After everything she’d been through, it was a pleasure to just be alone. It was especially good to drive herself through this maze of DC traffic, her escort trailing discreetly four cars back. She sang along with the radio, an ABBA song to which she barely knew the words, and fantasized about ditching her protectors at a red light. There’d be no point; they’d already encircled the restaurant and swept its most private dining room. It was a mild fall day in Washington, the first Tuesday morning in November, and she relished being out and about as nothing more than a retired grandmother. Awkward reading glasses and a gray, knitted cap were enough to mask her identity at long stoplights, for who’d expect to see her driving a 2012 Toyota Corolla? That’d be like finding her wandering in the woods or something.
The Boys’ Club had been using Occidental Grill for these almost-annual meetings since the dark days of World War II. Its members took last year off, though; they tried to skip presidential election years because it got too damn contentious — they couldn’t help themselves — and it’d be too difficult to avoid press attention. God knows they’d had more than their fair share of that scathing fame. It was a consummation devoutly to be loathed. This lunch, however, would be a singular privilege. She smiled and sang, delighted to know her life and career were culminating in this very moment, and also by the sudden recollection that the Occidental offered a first-rate almond bread pudding. She could actually eat a meal in peace! No more photos, no more rubes shoving menus at her to sign, no more reporters, no more heartburn on the way to yet another exhausting speaking engagement.
She cruised past Lafayette Square and south onto 15th, the White House on her right, then turned left onto F until she spotted the private parking garage her husband recommended. Five cars were parked already inside the otherwise empty garage. Four were unoccupied. The fifth’s door swung open as she parked beside it. Her husband climbed out awkwardly, his belly scraping the steering wheel. He reached her as she locked the Toyota, his features masked by the furry hood on a winter coat four decades too young for him. She cracked up, her unmistakable laughter bouncing off the garage’s low ceiling. “You look ridiculous,” she announced.
“Yeah, well,” he said affably, “we do what we gotta, right? Last thing we need is a gaggle o’ lookie-loos trailin’ us down the street.”
“Are the others inside already?”
“You know 43,” Bill said. “When he gets hungry he loses all sense of decorum.”
“I’m not late, am I?”
“Right on time,” he said, smiling at her proudly and crooking his arm. She tugged her cap down and accepted his elbow. Together they walked the last block to the Occidental and slipped inside its kitchen, then from there into a sunlit private dining room. Five old men sat around a large table, already munching jumbo-lump crab cake. Upon seeing her and her husband, four of them attempted, with varying degrees of success, to push their chairs back and stand. The fifth, a thin man in a wheelchair, grinned and waved. “Well, well,” he said slowly. “It’s about time you two got here.”
“I had to wait for the guest of honor,” Bill replied.
“Sorry to make you wait,” his wife added. “Please, gentlemen, have a seat. I feel honored to be here.”
“You and me both,” drawled the man who stood quickest, a stocky Tennessean.
“I saw your movie, Al,” she said, squeezing his hand. “You’re aging way too gracefully.”
“The speaking fees keep me young,” he joked, earning chuckles from everyone else.
Right on cue, the maître d’ marched into the room and gathered their coats. “Good morning, Mr. President,” he said, a tremor barely audible in his voice. “Madame Secretary, it’s a pleasure to greet you today.”
“Oh, please,” said her husband, “let’s not stand on ceremony here, Danny. Feel free to call her Mr. President, too.”
“You will do no such thing,” she protested. “Hello, Danny. I’d prefer it if you just called me Hillary.”
“I’ll stick with Mr. President,” Bill decided, shrugging. “I just like the sound of it.”
“You would,” 43 said, then chomped into a hunk of buttered cornbread before he took his seat again. “Daddy, you doin’ okay?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, Danny,” the thin man croaked, “a whiskey soda would be just the thing this morning.”
“Absolutely, Mr. President,” Danny responded.
“More soda than whiskey,” Dubya corrected.
“Oh, I don’t know,” his father said, considering. “However you make it, I guess.”
The lone African-American in the room, waitstaff included, came around the table to hug both new arrivals. “Now, this is something,” he said. “Really, pretty significant.”
“It’s an honor to be here. You’re looking fit as ever, Barack.”
“Michelle slaps the donuts and cigarettes out of my hand.”
