A distant relative you never knew has left you his entire inheritance, but a clause in his will stipulates that you must spend one night, alone, at his remote New England estate.
Nothing seems awry until late at night when you hear — or are you going mad? — a voice coming from nowhere in particular.
“Remember,” it says in a death rattle.
“Remember what?” you ask.
“The first night,” the voice wheezes. “Of college.”
The voice inhales with a rasp. You can hear your own heart beating.
“The Friends joke,” says the voice.
The first night of college you were happily drinking beer with your new dormmates when someone said that it was like an episode of Friends. You interjected, in Chandler’s sardonic voice, “Could this be any more collegiate?” Whether it was because it wasn’t that funny or people didn’t understand you were impersonating Chandler, no one laughed. You grew quieter the rest of the night, and a part of you has always felt that, had you not bombed with that one joke, you would have been different the remainder of college — more outgoing and less needy, the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to speak up in a crowd. Maybe you’d have a completely new life now and not still be temping, in your late thirties, while endlessly retooling a semiautobiographical dramedy pilot.
“I remember,” you admit. “So what? That’s the sort of thing only the person who said it remembers.”
“I’m Keith Micelli,” the voice says. “I was sitting in a corner. We never really got to know each other — I ended up hanging out more with Nick and Ollie and those guys — and you’ve probably forgotten me. But I, too, remembered your Chandler impression all these years.”
You have goose bumps.
“Okay, you also remembered it,” you say. “Big deal.”
“Not just me,” says Keith’s disembodied voice. “Nick and Ollie and our group would imitate it all the time. We always referred to you behind your back as ‘Chandler.’ When we see each other nowadays, it’s still the first thing we say — it’s a shorthand way to reestablish our bond. That’s right; a remark you made off-the-cuff one time”—
The grandfather clock downstairs chimes and the hairs on your neck stand up.
“—has turned you into a running joke for decades.”
You turn off the lights, but are greeted by the floating image of a woman’s striking face.
“Who are you?” you ask.
“My name is Cassandra Williams,” she says.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t remember meeting you,” you tell her.
“That’s correct,” she says. “Twelve years ago you went into your neighborhood Key Food to buy eggs. Just outside the store you tied your shoes, even though the laces weren’t undone — they were just a little loose on one shoe, and then because you retied that one, you did the other shoe, too, which really didn’t need it. Had you not delayed yourself with the shoelaces — even just the second, unnecessary shoe — we would have been in line together.”
Your muscles tense.
“And what,” you ask, “would have happened?”
“You would have made a casual remark about the tabloid magazines in front of us,” she says. “‘When will that rascal George Clooney ever settle down?’ I would have found it amusing.”
Fear wraps around you like a boa constrictor.
“After some banter about our grocery items, you would have asked for my number — a rarity for you — and we would have gone out on a date,” she says. “I would have found you a little pompous at first, but my sister would convince me to give you another shot, and on the next date I’d see that it was just armor — that you were too sensitive for this world.”
You are unable to speak, paralyzed by terror.
“We would eventually get married,” she goes on, “have two well-adjusted children, and buy a nice — but not ostentatious — three-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights; I don’t make that much money as a human rights lawyer, but I do a little runway and print modeling here and there.”
It feels as though you can’t breathe; you’re still single, in a fifth-floor Bushwick studio rental. You’ve never had a dishwasher.
“We would make really interesting couple friends,” she continues. “One would be a pair of very well-known actors.”
You’re too scared to ask who they are.
“I assume they’re vapid and self-obsessed,” you say instead.
“Actually, they’re super-smart, and down-to-earth despite being BAFTA winners — I forgot to say they’re British,” she says. “The husband would have starred in your long-running prestige-cable show, and the two of you would have become really close.”
“Seriously?” You break into a cold sweat. “That never happens—”
“—at your age,” she finishes. “You’re sort of past the ‘making-friends-with-another-guy’ window. You have your old friends now, who are okay, but let’s be honest: if you met them as an adult, you’d never hang out with them.”
“What happened to you?”
“I’m married to a guy I was set up with a month after the shoelace incident,” she says. “Caleb.”
Your blood freezes in your arteries.
“What does Caleb do?” you ask haltingly.
“Something in finance,” Cassandra says. “I’ve never really understood what, exactly.”
At midnight, the specter of Jason Richardson appears last.
“I’m really sorry about Model UN,” you say before he has a chance to speak, relieved by the modest stakes of your history with Jason. “I’ve always felt terrible about that.”
During a Model UN trip to Washington, DC, in eleventh grade, you filled Jason’s bottle of Sprite with vodka before his big speech to the entire conference. When he took a sip, he spat it out, crying out that it tasted like vodka, and all the students in attendance laughed.
“I’ve moved on, personally,” Jason says.
“So why are you here?”
“Your prank had the effect of making all the high school students take Model UN less seriously.”
The wind whips up, banging the shutters.
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” you say; this one really isn’t so bad.
“Your action was the primal blow to their political idealism,” he tells you. “Over the years, as they observed government in action, they would unconsciously refer back to that moment in Model UN, thinking of the democratic process as little more than a cruel game, a ritual humiliation inflicted by the powerful against the powerless. This cynicism would influence not only their own worldviews, but seep into their social networks, spreading, ultimately, to tens of thousands of citizens. A high concentration of this citizenry would end up residing in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.”
Lightning flashes through the windows.
“The ripple effects led to a net total of seventy-eight thousand votes in 2016 against Hillary Clinton across the three states,” Jason says.
“You can’t blame me for that,” you say. “There were her emails. And she should have campaigned in Michigan, and reached out more to working-class white male—”
“No!” Jason interrupts you as a downpour commences. “The pundits are wrong! Nothing else made a statistically meaningful difference!”
A shudder of horror runs down your spine, and a booming crack of thunder shakes the house’s foundation.
“Donald Trump is president,” he says, “because of your Sprite prank.”