Second Chances

It’s bright. I try to shield my eyes from the harsh light assaulting them, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t escape it. Everything around me, in every direction and for as far as my eyes can see, is completely white. The landscape is completely featureless. Even the shadow below my feet is barely discernible. I may as well be being illuminated from every direction at once. It’s like some bizarre green-screen setup, before post-production has edited the backgrounds in.

“Hello?” I call out. It’s pointless, I know; I’ve already established that I’m the only thing here.

And yet, my call is answered. “Hello, my son.”

I turn an exact one-eighty, and find before me an elderly man with a kind smile standing behind a lectern made of exquisite, golden wood. When did he get there?

“I am always here, if you decide that I am,” the man says, as if reading my thoughts.

“Who are you? Where am I?”

The man chuckles. “I think you already know the answers to those questions.”

It takes a few seconds for my mouth to form the question. “Am I dead?”

“In a manner of speaking,” the man replies, looking forlornly at me. “You’re not currently living, so I suppose that makes you dead, if you adhere to such a dichotomy.”

I nod my head slowly in acknowledgement. “Can I ask how?”

“You can.”

Pre-empting the forced follow-up question, the man gestures to some kind of projector screen, which definitely wasn’t there a second ago. On it is what looks like video footage of my unconscious body on a hospital bed, connected to all kinds of wires, tubes and detectors. Doctors, nurses, and other staff bustle around me, doing god-only-knows-what in an effort to revive me.

“This isn’t gonna be one of those ‘learn a life lesson and I can wake up in that hospital room’ deals, is it?” I ask, sarcastically.

“It doesn’t have to be, if you don’t want it to be. I get the feeling you don’t.”

“No, how’d you guess? And don’t think I didn’t notice that you conveniently skipped answering how I wound up here.” Tilting my head towards the screen, I add, “Or there, I should say.”

“You certainly catch on quickly. Usually people are a few more questions in before they realise.”

“So, what’s the deal? Gonna show me or not?”

“I’m afraid not. You’ll understand in due time. For now, I’d like to focus more on the why you wound up here.”

“Piece o’ cake, pops: I died.”

The man smiles. “In the broadest sense, yes, you are right. But I should have clarified; why are you here, specifically, and not simply moved on?”

“Well, this is limbo, right? Y’know, purgatory. So that means it’s not decided yet. This is like my second chance.”

“Quite right. It isn’t decided yet. Now, how do you suppose it is decided?”

“Beats me. That’s your call, isn’t it? But, you know, I’ve always wondered how it works. Is it a three-strike sorta thing? Do you weigh my heart against a feather? Or should I drop some wisdom? Like, ‘every rose has its thorn’ or something?”

“Oh no, it’s far less archaic than that. In fact, it’s rather simple. Do you think you deserve a second chance?”

I raise my eyebrow questioningly. “Of course I do. Now lay it on me.”

The man looks me in the eyes with a gaze that I can only describe as fierce. There isn’t any anger or judgment in it, just sheer intensity. After a few seconds of observation, the man asks, “Are you certain?”

“What? Yeah, why wouldn’t—” I stop myself, the rest of the sentence trailing off inaudibly. Why wouldn’t I?

I sneak a glance at the screen again, and see the doctors continuing to do their thing. But what are they doing, and why do they need to? I scrunch my eyes shut and frown in concentration, trying to remember how I came to be in that hospital bed. But no matter how hard I try, everything comes up blank. Whatever memories I can recall are too general, or are unable to be assigned a time or place.

“Is something the matter?” the man asks. He clearly knows something.

“Why can’t I remember? As far as I know, I should be fine. How did I get to that hospital?”

The man sighs and takes a seat in an ornate wooden chair which I don’t recall seeing before. He signals for me to sit opposite him, in a second seat. I do so.

“I can only answer one of those questions, but the answer to that question also answers the second, in a way.” He pauses, as if searching for the right words. “You can’t remember because you don’t know. Not even I know. Tell me, have you ever heard of the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment?”

“It rings a bell.”

“No, that’s Pavlov’s dog.”

I frown at the man, who merely smiles innocently. He’s messing with me, I know it. I intensify my stare and the man relents.

