Encore – Chapter Two – The Southern Gang


Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, is stuck living each day twice. In the last chapter, Leo messed up his presentation to the big regional boss due to the latter’s focus on an illogical concept (baby dolphins) but was then able to save the day when he found himself living the same day over again. In this chapter, Leo comes to terms with what is going on as we get to learn more about him through his friends.

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Encore Chapter Two: The Southern Gang

 

I clinked glasses with Thierry. The presentation to Alicante had gone so well Thierry had insisted on inviting me out for a drink. We were in the pedestrian center of Valbonne, on a large stone plaza surrounded by two-story houses with red-tiled roofs typical of the south. Vines of ivy crept up the walls, tangling themselves in the bright cyan, magenta and yellow wooden shutters. Kids whose parents were dining in the square dashed off down the small alleys that fed into the plaza, playing hide and seek in the dark shadows.

This was the heart of Valbonne, and tables covered every single inch. The entire first floor of all the surrounding buildings was nothing but bars, coffeehouses and restaurants that had extended their seating space by spreading out into the square. After flagging down the wrong waiter from the restaurant next door, we finally managed to order two Carlsbergs.

“I panicked when I saw the dolphin slide,” he droned on for the fourth time, “How did you even come up with that? I mean, it was brilliant and it worked but…” he took a sip from his beer, “You did a great job.”

I had been pretty silent but Thierry didn’t seem to care. Alicante had left telling us that we would never use this agency again, and that for the next regional marketing campaign we would either be directly in charge or sent to Paris as advisers. It was exactly what we had hoped for, and more. He had personally shaken my hand and thanked me by name for doing a great job. Thierry was over the moon, while I somehow couldn’t care less. My eyes were focused on the little moths flying in the ray of one of the wall-mounted lights.

Was yesterday just a bad dream? It couldn’t be. There was too much detail and I remembered it too vividly. Usually my dreams involved funky colors, gigantic animals and slow-motion running away from undefined monsters.

The only explanation was that I was stuck in some Groundhog Day scenario, where I was living the same day over and over again. As far as I could remember from the movie, Bill Murray was stuck in the same day until he saw the error of his ways and became a better human being. Maybe I just needed to nail this presentation? Was this the universe giving me a second chance?

“And when he said he loved that we were the first marketing team to understand that digital was meant for the baby dolphins and that was it?” continued Thierry, “I honestly couldn’t believe my ears!”

I nodded distractedly and let him continue talking. A Groundhog Day explanation didn’t make complete sense though. One thing was making me think this wasn’t the first time it had happened. The pasta/salmon incident with my mom, the missing presentation and the mix-up on the meeting day. I was certain that I had lived through April 17th two times. But had I also lived through April 16th twice without realizing it too? Sobering fact: if that was the case, it was a sad statement on how bland and boring my life was.

“You know, if you keep this up, you might just become a Senior Marketing Manager like me before you’re thirty!” said Thierry, breaking me away from my thoughts.

Thierry was a great boss and this was honestly the only thing I held against him. He was so comfortably installed in his routine that he rarely showed ambition or vision. I had affection for his laid-back attitude to life, but I was also afraid that I would become just like him, peaking at 32. Sometimes it felt like his biggest concern was whether his pool managed to stay blue during the winter months. He could drone on and on about the right mix of bromine to use, and how he had spent all weekend tinkering with the pump.

“OK, I need to use the bathroom,” said Thierry, gulping down his beer and standing up. I watched him walk into the bar, and looked around at the tables surrounding me: families having dinner, teenagers out for a drink trying to act cool by keeping their sunglasses on despite the sun being long gone, and an elderly couple going for a nighttime stroll. I felt so removed from it all.

I didn’t understand what was going on or why I had lived through the same day twice. But scarier than the why of this whole situation was the question of tomorrow. What would tomorrow be like?

Would tomorrow be the 17th again? If that was the case, was I doomed to repeat the same day over and over again? Maybe that was what was happening, and I needed to find a way to break out of it.

