, and we weren’t on great terms.
In Sunday school, the teacher used to tell us there was a telephone line between each person and God. The more you sinned, the harder it was to get a message through. You had to repair it by confessing all your transgressions to God and promising never to repeat your mistake. But I’d gotten tired of lying to God a long time ago.
Going to sleep seemed laughable. My mind was racing, and I’d just woken up two hours ago. Seventy-seven hours from now. Whichever. I shouldn’t have created the save point, much less used it. But I did, and now I knew what would happen, and I could try to stop it.
Maybe I wouldn’t have to do anything. The butterfly effect alone might be enough to stop it. Yet that thought didn’t ease my mind. I felt like a prisoner who knew her execution day, consumed by constant worry and despair.
I tried to distract myself with the screenplay I’d been writing. But one sentence later, the anxiety started again. So I tried to read, but one page later, the driver’s shout echoed through my mind again, and everything started to tumble, and a primal sensation of doom obscured everything, and, without thinking, I leap into the past as my head crashed against the window.
I sprang to my feet and paced, hoping my parents wouldn’t hear, wouldn’t notice my lights were still on. If my panic increased, I might need to leave my bedroom to calm down, but my parents would see me. If I was too worked up, I might make a mistake, say something to give myself away. I tried to slow my breathing.
The rest of the night passed like this. An endless cycle of panicking, pacing, trying to distract myself, and panicking again. Several times I re-examined the things I packed for camp, took them out, refolded them, swapped out one shirt for another. Just as I was replacing the teal henley with the green floral print for the second time, my alarm clock startled me out of my contemplation.
I took three deep breaths and emerged from my room. As I passed through the hallway, my hands started shaking. I clasped them behind my back.
Dad was sitting at the dimly lit dining room table drinking a cup of coffee and staring at the muted television in the opposite room. “Morning, sugar plum,” he said, lifting his eyes to mine. “Did you sleep okay?”
Thankfully, my dad was not a perceptive person. I was sure my hair was going in six different directions and I probably had giant bags under my eyes. “Not really,” I understated.
Mom wandered in from the kitchen, already fully dressed with makeup perfectly applied. “Natalie, you look like you haven’t slept a wink.” She squinted as she analyzed me up and down.
“I—just you know. Hard to sleep,” I mumbled, pinning myself to my familiar spot at the table.
“Matthew!” she crowed, ignoring me. “It’s time to get up!”
A door creaked, and my ten-year-old brother Matt stumbled out of his room, rubbing his eyes. Wordlessly, he oozed into his chair and started poking at the eggs with his fingers.
Mom interrupted with a “Let’s all pray” before Matt had the chance to start eating. Everyone grew silent as we linked hands, and there was a pause before I remembered it was my turn to pray.
Heaviness in my stomach again. God probably didn’t want to hear me right now. I rushed through the rest of the prayer. “Thank you for this day and for this food. Give me and Mom a safe trip this morning and help us to glorify you in all we do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” Immediately I jammed an egg into my mouth to preclude any possibility of adding to my sparse prayer.
After several minutes of silverware clinking against plates, Dad’s phone rang. I jumped, knocking over my orange juice. It pooled between me and Matt and dribbled onto the floor.
“I’m so sorry.” I dabbed at the puddle with my napkin, making no progress. I couldn’t believe the mess I’d made, how jumpy I was even though I knew the phone call was coming.
“Don’t worry about it, Natalie, I’ll get a towel,” Mom said, disappearing into the hall.
“Are you okay?” Matt gave me a stink-eye. “You almost drenched me!”
I rested my head in my hands, tried to control the shaking. “I’m fine.”
Matt rolled his eyes and resumed scarfing down his food.
“Here you go.” Mom appeared beside me, soaking up the spill with a towel. “No harm done.”
Dad came back in, hanging up his phone. “Someone on the north side of town locked himself out of his house. Shouldn’t take long, but I doubt I’ll be back in time to see you off.”
