And sometimes, blogs

It’s Always Friday

A hard science fiction novella about time travel, fine dining, and the utter collapse of human society—in that order.

Estimated reading time: 45 minutes. (~14,000 words)

***

It’s Always Friday

“Okay everyone, we’re here,” Mark said as he pulled the SUV into the parking lot. The pavement was a deep, untarnished black, and the freshly painted lines between the spots made parking a breeze. All around the lot, signs were hung advertising the restaurant’s grand opening on Saturday the 14th—today. As expected, the kids in the back seat paid no attention to the world outside their phones.

With an internal sigh of learned helplessness, Mark got out of the car, as did the rest of the Cooper family. His wife Jessica joined him on the sidewalk while their two children, Dylan and Kayla, straggled behind. Jessica gave him a consoling look that said “Don’t take it personally; they’re young and don’t yet know how to find beauty in the simple things like you do.” Or maybe Mark was reading too much into it.

The Coopers didn’t eat out very often, but Mark had been looking for an excuse for some family bonding time. When he heard about the new restaurant opening downtown, he realized a night out was just the thing they needed. The high praise in the reviews he read only further helped him make up his mind—one reviewer even called her trip a “life-changing experience.” So, he had pretty high hopes for the evening.

Mark held the door open for his family as they stepped through the threshold and into the restaurant proper. Immediately, they were greeted by a smiling young man in a red and white horizontally striped uniform. “Welcome to TGI Fridays! In here, it’s always Friday. Table for four?”

“Yes, thank you,” Jessica answered, and the server led them to their table.

The interior of the place gave a cheerful, welcoming vibe. Ambient lighting and a modern design made it look like a cross between a bar and a family restaurant, but somehow they made it work. The reviews Mark read, plus the TGI Fridays marketing itself, had stated they were aiming for a casual atmosphere that could make any night feel like a Friday night. From the warmth of the busy servers to the gentle music playing in the background, Mark could see they were succeeding.

A young woman in the recognizable striped uniform stopped at their table. She spoke with the same friendly expression as the man who greeted them. “Hi! My name is Rachel and I’ll be serving you tonight. Could I get you some drinks to start with?” The Coopers took turns giving her their orders. “All right, I’ll be right back with those. I’ll give you a couple more minutes to look over the menu.” Rachel headed off toward the kitchen, leaving the Coopers time to figure out what they wanted to eat.

Even for a grand opening day, the restaurant was bursting with activity. Almost every seat in the house was filled, and more people were coming in every few minutes. Mark idly wondered how the handful of cars in the parking lot could translate to this many people inside. He didn’t think much of it—instead, he immersed himself in the casual ambiance TGI Fridays promised to provide. Only half-paying attention to the menu he was thumbing through, he listened to some chatter from the surrounding tables.

“So sad what happened in Maryland the other day,” someone said. “Six people dead, and how many more still in the hospital… I hope they catch the shooter soon.”

“Pardon, but are you talking about the Columbia shooting?” someone at another table said to the first speaker. “I thought they caught him yesterday.”

That was strange. Mark hadn’t heard anything about a recent mass shooting, and he considered himself a fairly informed citizen. He silently mourned the state of the world, that such events were common enough that they could come and go without notice.

“Excuse me,” his son Dylan said to a server walking by. “Could I get the Wi-Fi password?”

“The password is just the letters ‘TGIF,’ all caps,” the server said, and he continued on his way. Dylan and Kayla both entered the password into their phones and were soon lost again in whatever it was they always did.

Back near the entrance, a woman ran down the aisle, pushing servers out of her way as she went. “Phil! Oh my God, I thought I’d never see you again!” She stopped short at a table with a solitary occupant, a man around her own age. He barely had time to react as she pulled him up into an uncoordinated bear hug.

“I said I was just going out for dinner…” Phil said, but the woman was already dragging him back to the exit.

“We gotta get out of here,” she said. “Stay behind me—I need to be in front or I might get stuck too. We think that’s how it works.”

Overpowered and overwhelmed, all Phil could do was sputter feeble protests. “But—I’m still—I can’t leave without paying!”

Not slowing down for a second, the woman reached into her purse and grabbed a stack of cash and tossed it over their heads—and then they were out the door.

As it became clear that the scene was over, rubbernecking customers slowly returned to their own paused conversations. One of the servers stopped to collect the discarded cash.

Well, that was interesting. Mark had never seen someone in the midst of a mental breakdown before. He hoped Phil would be able to get that poor woman the help she so clearly needed.

In the meantime, he went back to eavesdropping on random conversations. “Yeah,” someone said at the table behind him. “It looks like TGI Fridays is a new national franchise. I heard they simultaneously opened over fifty branches nationwide, at least one in every state. The grand opening was on Saturday.”

Now Mark was very confused. He turned around in his chair, toward the woman he had been listening to. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear you… Isn’t today Saturday?”

“What? No, it’s Monday,” she replied.

“I thought it was Wednesday,” someone at another table said.

Before Mark had a chance to dispute, Rachel returned to their table with drinks on hand. “So! Have you all decided on what you want to order?”

“One question, miss,” Mark said. “What day is it?”

She gave him a heartfelt smile. “Why, in here, it’s always Friday! So what’ll it be?”

“What? What does that mean?”

“Dad,” Kayla said in a flat, serious voice. “Look at your phone.”

Mark looked toward his daughter. Her face was every bit as grave as she sounded. Dylan’s too, for that matter. Even Jessica was staring wide-eyed as she furiously scrolled through her phone.

Mark reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, not knowing what to expect. He paused in shock as soon as he saw the date on the home screen: Friday, July 20th. He almost choked when he saw what was immediately below that: 143 missed messages. Swallowing his dread, he unlocked the phone and began to read.

“What’s the hold up? You’re not normally this late to work.”

“Are you coming in today?”

“Haven’t heard from you in a couple days. You okay?”

“Where are you???”

“Hi Mark. It’s Mr. Gilman. I tried calling but couldn’t get any answer. Just wanted to let you know Dylan hasn’t been to school the last few days. Is everything okay at home?”

“Oh God did you go to TGI Fridays?”

“I just saw the news. I hope you’re alive.”

Every message was another knife twisting into his chest. Every word another punch to the gut. A whole week had passed, and the Cooper family hadn’t been witness to it. His coworkers, his friends, his family—he had to let them know he was all right.

“How about I start you off with a family appetizer sampler and I can come back in a little bit to see how you’re doing?” Rachel asked. When no one contested, she wrote the order on her notepad. “Okay, I’ll have that out for you in a couple minutes.” She hurried away to take care of another table.

Mark barely paid any attention to Rachel or to the food she eventually brought them. There was too much else to think about. Too much else to take in. He read through the week’s worth of messages as fast as he could. Six whole days, gone. He wrote a brief message saying he was alive and unharmed and he sent it to everyone who had tried to contact him. Replies of relief started coming in within seconds.

The delicious aroma of the food platter in front of him did little to distract Mark from his phone. After he was done with his messages, he turned his sights online. To answers. To the news.

Apparently everyone who had gone into a TGI Fridays, any TGI Fridays, had disappeared—simply vanished from the face of the Earth. Law enforcement didn’t know what to make of it. Government agencies tried to shut them down. But with no evidence of wrongdoing on TGI Fridays’ part, little could be done. Then, a miracle happened—starting Friday morning, contact was re-established with some of the people who had disappeared. The world rejoiced. Families were reunited. But the celebrations were short-lived. Anyone who tried leaving TGI Fridays vanished again, leaving a trail of broken hopes and broken hearts in their wake. It was soon discovered that people who entered TGI Fridays on Friday itself—there were some desperate enough to do it—were sometimes immune to the departure disappearance effect. Elaborate rescue missions were staged. Many made it back safely to the outside world… but just as many disappeared again, bringing their would-be rescuers with them.

Mark hadn’t noticed he started eating while reading the chilling, thrilling tale, as if it demanded a big buttery bag of popcorn as it played out on the silver screen of his mind’s eye—with himself as the main character. He hadn’t realized when his hand reached out toward the platter of appetizers unconsciously seeking comfort, whether emotional or nutritional, and pulled back the first of many mozzarella sticks, golden brown and fried to perfection. All he could focus on was the sheer horror of it all, the terrible reality of the crisis he had dragged his family into. They were the best mozzarella sticks he had ever tasted.

He looked back on the relieved replies he received after relaying his safety to his friends. Was there a note of bittersweetness betwixt those words of thanks? Were they the words of friends who knew they might not see you again, but didn’t want to say anything to worry you?