But what if tomorrow is the 18th? Did that mean everything had gone back to normal, and it was all a fluke, a lucky break that I would never be able to explain but treasure my entire life? A completely unexpected second chance that would define my career. Maybe this day might end up being a day I looked back to as the one that changed my life.

Unless… Unless I had gone through the 16th twice as well. And the 17th twice. Could it be that I would go through the 18th twice as well, and then the day after that twice, ad infinitam?

Or maybe I was just going crazy and imagining the whole thing.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, breaking through my thoughts. I took it out and repeatedly swiped to unlock it. Ever since I had cracked the screen by dropping it on the floor in the toilet, in a moment I internally referred to as the Angry Birds incident, this stupid touchscreen was completely unresponsive. I wanted to get a new one but I still had 6 months to go on my contract.

It was a message from Hanaa, my friend from university. We had both been to SKEMA, a French business school in Sophia. But whereas I was a local boy, Hanaa was Moroccan and had grown up in Casablanca. She had studied in a French international high school, and left for France at 18. She was one of my closest friends, and also one of the most ambitious.

Hanaa had never gotten over the fact that despite SKEMA being an okay school, it was nowhere near the top when it came to rankings. SKEMA students joked that we had a Masters in going to the beach, which wasn’t actually far from the truth. Hanaa hated it though, so she had also enrolled into the nearby faculty of law, and having obtained a Masters in Management, was on the road to passing the French bar a year from now. Her goal was to be a lawyer advising on gigantic mergers and acquisitions, a job that was not only high profile but paid amazingly well.

‘Want to go bowling with Cedric tomorrow?‘ it read. I tapped back a quick ‘Totally’ just as Thierry navigated his way back to the table.

“Let’s go?” I asked him, “I’m feeling pretty tired.”

“Are you sure? You’ve barely touched your beer.” I looked at it, and it was indeed only half-empty.

“Yeah, I’m not feeling great,” I answered,” Let’s just call it a night.”

“Stress of today huh,” said Thierry, “Well, don’t worry about it, you did great.”

He gathered his black jacket and the rolled-up red tie he had set on the table, and we walked back to our cars. Before entering though, he paused and looked at me quizzically.

“Hey, one last question,” he said, “Shouldn’t it be baby whales, not baby dolphins?”

“Yeah that’s what I thought too,” I laughed, and closed the door to my car.

 

As soon as I woke up, I checked the date and exhaled a giant sigh of relief. My phone read Thursday, 18th of April. I wasn’t stuck living the same day over and over again.

But on the road to work, I began to panic. Did yesterday really happen? Would the first thing I see upon entering the office be Thierry looking at me with a sad smile? It felt so improbable that I started to fear my mind had made up the whole thing to cope with my messing up the presentation so bad.

With heavy steps, I walked to Thierry’s office and knocked on the glass door.

“Hi Thierry,” I said.

He looked up and beamed me a giant smile.

“Well if it isn’t Mr. Baby Dolphin himself!”

It wasn’t a dream. I felt a wave of relief surge through me, immediately followed by a surge of apprehension and fear. What was going on? If yesterday had really happened, did that mean that I had lived the 17th twice? Why? How was that even possible?

I chatted with Thierry for a bit, and got back to my desk. My phone vibrated. It was a Whatsapp message from Cedric: ‘Hey man, I’m gonna hit the dojo tonight. Can you pick me up on the way to bowling?‘ I texted back a quick yes, and got back to work. Or rather, I got back to staring blankly at my screen.

I didn’t understand it. It made no sense. There had been no wish-granting machine like in Big, or crazy lightning like in Freaky Friday. Nothing in my routine over the past few days had been exceptional. Boulot, métro, dodo – work, commute, sleep. That was all there was.

