Nick the First
My boyfriend, Nick, never approved of Stacey, or as he called her, “your friend the mad scientist.” He wasn’t being fair. It was true she lived in an abandoned observatory stuffed full of experimental equipment of her own design, but she made it cozy, draped the Victorian gothic interior with a thousand southwest-themed throw rugs, science fiction paperbacks and her husband’s collection of antique guitars. Scientist? Yes. Mad? No madwoman could decorate so tastefully. Her guinea pig had his own pipe-trail system that wove through the massive three-story structure, making her house feel like one big machine. The pipe tops also served as extra bookshelf space.
“Don’t cry to me when she raises a robot army,” Nick said, turning back to his laptop with the air of someone no longer in the conversation.
Stacey was not the reason we broke up, but an example of the things in my life Nick would simply dismiss until, eventually, he dismissed me.
Stacey had been fond of muttering, “I can fix that, you know,” under her breath whenever Nick cut me off around her. So when Nick dumped me on our fifth anniversary, I went straight to Stacey for some “fixing”.
Nick the Second
Stacey greeted me with non-surprise and led me up a wrought iron staircase to the telescope room on the top of her house. The telescope had been sold on ebay, leaving an empty dome. The floor was iron grating and the ceiling green copper with a sliding aperture that still worked. A water balloon catapult held pride of place before it. The lower walls were brick except for the half of the room that was covered in a bank of monitors and dials. It looked like a recording studio. Stacey sat down in a rolling chair and asked, “So what are you looking for in a replacement?”
“Replacement? No. No, you can’t replace Nick. He can cook, and he’s really great to talk to…”
Stacey leaned forward, both of her small hands on her knees, her wispy thin eyebrows raised high on her moon-shaped face. “Trina? Hon? Nick is scum. Hard water scum on my refraction disk. Forget him.”
“Well, maybe he could have been a little more fit, and showered more often.”
“You don’t think, oh, his jerky personality could be the problem?” Stacey looked at the ceiling.
“I want Nick,” I said.
Stacey nodded. “How would you like a man JUST like Nick, but with big muscles?”
I blushed. “Come on, now. You’re not serious.”
Stacey gleefully took the controls and pulled knobs and spun wheels until an image appeared on a monitor of Nick, my Nick with the figure of a Chippendale dancer. Drool flooded my mouth.
“Aw yeah.” Stacey slapped my back. “Better living through chemistry.”
“This is chemistry?”
“Physics. I didn’t want to break the quote.” She continued to fuss with the controls. “Though those pecs could be pure steroid.” She slammed a lever home and spun in her chair. “Voila!”
Stacey gestured toward the stairs we’d come up. On the metal-mesh floor there was a square marked out in scuffed red electrical tape. Inside it, my hunky Nick stood in a muscle top and basketball shorts. He turned in place. “Where am I?”
“You’re welcome,” Stacey said, marveling proudly.
I approached Nick2 with trepidation. “What is this? Some kind of cloning?” I looked back at Stacey. “Is this ethical?”
“It’s fine.” She waved me off. “I pulled him from an alternate universe.”
Then he looked at me. “Trina?”
His arms, thick like cantaloupes, wrapped around me. “You’re so thin,” he said. “You look so scared, Trina. What’s going on? Where are we?”
I should have answered right away, but I was helpless against the power of his biceps. I twisted around in his arms and we were kissing, the familiar burn of his stubble and the relief of his wet tongue were strange next to the unfamiliar firmness of him.
“Yeah, you’re really welcome,” Stacey said, behind me. “But do I need to see that?”
I led Nick2 down the rickety stairs, stopping to run my hands over his flat stomach almost every step of the way.
I was going to lead him to my car, to my house and then my bedroom and worry about other things later, but he stopped me at the base of the stairs with a grip on my wrist that reminded me strength wasn’t always a good thing in a boyfriend. “Did your mad scientist friend just say ‘alternate universe’?”
I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard, but he didn’t let go. I sighed. “Yes. You’re an alternate-universe copy of my boyfriend.”
His forehead wrinkled. “What happens when I run into the me who lives in this universe? Am I dead? Did something kill me?”
“You’re… you,” I said. “Look – we broke up. I just wanted another chance.”
He stared at me. “And yank me out of MY life? Geez, Trina, that’s selfish.”
He pushed past me and stomped up the stairs. I heard him yelling at Stacey, and the pauses for Stacey’s too-quiet replies. I sat down and tears squeezed out of me no matter how hard I tried to hold them back by breathing in slow and deep.
Nick the Third
Stacey gently drew me up by the arm. “Come on, he was a twat. I sent him to a universe with no toilet paper.”