Mark shut off his phone and put it on the table with an echoing thump. He couldn’t bear to read any more. He looked across the table, at the frightened faces of his family. Dylan stared intently at his phone, barely pausing to blink as he read. Kayla looked like she was on the verge of tears. Jessica stared at Mark, wordlessly conveying her thoughts as she so often did so well: What do we do?

Mark spoke, breaking the tense silence that had lasted minutes. “Has anyone else tried these yet?” He held up a mozzarella stick. “They’re pretty great.”

His entire family stared at him like he’d lost his mind.

It might not have been the best plan. It might not have even been a good plan. But the Coopers needed a distraction, and goddammit, they were here for a family dinner. If they were about to disappear into the great unknown, the least they could do was have one last family meal together. Mark flagged down Rachel.

“Have you decided on your order?” Rachel asked, her eyes gleaming with enthusiasm.

“I have,” Mark said, and he picked out a couple items from the menu that he thought he might like. When his order was recorded, Rachel turned her sights to Jessica. Mark gave Jessica a somewhat pleading look. She got the hint and placed an order of her own. After Jessica it was Kayla’s turn, then Dylan’s. Rachel wrote it all down diligently.

“All right,” Rachel said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with your meals. If you need anything, just give me a shout.” And with that, she disappeared again.

The Coopers sat in silence for a long uncomfortable while. It was Mark who spoke first, addressing no one in particular. “So, I was reading the other day that—”

“We’re dead,” Kayla interrupted. Her expression seemed numb, her eyes distant.

“We’re not dead,” Jessica said.

“We might as well be! We’re trapped here!”

“We’re not trapped,” Mark said, but he had a hard time believing it himself.

“Then what’s happening?”

“We time traveled,” Dylan said. “A week into the future.”

“Six days,” Mark corrected reflexively. He only realized after the fact that this probably wasn’t the best time to be pedantic.

“That isn’t possible,” Kayla said. “That shouldn’t be possible.”

Dylan shrugged. “It’s what happened.” He turned his attention back to his phone, which he still had in his hand.

“Whatever happened,” Mark said, “we’re all here now. Together. And whatever’s coming our way, we’ll face it together.” He looked over each of their faces as he spoke. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when we leave. Maybe we’ll wind up in next Friday. Maybe we’ll wake up and find out this was all a horrible dream. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’ll get through this as a family. All of us. Together.”

It wasn’t much of a speech, but it was enough. Kayla blinked back the tears that had started to form in her eyes, steeling herself with grim determination. Jessica nodded along with Mark’s words, becoming equally resolute. Dylan continued to read on his phone, somehow unfazed by his father’s unflinching heroism.

Their food arrived.

“So as I was saying before,” Mark began after all the plates were distributed, “I saw a really interesting fact the other day…”

Over the course of the next half hour, a veil of normalcy returned to the Coopers’ table. Mark shared his fun trivia, Jessica asked the kids how school was going, and the kids got into a handful of sibling spats. It was awkward at times, even tense, but slowly they were all able to let their guard down. Mark even managed to get a couple of laughs from his corny jokes. It might not have been the best Saturday night out, or even the best Friday night out. But it was good.

“And here’s your receipt,” Rachel said after the meal, handing the check holder back to Mark. “Thank you for coming to TGI Fridays! We hope to serve you again.”

Mark took his credit card back from the booklet, along with his copy of the receipt. He sloppily signed his signature onto the restaurant’s copy, penmanship temporarily destroyed by the contentment of a full belly. Jessica and the kids had similar smiles of satisfaction. It was almost enough to make him forget about his worldly troubles for a short while… But no. The time had come.

“Well then,” Mark said, getting up from his chair. “Who’s ready to see what the future holds?” Kayla groaned and Dylan snorted. Jessica rolled her eyes, but she didn’t try to hide her warm smile. They gathered their things and joined Mark on the long walk to the door.

The Coopers stood in front of the lobby door for a long time, none of them willing to make the first move. Some other customers watched them, anxiety clear on their faces, none of them knowing what to expect any more than the Coopers did. Mark could see through the glass doors, into the full parking lot in its Friday twilight. A week’s worth of cars sat waiting for drivers and passengers that might never come to claim them. A handful of people stood out there, watching with that eerie intensity that made Mark think he was the subject of a lab experiment or a car wreck. For all he knew, he was both.

“Whatever happens, we’re in this together,” Jessica said. She offered her hands to the kids, Dylan on the left and Kayla on the right. They both grabbed on. Kayla put her other hand out for Mark to hold. He took it. No matter where or when they were going, no matter what horrific forces tried to split them apart, they were in this together. Mark pushed open the door.

They walked into the lobby as a single unit, Mark in the lead. Their footsteps were heavy like those of prisoners on their way out of death row. Mark squeezed Kayla’s hand in his own, so hard it must have been painful for her, so tight that he couldn’t tell where his own sweat ended and hers began. Mark pushed open the second and final door.

As soon as he walked through the doorway, the scene he was looking at changed. The people standing outside were gone, as were most of the cars in the lot. None of that mattered. Kayla’s hand was still firmly in his. He kept walking until he was more than four arm-spans away from the door. Only then did he dare turn around to find out how cruel the universe could be.

Everyone was there. Kayla, Jessica, Dylan. All of them had made it. In what felt like the hardest decision he would ever make, Mark let go of Kayla’s hand. The others followed his lead, all arms dropping to their sides one by one. As they let go, nothing happened. No one vanished, or disappeared into next Friday, or dropped dead on the spot. Mark let out the most relieved sigh of his life.

“What happened?” Kayla asked.

Mark ripped his phone out of his pocket. The clock said it was 8:47 PM—the same time it had just been inside TGI Fridays—but on Saturday, July 14th. “We’re back,” Mark said. His voice was shaky. “We’re back in Saturday.” It was like nothing ever happened, except for the time that had passed inside. They were back. It could have all been a horrible nightmare, except Mark was still just as full as he had been a minute ago, and he was sure everyone else was too.

“I hoped that might happen,” Dylan said. “I prepared for it just in case.”

“What do you mean?” Jessica asked.

Dylan showed her his phone. Her eyes went wide.

Kayla looked at it too and started laughing seconds after seeing the screen. “No way. Holy shit.”

Mark held his tongue about Kayla’s use of crude language. They had been through an ordeal; he could let it slide this one time. Instead, he joined the others in looking at Dylan’s phone. It took him a second to realize what he was staring at. A screenshot of something online? A bunch of random numbers? Then he saw the title at the top of the page: Winning lottery numbers for July 15.

Holy shit indeed.

***

“Good morning, Madam President.”

“Good morning,” Barbara said to the aide outside her bedroom. She graciously took the cup of coffee the aide offered her, stopping just long enough to take a scalding, waking sip before striding out into the greater arena of the West Wing. Barbara Harris, President of the United States, had a busy day ahead of her.

She was flanked by Secret Service agents on both sides as she walked through the quiet halls of the White House—quiet only relative to the time of day and day of week, Sunday morning, because the machinery of government never truly slept. Even in the pre-dawn twilight, the cogs of the executive branch toiled away. Tired but vigilant staff members raised themselves to alertness at Barbara’s passing as she made her way to her first meeting of the day.

The echoes of hurried footsteps—more hurried than her own—coming up from behind grabbed Barbara’s attention. “Madam President!” a familiar voice called out. Barbara stopped in her tracks. She turned around to see Scott Quinn, head of the Department of Homeland Security, desperately speed-walking toward her.

Scott was a middle aged man, his hair just beginning to go gray. He typically had a calm demeanor, a steady voice, and an even steadier hand, with which he carried out his duties so stoically that even the ancient Greek philosophers would have been impressed. Barbara had known and trusted Scott for years, and in all that time she had never seen him as frazzled as he looked right now.

“Madam President,” he said, “we have a situation.”

Barbara allowed herself one long, deep breath before answering, banishing all potential for future uncertainty or hesitation, filling herself with the resolve she knew she would need. She breathed it all in, and she breathed it all out. “How bad?”

“Cancel-all-meetings bad. I’ll brief you on the way to the Situation Room.”

Barbara looked to one of the Secret Service agents. He had his hand to his ear, listening to new orders through his earpiece from some remote authority. He put his hand down and met Barbara’s eyes. He nodded. That was all the confirmation Barbara needed. “Start talking.” She didn’t wait for Scott to take the lead.