Or maybe I was just going crazy, and everything was a figment of my imagination. Maybe I had dreamed up the first day. But I dismissed the idea. That made even less sense. How could I have known such a precise and weird detail as baby dolphin? I couldn’t have made that up if I tried.

When the clock finally hit 6 p.m., I jumped up and left to go pick up Cedric. I needed to do something, anything, to stop thinking about this. It was eating me up.

I parked my car in the parking under Cedric’s dojo, texted him that I had arrived, and lit up a cigarette. I had time. Cedric was chronically late to everything, so I leaned back against my car and waited. Ten minutes later, I recognized his lanky frame walking towards me. His straw-colored hair was plastered with sweat and he was still wearing his white kimono.

“Dude,” I said, “You didn’t even change?”

“I walked here from home and forgot to bring my clothes,” he answered, “It’s fine.”

“If you say so…” I crushed out my second cigarette on the ground and entered my car, “My guess is Hanaa’s gonna be pissed though.”

“It’s not as if we’re going clubbing,” Cedric jumped into the seat next to me and put on his safety belt.

I wasn’t actually that surprised. I had known Cedric for over fifteen years, and this was fairly typical behavior. He just didn’t care what other people thought. If they didn’t agree to his choices, or at least accept them, then in his mind they simply weren’t worth his time.

“How was Viet?” I asked. Twice a week, as far back as I could remember, Cedric went to the dojo to practice Viet Vo Dao, a Vietnamese martial art. It was his way of letting off steam. He had tried to drag me there more than once, but I had politely declined each time. Sports just weren’t my thing. I had already loathed feeling hurt and sore after having to accompany my dad on non-optional climbing trips. I wasn’t about to submit myself to voluntarily getting beaten up.

“It was awesome,” he said, “Today I trained a newbie. I had him come at me with a baseball bat, but before he understood what was going on he was facedown on the ground.”

“Wow.”

“It’s not that hard,” said Cedric, “If they’re inexperienced, you just wait ’til they lunge at you. They’re gonna put themselves out of balance, so you move in from the side, divert the blow and hit them right in the ribs!”

“Dude!” he yelled out, pointing to a tiny side street, “Why didn’t you turn here? It’s way faster!”

“You want me to lose my license?” I asked, annoyed, “That’s a one way street.”

“Coward,” he laughed, and turned up the music on the radio.

He had asked even though he knew the answer. Cedric had been driving a scooter everywhere since he was 14, and somehow the same rules just didn’t apply. Back in the day, I had seen him take that road the wrong way over a dozen times on our way home from school.

Ironically enough, Cedric’s scooter was the reason why he was unable to get a car. In France, teenagers were allowed to drive a scooter as soon as they turned 14, but had to wait until they were eighteen before being able to pass their driver’s license. By the time Cedric turned 18, he had accumulated 4 years of the worst possible driving experience. He failed the test a total of four times before he decided to give up.

I couldn’t help but smile at the memory. I had been so envious of Cedric when he had gotten his scooter. He had suddenly had the entire world at his fingertips and owned the ultimate high-school status symbol. Not that Cedric actually cared. We had never been a part of the elite ‘cool’ clique at school, nor had we aspired to.

From the moment we met in CE2, the third grade, we had been completely content to just hang out together. It had been us against the world. We were the middle of the class, against the wall, too lazy and disinterested to be part of the nerds, too geeky to be part of the jocks.

We had always scored decent grades with little to no effort. Every single one of our report cards for the nine years we spent together had said the same thing: ‘If Cedric/Leo only took the time to work a little harder, he would be at the top of the class’.

Instead, every morning had followed the same routine. He would sit down next to me and I would ask:

“Yo, was there any homework?”

“Yeah,” he would say, and start doodling on a sheet of paper.

“Well, did you do it?”

“Nope,” would always be the answer.

Cedric was the serious one of our duo. He had at least known about the homework.

