If you had asked him 11 years ago how he would spend his 36th birthday, hanging 1,000 feet over a valley off the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t have been anywhere on his list. But there he was. He had spent his 25th birthday with his brother Yancy and his fiancé, and he had spent his 26th with an alien and a robot, 1,000 years from his old life. Who really knew what life had in store for them?
Checking the coordinates for the third time, he shook his head and sighed. It’s never was easy with Zim, he thought. Dr. Zimmerman had said that this was where he wanted his core sample taken, and when it came down to it, the former DOOP sergeant usually got what he wanted.
It was just past noon, and Fry had been out on that mountain since just after dawn. Zim had given him tomorrow off, but all that meant was that he had extra work to do today. That was the thing about being the only assistant for a research scientist: there was always work to do, and you were usually the only one to do it. Fry didn’t mind the work, though. He did most of it alone, forcing him to concentrate and not think about other things, like her.
It had been seven years since he saw her last, since the debacle with the time skips. Twelve hours after they touched down, he left town with every dime he had. It had gotten him almost as far as St. Louis. In the small town of Chester, IL, he met a researcher with a problem. He had a juicy research grant from his school, Southern Illinois University, but having a reputation for being difficult to work with, he had found few volunteers to assist him with the research. Knowing he had nothing left to lose, Fry volunteered, not knowing what he was getting himself into. Two days later, he found out, as he was waist deep in South Dakota mud, hacking away at an outcrop looking for fossilized bugs.
Zim had taken a liking to Fry for some reason, and offered him an assistant’s position at the school in the Geology Department. Fry would get free room and board and a small stipend every week, but he had to attend class and work with Zim on his research projects. Having almost no money after working all summer, and still nothing to lose, Fry accepted. Six years later, he graduated with a degree in History and a minor in Geology. He still didn’t know anything about rocks, but he was grateful to Zim for everything he had done for him.
After setting the drill running, Fry hauled himself up the side of the cliff and ate his lunch. Mrs. Zimmerman, Helen, had made his lunch, just like she had every day for every project that Zim had dragged her and Fry to for the last seven years, from Arkansas to Alaska and Quebec to Mexico.
Hanging his feet over the side of the cliff, he looked over the valley. In the distance, he could just make out his home until August, the town of Red Lodge, MT, five miles distant. Zim had settled himself in for the spring and summer at a local field camp, teaching the Field Geology course with a few professors from other universities. Fry had been there since March, setting up all the equipment that they would need all summer. Zim had some crazy rock theory he wanted to test, but he needed new samples from this area. The old samples, collected in the 28th century, had been mostly destroyed last summer when the warehouse they were in collapsed.
If he squinted, Fry thought he could make out the Snow Creek Saloon, where he would be celebrating later that afternoon. He had become a regular since he came to town in March, since this high up it became too cold to really work on the side of a mountain after about 4 PM. He’d finish his work with Zim and go to town, drink a few beers, eat his club sandwich (no tomato, not after the last one, and no mayo) and fries, and then he’d go home to sleep until an hour or so before sunrise when he’d start the cycle over again. The Creek was a nice, quiet place, and the beer was cheap and cold, just the way he liked it.
Five hours later, he was hiking back to the truck with Zim’s core sample. Tired, cold, and dirty, he was looking forward to a shower and some downtime at the Creek. Hearing a buzzing sound, he grabbed his phone out of his backpack. There were several dozen missed calls and one message. When he checked the number, it was a New York area code, and a number he instantly recognized, even seven years later: Planet Express. He had no idea how they even got his number. He hadn’t talked to any of them since he left. Unless…
Shaking his head at how stupid he was, he knew how they had gotten it. He was a public employee and his voice mail at the school had his cell number on it, since he was going to be gone for 5 months. They must have looked him up on the internet and gotten his office number. It was a small leap from there to his cell. Dreading it, he dialed his voice mail.
“Fry,” Leela said, “it’s me. We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a few days. I need you to call me as soon as you get this message. It’s very important. It’s about the Professor. I need you to call me, Phil, as soon as you can. It’s about 4:30 here. I have no idea where you are, so I have no idea what time it is there. Just, please, Phil, call me.”
She had left the message about three hours ago. She might still be there. She said it was about the Professor, so someone would likely be there. He dialed the number, but didn’t send it. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling as he sat there, but he knew his days of freedom were running out. The old coot had likely gotten himself killed. Cubert would be 18 or 19, so what was the problem? Wishing he could have a drink or six, he pushed the ‘Send’ button. It rang three times before the machine picked up. They had his number, so hanging up would get him nowhere.