“It’s no problem, dear,” Mom said. They exchanged a hug and a quick kiss.
“Ew, gross,” Matt muttered.
Dad turned to me and Matt. “I need to get going, but you kids have fun at camp.”
“I’m not going to camp, Dad,” Matt corrected.
“I was talking about Nat and your mom, bud,” He said, thinking he’d made a sweet save.
“Have a good day at work, Dad.” I got up to give him a goodbye hug, and he squeezed me uncomfortably tight as usual. This time I didn’t mind so much. I brushed a tear from my face while no one was looking.
As he left, Mom said, “I’m going to drive over this morning if you want to ride with me.”
“No thanks,” I blurted. “I’ll walk.”
“Did you pack light?” Mom raised an eyebrow.
Then I remembered the suitcase. Last time I’d ridden with Mom in the car to save the effort. Flustered, I tried to save my original statement. “Uh, yeah. Pfff. Sure. Mom, it’s like—two blocks.”
Mom was going to chaperone the sophomore girls, which meant she was going to chaperone me, which was just perfect. For some reason, the school administrators thought assigning teachers to chaperone their own kids was a good idea. So my mom had been with me on every field trip I could remember. And I knew for a fact she was going to embarrass me on this camping trip because I’d already seen it happen once. Of course, that was the least of my worries.
“I’ll ride with you.” Matt’s voice was muffled by a mouthful of eggs.
Mom smiled warmly. “Okay, honey.”
One shower and change of clothes later, I was dragging my suitcase along the poorly paved road to school. Mom pulled the car alongside me and poked her head out, “Natalie, are you sure you want to walk? The road’s awful bumpy.”
Considering I’d never wanted to walk in the first place, I agreed and slid into the van next to Matt. He had his face pressed against the window and was making drawings in his breath fog.
Mom dropped me off by the buses, first forcing me and Matt to hug each other goodbye. At Matt’s age, showing affection was considered weird, but I hugged him like it was the last chance I’d have in years.
I turned toward the bus and saw Kaitlin approaching me. Tall, thin, and blond-haired, Kaitlin was the conventionally attractive social center of the sophomore class. She was also my best friend since we were toddlers.
“Nat!” she shouted and waved. As she got closer and saw my baggy eyes, her expression fell. “Is everything okay?”
I waved dismissively. “I just had some trouble sleeping. Guess I’m still on the summer sleep schedule.”
“Oh, I totally get it,” Kaitlin said. “Do you want to squeeze in a nap during the bus ride? Or—oh! I can buy you a can of pop from the vending machine. I think I have some change.” She started digging through her purse.
“It’s fine.” I held up a hand to refuse.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She let her purse fall back to her side. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Sorry you didn’t get a lot of sleep. I hope you get a chance to rest.”
“Thanks.” I smiled weakly. Maybe things would turn out better this time after all.
Behind Kaitlin, I saw Mrs. White, my English teacher. “Natalie! And Katie!” she squealed, beaming her usual silly smile. “Hey, kiddos. You ready to go to camp?”
“Totally!” Kaitlin grinned.
“Uh, yeah,” I rubbed my eyes.
“Uh-huh.” She wasn’t convinced. “Well, Natalie, I graded your composition.” She handed me the five-page short-story I’d written for last week’s assignment.
“C plus,” I read aloud involuntarily. It wasn’t like the grade had changed.
Mrs. White launched into the same explanation I’d heard before. “I spent a long time with this one. Nat, honey, it’s a fabulous story—I loved it. But that was after I spent an hour swapping sentences to put it in chronological order. You have pretty ideas, but it’s difficult to find the narrative flow.”
As she was talking, I scanned the first paragraph of the composition again:
Sara felt a twinge of guilt as she pilfered the box of cookies. Her mother had always told her it was wrong to steal, back when she was a small child, before she became homeless. Technically, she didn’t need the cookies to survive, and she felt even worse an hour later when she ate the whole box at once. Why steal more than was necessary, even if she was good at it, even if she had gotten away with everything until now? Suddenly, Sara heard footsteps, and she raced to make her escape. When she was younger, she never had to think so much about what she would eat next.