I stood next to her on the stair. “You can’t do that! We don’t know what he left, or –”
“Kidding. He’s home. Forget him.” Stacey patted me on the back and led me to her kitchen, which had started life as a laboratory – heavy wood cabinets with brass label-holders, thick slate counters. Stacey had brightened the place up with plants and stained glass mobiles. She poured glasses of red wine and we sat at her breakfast table, looking out for hints of deer in the yard. Her husband was playing his mandolin in another room. It filtered delicately in – the perfect soundtrack for my self-loathing.
“Don’t feel guilty,” Stacey said. “And don’t give Nick the Second an inch of leeway. His big, important life was mostly his Playstation and a job he hated. I was filtering only for Nicks who were still in love with you and didn’t have significant life-ties.”
I toyed with my wine glass, still too guilty to let myself drink it. “Shouldn’t have been hard. Nick’s such a lone wolf. His horrible family.”
“Hey. Hey.” Stacey waited until I looked up at her wide eyes. “Don’t let him break your heart again. I can fix this. The body-builder angle was the problem. Body-builders are inherently self-absorbed; they are their own hobby. Let’s back up a bit. What, precisely, is it that makes Nick an insufferable douche?”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far. It’s not wrong to be into NASCAR and Call of Duty. I suppose he’s a sedentary guy, but what’s wrong with that? He can be so sweet. He just…”
When I trailed off, Stacey rolled her wrist, waiting, and then supplied, “He just stomped on your heart like it was a cockroach. I’m having a hard time believing this guy can’t be improved on.”
“He doesn’t seem to notice how much he can hurt me,” I said. “He means well, but…”
“He needs to be more emotionally generous.” Stacey tapped her lip with one finger. “How do we quantify that? Give me an example.”
“Well, like, when I ended up in the hospital the week of his annual fantasy football end-of-season dinner, even though I don’t mind that he goes every year to that strip club, I wanted him to choose staying with me, you know?”
“Darling,” Stacey held one hand up to me, awaiting a high-five. I touched my palm to hers. “That’s a decision point. That shit is alternate-universe bread and butter. Let’s do this.”
She was up and out of her chair, wine in hand. I felt dizzy in her wake. And conflicted. And lonely. I followed her up to the lab.
Nick3 took the news much better than Nick2. “Cool,” he said, with one of those long, slow nods usually reserved for when he heard a favorite band would be in town.
“You don’t want to go back to your own world?”
“Why would I?” He wrapped his arms around me. It felt properly smooshy to be in this Nick’s embrace. Muscles are over-rated. “You care enough to chase our love across dimensions! The me from this universe must be a dick.”
He kissed my nose, like Nick used to do when we were first dating. I felt a hot flush, like I’d drunk a lot more wine.
“Go, lovebirds,” Stacey said. “Fly, be free.”
We raced down the stairs and made it as far as the terrazzo floor of Stacey’s greenhouse where we made love amid spilled potting soil and leaves.
“Wow. San Diego.” Nick gaped out my apartment balcony. “We moved here?”
“Uh… we don’t live together. But yeah. Your job moved here. I followed.”
“Yeah, you negotiate contracts or something. I’m not really clear on it. You don’t talk about it a lot. Sometimes you telecommute?”
“Wow.” His mouth hung open as he shook his head. He glanced back at me. “Uh… you don’t expect me to get some amazing job like that, do you?”
“No!” I quickly said. “It’s enough that you’re just here.”
He drew to me like a magnet, kissing me gratefully.
We fell half on the sofa and struggled against gravity and our clothing to climb up onto it. Our teeth clacked and I laughed, I couldn’t help it. This Nick didn’t accuse me of breaking the mood by “making noise”. He laughed, too, and we made love in the most silly, sloppy way.
Afterward we got a blanket and cuddled, watching the sunset through my balcony doors.
“Let’s get married,” he said. I was silent. He nudged me. “Seriously. Let’s just go to the courthouse tomorrow.”
I shifted. “Um… I don’t know. I mean, we’ve been together for years on one hand, on the other, we just met.”
“I’ve traveled across time and space for you,” he countered. “I finally have you back and I’m not letting you go.” He squeezed my shoulders.
He looked out the window.
I scooted away. He pulled me tight again. It was getting too hot between us, slick with sweat.
When I finally forced myself out of his arm-trap, I looked him in the eye and asked, “Did I break up with you in your universe?”
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of commitment, too.”
I’m not afraid of commitment. I just hate the sound of “Mrs.”. I didn’t say that; he’d have heard it by now from that-universe me. “Let’s get some ice cream,” I said, instead.