Instead he said, “Hey guys, it’s Fry. It’s about 5:30 here, making it about 7:30 your time. I’m just returning Leela’s call-.”
“Fry,” she said, picking up the phone, out of breath, “don’t hang up. Where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling you for three days. It’s just like you to-.”
He hit the ‘End’ button. They were looking for him, not the other way around. He didn’t need to take her crap. Powering down his phone, he drove to the camp to drop off his stuff, shower, and hit the town.
Half an hour later, Fry was unloading the gear and Zim’s core sample. Stupid Leela, he thought as he carefully stored today’s work in the racking. Calling him, pleading for him to call back, and then yelling at him like she did. It was just like her not to take any else’s feelings into account. Still, he thought, placing the drill into the charger, she did mention that something had happened to the Professor. I should call back and find out what. And maybe make her grovel a little bit.
Turning his phone back on, he saw that he had another message. Guessing who it was from, he dialed his voice mail and listened.
“Who the hell do you think you are?,” Leela demanded angrily. “I guess that you don’t care about your family. Oh, what am I saying? I already knew that! Speaking of which, Mr. Philip J. Fry, you and I have a few things to talk about. And now that I know where you are, don’t think that you’ll be able to weasel your way out of that conversation by hanging up.”
What the hell?, he thought. Listening to the message again didn’t shed any more light than the first playing. Shrugging his shoulders, he headed off to the camp’s showers, hoping that there was some hot water left.
As the day’s grime washed off of him, Fry thought about what Leela had said. What conversation could she want to have that badly? Only one thing came to his mind immediately, but nothing had ever happened between them. The closest he had gotten was into her bedroom and her in lingerie, waiting for him to come back. That ended badly after he had gotten rid of the worms, so, what the hell was she talking about? Who knows? It was probably just Leela being Leela.
Walking back to his cabin, he decided to call the office back and find out what happened to the Professor. Hopefully Leela would be gone. He really didn’t want to talk to her in the mood she sounded like she was in. There was no sense letting unsolved mysteries ruin the rest of his birthday. Dialing up, he hoped for the best.
After three rings, he got the machine again. “Hey guys. Fry again. Listen, I was-.”
“Fry,” Amy said, picking up the phone. “Where are you?”
“Hi Amy,” he said sarcastically. “How are you? Me? I’m good, thanks for asking. Oh, and thank you for the birthday wishes. Yes, I am enjoying it so far. Why do you people keep asking me where I am? If you guys got this number, you obviously know where I am.”
“Sorry, Fry,” she said, sounding a little chastised. “Happy birthday.”
“Anyway,” he said, still sounding a little annoyed, “what up? Leela said something about the Professor before she started yelling at me.”
“The Professor’s in a coma. The doctors think he had a stroke three days ago, but they aren’t sure. Cubert and I thought you should know.”
“Oh,” he said. “I see.” After everything, the old codger was going to die of natural causes. “How long do they think he has?”
“They’re not sure. Because of his age, it could be weeks or days or hours.”
“I see. Well, I have a few things to take care of here, but I can be there in two or three days. It’s a long drive across the country, and I won’t be able to start until the morning.”
“Why did you leave, Fry?”
“I found out what I did to make her love me, Amy. I moved the stars to write her a love letter in the sky. Then she blew it up, having never seen it. It crushed me, Aim.”
“You did not, you liar.”
“Fine,” he said angrily. “You believe what you want. I was there! I saw what I saw, and I saw her destroy it! That’s what drove me out, Amy. I tried and tried, and she spit in my face repeatedly. If it wasn’t for the Professor being near death, I wouldn’t come back at all, after the way all of you treated me. See you in a few days.”
He put his boots back on and angrily stomped out of his cabin to go find Zim and tell him that he was going to have to leave for a few weeks to deal with family issues.
April 17, 3010
The next morning, he was on his motorcycle, riding into the sunrise and back into his past.
As he drove through the vast emptiness that was South Dakota, he saw a number of other riders going the other way. Almost all of them weren’t wearing helmets and were riding in jeans and t-shirts. They may mock him for the riding leathers and his helmet, but he’d seen what could happen if you dropped a watermelon onto asphalt at a high rate of speed. He had no desire to have that happen to his head.