School had simply never been our priority. We had other interests, and each one allowed us to bond even deeper: comic books, videogames, and eventually, girls. Well, mostly looking at girls. Although we did end up with girlfriends in our last year of high school, they absolutely loathed it when we hung around together. They simply couldn’t compete with nine years of exclusive friendship. As I said: us against the world.

That is until Cedric left to Toulouse, 500 km away, to learn to become a pilot, and I met Hanaa.

When we arrived at the tacky F1-themed restaurant adjacent to the bowling alley, with walls covered with made-in-China mock memorabilia, Hanaa was already seated in a booth, busily typing away on her phone.

“Come on!” she moaned, “What the hell Cedric? Everyone is looking at us.”

“Told you,” I whispered, and he gave me a dark look.

“Seriously man, you gotta stop it with the kimono thing,” continued Hanaa, “You look like an idiot.”

“An idiot that could kick some ass!” answered Cedric proudly.

“An idiot dressed in a pyjama,” said Hanaa.

Despite not being the prettiest girl in school, Hanaa had always had a certain exotic charm, with beautiful hazel eyes rimmed by long black eyelashes and a charming Moroccan lilt to her voice whenever she spoke French. Right now though, I mostly noticed the huge shadows under her eyes from a lack of sleep. Studying or partying, I wasn’t entirely sure. Probably both. Hanaa embodied the work hard/play hard mentality.

“Come on,” I said, “Let’s order, I’m starving.” Having been lost in thought all day at work, I had completely forgotten about lunch. I ordered my usual, the Schumacher pizza with pepperoni, named after the greatest Formula One champion of all time. Ironically, it arrived ten minutes after everyone else’s.

“Well what else should I wear?” complained Cedric, “My pilot’s uniform?”

Cedric had graduated as a pilot two years ago, right as the airline industry had completely tanked. On the brink of bankruptcy, Air France hadn’t been hiring, and Cedric had been forced to take on a job as a flight instructor. He worked for a self-made millionaire who had bought 3 broken down Cessna 172s, fixed them up, and started a school. According to Cedric though, the ‘fixed them up’ part was basically PR.

“Actually that would be pretty hot,” said Hanaa with a wink.

“Yeah, except we both know that Cedric’s current pilot uniform is cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt,” I laughed.

“Fuck off,” he answered, “I’ve had a shit day. Just today, I’m with a student and we take off and everything is fine. Until suddenly, our gas level shoots straight to 0. I completely panic, grab the controls, and do an emergency landing at Cannes la Bocca airport. I land the plane going the wrong way on the runway and come face to face with a private jet that’s about to take off.”

We loved Cedric’s stories almost as much as we worried for his life.

“Anyways,” he went on, “Traffic control is going nuts in my headphones. I park the plane, get out, check the reservoir, and it’s completely full. Not a leak anywhere. Turns out my dumbass boss decided to examine the plane and rewired it wrong. Almost gave me a heart attack.”

“You really need to quit before you die,” I said, “Like, physically, actually, die.”

“I know,” Cedric ran a hand through his unruly dirty-blonde hair. He’d started to let it grow, a clear sign that he was depressed, “But what else am I going to do? If I don’t log in enough flight hours, I lose my license. I just need to wait it out until Air France starts to hire again.”

“They won’t. They’re completely fucked,” said Hanaa.

“I know…” Cedric threw back his beer and drank deeply.

“You could sue your boss for gross malpractice,” she suggested, “I could help!” she added with a gleam in her eye.

“And get black-balled by the entire industry? No way.”

Throughout the entire meal, I was dying to tell them both about what was happening to me. I wanted to ask them about it and see what they thought, or if they could come up with an explanation that I hadn’t considered. But I was too afraid that they would think I was crazy. I kept silent.

We bowled two rounds and called it quits. Hanaa lived in Nice, which was half an hour away and not at all on my way home, so she called an Uber.

“Man,” said Cedric as we watched the car leave, “An Uber for that distance is like 50 euros. That’s a full day’s work.”

“Sucks for you that you weren’t born in a wealthy Moroccan family huh?”