He kissed me on the shoulder as I side-stepped another embrace. “Anything you say, baby,” he said, and his arm settled possessively on my hips.
The fluorescent fish-tank of Dairy Queen felt more surreal than usual that night, especially when he started joking about ice cream wedding cakes. I got a waffle cone but couldn’t eat it.
Throughout the rest of the night he stuck to my hip like a fanny pack. He asked if he could go with me to the office in the morning. “Just to watch you work,” he said. “I did that a lot with my Trina. Then we could get lunch and I could come home for a nap.”
I snuck back to Stacey’s in the wee hours of the morning. She met me at her front door in a fuzzy bathrobe, blinking blearily.
“It’s really not working with Nick3. He’s clingy.”
Stacey’s husband met us in the hallway with tea and the guinea pig on his shoulder. They stopped to kiss and she told him, “Just taking Trina up to the evil lair.”
“Have fun,” he said.
As Stacey led me up the stairs, I asked, “Um, you met Andy in college, right? I mean, he’s not… you didn’t… pull an alternate Andy?”
She chuckled, a rich, rolling of stones deep in her chest.
The chuckling broke into full-on cackling as we went up into the dark room, lit only with Christmas lights and the glow of her panels. I found the light switch she’d passed, an old-fashioned pair of buttons on the wall.
Stacey set her tea down on the control console and turned to me, wiping tears from her eyes as she struggled to sober up. “Okay,” she said, “let’s get down to work.”
Nick the Fourth
It’s best not to talk about Nick4.
Nick the Fifth
Stacey stared at me like I was an unwanted solicitor at her door. “What are you doing back here?”
“I thought, you know, we’d cook up another Nick?” I grimaced. “Not like the last one.”
Her eyes widened and she slammed the door.
Andy took pity and let me in the kitchen door. He showed me his latest guitar purchase and was strumming a few chords when Stacey came into the living room and planted her little fists on her hips. “I’ve had it. I mean it. I can’t keep pulling boyfriends from alternate dimensions for you. By now, a monkey would have gotten the moral of the story: There is no Nick for you.”
My eyes welled up. I didn’t mean to cry. I was glad Andy was there.
“Come on, girls,” he said, “Don’t fight.”
“You did not see the monster sleazoid she had me summon!”
Andy raised a brow, his expression comical. “Just what are you working on these days, darling?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. “You’re right. I just have to… god, I’m so stupid.”
I ran home and crawled straight into bed with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I was fat and worthless and figured I might as well be more of both. I didn’t deserve Nick, and I knew it. That was the real problem.
Two hours later, Stacey called. “I still say you’re imposing on my time, but what the hell, I pulled another Nick for you. He’s on his way with some roses.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say ‘thank you, I’ll keep this one’,” she said, and hung up.
I waited until late at night. I guess he got lost.
Nick the Sixth
Two days later, Stacey pulled me out of my depression-fuelled blanket-cocoon on the couch. She cleaned me up and brought me back to her place. “This wasn’t easy,” Stacey sighed, “But I traced a very unlikely series of decisions and circumstances that result in a Nick who dated you AND is something of an intellectual.” She didn’t look hopeful. I knew it was a bad sign when she covered her eyes as she threw the switch.
He looked like my Nick, but he appeared mid-diatribe and never stopped ranting about the government. I don’t think he noticed he’d changed universes. I gave Stacey a look and she pulled the return lever with visible relief.
Nick the Seventh – Fourteenth
After Nick6, I was ready to give up. I followed Stacey into her library. “No more Nicks,” I said. “You’re right. I just need to process this break-up and move on. I mean… it’s me, not him. There’s no perfect Nick for me because I’m not perfect.”
Of course she decided to change her mind, too. “Do you know how many women would KILL to have a best friend with an inter-dimensional personality retrieval device?” She shook her head, eyes on the book she was re-shelving. “Anyway, I hate leaving a job unfinished. All problems have solutions. We just haven’t found it, yet.”
She ran a finger along the spines, pushing them flush, and then looked back at me, expectantly.
“Let me write a questionnaire,” I said.
We hashed it out over her laptop, then spent the afternoon pulling Nicks and sending them back.
Nick the Last
Stacey was watering plants in her greenhouse. I picked a leaf apart, sitting on an upturned pot. “Maybe it’s being imperfect that attracts people to each other.”
Stacey poked the soil of around a fern with one finger. “Please. There’s a difference between perfect and good enough. We haven’t found Nick the Good Enough yet. There must be something I’m missing.” She dribbled a small amount of water on the fern and started poking at the dirt around a tomato plant.