The GPS on the HUD in his helmet was working perfectly for a change. He usually didn’t use it because there were too many virtual roads that weren’t real roads and real roads that didn’t exist on the maps. So, he usually went old fashioned and used a paper map. That actually got him more funny looks than the leathers. He didn’t mind. After all, he was old school. Well, old, anyway. He risked the GPS for this trip, however, since he was planning to stick to the interstates and eat miles instead of his usual scenery watching. This wasn’t going to be a pleasure cruise, by any stretch of the imagination.
As he closed in on La Crosse, WI, the midpoint of the trip, about 15 hours from Red Lodge, he wondered again what Leela had been talking about. She said they had something important to talk about, but he still couldn’t come up with anything. Knowing that the situation would resolve itself, one way or another, he pulled into a small motel for the night. Checking in, he hit a Fishy Joe’s for dinner. He got about half-way through the first Heart Stopper Burger that he had had in about a year before he threw it away. How he used to live off of that crap he didn’t know.
Pulling out his phone, he saw a couple of missed calls from a New York number he didn’t recognize from early this morning and another from Montana just after noon. There were two more messages, too. He really needed to check this thing more often.
The first message was from Leela, who was also the source of the early morning missed calls. “It’s me,” she said. “Look, Phil, I’m sorry for what I said last night. I’ve had a lot of things on my mind the last week or so. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” Damn right, he thought. “I just really wanted to talk to you and this whole thing with the Professor has us all on edge here. This is my cell and it’s always on. Please call me when you get this message. I’m sorry.”
The second message was from Helen. Mrs. Zim just wanted to see how he was doing and let him know that if he wanted to talk, she would be there for him. Good old Helen, he thought. She reminded him of Grandma Mildred, sometimes. They both made great sugar cookies.
Checking the time, almost 10:00 here, almost 11 there, he debated calling Leela. It was pretty late, but she did say to call her and that her phone was always on. Taking a chance, he dialed the number, but after four rings, it went to her voice mail.
“Tag, you’re it,” he said. “I’m sorry for hanging up on you yesterday, but you were ranting at me, and I didn’t want to hear it. Imagine my position,” he said. “We haven’t spoken in almost seven years, and the first thing you do is yell at me. How would you react? Anyway, it’s about 10 here in La Crosse, WI. I’ll be in New New York tomorrow about this time. Since I’ve got no place to stay, I’ll probably just crawl into the office and sleep on the couch. I hope you guys haven’t changed the locks, or where Hermes hides the spare key. I’ll see you tomorrow night or Thursday morning. Maybe we could meet for breakfast and we could have this conversation you’re so dead set on. I’m lousy at checking this thing, so leave me a message tomorrow. Good night, Leela. Well, I guess good morning by the time you check this. Hope you slept well.”
Business done for the night, he turned on the TV to catch the news. It was a good thing he set the sleep timer, since he was asleep in about 10 minutes.
April 18, 3010
It was a cold Wednesday morning as he stopped in Rockford, Il for breakfast. He sat drinking his orange juice and reading his map while he was waiting for his food. He had his phone out on the table top, just in case. He had been really bad with it lately, letting it sit in his saddle bags while he ate. It had become a habit that he had gotten into on the road, since a lot of the places that Zim went had horrible cell reception. One thousand years in the future, he thought, and nothing really changed.
He heard a rattling and buzzing sound. Looking up, he saw that his phone was dancing across the table top.
“Hello,” he said, picking it up.
“Fry,” she said. He knew it would be her. He wasn’t waiting for her call, oh, no. Just being prepared. “I’m glad that I caught you.”
“Yeah, sorry about the phone tag the last day or so. What up?”
“Where are you?”
“Again with the geography questions,” he said with a laugh. “I’m in Rockford. I’ll hopefully be there by Midnight. It’ll be a long haul, but I think I’ll be there by then. Why?”
“The Professor’s dead, Fry. Sometime during the night, the doctors said. Cubert got a call about 4 this morning.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” Because it would have been 3 in the morning, and you were still 1,000 miles away, moron.
“There was nothing you could have done, Fry. Listen, why don’t you wait there and I could come and get you. You could be here before noon.”
Eeep, he thought. Thanks for the offer, but I’d rather see you when I’m ready and not when you’re ready! “That would be fine,” he said instead. “I’ll meet you here in a little bit. I’m at the Country Kitchen Diner near the center of town.”