“Well, tell her it’s working.” She met the guest from Georgia with an earnest but careful embrace. “Jimmy, what a pleasure to see you.”
“It’s a pleasure to be here, Hillary,” he reassured her. “You’re looking mostly recovered.”
“Oh, come on. Let’s quit standing around. I’m hungry.” As they all took their seats, she assured them once again she felt honored to be invited.
“Al said the same thing when we let him in,” her husband said. “But sometimes, you should get to pretend you’ve been president, no matter what the electoral college had to say.”
“Or the Supreme Court,” agreed the Tennessean wryly.
“So what do I call everybody?” she asked. “Surely we’re not gonna stand on ceremony here of all places.”
“No, never here,” the African-American said, nodding. “At this table, I just go by Barack. Plain and simple.”
“You know it’s always been first names with us,” said the Georgian as Danny distributed menus. “And that goes double for you, Danny.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Pr — Uh, thank you. Sir.”
“Still just sir?”
“Best I can do, Mr. President,” Danny said apologetically.
“Call me Dubya,” the son said before tearing off another hunk of cornbread.
“I prefer George,” said his father. “Good morning, Hillary.”
“I like Al, same as usual,” said Al. “You two come in separate cars?”
“Bill was already a few hours away,” she explained. “He’s doing the Conan O’Brien show. I had to fly in this morning from Little Rock, then off to Milwaukee.”
“Book tour money!” Dubya exclaimed. “Happy landing, Mrs. Clinton.”
“Just Hillary, please. Plain old Hillary, private citizen.”
“The private citizens’ club,” George mused. “Well, that sounds pretty good to me.”
Danny took their orders, and they sipped drinks and chatted amiably. She was surprised how quickly she felt like one of the gang, especially since neither she nor Al fully qualified. Theirs, however, were special circumstances, at least in the eyes of the Boys’ Club proper. Both she and Al had been shut out on technicalities. Bill suggested both for membership, and none of the others could think of any compelling reason to exclude them once Ronnie died with his stubborn veto. “The way I see it,” said Dubya, “if Al gets to be here, no reason why you shouldn’t. I don’t mind making room for an also-ran here and there.”
“Also-ran,” Al repeated. “Is that what I am? Well, you’ve got some nerve.” But Al was joking, it was easy to see, and the years sat lighter on him now than they did on the man who allegedly defeated him.
“Yeah, some nerve,” Dubya echoed, a wide grin splitting his face, “and two terms to show for it, so hey, kiss my ass on both cheeks there, buddy.”
“Oh, son,” his father sighed. “I can’t take you anywhere.”
“I started to say there’s a lady present,” Jimmy drawled, turning to Hillary, “but I imagine you’ve heard worse.”
“Oh, in at least a dozen languages,” Hillary agreed. They talked TV and the World Series till their entrées arrived, at which point they spoke haltingly around mouthfuls of filet mignon or center-cut swordfish. Through all of this she followed their lead, resolutely avoiding any mention of politics. This lasted through most of dessert, the conversation pleasant but unremarkable in a room full of presidents. Full and contented, they ordered one more round of drinks and/or coffees. In another era, they’d have lit cigars but, as Hillary’s presence was a constant reminder, nothing lasts forever, not even grudges or history. She wondered if she’d be alive to greet the first honest-to-goodness female ex-president at some future meeting, a boys’ club no longer.
“Gentlemen,” George said finally, the whiskeys having taken some effect, “I believe it’s that time.”
“It is indeed,” Jimmy agreed. “Let’s talk turkey.”
“Uh-oh,” Hillary chuckled. “Is this when the frat hazing begins?”
“Somethin’ like that,” Dubya agreed happily. “Time to give you a shot of reality, Madame Not-Quite-President.”
“Well, now I’m nervous,” she admitted.
“Look,” said Barack, which was how he began sentences he was still copyediting in his brain, “there are certain things every president learns — ”
“Most of ’em, anyway,” Al rumbled.
“Correct,” Barack nodded. “I’m sure Bill told you most of this.”
“I most certainly did not,” Bill exclaimed. “I thought this’d be a better place to do it.”
“You’ve been keeping secrets from the missus,” George accused.
“Imagine that,” Hillary said, rolling her eyes. They all laughed, even Bill.
“If I remember correctly,” Barack said, “when you took office, Bill, you had two questions for the intelligence community.”