That’s when Nick walked in. “Hi, Stacey,” he said, filling the words with enough bile to kill a salamander.
“Nick.” She smiled beatifically.
“I’d really like to talk to Trina alone,” he said.
Stacey slapped the dirt off her hands. “Gosh, I guess you shouldn’t have come to my house to do it, then.”
I stepped forward, between them. “It’s okay,” I said.
Stacey gave me a look that has been known to make bill collectors change professions, and stomped off, her ponytail swinging.
As soon as the greenhouse door smacked its frame, Nick turned his back to it and said to me, rather confrontationally, “I saw you with another guy.”
My eyebrows shot up. “Another what? Uh…” Crap. I hadn’t really tried to hide my dates with various Nicks.
Nick was watching me intently. “Is it serious?”
The silence stretched painfully. “No,” I said. “No. It was just… just this guy.”
Nick closed his eyes, nodding down at the ground. He looked like the coach in a losing game gearing himself up for an inspirational speech. He raised his head. “Trina? I can’t do this. I’m not ready to see you with other guys.”
My jaw dropped. My Nick. Nick the original. Wii tennis and ice cream and not pressuring me to move in with him because we both liked our space. “Oh, Nick! You want me back? Yes. YES.”
He jumped back from my arms. “What? No. I’m with Julia now. But you need to respect my feelings and stop slutting around!”
The greenhouse door opened and another Nick walked in. A fit but slightly chubby Nick, with modest but defined muscles. His eyes were lively and intelligent, taking everything in, his stance relaxed, confident. Nick15. I momentarily lost all ability to think.
“Wow,” he said, looking at my Nick, “Is there a mirror in here or what? This is weird.”
Stacey rushed in, a little breathless, flyaway strands framing her face. “Here he is! Emotionally stable, physically active, non-crazy Nick. Sweet baby Cthulhu, I’m fabulous at figuring out decision trees.” She raised her hand to Nick15 and waited, no doubt, for applause.
My Nick’s brow wrinkled. “What the HELL?”
“It wasn’t someone else,” I explained. “It was you. Stacey… she’s been fixing me up with yous.” I grimaced, hearing my father’s voice come out of my mouth. “Not youse, plural you. Youses. Ugh. What I mean…”
Nick15 touched Nick’s arm. “Wow. We didn’t, like, cancel out.”
Nick covered the spot on his arm with his hand. “Stacey, you have really gone off the deep end this time. I’m calling the cops.”
“Easy, Bro.” Nick15 smiled in a very winning way. His eyes traveled up and down Nick. “I can help you get back in shape. Hey – you want to catch some NASCAR and then play a little Call of Duty?”
Nick looked confused, but tempted. “Right now?”
Nick15 crowded close to him. “My favorite thing is to play a game for an hour, then I, like, do a few lifts, or run a mile. Then I’m fresh for another round of video games.”
“That… sounds kind of awesome, actually,” Nick said. He set his hand on his ample belly.
My eyes widened. I saw it waaay before Nick did. Nick15 was gay, and just as self-interested as all the other Nicks.
I tugged on Stacey’s sleeve. “Let’s go build a robot army,” I said, “I’m through with boyfriends.”
“What robot army?” Stacey cleared her throat and looked anxiously toward the house.
“You don’t have an actual robot army, do you?”
“It’s barely an army,” she said. “Andy wanted some help around the house, and I got a little carried away.”
Which wasn’t quite what I expected her to say, but I wasn’t too surprised, either.
We left the guys, left the universe with two Nicks, because what was one more or less? Stacey led me to the dirt-smelling dark of the brick-vaulted basement where intriguing shapes gleamed under tarps and tables. As Stacey had said from the start, and I only just was understanding: forget Nick.
Nothing attracts a new guy like a robot army.
Food for Thought
In the world of quanta, certain experiments only make sense if a particle exists in all possible locations until observed. One explanation put forward for this is that upon observation we enter the universe where the electron went left, separating ourselves forever from a parallel universe where the electron went right. Extrapolating this to the macro world has long been a science fiction trope. Could our every decision split us off from a parallel self?
If infinite parallel universes exist, and we are shaped by our decisions, is there such a thing as our best possible self?
What are the ethical considerations of removing someone from one universe to another?
And, finally, how would one use a robot army to win over the heart of a new romantic partner? Just curious. No reason.
About the Author
Marie Vibbert is an IT professional from Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Analog and Asimov’s. She is a member of the Cleveland science fiction writing workshop, The Cajun Sushi Hamsters, attended Clarion in 2013, and joined SFWA in 2014. She has ridden 17% of the roller coasters in the United States and plays for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team.
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