“In short, the experiment proposed that if a cat were sealed in a box with a vial of poison that would open at a random time, then it was impossible to know if the cat was alive or dead until the box was opened. That is to say, it could be both alive and dead, at the same time. Can you see how that relates to your current predicament?”

“Yeah. I’m a zombie.” It’s not so funny when you’re on the receiving end, huh, old man? But his expression doesn’t change, even slightly. I sigh. “Okay, I don’t know because I haven’t opened the box yet. I’m both alive and dead, so I can’t remember how, one way or the other. Right?”

“Right. Now, when you do open the box, what outcome do you suppose you’ll find?”

“Well, if it’s up to me like you said, then I’ll be alive. Isn’t that obvious?”

“It is the answer I tend to receive, yes. But not everyone follows through with that decision. You must ask yourself why you make your decision; and that’s not something you can answer here.”

“So, is that it? Just, ‘poof’, and I’m in that hospital bed deciding whether or not to wake up?”

“Something like that. Are you ready to go?”

I shrug. “Yeah, I guess.” The man stands again, and I follow suit. “You know, I thought this’d be more… preachy.”

The man smiles and chuckles lightly. “Perhaps it would have been, if you were the preachy type. I am not so different from you, or from anyone else who happens to pay me a visit. But this isn’t about me. Off you go.”

Putting his hand on my back, the man guides me away from the chairs, towards some kind of indeterminate light far brighter than everything else here. It is so blinding that I have to shield my eyes.

And then it’s gone.

* * *

 As I open my eyes, I see my stop out the window as the bus pulls over. In a fluster, I gather up my things and make for the exit. I feel a clenching in my stomach as the bus pulls away. This part of town always puts me on edge. I wouldn’t live here, if I had the choice. I never know when I’m going to be mugged, or have my house burgled, or be shot in a drive-by. Calling it ‘the ghetto’ would be offensive to the ghetto. And yet, it’s all I can afford.

I try to quicken my pace as I walk to my apartment building. Only three blocks to go. I throw a glance over my shoulder, to make sure I’m not being followed. Two blocks to go. Distant gunshots and the wail of a police siren. One block to go. I breathe a sigh of relief as my building comes into view. And then I hear something that sends a shiver down my spine.

“No, stop it!” It’s a woman’s voice. “Let go of me!”

I look in the direction of the sound. Down a dingy alleyway, a tall man aggressively grips the arm of a much smaller woman. A pregnant woman. In his other hand, the man holds a switchblade knife.

“I told you, lady, I just want your money. Hand it over, and nobody has to get hurt.”

“Leave her alone!” A voice says. It takes me a second to realise that it’s mine.

The woman and her assailant both turn to look at me. She looks at me with pleading eyes, while he regards me with some kind of contempt. “Keep walkin’, kid. Ain’t none of your business.”

The woman starts to shout for me to call the police, but the mugger silences her by putting the knife to her throat. I step into the alleyway.

“You listenin’?” the mugger says. “Keep walkin’.”

What should I do? I scrunch my eyes shut and try to think. As I begin to imagine the possible ways this situation could unfold, one such way hits me with incredible clarity, so vivid that it could have happened not five seconds ago.

I break eye contact with the woman, and walk away. He’s right. It’s none of my business. With all the things that could possibly happen to me here on a day-to-day basis, picking a fight with a knife-wielding man isn’t going to help my chances. The thought of the woman burns at the back of my mind the whole way home, and even as I try to sleep. My thoughts make it a struggle to do so, but I eventually succumb to tiredness.

The next morning, I find myself more jumpy than usual on my walk to the bus stop. I constantly feel like I’m being watched; like someone has it out for me. I end up taking a longer route than usual to avoid the alleyway from yesterday, in the hope that it isn’t me that gets mugged this time. But in spite of all my best efforts, I can’t get the memory out of my mind.

Later in the day, I catch a breaking newsflash on the TV. It’s a report of a brutal assault resulting in murder. I shake my head and sigh. Just another day on the streets, here. I make to change the channel, but I freeze when I hear the details of the crime. It took place in an alleyway yesterday evening. The assailant was a man, believed to be wielding some kind of knife. The victim was a woman, early twenties, who suffered several stab wounds after allegedly trying to fight off her attacker. The woman is currently in intensive care, but her unborn child was killed in the attack.