I sighed, knowing she was right. My writing continued to decline in quality. In elementary school, I’d won statewide awards, but as a sophomore, I was happy to get a C plus. At our school, with its inflated curve, that was barely a passing grade.
Mrs. White offered a few more encouraging platitudes before waddling off to greet someone else.
“Hey, you’ll get ‘em next time,” Kaitlin said. “You’re a natural. Remember when we used to write those stories back in elementary? About runaway kids on a road trip? I think I still have them on my hard drive. They were awesome!”
“Yeah,” I muttered.
Writing those stories had been my favorite part of fifth grade—up until the day I realized I could make the save points. Everything had been spiraling out of control since then, including my writing.
I crammed the papers into my suitcase’s outer pocket. Too many things to think about.
Mr. Silas, our history teacher, was nearby, arranging suitcases in the luggage bay. He looked like he was trying to fit them into a small space, but there was no need for strategy. Our secondary students and their luggage would fit on the two buses with room to spare. Yet when he saw me, he offered to load my suitcase, like he was the only one who knew where to put it. I let him do his thing and climbed onto the bus with Kaitlin.
As we boarded, Nicole Santos, the new girl, waved at us and motioned for us to sit behind her. She was short and stocky, with curly dark hair, and stylish thick-rimmed glasses that seemed never to slide down her nose. Part Filipino on her mother’s side, she was also one of the token racial minorities at our white bread school. You could count them on your fingers.
Nicole was shaping up to be a good replacement for Cassie, who’d transferred out last year. Cliques were the building blocks of our school’s social system, and Kaitlin and I weren’t a cohesive group on our own, so we’d latched onto Nicole right away.
Kaitlin sneaked a concerned eyebrow at me, probably wondering if I’d rather nap than socialize. But she didn’t say anything out loud. She knew I didn’t like attention, especially around new people. God bless her.
Nicole knelt to face us, resting her arms on the back of her seat. “So. I have a question for you two.”
“Go for it,” Kaitlin answered.
I nodded, already knowing what she would ask about.
“Where are my dating options?” she said. “Are there seriously only four boys in our class?”
Coming from North Side High—second largest high school in Anderson—she was probably going through withdrawals. Calvary Christian School had an average class size of fifteen students, most with a female majority.
“You just need to get creative,” Kaitlin said. Like she should talk. She was already dating a senior—objectively the most attractive boy in the whole school.
Nicole grinned. “Well, the boys aren’t the only cuties around here, but I don’t think this school is ready for that kind of creative. Alas.”
Kaitlin stiffened and glanced around. No teachers in sight, but she moved the conversation along anyway. “David’s actually pretty cute, even if he does wear the same shirt every day.”
“With our dress code?” Nicole shrugged. “I don’t blame him if he only found one outfit that meets all those bullet points.”
“I s’pose,” Kaitlin responded sheepishly.
“What do you think, Nat?” Nicole asked.
Suddenly everyone was looking at me and all the pressure was on me and my face flushed and I fumbled for the right words. She hadn’t asked me this last time. The conversation had flowed a different way, and we’d started talking about career aspirations instead.
“You know, it’s like you said,” I recovered. “Not much to choose from. I’m holding out for the right one.”
All true, but not the full story. I’d had a few crushes that could have gone somewhere, but I was too shy to approach them.
“Suit yourself,” Nicole said. “I’m only sixteen once. I’m going to get all the experience I can while I’m still in my dating prime.”
As she was saying that, the bus doors swung shut, and we started turning off the school’s gravel parking lot onto the road.
“We’re in action!” Kaitlin fist-pumped. “Are you two ready for this?”
“Hell yeah!” Nicole responded, and then slapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was doing so well too.”
Kaitlin looked uncomfortable after Nicole’s swearing, but she didn’t respond.