“Approximately three hours ago,” Scott began as they walked, “an FBI field office in Maryland acted on a series of tips and raided the residence of one Timothy Hughes, who had been planning a mass domestic attack. The agents found a variety of assault weapons and explosive materials there to back up the claims. Hughes was caught off guard and arrested without incident.”

“A job well done,” Barbara said. “What makes this a matter of national security?”

“The tips that led to the arrest. There weren’t just a few of them. There were hundreds, coming from all over the country, all purporting the same thing.” Scott loosened his tie and wiped some sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “That they… That they received the information from the future, from news articles written about the attack after it had been carried out.”

Barbara stopped dead in her tracks. Scott was getting her all riled up for this? Either April Fools’ had come a couple months late this year, or Scott had finally cracked under the pressure of the job. Information from the future? It was so unbelievable that… that if it were true, it would be a matter of national security. “Continue,” Barbara said.

Scott had stopped to wait beside her. He nodded. “Yesterday, a new restaurant franchise named TGI Fridays opened for business across the United States. They market themselves as a casual dining experience, the likes of which can make any night feel like a Friday night.” He paused again, either to find the right words to convey the impossible or to swallow his own disbelief. “Every single tip came from someone who had gone to a TGI Fridays yesterday.”

What?”

Scott turned his sunken, sullen eyes to the President. “I know how it sounds, but please bear with me. The entire United States Intelligence Community is trying to figure this out.”

“You’re investigating the claims?”

Scott nodded. “Every informant we’ve looked into so far, their story has been more or less corroborated. Each one has a TGI Fridays reasonably close by. Each one was documented, whether by family or friends or security cameras, as entering TGI Fridays at some point in the day and departing some time later on. Many of the tips came with photographic evidence—photos of televisions inside TGI Fridays set to a news station, cell phone screenshots of entire news articles, and so on. Most of those photos depict the same handful of broadcasts, none of which match any existing footage of the news anchors in question. Either this is the biggest hoax in our lifetime, or…”

Scott didn’t voice an ‘or,’ but Barbara had plenty in mind already. They were the kinds of scenarios that put the “as we know it” in phrases like “civilization as we know it.”

Barbara didn’t bother voicing her thoughts either—they had just arrived at the Situation Room. Various military leaders, agency directors, and other personnel were already gathered, strewn about the room like rubble in the aftermath of a tornado. They all stopped what they were doing and stared as Barbara walked in.

“Before we get started,” Barbara said to the room as a whole, “is this actually happening?” The silent mix of stern and stressed faces was answer enough. “Okay. Scott’s been filling me in. What’s our current plan of action?”

Peter Bickford, Director of the FBI, stood up at the end of the table in the center of the room. “All manpower the FBI has at its disposal has been assigned to investigating the Fridays claims. I assume you’ve been told about Tim Hughes by now?” Barbara nodded. “That was just the tip of the iceberg. So far we’ve been alerted to at least nine other impending crimes, and received credible information regarding several more crimes that have already taken place.”

“What do we know about the restaurant itself? Where did TGI Fridays come from, and who runs it?” Barbara forced herself to ignore the implications of what Peter had just said about ‘impending’ crimes. Arresting people for crimes they hadn’t committed yet was a police state crisis waiting to happen. But it wasn’t happening yet, so it wasn’t the biggest crisis in the room. Not by a long shot.

Peter continued. “Simultaneous launch yesterday in all fifty states, plus D.C. They did everything by the book. Went through all the proper channels for business permits, construction, inspection, you name it. The company is solely owned by a man named Jeffrey Alan. No public profile to speak of. Born and raised in New York, dropped off the grid after getting dual degrees in quantum physics and business… until now.”

All fifty states… plus D.C.? “Have we tried sending any agents to TGI Fridays to investigate the time travel claims firsthand?”

Peter’s face grew stiff. “Last night we sent six groups of agents into six TGI Fridays locations. Their instructions were to get in and get out, staying inside only long enough to confirm or deny the rumors.” He paused. “None of the agents returned.”

Barbara closed her eyes and exhaled. This was going to be a long week.

***

Three weeks later, the Cooper family received their lottery check—a gargantuan $157, after having been split between tens of thousands of other winners. It turned out that when given the opportunity to see the future, most people thought to look at the same few things.

Jessica didn’t mind the underwhelming monetary gains. At least something good came out of their horrific experience at TGI Fridays, even if it was a pittance of a cash prize. Compared to the rewards reaped by some other Fridays customers—broken families, missing loved ones—Jessica considered herself blessed.

The world was changing. Practically overnight, TGI Fridays and its time travel ability became the hottest topic that everybody wanted to talk about and nobody knew how to react to. Lotteries were easy to fix. The ones that managed not to bankrupt themselves during the first week simply recalibrated their schedules so they only revealed their winning numbers on Saturday—the new most awaited day of the week.

The rest of the economy didn’t have it so easy. The stock market couldn’t decide from one minute to the next whether it wanted to rise to spectacular new heights as investors knew exactly what the future had in store for their portfolios, or fall to grisly new lows as every drop for the rest of the week was broadcast in advance and magnified by the manic masses. Actually, maybe the stock market hadn’t changed much after all.

The day after TGI Fridays opened, President Harris addressed a world on the brink of total social and economic collapse. She confirmed to the public that TGI Fridays was causing “temporal shifts hitherto thought to be impossible,” and reassured the people of the United States that everything would be okay—that even in this time of unprecedented technological advancement, the safety and wellbeing of American citizens would always come first. She went on to say that the United States government was interested in “opening a dialogue” with the owner of the TGI Fridays franchise, and that in the absence of any identifiable personal dangers, TGI Fridays was perfectly safe for anyone to frequent.

Jessica didn’t believe a word of it. She could still remember the horror of their trip to TGI Fridays, the painful realization that she might be lost to the world, the fear that she might lose her family… The passage of time didn’t make the memories any less vivid. She had experienced the “prime timeline,” as experts were now calling it, the original timeline before any changes had been made. The timeline before anyone had gone back to the past. A timeline that the Cooper family—and countless others—had disappeared from forever. It was a fate she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemies.

She had briefly considered going back to TGI Fridays on that first Friday, to see all the ways in which the timeline had changed. Walking into a TGI Fridays on Friday had the same effect as walking into any other building on any other day of the week: none whatsoever. In theory, she could have gone in and out on Friday without time traveling at all, and she would have been able to find out what a week of altered history really looks like—and maybe get some food at the same time. After thinking about it for a couple more seconds, she decided to find out from the comfort of her own home by just reading the news and ordering takeout.

No, Jessica didn’t think she would ever go back to TGI Fridays. Despite all the tantalizing possibilities their time travel provided, despite the literally world-changing impact a trip to TGI Fridays could have, it was just too dangerous. Too risky. Too frightening. Jessica decided she would be perfectly content to spend the rest of her life far away from the inside of a TGI Fridays, and she assumed the rest of the Coopers felt the same way.

Which was why it came as a complete shock to her when Mark suggested the entire family go to TGI Fridays that night.

“You want to do what?!” Jessica’s shriek echoed against the kitchen walls, making her thankful that the kids were in their rooms upstairs. It was Monday, August 6th.

“Trust me, I can explain,” Mark answered in total non-explanation.

“Please do.”

“Well,” Mark began. “At work we’re thinking of hiring a contractor for the current project. We have a candidate in mind who looks real good on paper, but doesn’t have much in the way of industry experience. We’re fine taking a risk on the guy if we have to, but…” He shifted uneasily where he stood. “Joseph said it would be obvious in a matter of days whether the kid was a good hire or not. So I got to thinking. If we hire him tomorrow and he starts on Wednesday, we’d know by Friday whether he’s worth it. And if someone went to TGI Fridays today, they could, in theory, find out all that ahead of time, and come back to tell us whether we made the right call. And give us a chance to do things differently if it was the wrong call. So then I kind of… volunteered.”

A look of stunned horror spread across Jessica’s face as Mark explained, until all she could feel was the urge to laugh manically and hope she would wake up any second now. “That is the most insane idea I’ve ever heard.” She kept her voice scathingly polite. Mark winced. “Why on Earth would you volunteer for that? Don’t you remember what going to TGI Fridays was like? Don’t you realize what going to TGI Fridays would mean?”

“There’s another reason,” Mark said, fidgeting nervously. “I spoke to our neighbor Terry on my way out this morning. He said he went to TGI Fridays last night… and he saw us there.”

It was the most bone-chilling, terrifying thing Jessica had ever heard. She stood there, silent, motionless, trying to reconcile what Mark said with what she knew, trying to comprehend the vastness, the implications, while eldritch dread slithered its cutting tendrils deep into her throat. “I think,” she finally said, breaking the stillness that had fallen over the room, “we need to talk to the expert.”