“Ah, the two famous questions,” Al agreed.
“Who killed JFK,” Dubya began.
“And were there any spacemen at Area 51?” his father continued.
“You told me you got the most boring answers you could possibly imagine,” Hillary recalled.
“Because their answers were boring,” Bill said. “Turns out John F. Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, and all the U.S. was hiding at Area 51 was a stealth aeronautics program. They told me that the day I took office.”
“Which was mostly true,” Jimmy said.
“Mostly,” George agreed.
“But not entirely,” Al noted.
“What do you mean?” Hillary asked.
“John F. Kennedy was shot in the head by Lee Harvey Oswald. Yes. That part is true,” Barack said. “But what was shady was what transpired on the grassy knoll.”
“You said a mouthful there,” Bill agreed.
“Another shooter?” Hillary asked.
“Nope,” Dubya corrected, “another witness. One who vanished before the FBI could track him down.”
“So who was it?” Hillary asked.
“We don’t know,” Bill replied. “No one knows.”
“We may never know,” said Al.
“What we do know,” George said carefully, “is what he dropped in his hurry to get away from the scene.”
“What was that?” Hillary inquired, utterly forgetting the remains of her delicious bread pudding.
“They call it the Thimble,” Jimmy answered. “It’s a plastic thing, the perfect size to slip right over your finger.”
“Any finger,” Bill said, watching her closely.
“Any finger?” she repeated. “What does that mean?”
“It’s made of plastic, hard plastic,” Dubya said. “Except it’s a kind of hard plastic we still don’t know how to make.”
“For one thing,” said George, “it stays body temperature, even after months in a freezer.”
“For another,” said Barack, “it changes shape to fit whatever finger you put it on.”
“How?” she asked. “Is it stretchy, like elastic?”
“Only when you put it on your finger,” Barack said quietly. “And it disables any electronic system you set it next to, and it never seems to need any external power. It’s the craziest thing.”
“I kept it beside my bed in the residence for a week once,” George said. “It changed color three times. Darn thing gives me the willies.”
“Hey, Bill,” Dubya said, chuckling, “you ever try slippin’ that thing on something other than your finger?”
“Very funny,” Bill replied, with no sign of amusement. “No, I did not. The first time I tried it on, I heard birds all around me, twittering. Nothing there, of course.” He shuddered. “I used to lay awake nights wondering about it.”
“So what was it?” Hillary asked.
“Cain’t nobody tell,” Dubya admitted. “All we know is what it says on the inside.”
“It bears an inscription in letters about as tall as a protein molecule,” Barack said, tenting his fingers.
“And get this: ‘Made in China,’” Bill finished. “That’s what the inscription says. Could be a hoax, I guess. But what it was doing at the scene of a presidential assassination — ”
“It’s a plastic no one can identify,” George said, “with properties no plastic should have, from a country that shouldn’t know how to make it.”
“Especially,” Jimmy said slowly, “in 1963.”
Hillary looked around the room, meeting each of their eyes, waiting for them to crack. No one did. “You’re not serious,” she said finally. “You guys are having me on.”
“We’re as serious as a goddamn heart attack,” Dubya corrected. “Near as anyone can tell, the city of Dallas was visited by some kind of time traveler.”
“Yes, and furthermore,” Barack added, “a man named Harold Atkinson was known to have traveled to Dealey Plaza that day, specifically to fire at Kennedy from a second position. We know he was collaborating with Oswald.”
“We just don’t know where the fella went,” Al acknowledged. “He vanished from the scene without firing a single shot. So we can’t tell anybody any of this, no matter how many files get released to the public.”
“Did Atkinson mean to help Oswald kill Kennedy?” George wondered. “Did he mean to kill Kennedy himself? Maybe kill Oswald? Replace Oswald? Who knows? All we know is, we keep waiting for that Thimble to pop back to where it came from, and it never does. We do keep a damn close watch on Chinese technology, though. They still don’t have anything like it.”
“Wow,” Hillary gasped. “That is quite a story, gentlemen. It’s not one I can wrap my head around.”
“You and me both,” Bill agreed. “But it’s true, I can promise you, every word of it.”
“Now tell her about Area 51,” encouraged Jimmy, who famously once saw a UFO and kept an interest in mysterious matters.