Oh no. I immediately leave the building, and head straight home. I pass the alleyway and see it cordoned off with police tape, with various investigative officers milling around. One of them asks if I happened to see anything in relation to the incident. I stammer out a no and make a break for my apartment. When I get inside I lock the door and fall to my knees. I feel nauseated.

I stagger into the bathroom and vomit into the toilet. After a few flushes I just end up dry reaching. I need a drink. I scour the kitchen but all I can find is a bottle of whiskey that I never got around to opening. That’ll have to do. Flopping ungracefully onto my couch, I begin to chug the alcohol straight from the bottle. It burns as it goes down but it feels good to have something in my guts.

Each swig blurs into the next, and quickly loses prominence among my thoughts. All I can think about is the woman from yesterday and how I could have helped her. Even my vision begins to cloud over and is replaced by her terrified visage, pleading me to do something. Soon after, that blurs out too, to be replaced by blackness. In between her imagined cries for help, I’m vaguely aware of someone asking if I’m alright; someone shouting for an ambulance. I ignore it. I don’t need help. I don’t deserve it. I had my chance, and I threw it away. And because of it, she didn’t even get hers. If only I hadn’t walked away.

When I open my eyes again, I’m still in the alleyway. The mugger is still holding his knife, and the pregnant woman is still in his grip. I walk towards them.

The mugger notices my approach and brandishes the knife at me. “I thought I told you to keep walkin’.”

I raise my hands as a gesture of surrender. “I don’t want any trouble. I just wanna talk.”

“I want a million dollars, but you don’t always get whatchu want. So I’m gonna take what money this girl has, and what you got, and be on my way. We clear?”

“Alright,” I say, reaching for my wallet. “I’m gonna put this on the ground, and you’re gonna let the lady go so she can do the same, okay?”

The mugger looks around impatiently. “Whatever, kid, just hurry up.”

Just as I’m about to set down my wallet, I flick my wrist and it arcs away from the mugger. I watch as his head turns to follow the moving object, and I take my chance. I reach up with both hands and clasp the hand holding the knife, turning it outwards as hard as I can. The mugger grimaces, letting go of the pregnant woman. She wavers slightly, and then bolts for the street, calling for help.

The mugger regains his composure, using his now free hand to throw a wild punch at my abdomen. It takes the wind out of me, and lessens my grip on his knife hand. He takes advantage of the opportunity to slip out of my grasp and turn the knife towards me. In a panic, I grab his forearm with both of my hands, using every bit of strength I can muster to keep the knife from touching me.

We wrestle in this way for what feels like tense minutes. All of a sudden, he bursts forwards with his legs and puts me off balance, leaving me to stagger backwards into the wall, the mugger pinning me with his body. I try to push him off me, but I can’t. I don’t have to though, as the wail of a siren nearby catches his attention. He steps away from me, and sprints down the alley.

Taking a deep breath, I attempt to stand upright, but a searing pain prevents me from doing so. Looking down, I see a rapidly growing splotch of red on my shirt, and I realise what has happened. I slump down onto the ground and begin to hyperventilate. In between breaths, I’m vaguely aware of someone shouting for an ambulance. I ignore it.

I chuckle to myself. So this is what he meant when he said not everyone follows through with their decision to live. Straining my head, I look out of the alleyway, and see the pregnant woman talking to a policeman. Thankfully, she’s completely safe. It dawns on me that this wasn’t a second chance at life. Not for me, anyway. This was a second chance at death. To make the most of it.

* * *

It’s bright. I try to shield my eyes from the harsh light assaulting them, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t escape it. Everything around me, in every direction and for as far as my eyes can see, is completely white. The landscape is completely featureless. Even the shadow below my feet is barely discernible. I may as well be being illuminated from every direction at once. It’s like some bizarre green-screen setup, before post-production has edited the backgrounds in.

“Hello,” I greet.

The man standing behind his lectern nods in acknowledgement. “I see you’ve changed your mind. I take it, then, that you found your answer?”

“I did,” I reply. “The cat was always dead. The only question was over how, and when.”

“Indeed. Now, will you join me?” The man gestures towards two ornate pearlescent gates, so brilliant that they don’t seem to join to any fence or wall.

I nod. “Off we go.”

END


Second Chances was originally published on Pastebin on 31 May 2015.

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