They went upstairs, and Jessica knocked on Dylan’s door. A few seconds later, after the muting of ambient techno music and some sluggish footsteps, the door opened to reveal a half-confused, half-curious Dylan, his earphones still hanging around his shoulders. “We have a dilemma,” Jessica said, and she explained the entire situation.

Dylan listened intently, looking back and forth between his parents as they took turns telling the tale, stopping them occasionally to ask for clarifications or to confirm he understood them correctly. When the explanation was complete, he crossed his arms and closed his eyes, deep in thought. Jessica shared an anxious glance with Mark. Dylan opened his eyes. “We should go,” he said.

“Why?” Jessica asked.

“Because if we don’t,” Dylan said, “this house will get really crowded when the Coopers from Terry’s original timeline come back.”

And so, for the second time in as many months, Jessica found herself in a car heading to TGI Fridays. The ride was tense. From the moment the family loaded into Mark’s SUV to the moment they stepped out into the crowded parking lot, no one said a word. Kayla had argued against going at first, but she stopped after Mark explained the situation to her. The only one who seemed unaffected by the circumstances of the trip was Dylan, who happily tapped away at the tablet computer he brought with him.

Mark pulled open the door to TGI Fridays. “Well, it’s now or later.”

Kayla groaned at the untimely joke as she followed Jessica into the restaurant, with Dylan and Mark behind both of them. Jessica let out a sigh that she hadn’t realized she had been holding in. The deed was done. They were in the future.

The interior of TGI Fridays was just as she remembered it, with the red and white theme and the overwhelming aroma of mouthwatering meals. Somehow, the place was even more packed than it had been during its opening week. But with so much of the world now revolving around the revelations this restaurant presented to its patrons, it was no wonder they got such good business.

The door host greeted them with a wide smile. “Hi, welcome to TGI Fridays! In here, it’s always Friday.”

“Yeah, we know,” Mark said. “Table for four, please?”

“Sure thing, right this way.” Bursting with energy and cordiality, the host led the family into the depths of the restaurant’s aisles. Jessica looked over all the full tables and chairs as they walked, wondering what these people’s stories were, why any of them would dare come here. Between the dozens of tables, a handful of servers were busily bussing food and silverware back and forth. Each of them carried an enthusiastic smile that spoke of passion for their work. Jessica may have fallen for the Fridays facade of friendliness and amicability last time, but she knew better now. She wasn’t going to let her guard down.

She saw a man talking to someone who looked exactly like himself and she hoped to God they were identical twins.

After the Coopers were all seated and settled around their table, they were greeted by a familiar voice. “Hey there!” Rachel said, passing out menus. “Back for more, I see.”

“We just couldn’t keep away,” Mark said with a roll of his eyes.

The sarcastic tone was lost on Rachel. “I don’t blame you. It seems like just about everybody wants a taste of our menu.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had a very busy month.”

“Month?” Rachel asked in apparent confusion. “It’s only been about four days.”

Jessica mentally counted the weeks since they first went to TGI Fridays. She wanted to scream.

Mark fumbled for a response. “Oh… Well, anyway, could you give us a few minutes to figure out what we want?”

Rachel’s smile perked right back up. “Of course! In the meantime, same beverages as last time?” Mark nodded, and Rachel was off.

Despite the heavy pop music playing in the background, an air of silence fell upon the table at Rachel’s departure. “I don’t like this,” Kayla said. “I don’t like being here.”

“I don’t like it either,” Mark said. “But we had no other choice.” He sighed. “At least the food here is good, right?”

Kayla shot him a glare that could have melted lead.

Jessica turned her attention toward Dylan, staring intently at his tablet. He had his hands folded together, both of them covering his mouth and propping up his head. Jessica didn’t know how she would have described his expression, but ‘concerned’ might have been a good fit. “Are you okay, Dylan?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m about to do something really interesting.” He met his mother’s gaze. “A little time travel experiment.”

That grabbed Mark’s attention. “Like finding the winning lottery numbers?”

Dylan shook his head. “Nothing like that. Something a lot more complicated.”

“Could you explain it?”

“I can try,” Dylan said. “Basically… Earlier in the week, I sent myself an email. Or, really, the Dylan from the previous timeline did, after he got back from his version of this visit to TGI Fridays. Following so far?” Mark nodded, and Dylan continued. “That email—I haven’t looked at it yet—contains only a number. After I open the email, I’m going to copy the number. Then, after we leave, I’m going to email myself that number… plus one.”

“Why would you do that?” Mark asked.

It was Jessica who answered. “To count the timelines.” Everyone looked at her. “You want to count how many times all of this has happened already, how many different versions of us are… out there.” She felt sick to her stomach.

“That’s right,” Dylan said. He smiled, happy to share his little experiment with them. “Although, I’d like to point out that because my count changes every time, none of this ever happens the same way twice. I like to think I’m doing my part in making sure each timeline is unique.”

“You crazy sci-fi dork,” Kayla laughed. “That’s so freaky.”

“Did you come up with this yourself?” Mark asked.

Dylan nodded. “Yeah, a couple weeks ago. I didn’t think I’d ever test it out myself though…”

“Well don’t keep us in suspense,” Kayla said. “Open the email!”

Dylan tapped on his tablet. Whatever he saw, it was enough to raise his eyebrows. His eyes scanned from right to left while his lips moved without sound, silently counting one, two, three… “Uh, what comes after trillion?” He passed his tablet around the table so everyone could see. Just as he had foretold, the email’s contents were nothing more than a long string of digits: 544,914,778,257,659,973.

“That would be quadrillion,” Mark said, never one to lose his place as the bearer of fun facts.

Jessica couldn’t believe it. Quadrillions. There were quadrillions of versions of herself and her family and everyone she ever knew. There had been quadrillions of iterations of this conversation and this day and this entire godforsaken week. More time had passed within this single time loop than the age of the entire universe. Quadrillions. It was too big to comprehend.

“Huh,” Dylan said. “I thought it would be higher.”

“You what?!” Jessica exclaimed.

“Well, it could’ve been anywhere between one and infinity. On average, that’s… still infinity. So we’re still pretty early in the loop, all things considered. That number could’ve been multiple pages long.”

“Incredible,” Mark said. He took a picture of Dylan’s email with his own phone, probably to commemorate the occasion. He really was adorable sometimes.

Rachel came by and handed out a tray’s worth of filled glasses. “I’m sorry for the delay; we’re busier than we expected tonight. Do you have your orders ready or do you need more time?”

Jessica realized she hadn’t even looked at her menu yet, but no one else was asking for more time, so she didn’t bother. She remembered the food well enough. They ordered.

Rachel left again, back into the sea of servers and served.

“Aha,” Mark said, cutting into the silence before it had a chance to envelop them, “I see Terry over at the bar. I don’t think he’s noticed us yet.” Jessica looked over to the bar section of the restaurant and sure enough, Terry was there, sitting next to his wife. Mark pushed his chair back and stood up. “If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I need to go fulfill my destiny.”

Jessica watched for a few seconds as Mark greeted them and pointed out their table. Jessica gave them a small wave when they looked over.

Long minutes passed as the kids entertained themselves with their phone and tablet. Multiple times, Jessica considered asking Dylan what else he was doing, what other ‘experiments’ he was conducting. Multiple times, she decided she didn’t actually want to know. She ignored her own phone in her purse—the call of future knowledge would go straight to voicemail.

Mark returned to the table at the same time Rachel returned with their dinner—a delightful collection of dishes that spanned every food group. “I hope you’re all hungry,” Rachel said, sporting her characteristic smile. She passed a plate over to Jessica, who accepted it graciously.

Jessica had only ordered a Caesar salad, opting not to get too extravagant with her desires. After all, she wasn’t even there for the food. But the plate of salad before her, with its expertly mixed array of ingredients and its perfectly picturesque presentation, from the top layer of fresh Parmesan and Romano all the way to the bottom layer of Romaine lettuce beautifully blended with croutons and kale and everything else she could have wanted, looked like it would be the best salad she had ever tasted.

Her tongue soon confirmed her suspicions.

The delicious dinner consumed Jessica’s attention as she consumed it. For a wonderful half hour, all her woes and worries were forgotten. She barely even reacted when Mark, reading his phone, announced the verdict of his own Fridays experiment. “I got a message from Joseph. Turns out the kid was a good hire after all. Or will be. Is?” As Mark struggled to find the right tense, Jessica basked in the lack of tension, the overwhelming safety and satiety that only a good meal can bring.

