"That’s only three years from now."
"Yeah, but this was a big deal. See, there was a group of Middle Eastern terrorists who hijacked United flights 93 and 175, and American flights 11 and 77 with the intention of flying them-"
The player went silent. I looked frantically to see what was wrong. The cassette’s reels were still turning, but when I peered into the little window, I could see that the tape running over the heads was clear instead of chocolate brown. The recording was over. Damn!
In the sudden silence, I was finally able to comprehend the implications of what old Luke had just said. Even with just the date and flight numbers that he had mentioned, I could have warned someone. Enough information to have stopped the atrocities of 9/11 had been sitting in my desk drawer for three years before it had actually happened! And, of course, I could probably have gotten a transcript with the rest of the details from Frank’s producer. Who knows, old Luke may have named Mohamed Atta and the others, making it easier to have stopped them before they’d even boarded those flights. I should have…
But there was no sense in beating myself up about it. That black day in American history was now well into the past. Guiltily though, I still really wanted to hear the personal message that Luke had sacrificed so much to deliver to me. Maybe the station had archives…
I was startled out of my scheming by the distinctive sound of the player’s auto-reverse kicking in. I hadn’t futzed with an audio cassette in so long that I’d forgotten about that feature.
Wait, was it possible that the fancy tape deck I’d had back then had been able to auto-reverse in recording mode? I held my breath, hoping upon hope that I wasn’t about to hear Mr. Ronstadt’s little girl sing Blue Bayou.
"-still fighting the descendants of al-Qaeda today," Luke concluded. My breath whooshed out in relief. I realized I’d held it through the entire auto-reverse sequence.
"Well, I’m sure my listening audience will alert the proper authorities when the time comes," Frank said in serious tones. I knew better, though. Neither he nor his audience would have taken Luke seriously enough to make fools of themselves. I’d have been the only one who would have tried.
"You’ve been a great caller," Frank said, "so go ahead with your message. The next sixty seconds until the break are all yours." Whew, I hadn’t missed it!
There was a noticeable pause. "Uh oh," Luke said. "I can see on the monitors that they’ve placed some sort of large explosive device right on the other side of the wall. That was quick; I may not use up all sixty seconds." He took a deep, plainly audible breath.
"This is for you, Luke. You have to get off your butt and don’t let life intimidate you anymore. Tomorrow becomes too late a lot faster than you think. It’s been years now since you graduated and you still think something better will just come to you? Well let me tell you from long, bitter experience – that isn’t going to happen! You don’t want to end up like me; no career, no wife, no kids, no real friends and no future.
"It’s time to get back to work, kid. You can live the dream if you get with the program, but there’s more. You’ve now heard me talk about what things are going to be like in the future, and I happen to know you have it in you to make a difference, so what you need to do is-"
There was a brief burst of what could have been static, and his voice stopped in mid-sentence. There was no more.
"Well, it looks like Luke from Los Alamos has dropped off the line," Frank said quietly. From the almost imperceptible catch in his voice I wondered if he, like me, was a bit shaken, but then he continued in his usual cool, detached tone. "I’m sure that a lot of our listening audience found that interesting, but now we have to go to a network break. This is the Frank Garcia show."
I clicked the player off and sat in silence for a while, contemplating my new paradigm. I’d just listened to a version of myself die in an attempt to better my life. What are you supposed to do or think about something like that? During the latter part of Luke’s monologue, though, it had suddenly become perfectly clear to me why I’d never listened to that old tape. I still remembered it like it was yesterday.
At five o’clock, on what the tape’s label said was June 2nd, 1998, the night of Frank and Luke’s improbable conversation, I had just arrived for my shift as the lone overnight security guard at the front desk of Adams Fabrication. I’d been chatting with Judy, my fellow guard, who was coming off shift. Judy was brash, outgoing and had a joke for every situation, but thirty-five years before, she’d gotten married right out of high school to the only guy she’d ever dated. Now, in an attempt at a vicarious single life, she was forever trying to set me up with one girl or another. That night she’d had another one.
"Hey Luke, my friend Nancy has a daughter who just turned thirty this weekend. At the party, I told young Melissa about the novel you’re writing because she loves books. Well, she said she’d like to read it and offer suggestions if you want. I think you ought’a take her up on it. She’s really cute and has a big-bucks professional job in the DA’s office. You never know where it might lead."