The last two people to get onto the bus brushed past us, still looking for a seat. Two juniors, Ray and Josh—also known as the weird kids.
Josh was another token minority—Hispanic, but adopted by rich, white doctor parents. His face was perpetually set in an annoyed glare, and he was usually seen chewing on a toothpick. He’d been to the principal’s office several times for yelling at teachers who tried to confiscate them.
His friend Ray was even weirder. Appearance-wise, he seemed average—just another white boy with dark hair—like most at our school, but behavior-wise he stood out. People were constantly guessing what kind of mental health condition he had. He was arbitrarily quiet to a fault, often getting in trouble with teachers for refusing to answer in class, but then turning around and trading a word or two with Josh.
Ray was picky about his environment too, so he and Josh were making a scene traipsing up and down the bus, trying to find a good seat.
“What’s the deal with those two?” Nicole asked.
“Well.” Kaitlin stopped to think how to put things nicely. “That’s Josh and Ray. Josh is kind of popular and on the basketball and soccer teams, but Ray tends to keep to himself, you know. He follows Josh around everywhere and doesn’t talk to anyone else.”
“His eyes are majestic.” Nicole propped her face in her hands and stared at Ray. He squirmed but pretended not to notice her.
“May God have mercy on your soul, honey,” Kaitlin said, her Southern accent leaking through. “You’re not the first one to try. He’ll act oblivious, but I think he’s just playing a long game of hard-to-get.”
Nicole sighed dreamily. “I take back everything I said about this school. I will marry this boy.”
“Okay, listen up, everyone!” Mr. Silas yelled from the front. Apparently, he’d finished showing off his luggage arranging skills and needed to find a new way to command authority.
“It’s about two hours to camp,” he began, and already I knew he was going to deliver the same lecture, brimming with details we all already knew, time travelers or not. “I’m going to start passing out an itinerary. Remember that there’s no Internet, and we’ll be out of cell range for the next three days, so send your last minute texts. If you forgot to bring a Bible, let us know right away. We do have a few spares.”
“There are three chapel services every day?” Nicole said upon receiving her itinerary copy. Right on cue. The timeline was starting to converge to something more familiar.
Kaitlin came to the school’s defense. “They’re pretty cool services. It’s a great chance to get right with God, you know?”
“If you say so,” Nicole said. “As long as we get to choose where we sit so I can get a nice long look at that boy’s face.”
I spoke up, “The chapel services drag on sometimes, but remember we’re not in classes all day, so we also get a lot of free time. The campgrounds are pretty fun to explore.”
Nicole nodded. “Sounds good. You should show me around. I’ll need something to do if I’m cut off from the Internet.” She meant it too. On the last iteration, I’d gotten Nicole to explore the woods around the campsite with me.
Talking with Kaitlin and Nicole was a great distraction from my sense of impending doom, but it didn’t make the problem go away entirely. Throughout the bus ride, I cycled between participating in their banter and spacing out so I could worry about the future.
After we arrived at the campgrounds, unloaded our stuff, and claimed our bunks, Kaitlin pulled me aside. “Hey, are you sure you don’t want to talk?”
I wavered for a moment, but I knew I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.
“Outside,” I said, waving her out of the cabin, away from the people in earshot. I led her down to the pier by the lake. Everyone else was busy unpacking, so we had some time before lunch.
As we reached the pier, Kaitlin wore the same facial expression she used every time I talked to her about the save points—a mixture of concern and judgment. “Why the secrecy, Nat? Please tell me this isn’t about what I think it’s about.”
I sighed deeply, confirming her suspicions. “Three days from now—”
“Nat, we’ve talked about this. No matter what happens, God has a plan. You need to trust Him.”
“I don’t think God would want this to happen.” I sat on the edge of the pier and rested my feet on the shore.
Kaitlin followed my lead and sat beside me. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God,” she quoted. “It doesn’t always make sense to us, but—”
“No,” I interrupted. “Kaitlin, we’re all going to die.”