Jessica was just about done eating when someone approached her from behind, speaking with a familiar, feminine voice Jessica hadn’t heard in years. “Excuse me… Jessica?”

She pivoted around in her chair and her eyes widened in shock when she saw who it was. “Miranda? Is that you?” It had been decades since Jessica had last seen her, years since Jessica had last thought about her, but the woman standing above her was just as recognizable as ever—Miranda Senova, Jessica’s very best friend from all the way back in middle school.

Miranda’s face lit up in a smile. “It is you! I can’t believe it! Of all the places to be hit with a blast from the past…”

Overcome with glee, Jessica stood up and embraced her old friend, who returned the hug just as eagerly. She couldn’t believe it either. Miranda Senova! It was almost too good to be true. “I’m so happy to see you! How long has it been, twenty years?”

“At least!” Miranda broke away from the hug. “Oh my God, you have a family now!”

Beaming with pride, Jessica took that as her cue to make introductions. “Mark, kids, this is Miranda—she used to be my best friend in the world. Miranda, this is my husband Mark, and my children, Kayla and Dylan.” They each waved or said hello in turn.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” Miranda said. “Jessica and I go way back.” Then in a faux-whisper to the kids, “I could give you some real embarrassing stories. You should ask her about the origami pig incident.”

“Don’t give them any ideas,” Jessica said, blushing—but she couldn’t keep the mirth out of her voice. Miranda gave her a sly grin and, suddenly, Jessica felt like a mischievous kid again.

“Anyway,” Miranda said, “I was just on my way out and saw you. I don’t want to interrupt your dinner any more than I already have.”

“Nonsense,” Jessica said. “We’ll be leaving soon ourselves. Why don’t you stay for a few minutes and we can catch up?”

Miranda smiled brightly. “I would love that.”

The conversation that followed was the highlight of Jessica’s night. Despite all their time apart, Jessica and Miranda were just as in sync as ever. They shared stories of what happened to one another after high school, how Jessica met Mark, how Miranda met her own husband (who Jessica couldn’t wait to meet, now that she knew Miranda would be in town for a few more days), and how their lives had gone in such different directions than they expected. And best of all, the subject of TGI Fridays and its effects and implications did not enter the conversation at all. It was the most refreshing dialogue Jessica had had in weeks.

In the background, Mark finished paying the bill.

“I suppose it’s time to get going,” Jessica said, helping Miranda up. “I’ll see you again tomorrow?”

“For sure,” Miranda said. “There’s still so much I want to tell you. And I’m sure you feel the same way.” Miranda was right. There was still so much Jessica wanted to say, so much Jessica wanted to ask, and, somehow, not nearly enough time. But there would be more time tomorrow. Now, it was time to go.

And so, for the 544,914,778,257,659,974th time in as many timelines, Jessica walked out of TGI Fridays. With Mark and the kids in front of her and Miranda close behind, Jessica crossed the threshold with little of the fear she had experienced on her prior visit. Outside, she gave a quick look around to make sure everyone was accounted for. They were.

“And there we go—we’ve successfully landed back in Monday,” Mark announced, looking at his phone.

Jessica smiled. She wasn’t sure whether it was the satisfied stomach, the appearance of her old friend, or just the fact that nothing had gone wrong this time, but she was genuinely, truly happy. Maybe she could learn to live in a world with TGI Fridays after all.

“Wait,” Miranda said. “Did you say Monday? Fuck. Jesus fucking Christ. I came from Thursday.”

And just like that, the illusion was shattered.

***

For the first time in weeks, the White House was quiet. Every person who could be spared, plus many who couldn’t, watched through the windows or over the balconies or from one of the paths around the North Lawn. Millions more watched on television screens nationwide, no one wanting to miss the historic encounter that was about to take place.

Barbara couldn’t blame them. Standing in front of the main entrance to the building, she was just as tense as they were. Too much was riding on how the next hour unfolded. Walking up the steps to the White House, surrounded by an entourage of federal agents, was Jeffrey Alan—the founder and CEO of TGI Fridays.

The agents spread out as Alan ascended the final step. President Harris walked forward to greet him. “Mr. Alan. It’s a pleasure to have you here.” She extended her hand in the oldest known gesture of diplomacy.

Barbara had seen self-made billionaires before, with their signature blend of confidence and humility. Jeffrey Alan had the air of a self-made trillionaire. He returned Barbara’s handshake with the utmost respect, meeting her eyes directly through his square-framed glasses and smiling like he was truly honored to be there. “Thank you kindly for inviting me, Madam President. I think you’ll find that TGI Fridays has a lot to offer to the American dining industry. Shall we go inside?”

Mr. Alan was a short man. His deeply graying hair made him look more like he was in his late sixties than his early fifties. The only color in his outfit came from the red and white diagonally striped tie tucked diligently into his black suit. In truth, he looked like a gentleman from a bygone era rather than the hottest businessman of the 21st century.

Barbara returned Mr. Alan’s genuine smile with a feigned one of her own. “Of course,” she said, doing her best to keep her emotions out of her voice. “Right this way.” The agents enclosed a perimeter around them and together they walked into the White House, away from the prying eyes of a nation on the brink of collapse.

The American dining industry, Barbara thought bitterly. For over a month, Alan and TGI Fridays had refused demands to meet with any federal agency. Their lawyers had managed to counter every subpoena, every warrant, every obstacle that came their way. For over a month, Alan had declined requests for interviews, kept his public appearances to a minimum, and never commented on the time travel that made his company so famous… until now. Until an executive branch with little left to lose extended an invitation to Alan for a one-on-one discussion with the president about his restaurant’s “place in the industry,” with no reference whatsoever to time travel. And he accepted.

Now, the economy was in absolute chaos. Experts were predicting that if current trends continued, a worldwide depression would begin within the next three months. Crime rates were up to all-time highs, as emboldened criminals attempted to evade justice by escaping to new timelines. But between all the missing persons cases and ‘extra’ persons cases, the police departments of the country already had their hands full. And to top it all off, half of Asia was gearing up to go to war with the United States so they could seize TGI Fridays’ time travel technology for themselves.

And Jeffrey Alan wanted to talk about his restaurant’s place in the industry.

Barbara wasn’t sure what kind of twisted game he was playing, but she wasn’t going to let him get away with it.

“Are you sure about this?” Scott asked in a hushed voice. Barbara hadn’t realized he was walking beside her. She needed to focus.

“No,” Barbara said honestly. “But it’s either this or we continue to do nothing.” She looked to the front of their party. Alan listened in reverential silence as a White House staffer acted as his impromptu tour guide to the hallowed halls. They were almost to the ‘interview’ room. “Doing nothing isn’t an option.”

Scott grimaced, but he understood. “I have the report you requested.” He handed a thick black binder to Barbara. “Our analysts just finished going through it. Suggestions are in the back. Expectations are… grim.”

Barbara took the binder, her expression neutral. “Thank you. We need all the help we can get.” She opened it to the first page and read the enclosed document’s title, centered on the page in monospaced font: JEFFREY ALAN INTERROGATION – TRANSCRIPT AND ANALYSIS – 23 AUG.

It was Wednesday, August 21st.

The group arrived outside the interrogation room. It was a featureless, dark gray chamber in the basement level of the White House, with no furnishings except a harsh metal table and two very uninviting chairs. A one-way mirror provided the only window into the room’s sterile interior. Alan looked through the glass pane inquisitively, his humble smile never faltering.

A staffer directed Alan into the room and shut the door behind him. Alan showed no hesitation in entering the chamber. Barbara remained outside with the host of Secret Service agents and Scott.

“Any chance you could give me the Cliff notes?” Barbara asked. She hated that this whole meeting had been accepted and sprung with such little notice. She would have preferred to take longer to prepare for it, to be able to strategize and make plans and backup plans and contingencies for any possible outcome. Somehow, that kind of thing was rarely possible for a president.

“Open by asking about his early life,” Scott answered. “He’s particularly responsive to questions about his college years. Page 17 has notes on good transition topics from there.”

Barbara blinked. “You’re aware the whole interview angle is a sham, right?”

Scott shrugged. “According to the report, it’s the only way we’ve ever managed to get information out of him. The direct line of questioning doesn’t work.”

“Why the hell not?”

“The report doesn’t say. I think it just hasn’t been tried in so many timelines that the data got bumped out in favor of newer results.”