“You’re one to talk. Aren’t you still the go-to intern at BNP?”

The mention of BNP brought back the meeting with Alicante. Suddenly, the carelessness of a night out with my friends disappeared and I was back to facing whatever the hell was going on. Cedric took my silence to mean he had hit a bit too hard.

“Hey,” he said with a smile, “Wanna play ‘Enduring Freedom’ at my place real quick?”

I smiled. ‘Enduring Freedom’ was an Xbox co-op game we had been playing for the past five years. We each controlled a different member of an elite team engaged in the US war in Afghanistan. Cedric would play the machine-gun-toting soldier that ravaged anything in his path, while I was the sniper and demolition expert.

It was a terrible game with shoddy graphics and multiple bugs, but we loved it nonetheless. Well, we mostly loved the difficulty system. It had five difficulty levels, ranging from ‘Noob’ to ‘Insane’. It had taken us 2 months before we finished the ‘Noob’ campaign and decided to try the campaign one level over: ‘Beginner’. Much to our surprise, the campaign was EXACTLY the same as ‘Noob’, except you had twice as many soldiers and they tended to aim better.

It had become our go-to relaxation game. Five years later, we were halfway through the ‘Insane’ campaign. It would have been impossible except for one thing: having gone through the game four times already, we knew all the tricks. We knew where the soldiers would burst out from and where the almost undefeatable tanks would materialize. As demolitions expert, half my job in the game was to place mines and explosives in all the right places. As soon as the enemy forces appeared, I would remotely blow them up while Cedric picked up the stragglers. It was effortless and hilarious.

“Absolutely,” I said. We played for an hour before I called it a night, drove straight home and fell asleep, so exhausted that I didn’t even give another thought to what the date might be the following day. Which, I guessed, had kind of been the point.

 

As it turned out, I woke up on April 18th. Again.

As confused as it made me, it was at least beginning to make a bit of sense. I didn’t understand why it was happening, but at least I was starting to understand what was happening. I spent ten minutes in bed, just staring at the date. I loaded up all the news websites I could think of, and every single one confirmed it. It was April 18th for the second time in a row. Just like April 17th, and probably April 16th too.

Once could have been an accident. Twice a coincidence. But with the third time, it was a trend. For some reason, I was now stuck living each and every day twice. I didn’t move from my bed for over an hour, and stayed staring straight at the ceiling trying to make sense of my situation. My phone vibrated.

If it’s Cedric asking me to pick him up from the dojo, I thought, then I’m not going crazy. I really am living each day twice. I unlocked my phone, and Cedric’s message, identical to the one I had received yesterday, popped up.

OK, I said to myself, Calm down. This wasn’t necessarily as bad as it seemed. For starters, it wasn’t as if I was stuck in one day. I was still moving forward in time, albeit at an annoyingly slow rate.

More importantly, it seemed to be having nothing but positive consequences. I had changed the Alicante meeting from a disaster to a flaming success. Just like in ‘Enduring Freedom’, I knew about challenges before they appeared. That was a giant leg up on everybody else. I actually had a kind of superpower.

Assuming my current theory was correct, I would wake up in April 19th tomorrow. And the day after that. And then I would move on the 20th, twice. So far, it had lasted for three days.

But wait. Would it last indefinitely? For all I knew, if I really did have this power, it might disappear as suddenly as it had popped up. If that was the case, I needed to make the absolute most of it, fast.

I lay my head back against the pillow. Everything suddenly felt much clearer. Instead of focusing on the ‘why’s and the ‘how’s, I had given myself a far more practical problem. This was much easier to think about and solve. If I can see one day into the future, how can I use that?

It didn’t take me long to come to the most logical conclusion. I jumped up, opened up my old HP and set it on my desk. I launched Google and typed in seven letters. My keyboard seemed to ring out in golden chimes with each keystroke.

Lottery.

 

– End of Chapter 2 –

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