“Right, I’ll see you in about half an hour.”
“Bye,” he said, hanging up. I’m boned, he thought.
About 45 minutes later, just as he was finishing breakfast, My last meal, he thought grimly, she walked in. She ignored the few weird looks she got from the people in the restaurant. As common as they were in bigger cities, aliens were still pretty rare this far out. She’d dealt with worse in New New York, so a few leers from Midwest hicks didn’t faze her. There was something bothering her, though. He could tell from the way she walked and tried to look everywhere without moving her head.
“Hey, old man,” she said smiling. She looks different, he thought. He couldn’t figure out how, though. She had put on a few pounds, but so what? It had been seven years. She was still beautiful, maybe more so with the little bit of extra weight. It was the way she carried herself, he decided. Although something had changed, she still looked perfect to him. “This seat taken?”
“Always open for you,” he said, a smile on his face. He looks good, she thought. He was tanned and lean, wearing a SIU sweatshirt and shorts, despite the cold morning. He’d lost some weight in seven years and looked to be in great shape. She grimaced self-consciously. “Have a seat, I’m almost done. Everything is packed on the bike.”
Ordering coffee when the waitress came by, Leela watched him. He concentrated on his breakfast, avoiding her eye. The waitress came back, bringing her coffee and the check. Finally he said, looking up at her, “What did you want to talk about, Leela?”
“I don’t think that this is the right time or place, Fry,” she said, looking at the other people in the restaurant from the corner of her eye. “I think that somewhere more private would be better. The ship, for instance.”
This must be big, he thought, if even face to face in a town full of strangers that neither of them would ever see again she wanted privacy.
“Whatever you think is best, Leela,” he said, picking up the check. “How far are you parked?”
“Not far,” she said,” A mile, give or take.”
“Want a ride?,” he asked as they walked over to his bike. When she hesitated, he added, “I’m not going to walk this thing a mile, give or take, and it would be rude not to ask.”
“Sure,” she said smiling. He’s changed, she thought as he gave her his helmet. Seven years ago, he would have left her to walk. She sat behind him, uncertain where to put her hands. Finally, she put them around his waist. The cargo boxes on the sides forced her to press tight against him so her legs could fit. He slid up as far as he could, but there was no extra room. They both smiled at the contact, but neither let the other know.
Fry guided them carefully through town. He didn’t want to fall for several reasons, not the least of which would be the sheer embarrassment of it in front of her. They toured all around, looking at the town. He was showing off for her, she knew, and maybe even showing her off, but she didn’t mind. She knew that he was putting off their conversation for as long as possible. He knew that this conversation would be difficult, even though he didn’t know what it was about. She knew it was going to be difficult, and she knew what it was about. Sighing, she directed him to the parking lot where she had left the ship.
She pulled out her keys and hit the door open. The loading lift lowered, and Fry rode right up onto it. They sat on the bike as it rose into the bay. Not wanting this to end, but knowing it had to, she squeezed him tight and said, “Thank you.”
“I’ll secure this and meet you on the bridge. When I’m done, we can talk about whatever you wanted.”
“That’s fine,” she said, her face showing no emotion. “Actually, I’m going to take us up. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
As he secured his bike, Fry felt the ship jump as Leela launched them into space. Wandering the ship back up from the cargo hold, he checked his old cabin. Bender still used it, that much was obvious, but there was someone else’s stuff in there. A woman’s from the looks of the things he could see and the soft smell of whatever perfume that she wore. Shaking he head, he walked to the bridge and sat at his old station.
“Hey,” he said, moving the seat so he could fit better. “Who’s been messing with my seat?”
Smiling, Leela said, “That’s Susu’s seat now. She’s a lot shorter than you are. It hasn’t been your seat in a long time, Fry.”
“My replacement is a woman?,” he said laughing.
“What so wrong with that?,” she replied, anger spiking.
“Nothing. Just thought a woman would have more dignity that it takes to be a delivery boy. Delivery girl, I guess.”
“She’s good. She’s Dwight’s girlfriend, I think. I don’t keep up with those things very well these days.”
They sat in silence as Leela took them out around Saturn. As she started to take them out of the system, he looked over and said, “Uh, Leela, how long are we going to dance around this conversation?”
Sighing, she set the autopilot and started walking toward the couch. “Come over here, Fry. You're going to want to sit down for this."