It was the biggest load of bullshit that Barbara had ever heard. She thrust the binder back at Scott, who clumsily caught it against his chest. “I’m going in.”

“But Madam President, the analysis—”

“Is useless,” Barbara finished for him. “I’m not going to waste government time and resources in pursuit of a petty tabloid interview! Too much is at stake.” She turned to the Secret Service agent guarding the door. “Let me in.”

The agent nodded and silently complied with the president’s command. He pulled the heavy metal door open with a creak, and Barbara walked in. Once she was inside, the door slammed shut behind her.

Jeffrey Alan was sitting on the far side of the table, hands folded, still smiling that polite smile as he watched Barbara enter the room. He waited for her to settle into her seat across the table before he spoke. “Thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak to me, Madam President.”

Barbara refused to let herself get pulled into the man’s friendly veneer. “Okay, Mr. Alan, I have some questions I want you to answer.”

“Please, call me Jeffrey,” he said cordially.

“Right. Well then, Jeffrey, let me cut right to the chase. Why are you doing this?”

Jeffrey took in a measured breath. “I started TGI Fridays with a mission. I wanted to create an establishment where people could always expect a fun and friendly atmosphere, along with the highest quality service.”

Barbara slammed the side of her fist against the table. “Cut the crap, Alan. You know what I really mean. Why all this? Why Friday?”

“At TGI Fridays, we believe in the nurturing power of Friday. We want people to be able to enjoy every day like it’s Friday. And so, we’ve created a restaurant that aims to make every day feel like Friday through its casual atmosphere and excellent dining.”

“And through time travel,” Barbara interjected. “Kidnapping people and bringing them to the future.”

“Why, Madam President, I haven’t a clue what you mean. All guests of TGI Fridays come to our establishment voluntarily, and stay only so long as they choose.”

Barbara held back a groan. This was going nowhere. “There are rumors that you’re currently trying to obtain permits to open TGI Fridays branches in Canada and the UK. Is this true?”

“Absolutely,” Alan replied. “As a business, growth and expansion are always necessary. But as a personal goal, I hope that someday every country on the planet will have a TGI Fridays branch within its borders.”

Every country on the planet. “Are you aware of the national security risks that poses?”

“I assure you, Madam President, that TGI Fridays is committed to using only the freshest, safest ingredients. We regularly inspect our food stock and our suppliers to ensure we serve food that poses no health risk.”

Barbara wanted to scream. This entire interv—interrogation was pointless. Alan must have come here today knowing that Barbara wouldn’t get anything out of him. An aura of despair started settling on her, until she had an idea that made her hate the entire situation even more than she already did. “Tell me about… your college years.”

She wouldn’t have believed Alan’s face could light up any brighter than it already was, but it did.

***

“Hey Dylan,” the text read, “Erik and I are going to TGI Fridays. Wanna come?”

“Can’t,” Dylan replied, “I have an essay due tomorrow that I need to finish.”

“Bring it with you. We’ll give you a couple extra days to finish it.”

Dylan gave the offer a solid five seconds of thought before responding, “Cool. Where are we meeting up?”

Ten minutes later, Dylan was on the road. His parents were out with Kayla for the evening, so he had no problem leaving without being noticed. (He wasn’t supposed to be sneaking out on a school night, after all.) But on the off chance that they got home before his future self did, he left a note for his parents that he would be staying overnight with his friends Troy and Erik, and that he might not be back until tomorrow after school—which was technically true, as long as his parents didn’t ask which nights he was actually staying over. But what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.

It was a short walk to Troy’s house, only a couple suburban streets away. In one of his texts, Troy said the three of them would be hitching a ride to TGI Fridays with his older brother Aaron. They were already outside waiting by Aaron’s car when Dylan arrived.

“Hey dude,” Troy greeted Dylan. “You ready for some free food?”

“What do you mean free?” Dylan asked.

Erik answered. “Troy’s got it in his head that if we pay for our meal with a card instead of cash, and then we go back in time, it’ll be free because then we can spend that money on something else instead.”

“That’s… not how it works,” Dylan said.

“I know. I’ve been trying to get him to understand for the last ten minutes.” Erik shook his head in frustration.

“Okay, fine, I give in,” Troy said, putting his hands in the air. “The money will still come out of your account a few days later. But you gotta admit, that’s still pretty awesome, right? Not having to pay for it right away?”

“Amazing concept,” Dylan said, deadpan. “You can name it credit.”

Erik chuckled. Troy hit him with a playful punch to the shoulder and said “Shut up,” but he too had a smile on his face.

Dylan didn’t say much during the ride to TGI Fridays. It was Troy who did most of the talking, outlining their plan for the next few days. Troy’s aunt and uncle were on vacation, their house on the other side of town empty for the week. The three teens would hide out there until resuming their real lives on Friday. It would be two solid days of pizza, video games, and general unsupervised mischief.

And essay writing. Dylan couldn’t forget that.

Dylan chided himself for waiting until the last minute to finish his report. The days he should have spent writing about the life and death of Julius Caesar, he instead spent on an extremely unproductive YouTube binge catching up on his subscriptions. Now, he had to resort to time travel to finish his history essay on time. The irony was not lost on him. Though, he was glad his dad wasn’t around to comment on said irony. He was also glad that TGI Fridays could still be exploited for this kind of assignment.

Almost a month had passed since the school year began, and the school system was finally starting to adapt. During the first few weeks, cheating on tests and homework became a widespread problem—anyone could go to TGI Fridays, look up that week’s test answers, and bring back a perfect study guide. All it took was one person per class, and everyone could ace every assignment.

That is, as long as the answers you got from the future were to the same questions you had to answer when you got back. In response to the rampant cheating, some teachers had started phasing out homework entirely and instead focused more on in-class assignments—with the key being that they were all randomly generated right before they were handed out. The idea was, students couldn’t cheat on today’s assignment if they had no time to go to TGI Fridays to look up the answers. And they couldn’t cheat on tomorrow’s assignment if in the next timeline, a different set of problems was randomly assigned. It was a practical solution to a complicated problem, and Dylan was impressed.

They could do nothing about students extending their own schedules, though, whether for an assignment due next week or an assignment due yesterday. It didn’t happen in practice very often; it was a pretty extreme solution. But Dylan liked to think of himself as a pretty extreme guy.

It wasn’t long before the car full of teens arrived at their destination. Aaron pulled up to the front of the restaurant to let everyone out.

“Thanks again for driving us,” Troy said to his older brother as they exited the car.

“Whatever,” Aaron replied with a shrug. “Just make sure you’re back home before I am or Mom and Dad are gonna kick my ass.” And with that, he pulled Troy’s passenger door closed and took off out of the busy parking lot.

Troy audibly sighed. “Siblings are a bitch.” When no one followed up on that comment with a remark of their own, Troy continued. “Anyway, let’s do this, yeah?”

“Yeah,” agreed Erik.

“Yep,” said Dylan.

The three teens turned toward the welcoming doors of TGI Fridays and, one by one, entered the building.

The atmosphere of the restaurant hadn’t changed much in the last month. The room was casually lit, appetizingly fragrant, and utterly jam-packed with people desperate for a taste of Time’s reversible arrow. Somehow, it seemed even busier than its bustling parking lot would’ve had them believe. As more people became accustomed to the wonders of TGI Fridays, more people became comfortable with the idea of experiencing it for themselves. Despite new locations opening every day, the company could barely keep up with the exponential demand.

Normalization was a bitch.

Dylan wondered how many timelines a single TGI Fridays location created in a single day. If a new timeline was created every time a group of people left together, except for people leaving into Friday, and assuming each group stayed for about 45 minutes and every table was always occupied…

A server stepped forward to greet the trio. “Welcome to TGI Fridays! In here, it’s always Friday! Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes,” Troy said. “Troy Bissel, party of 3.”

“Certainly. Follow me.” The server led them away from the crowded lobby and its diverse crowd of travel guides. They were seated at a small table in the back corner of the restaurant, just behind the bar section. The server took their drink orders before rushing off to who knew how many other groups he was serving.

Dylan wasted no time before pulling out his phone and reading tomorrow’s news.

“So who besides me is freaked out by this war everyone keeps talking about?” Troy asked the group. “They say actual fighting will start any day now.”

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” Dylan said, not looking up from his phone. “It’s impossible for a country without time travel to win a war against a country with time travel. It’s all just pointless bluffing. Honestly, once enough other countries have TGI Fridays branches, I wouldn’t be surprised if all war ended forever.”

“Just like after everyone got nukes, am I right?” Erik said.

