Flash Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 70
The man forgets how many times he’s replayed his life. He decides the number is fourteen or four thousand.
The offer to trade his soul for a chance to relive his life had been impossible to refuse. The little girl told him he could relive his life since the time just after his accident with the car (she was vague about why he couldn’t rewind to his birth). All she had wanted in return had been his soul, and he had long since stopped believing in souls, the afterlife, heaven, and hell. What he cared most about was the ‘during-life.’ And he had let far too much of his slip by unsampled, unexperienced, and untasted. He had, in brief, been an avoidant coward.
The first time she had appeared to him, he had gone out of his apartment for tacos. He had gotten into the habit of drinking too much and too early in the day. It was a hot and humid day, and his limbs felt sluggish and lazy. Honestly, his vitality hadn’t been the same since his three-week case of covid earlier in the year. He still wasn’t where he was in the previous long December.
The man had unwisely ordered a beer with his tacos, so his return walk was even more laborious. He felt like a wounded mammoth, struggling to return to the protection and comfort of its familiar den.
In the tiny studio that was his ‘den,’ the man comforted himself with alcohol, naps, and furious bouts of writing. He was forever writing stories. He could craft a story out of anything, an image, a phrase, a titillating title, some character flaw, anything. In a year, he had honed his writing muscles to high performance. His legs and arms might not be what they were in his youth, but even in his youth, the whole physicalness of life had somehow passed him. His was a life lived in the realm of ideas. While other people did, he thought. When they had fucked, he had fantasized about fucking. Where they did, he had daydreamed about doing.
The soccer ball zips past his feet, almost rolls over his feet.
‘Leave it,’ some inner guardian in his brain suggests to him. The thought was laughably absurd. So he lumbered into the street to stop the soccer ball as the inner voice again advises him to go home.
“Here you go,” the man says to the little girl who stands watching him struggle to dribble the ball back across the street. In his youth, he could’ve done this smoothly. When he was younger, for a time, he had played soccer.
They fell into an unlikely conversation at that point. The man has tried to recall the contents of what either of them said in their first meeting. But it’s hidden behind a gauze curtain of fog that refuses to give up any details. He is sure they had a ‘first’ meeting – they must have, but something veiled its contents behind a cloud of unknowing.
What he remembers is that she had offered him the chance to relive his life for his soul.
With the weakness, he had felt since being nearly undone by the virus earlier in the year, and considering how he had long ago abandoned the idea of an eternal soul, he almost laughed at the little girl’s offer.
Before she had even finished, he said, “Done. Take it; it’s yours. When can I start?” Then he laughed. He had felt the whole thing was a bit of play on both their parts. A harmless game of ‘what if?’
The heat had felt so heavy on his shoulders earlier that he longed for the pseudo immortality that came with being young. So when the girl told him he could rewind his life, be young again, he jumped on it. It was only a game. He laughs to himself at the playful little girl and their strange conversation.
The next day he awoke not in his studio apartment but his bedroom on James Street. He was nine again. The little red-haired girl with her pigtails and soccer ball had done it! He was young again.
For a brief period, he felt he was both nine and fifty-nine simultaneously. He still remembered the nagging, ever-present low back achiness and the way his joints would creak and complain early each morning.
The boy swears he will remember the 59-year-old that he had been only the day before, that he won’t make the same mistakes, lead his life with the same cowardly avoidance as his previous self had. Where that man had been shy, the new him would be bold. Where his predecessor had been retiring, he would be outgoing, assertive, and confident.
For a period, it looked like he could pull it off. For a while, he was all the things his earlier, older self had not been.
Then some beguiling force, or perhaps it was his inner nature, gradually reasserted itself and lulled him back to sleep.
Once the boy forgot about the little girl, the soccer ball, and their devilish deal, they stayed forgotten. He relived his life, from 9 to 59, one half a century, without it ever breaking free from his subconscious. The memories were there. But he experienced them only as a vague anxiety that expressed itself in ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds.’
It was only when the soccer ball crossed his path again that he remembered his deal.
Was she here to collect his soul? Which he assumed would mean forfeiting his life.
He had squandered the limitless opportunities afforded him by his fresh start.
It saddened him to see her again. He remembered both lives; shame burned hot on his cheeks when he realized the difference between the two lives was negligible. He had even ended up living in the same apartment. How sad was that? You get the freedom to relive your entire life, and you end up in the same pitiful, overpriced apartment?
When she offers him a chance to try again, he again doesn’t hesitate to accept the deal. But he fears the little girl now.
During his second rewind, he does a little better. But the overall pattern is much the same. He makes some minor changes that last maybe a few weeks longer, but the gravity of the whole thing induced in him an undeniable, momentous lethargy. A foggy forgetfulness arose in him anytime his mind attempted to remember his previous lives.
When he encounters the girl and her soccer ball the third time, he had made some progress. He didn’t live in an apartment on the west side of Central. Now he lived in an apartment on the east side. But they were even dingier, sadder than those of his previous lives.
She again offers him a chance to try again. He has no choice, he feels, but to agree, though he doesn’t understand what additional thing she receives from each new deal. According to the original bargain, they had struck over 150 years ago since she already owned his soul. What else was in this for her? He thinks about the question but dares not ask it.
The little girl is not a little girl. She must be a wizard, a witch, a demon, or the devil herself, the man thinks.
He repeats the pattern, again and again.
Over and over, he finds himself in his post-accident nine-year-old body. Each time he vows he will do better. He will live differently, make bigger, wiser choices, live a life of principles, not waste time. But each time, within a matter of months, he forgets all about his previous lives.
Each life is like the previous and the next.
The man left not a Taco joint, but it was a Chinese restaurant this time.
He is walking alone to his home where he lives alone, yet again.
The soccer ball rolls over his toes and into the street.
The realization is always a shock, followed by memories, then regret, then sorrow, and finally fear. Would the devil girl take his soul this time?
The man was no longer certain if he had a soul. But he always feared her when he saw her again.
The man falls to his knees before the little girl; he weeps openly, prostrating himself before her on the hot concrete sidewalk.
“Please, help me. Please, show me the way. I keep living my life over, and each time I think I will make it different, but each time it is the same boring life, the same stupid decisions, please help me, please.”
The girl grows quite angry. She scolds the man, tells him to get to his feet and choose to relive his life, but he stays immobile on the hard, hot ground.
“I cannot,” he whines. “You win. Take your prize now, please. I cannot bear to live this life again.”
His body shakes with sadness as he believes he will die now. It was the end of the line. He would not choose to relive a life in which nothing changed that drastically, in which he couldn’t remember to be better.
It was unfair, but such is the domain of the devil, he admits as his crying lessens.
He stays on the ground for a long time. He is less sad and more afraid now.
It cools down a bit. It surprised the man to see it is already getting dark out.
He raises his head, peers carefully about him.
“Hello?” he whispers hoarsely.
But he doesn’t see her.
After several minutes, he gets to his feet. His body aches from age and from lying on the hot concrete for hours. He looks around for the little girl, but she is gone.
As he walks to his apartment, he spies the soccer ball lying in the gutter. He bends over and slowly picks it up. When he turns it over, he sees a message written in sharpie marker.
“BE BETTER,” it says in bold, thick strokes of heavy black ink.
The man carries the soccer ball home with him. He again resolves to remember this lesson. He thinks, as long as he has the soccer ball with its two-word message of inspiration, he will do just fine. And he does.