“Nothing there,” Bill replied. “That’s the truth. Only weather balloons and meaningless military secrets.”
“Yes, indeed,” Al nodded. “Area 51. What a bust that turned out to be.”
“Al’s just dying to say ‘I told ya so,’” Bill grumped.
“Nothin’ there,” Al continued, “nothin’ anywhere. No sign of extraterrestrial intelligence whatsoever.”
“Until,” Dubya announced, before draining his fourth beer in a swig.
“Until,” his father agreed solemnly. “Take it easy, son. You’re my ride.”
“Until what?” Hillary prompted.
“Until the first Tuesday in November, one year ago,” Bill replied. “The day you won the popular vote but Donald Jackass Trump became the president of the United States. That was the day things got weird again.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Hillary agreed.
Bill took her hand. “Honey, you were the victim of something you couldn’t possibly control. Something none of us could control.”
“Then or ever,” Barack said, tenting his fingers.
“What do you mean?”
“Hillary, please, don’t you feel it?” Jimmy asked. “We can feel it. We all do. You must understand there’s something larger than us going on.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Look,” Barack said again. “The scientific community has known for some time there’s a good chance everything you and I experience is nothing more than a fictional reality.”
“A simulation,” said Al.
“A simulation,” George agreed. “We started hearing about this back in the dark ages when I was president, the idea that maybe American politics was being influenced by some outside power.”
“The Russians,” Hillary suggested.
“Sure, them, too,” Dubya said.
“Them, too? Then who else? The Chinese again?”
“This isn’t just about the election,” Jimmy told her. “Yours or anyone else’s.”
“We mean,” Bill said, “we’ve found evidence of outside influence all over American government. When we talked to the French and Germans, the British, they were seeing it, too.”
“It was never anything specific we could trace,” Barack explained. “Little nudges here and there. Events that somehow managed to not go the way everything told us they should’ve gone. Minor occurrences that somehow blew up into earth-shattering events.”
“All these 9/11 conspiracy wackos runnin’ around,” Dubya said, rolling his eyes. “Those assholes don’t know the half of it. They think it was an inside job. Jesus Christ. You think we coulda pulled somethin’ like that off a few months into my administration? Not a chance in hell. Those Saudi Arabian dispshits couldn’t’a done it, neither, if every single thing hadn’t gone exactly their way for months straight.”
“There were so many ways that attack could’ve been prevented,” George agreed. “It wasn’t his administration’s fault.”
“Everybody wants to talk shit about that daily brief from August ’01,” Dubya said, suddenly irate. “‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.’ Well, shit, yeah, it said that, but the truth is I never saw the damn thing. Fuckin’ Cheney yanked it off my desk before I came in that morning. He made sure I was never in any position to stop it.”
“In case you were wondering why Dick isn’t here,” Al threw in.
“I mean, it was little things like that,” Dubya continued. “Things that pushed us a certain way, to move us toward what I don’t know. Chaos, I guess.”
“They were little things that made monumental differences,” Barack agreed. “And many felt guided, but I assumed that was our tendency to find patterns where none exist.”
“Till last year,” Bill agreed. “I knew it as soon as those Midwestern results started comin’ in. Every poll in America said you were gonna win, and by a comfortable margin. Things had to go exactly the wrong way, over and over, again and again, in multiple states, for things to turn out the way they did. Now here we are, and I was on the phone with NSA the next day. We’ve had our best people looking for something exactly like this. Now, I don’t pretend to understand half of what these scientists tell me, but I do know the evidence is clear as it can be now. This was all … changed.”
“What was changed?”
“Everything,” George solemnly replied.
“You mean the election was rigged?”
“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” said Bill.
“We mean everything,” Barack explained. “Everything. All of this. The universe. On a deep, quantum level, the universe and everything in it changed that day. It got pushed in a different direction.”
“Pushed from outside,” Bill amended. “We think.”
“From outside … the universe?”
“Hard to say,” Jimmy said. “But in lieu of a better explanation, it’s like the finger of God came down and pushed us onto a whole other track.”
“God like … literal God?” Hillary asked. “Like … the Lord?” Jimmy shrugged.
“All we know is,” Barack continued, “you and I and every other human being on earth is living in a massively complex simulation. We can confirm that now. It’s being directed, for reasons unknown, by some entity or entities unknown. We thought we saw evidence of that in the past — Tunguska, Truman beats Dewey, September 11 — but this time we know for sure. None of this is real. It’s a simulation. A game. And we have no idea who’s playing it.”
“Kinda knocks all that bidness ’bout global warming into a cocked hat, there, dudnit, Al?” Dubya crowed. “Kinda seems like that’s the least of our worries.”
“Unless it’s how the game is lost,” Al said calmly. “Who can say?”
“You’re telling me none of this is real,” Hillary said. “You, me, this restaurant. We never came here today, because I don’t exist.”
“Yes and no,” Bill said gently. “It’s a show. We’re the characters. This is fiction. We just don’t know who made it or who’s being entertained by it.”
“Well, how about that, gentlemen,” she said. “This is a lot to take in.”
“Yeah, yer tellin’ us,” Dubya agreed cheerfully, stabbing a fork into the last of her almond bread pudding.
“Why do you think we all aged so damn much in four years?” George said, then, to Dubya: “That was hers. Put that back.”
“Don’t matter anyway,” Dubya muttered, but he did as he was told before muttering, “Eight years for me.”
“Oh, my God,” Hillary said suddenly, “please tell me Donald doesn’t have access to any of this.”
At that, several members of the Boys’ Club burst into ironic chuckles. “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that,” Bill said, shaking his head.
“Surely you’ve noticed,” Jimmy said, “for all his melodramatic shenanigans, Mr. Trump hasn’t aged a day since he took office.”
“That’s true!” Hillary agreed. “Same stupid hair, same stupid orange tan, no new wrinkles! All the rest of us are aging decades per minute, even Al and me, but he looks the same! Like he doesn’t have a care in the world! What is he, some kind of KGB robot?”
“No, the robot’d be smarter,” George said. “He has plenty of cares, no matter hard our generals try to break the world to him in short words so he won’t get his comb over in a bunch. But the big secrets? Not on your life. There are folks smarter than us keeping watch over those.”
Dubya gripped his father’s shoulder lovingly. “Thank the good Lord for that,” he agreed. “Crazy as that sumbitch Trump is, ain’t none of us ever gonna tell his ass a goddamn thing. And don’t you start, neither. He’s dangerous enough with the fake nuclear codes the Pentagon gave him. Imagine if we told him that shit about the supercollider in 2015.”
“Supercollider?” Hillary repeated.
“The Large Hadron Collider,” Barack said quietly.
“Maybe we should save that for next year,” said Jimmy. “This is a lot to take in.”
Nevertheless, she persisted. “What happened there? Was it some sort of accident?”
“Not at all,” Barack said. “The LHC worked exactly as its designers hoped. One useful trial after another since 2010. Then, two months ago, they put it in full performance mode and set up their first interdimensional transfer.”
“Interdimensional transfer?” Hillary echoed, her voice going shrill. “What exactly did they transfer?”
“Not what,” George said calmly.
“Whom,” Barack said, nodding his head.
“Okay, transfer of whom?”
“Yeah, well, here’s the part where it gets … freaky,” Bill said, patting her hand again.
“You should meet one of ’em, I guess,” Dubya said. “Maybe next year, huh, fellas?”
“What are you talking about?” Hillary managed. “Who should I meet?”
“An American hero,” Barack said fondly. “A hero of mine, anyway. Our latest ambassador from an alternate run of this simulation, Earth two point oh. You have a great deal in common.”
“Only one thing you don’t,” Bill agreed.
“What’s his name?” Hillary pressed.
“Oh, no,” Jimmy said. “This he is a her.”
“You mean you haven’t guessed?” George asked, grinning. “A bit slow on the uptake today.”
“It’s really more about her title than her name,” Dubya mused. “Idnit, Daddy?”
And in that moment, Hillary did understand, and boy, did it feel terrific when she said the words out loud: “President Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
“Madame President,” Bill confirmed. “But in my book, she doesn’t hold a candle to you.”
Christian Carvajal is the founding editor of OLY ARTS, a multiplatform culture publication in Olympia for which he still writes as a freelance contributor. He’s the author of two novels, Lightfall and, as Lynn Savage, Mr. Klein’s Wild Ride. His shorter work has been published in Cinefex, The Weekly Volcano and Creative Colloquy’s first three print annuals.