“Good point.”

“Still,” Troy continued. “If it’s just a bluff, it’s a pretty good one. Everyone’s spooked.” Erik nodded agreement, and even Dylan had to admit Troy was right about this one. International tensions were high.

Their server came back with drinks and took everyone’s dinner orders. Dylan, the carnivorous male that he was, went with a well-cooked bacon cheeseburger with all the standard toppings. Erik ordered a fried chicken sandwich with a side salad, and Troy asked for a 14 ounce steak. Dylan wondered whether Troy had really understood yet that he would still have to pay for it. The server thanked them for their orders and again disappeared into the cacophony that was TGI Fridays.

“So Dylan,” Troy said. “Someone came back in time with your family last month, right?”

“Yeah, a friend of my mom accidentally followed us out. She stayed with us for a couple days afterward, I guess because she didn’t want to run into her past self out in the real world.” That had been a pretty annoying week, having to fit an extra person in the house, made better only by the amount he learned about his mom’s youth. He would never be able to look at a paper crane without laughing again.

“Cool,” Troy said.

“That’s basically what we’re going to be doing, right?” Erik asked.

Troy nodded. “It’s gonna be awesome. My cousin’s away in college right now and he left all his video games at home, not to mention all the movies my uncle owns…” He proceeded to list off all the gaming systems, games, and obscure classic movies they would have access to over their next few days. It was an impressive list.

The subject of the conversation slowly turned toward more recent media.

“Have you seen someone leaked a recording of Vendetta 2?” Troy asked.

“I thought that movie doesn’t hit theaters until next week,” Erik said.

“It doesn’t,” Dylan replied. “But they opened the first Australian TGI Fridays yesterday.”

“…”

“And it goes by its local time zone.”

“…”

“Where our Friday is their Saturday.”

Dylan watched Erik’s thoughtful expression as he went through the stages of calculation, comprehension, wide-eyed amazement, and imagining all the possibilities. If there was one thing Dylan loved more than having such a deep understanding of time travel cause and effect, it was sharing that understanding with others and seeing their reactions.

Their food came out a few minutes later, and conversation ground to a halt. Dylan’s burger was everything he had hoped for and more—succulent sauces and juicy beef combined to send Dylan’s taste buds to flavor nirvana. It was so fundamentally, primally satisfying, that Dylan thought he would have been content to die right there. Here lies Dylan Cooper, he thought with dark amusement. He came for the time travel, and stayed for the food.

Dylan savored the magnificent burger as long as he could—but alas, eventually it was gone. The other two finished their meals around the same time, pushing their plates aside and resuming talk of upcoming sci-fi movies. Dylan wondered what unholy power enabled Troy to finish his steak so quickly. Maybe he did it with time travel? But no, deep down he knew what it really was: the power of a hungry teenager.

Their server came and went, and so too did their bill. After holding a three-way rock-paper-scissors tournament to decide who would pay the extra dollar when they split the tip evenly, it was just about time to go. The trio made their way to the front of the restaurant—to the nexus of wait lists and world lines, the lobby that led to infinite possibilities. Or at least, to seven possibilities.

The crowd around the door was split into at least a dozen smaller groups, each of which was led by someone holding up a sign. The whole thing made Dylan feel like he had somehow wandered onto an airport terminal full of people ready to receive him. He understood now why everyone called them travel guides.

They walked over to a woman who had no one in front of her yet, holding up a sign that said “Tuesday – $10 per person.”

“How many to a group before you leave?” Troy asked.

Dylan had noticed that most of the guides who had customers in line were still waiting for more. Unsurprisingly, the largest groups tended to be with Friday or Saturday guides—most people who time traveled simply wanted to go back in time as far as possible, or remain in their original timeline.

“I make on-demand trips,” the Tuesday guide replied. “Just you three?”

Troy nodded.

Dylan thought the entire phenomenon of time travel guides was fascinating. It was such an inevitable, yet obvious result of TGI Fridays’ effect on the world—especially in the era of Uber and Airbnb. Of course capitalism would find a way to turn time travel into a service industry, even within the confines of a restaurant lobby. But Dylan knew they served a valuable role. The guides made time travel as easy as paying a fare and taking a couple steps forward.

The three teens paid their guide and followed her from Friday into Tuesday.

If Dylan hadn’t been paying attention, he might not have noticed that the time travel was any different than normal. The clouds in the sky were completely different than they were on Thursday. The air was warmer, slightly more humid—the prelude to Wednesday’s light rains. The parking lot was noticeably emptier, but that was an obvious difference so it didn’t count.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” their guide said. She turned around and walked right back into TGI Fridays.

Troy called a taxi to take them to his aunt and uncle’s house. It arrived a few minutes later, picking them up from the curb outside TGI Fridays no questions asked. Dylan assumed the driver had been through this before. And if their place of origin didn’t make it obvious that they were temporary temporal refugees, the trio’s conversation during the ride would have filled in all the blanks.

Dylan’s phone buzzed to announce a new message. He checked it. It was just an email, a run of the mill reminder from YouTube to check out this week’s new content. The irony of it made him smile. He reflexively marked the email as read and put his phone away.

The next few days were some of the best of Dylan’s life. Even with all the hype, Troy’s cousin’s game collection was every bit as great as Troy made it out to be. They spent hours playing multiplayer FPS and party games, staying up late into the night and waking up as late in the morning as they wanted. It was the vacation Dylan didn’t realize how much he needed. And somehow, between all the fun and games, he even finished his essay.

Finally, the time came for them to return to their real lives. Troy ordered them all another taxi, and one by one the teens were dropped off at their homes around town. Dylan’s house was the first stop. He paid the driver with what little cash he still had on hand and got out of the car at the foot of his driveway.

“See you at school tomorrow,” Troy said through the closing door. Erik gave a silent wave goodbye. Dylan waved back at both of them as the taxi drove away.

It was Thursday, September 27th.

Dylan entered his house and was surprised to find the TV in the living room was left on. That was strange; he didn’t remember leaving it on in his original timeline. He hadn’t even been downstairs before leaving the house in his original timeline. He found the remote on the couch and turned the TV off.

After a few seconds, a too-familiar voice cut into the sudden silence. “Hello?” Dylan froze where he stood. The speaker walked out from the kitchen. “I didn’t think you guys would be home so soo—” The two Dylans locked eyes.

Dylan’s mind raced between fear and frenzy. Something had gone wrong. His past self hadn’t gone to TGI Fridays. Something had changed his personal timeline. And now there were two of him. This was all kinds of fucked up.

“Uh, hi,” the past Dylan said. Dylan hadn’t realized how long the silence lasted.

“…You finished the Caesar essay on time, didn’t you.” It might not have been the friendliest greeting, but Dylan wasn’t thinking clearly. He couldn’t. Not right now.

“…Ah,” Past Dylan said in sudden understanding. “You went with Troy and Erik?”

Dylan nodded. He forced himself to start calming down. “Why didn’t you?”

“Didn’t have a good enough reason to go.” He shrugged. “Wasn’t hungry.” Past Dylan slowly relaxed his muscles—apparently he was just as on edge as his two-day future self. “What number timeline is this?”

“I don’t know. Didn’t bother counting.” Even as he said it, he could anticipate his past self’s response. Sloppy. He could have—should have—been more careful. He could have prevented this outcome.

“Sloppy.”

“I know,” Dylan said. There was a long pause. “You need to go to TGI Fridays.”

“Why?”

Why?” Dylan was dumbfounded. “So there won’t be two of us! So I can take over in this timeline, and you can take over in the next, the way it’s supposed to work. You know this.”

“I mean, why me?” When Dylan didn’t say anything, his past self went on. “I don’t see why I need to uproot myself because of your mistake. It could just as easily be you who goes to the next timeline.”

Dylan didn’t know what to say. Was he always this stubborn? “The next Dylan would just say the same thing you’re saying now. The only way to stabilize the loop is if you go.” He left the next part unsaid, knowing his past self would probably point it out anyway.

“There’s no guarantee that would stabilize the loop,” Past Dylan said, right on cue. “It’s just a chance. And even if it worked, I’d be creating infinite displaced Dylans.”

“You’ve done that before,” Dylan said. “Twice.”

Past Dylan shrugged. “I don’t want to this time.” His tone was one of casual disinterest.

Dylan took a hesitant step forward. “You have to go to the next timeline…” He knew he would hate himself for this. “…Whether you want to or not.” He lunged for his past self, moving as fast as possible, before his past self could realize what he was doing, and he slammed his fist into his past self’s chest.