I’d stalled out months before on my political thriller and a fresh eye would have been helpful, but the thought of a seven-years-younger professional woman like that reading – and judging – my amateur scribbling had been terrifying. "Well…"
"Come on, I have this funny feeling that the two of you might really hit it off."
Yeah, like this Melissa would have any interest in a working stiff like me. "I truly appreciate what you’re trying to do, Judy, but I like my life just the way it is."
Judy had put her hands on her stout hips and given me the stink eye. "That’s a steamin’ load of crap and you know it, Luke. When you’re not here, you do nothing but sit at home, letting life pass you by. I’ve worked with you long enough to know you’re a really great guy, but you just need something – or someone – in your life to give you a little jumpstart. You don’t belong at a place like this."
"Judy, please. I’m just not looking to meet someone right now."
She’d sighed and set a sticky note with Melissa’s name and number on the desk in front of me. "In case you change your mind," she’d said, then headed out the door. I’d felt bad about shooting Judy down again, since she was the closest thing I had to a friend, but there was no way I was going to call that number.
The first few hours of my shift that night had been the usual rounds, but at eight I’d plunked myself down at the desk, pulled out my lunchbox and tuned the radio to the local talk station. I was just in time to hear some old guy say "…have to get off your butt and don’t let life intimidate you anymore…"
As I’d eaten my ham sandwich, all alone in the empty manufacturing plant, I’d listened to him give his speech. His deep, authoritative voice and obvious passion strangely affected me in a way that Judy’s lecturing never had, especially with that chillingly familiar bit about the unused college degree and incomplete novel. Whomever he was lecturing sounded a whole lot like me. I was suddenly convicted that if I kept going like I was, I’d end up just like that poor old slob on the radio. That wasn’t a pleasant thought. Even being shy and a bit anti-social, I’d still had dreams, but what could I do at this point to change things? If I started applying for jobs that required my Poly Sci degree, how would I explain that I’d been working as a security guard for the last four years since I’d finally earned it?
Even before I’d closed my lunchbox, the conviction had begun to fade, like it always did every time I tried to climb out of my rut. Suddenly though, one thing had occurred to me…
I pulled the Ronstadt tape out of the player and leaned back in my chair. I wished there were a way to thank Luke for his sacrifice and let him know that, while he hadn’t stopped the events of 9/11, his call had changed my life.
I’d been scared silly, but had phoned Melissa, right then, with the taste of that ham sandwich still in my mouth. I’d known from experience that if I waited until the next day, I’d have lost my nerve. She’d been mercifully easy to talk to, and when we’d gotten together for lunch the next day, I loaned her a hastily printed copy of my manuscript. I’d been embarrassed that, despite having started it six years before, the first draft was only two-thirds completed, so I’d immediately launched into a campaign to finish it.
Over another lunch a week later, she’d told me that she really liked what I’d written so far, gave me some really insightful suggestions, and encouraged me to push on. Even better, she extracted a promise from me that we’d get together every week so she could read the new stuff. After that, I’d been way too busy to listen to Frank Garcia. The last tape I’d ever made of his show went straight into the drawer.
Speaking of which… I reached into that very same drawer and pulled out the bottle of Scotch that I hid there for "occasional inspiration." As usual, I’d been going through it a lot faster than I knew was healthy. Carrying it into the bathroom, I poured the last couple of shots down the sink. Cirrhosis of the liver is something to be taken seriously, especially if you happen to know it could kill you.
I returned to my chair and let my mind drift back in time again. Two years after we’d met for that first lunch, Melissa had said yes to my marriage proposal. A month after that, my debut novel hit the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. In their review of my third novel, they dubbed me "the new George Orwell." With Melissa’s indispensable support and encouragement, my life had become chock full of writing, guest lecturing, responsibilities as the co-founder of the now hugely influential Patrick Henry Society, and best of all, diapers. I figured I owed much of it to my friend Judy, old Luke, and even the Frank Garcia Show.
Still, I couldn’t help but imagine how things might have been different if Luke’s warnings about the future had been taken seriously. What if even one person listening to the show that night had believed him and taken action?
Sure, America had somehow avoided anything like Luke’s creepy-sounding Department of Homeland Security, but maybe something more could have been done to stop the terrorist acts of 9/11. If there had been more than just the one federal agent placed on each of those four planes at the last minute, those thirteen murdered passengers and crew could have been saved. If only there had been more than just that single note from an anonymous tipster who’d famously identified himself only as…