Past Dylan doubled over in pain as future Dylan’s knuckles screamed out in equal but opposite agony. Adrenaline surging, hands shaking, Dylan only had seconds to plan out his next move before it was all thrown out the window. Past Dylan, still bent over and clutching his chest, rammed his body forward, hitting Dylan with a headbutt that knocked him off his feet.

Dylan staggered, falling backwards over the couch. He flailed his legs wildly as he went over, hoping if he had to go down that he could at least take his past self with him. It worked. The two Dylans got caught in a tangle of limbs and were both pulled over the couch. Dylan hit the floor headfirst with an excruciating thud that made his vision go black for a few seconds.

When he regained his sense of sight, his body was prone on the ground. Past Dylan was nowhere in sight. Dylan struggled to push himself back up. Something hard smashed into the back of his head. Bits of plastic and wiring scattered in all directions from the point of impact. Past Dylan dropped the shattered remote control and ran for cover.

Dylan fought through the haze and chased his past self into the kitchen. Past Dylan fumbled with the house phone, trying desperately to dial for help. Dylan tackled him, ripping the phone right off its cord and sending them both hurtling into the cabinets. Dylan drove in the blow as hard as he could. His past self screamed.

Panting, Dylan took a wobbly step backward. He saw it at the same time his past self did. Past Dylan grabbed a knife from the countertop and thrust it forward. Dylan was already out of arm’s reach and sprinting back to the living room. His past self was right behind him.

Dylan grabbed a pillow from the couch. He swung it into his past self’s arm, attempting to knock the weapon from his grip. Past Dylan sliced into the pillow and its cottony innards sprayed out over him. Dylan used the cotton shower as cover to hide a right hook to his past self’s skull. Direct hit. He followed with a knee to the gut that turned into a kick that slammed his other self against the wall. The knife fell to the floor. Dylan dove for it.

Before he could reach the fallen blade, the other Dylan grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him back. Both of them on their knees, the other Dylan used his free arm to release a brutal onslaught of punches against his doppelganger’s face. Dylan brought up his arms in feeble defense.

The front door opened. Both Dylans froze in place and turned their heads to look. Mom, Dad, and Kayla stood in the doorway, expressions horrified as they took in the savage scene before them. The world fell silent.

While everyone was distracted, Dylan grabbed the knife from the floor. “I won’t let you take over my life!” He stabbed the knife into his other self’s chest, right into the heart. The other Dylan made a horrific gasping noise and fell over. He was dead.

Dylan stared at his blood-soaked hands. They were trembling. His whole body was trembling. He fell backward onto his legs, barely managing to stay upright.

His family ran into the room. His mom wrapped her arms around him in a fearful embrace, followed by Dad and Kayla. Tears formed in his mom’s eyes, mirroring his own.

“Never again,” Dylan’s dad said. “Let’s never go to TGI Fridays again.”

The Coopers hugged together in silence as their son’s corpse bled out.

***

Move Over, September: Eternal Friday is Here to Stay

by Sherrie Smith

Author’s note: I am not the Sherrie Smith who originally wrote this article. I found it in my inbox, fully written, during my last visit to TGI Fridays.

It has been three months since TGI Fridays made its grand entrance onto the world stage. But for some of us, it’s been a lifetime. This summer season has seen families ripped apart, entire economies upended, and the opening moves to military actions once thought unimaginable. No aspect of modern living has escaped the caustic grasp of post-causal society. But as they say, the party’s just getting started.

On Thursday the 18th, the United Nations Economic and Social Council will release a report detailing the restaurant chain’s impact on the world. The report estimates that in the last 90 days, over 6 million people have disappeared after visiting TGI Fridays, with more than half of those cases coming from the United States. Such numbers beggar belief. Every day, tens of thousands of people forsake this Earth for the sake of time travel. Although we know that those people are alive and well in alternate timelines, from our perspective, the Fridays-related disappearances are just as sudden and permanent as death.

Around the planet, people have been forced to adapt to the reality that TGI Fridays poses. Time is not the straight line we once thought it to be—in fact, it never was. Fridays has revealed to us the true nature of the cosmos, the branching, looping nature of the timeline. Amidst all the turmoil of rising crime rates and hostile geopolitics, perhaps that’s the one good thing to come out of this mess: the scientists at CERN are closer than ever to a unified theory of physics.

In the United States, events have taken a darker turn. The nationwide riots triggered by the arrest of Sonia Davenport on October 9th show no signs of slowing down. Davenport, who in a previous timeline killed her husband on October 12th, remains adamant that in this timeline she had no such intention—and leaked law enforcement records indicate she may be telling the truth. Documents from the previous timeline reveal that Davenport would not have decided on the murderous course of action until the 11th, a full two days after her arrest. With the public already fearful of Minority Report-esque precrime persecution, it’s no wonder that the Davenport arrest pushed so many of us over the edge.

Congress is poised to approve President Harris’s declaration of martial law by the end of the week.

Sonia’s story is one of many such tales of temporal tragedy. In Oregon last month, a boy was almost killed by his violent future self. In Florida, a father took premature vengeance on his daughter’s would-be rapist. In Michigan, a small town became the site of a gang war as rival groups fought for control over a TGI Fridays branch. A dozen bystanders were hospitalized in the crossfire. It seems that no matter who loses in these unnatural disasters, TGI Fridays wins.

Yet despite the many horrors the Fridays franchise has wrought upon the handful of countries it currently serves, dozens more are lining up and practically begging to have the chain open new locations within their borders—and it’s easy to see why. What sensible government could resist the power that comes with dominion over Time? What government would want to resist it? The ethical costs, the social anarchy and the economic collapses are all a moot point when compared to the ability to literally rewrite history.

In recent weeks, famed businessman Elon Musk has been working closely with the governments of Samoa and American Samoa to secure contracts for Fridays locations in each. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, here are three words that should strike fear into your bones: International Date Line. Combined with Musk’s longstanding interest in high-speed, long-distance transportation systems, we can only hope the recursive time travel apocalypse Musk brings about with his Pacific endeavors is gentle.

We live in a brave new world where causation is a mirage and consequences are optional—and frankly, it’s fucking horrifying. Who would bother learning from their mistakes if it was easier to just erase them? Who wants to live in a world where any personal victory can just as easily be erased by a vindictive boss or asshole neighbor? This is the world we live in now, and there’s no escaping it.

Sometimes, people in old age or poor health may fear the next time they do some treasured activity, knowing it could be the last time. I always dread my next visit to TGI Fridays, knowing it could be my first—that I could be the Sherrie Smith who kicks off a loop, the one who leaves an unfillable void for all my friends and family in the timeline I leave behind. Yet I always go anyway, because like the rest of us, I am addicted. I hate myself for it, but I can’t help it. I am a willing voyeur of Father Time’s peep show.

I’m probably going to lose my job over this article. I don’t know what twisted confluence of events led to it taking this shitty form, but I’m going to submit it to my editor just like this anyway. You know why? Because I’m afraid—terrified, actually—to change even a single word of this meandering shitshow. Nothing can describe the existential horror I felt upon reading this paragraph, including this very sentence, when I received this article from my future self. I don’t want to find out what would happen if I changed it. We may have escaped the shackles of linear chronology, but we are all still very much prisoners of Time.

The era of Fridays has begun, and there’s no telling how long it will last.

***

Morning light filtered through the mansion’s tinted windows. Jeffrey Alan sat at his kitchen table, leisurely sipping coffee and flipping through the pages of the Sunday newspaper. He skimmed the headlines as he went, looking for articles that might be relevant to him. “USD still in freefall after Fridays fallout.” “ISIS soldiers abandoning other timelines to multiply into this one; experts expect war within weeks.” “Kim Kardashian leaves this timeline; world mourns its loss.” Nothing relevant. He skipped them all.

Finally he found the section he was looking for: restaurant reviews. Jeffrey scanned the page for reviews of TGI Fridays, and started reading them from the top. “TGI Fridays should be ashamed of themselves—” Skip. “Because of TGI Fridays, I’ll never see my wife again—” Skip. His eyes settled at the bottom of the page, on a review that was slightly longer than the rest.

“TGI Fridays is home to one of the best casual dining environments around. The food was crafted and cooked to perfection, the service was excellent at every step of the way, and for the duration of my visit I truly felt like part of the family. This is one restaurant I’ll be coming back to again and again.”

Jeffrey smiled.

1 Comment

  1. Thedude3445

    This is a good story.

Leave a Reply

© 2022 Jesse Pirnat Writes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: