Contest #95 shortlist ⭐️

32 comments

Fiction Speculative

Nathan never saw the black taxi as he stepped out into the road on the day he died. By the time he was conscious of the beam of headlights and steel grille bumper hurtling towards him it was far too late. Tyres screeched as 1500 kilograms of black metal travelling at 50mph smacked into Nathan’s soft, fragile body. He experienced the peculiar sensation of flying and viewing the world from upside down, just before his jaw shattered on the pavement. A sharp pain lanced through his skull, mingled with the taste of grit and iron.

The last thing he noticed before he died was the acrid smell of burning rubber. Everything went black.

Bloody typical, Nathan thought. Just my luck.

 

*

Silence.

Nothingness.

Eternity.

*

 

The blackness was forever. And then at some point, in the midst of the interminable darkness, Nathan received the distinct impression that he was no longer alone.

Was that a voice?

No, not just one voice. It was voices.

The voices merged into one drone, and the gentle hum of chatter was reassuringly familiar. Someone coughed. And he was sure…

Did someone just laugh?

When his eyes fluttered open again, his headache had vanished. His vision blurred and adjusted itself to the hazy shapes of people in sat in a row in front of him.

Am I dreaming?

Nathan rubbed his eyes, so they became used to the artificial light. Blue plastic chairs were lined up on either side of the narrow, windowless room, several of which were occupied by people. Most of the people appeared to be elderly or sickly. Nathan’s first reaction was that he’d somehow lost a chunk of time and was, in fact, now sat in a GPs’ waiting room, suffering from amnesia. But something didn’t seem quite right.

An enormous woman wearing a cerise turban sat in the chair next to Nathan, her fleshy limbs barely squeezing into the confined space.

‘Welcome to the waiting room, honey!’ she said with a silky, southern drawl. She offered Nathan a pudgy brown hand.

‘What is this place?’ Nathan asked. ‘Is this Heaven?’

The woman guffawed loudly, causing some of the other people to frown at them both with disapproval.

Funny idea of Heaven you’ve got, haven’t you? Waiting around like this? You must be British, right?’

The folds of her extra skin wobbled as she laughed. She clocked Nathan’s muddled expression and tapped his arm in reassurance. ‘No lovey. This isn’t Heaven. This is Passport Control.’

‘Passport Control?’ Nathan figured he must have hit his head pretty hard. He was almost certainly dreaming. Although now she mentioned it, the rows of seats did look disconcertingly like those you might find in an airport waiting room.

An announcement floated over the tannoy breaking through the murmur. ‘Paul Kim. Booth 3 please’.

A frail-looking man in a brown jacket shuffled to his feet and slowly made his way to the end of the room, where Nathan noticed five plastic, grey booths had been erected. The plastic cabins reminded him of the toll booths you sometimes see on bridges, and Nathan suddenly had the irrational urge to check for spare change in his pockets. Each booth was designed with a small window and Nathan could see two people inside each one, deep in conversation with one another. Beyond the booths, were two very ordinary doors with garish green ‘exit’ signs above, offering no other clue as to where they might lead.

‘See those men sat in them there huts at the end of the room?’ the woman wearing the turban tugged Nathan’s arm and pointed. ‘You get called in and they check your credentials. Providing everything’s above board they let you through.’

‘Through to where?’ Nathan asked.

The woman closed her eyes and smiled sagely. ‘Only God knows that’.

 

Nathan waited patiently for his name to be called, pondering on what it actually meant to be ‘above board’ and what would happen if he wasn’t. It was curious how he never saw anyone arrive in the waiting room, but he often noticed seats filled which had been vacant only minutes before and vice versa.

Where do they come from?

At 38 years old, he felt relatively young in comparison to most of the others waiting – but occasionally a child or teenager would arrive, lost and lonely. It tugged at Nathan’s heartstrings and he thought of his son and daughter at home. They would be worried about him. Sasha’s sixth birthday was next week – she wanted a big party with cake and ice cream, but both Nathan and his wife, Greta, were worried about the lack of space in their tiny terrace house. He was still agonising about Sasha’s birthday when the sound of his name being called out over the tannoy brought him back to the present.

‘Nathan Turner. Booth 1 please.’

When he opened the plastic door to the booth, he was surprised to see an ordinary looking man with a round head as smooth and speckled as an egg, shuffling through papers on a desk. A large, old-fashioned PC had been placed on the table next to him.

‘Apologies about the wait – unprecedented demand,’ the man said, without looking up from the paperwork. ‘We just don’t have enough to resources for the number of deaths these days.’ The man appeared to find the sheet he was searching for and thrust the document at Nathan.

‘What is this?’ Nathan asked.

‘Feedback form,’ the man said, still looking through the rest of the paperwork.

‘Feedback!?’

‘Yeah, you know… how you’d rate the whole life experience on a scale of one to five? This data really helps improve our functionality and system performance in future.’ He looked up and peered at Nathan through thick rimmed glasses. ‘Would you like a run through before you submit the feedback?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Well, a lot of people like to be reminded of what they’ve left behind before they decide the next steps. They kind of like the ‘This Is Your Life’ experience. If you’d like to move towards the computer over here, I’ll log you in and show you.’

Nathan had no idea what to expect as the man tapped the keys on the computer and entered in some kind of unique identification number for Nathan. He gestured for Nathan to sit in front of the computer and put on the headphones.

‘We already have all the info we need on file here,’ the man tapped the pile of papers on the desk. ‘But this is a sort of like a ‘best of’ video, if you get me.’

Sitting in front of the screen Nathan saw a green button labelled ‘GO’. There was no other option. He clicked the button.

 

A baby cries, announcing his entry to the world. ‘We’ll call him Nathan,’ his mother says. ‘After my father’.

Her husband looks at the child with fear and incredulity in his large brown eyes. The fear and incredulity are still there three years later when he walks out the door and never comes back. Nathan’s mother hugs her son with tears in her tired eyes. The boy knows his mother is sad but does not understand how to help.

His mother saves his milk teeth, swimming badges, and later his school reports.

‘My Nathan is going to be an architect,’ she tells everyone. And Nathan agrees, he wants to be an architect. For her.

Nathan studies hard. Really hard. But schoolwork is tough, and his grades range from good to mediocre. It’s far more fun to hang out with his mates smoking behind the design and technology building. Some of them leave to go to college. Some of them don’t. Nathan is one of those that don’t.

He gets job in the local garage – it turns out he has a knack for making broken things work. Occasionally he looks longingly at the bridges and buildings he once hoped to design, but the garage job pays well enough to get by.

Some of his old friends return from college. Nathan meets them for a beer, but they have their own ‘in’ jokes now and have adopted a vaguely smug and superior attitude. It’s not like it used to be before.

Each day resembles another and Nathan wonders fleetingly what the point of it all is. He drinks a lot and starts smoking again. His mother gets sick. He misses her very much.

And then it all changes. A woman called Greta walks into his life, a friend of a friend. They date for a bit. They have a lot in common – even so, it’s a bit of a shock when six months into their relationship Greta announces that she’s pregnant. At first he’s startled, then he’s excited, then he’s anxious. How can they afford a baby? How will they manage?

But they do. It’s a boy – a beautiful baby boy. Nathan is so full of pride and adoration he feels he might burst. Three years later, his daughter Sasha is born. Nathan thinks he is the luckiest man in the world.

But he’s uneasy about money. The children grow along with their appetites. The family never seem to have quite enough as they need.

One day Nathan wakes up and he’s 38 years old. Later that day he gets a call. The garage wants to make redundancies. He worries how he’s going to make ends meet, he has a responsibility to his wife and children. How can he tell them? He feels like a failure for not being able to look after them. He’s so distracted that he doesn’t see the black taxi when he steps into the road.

 

Nathan had heard tales about your life flashing before your eyes when you die, but he hadn’t expected such an intense, immersive experience from logging into a computer. He supposed nothing is ever exactly like you expect it to be. His eyes were wet. If only he could have given his family a better life. It was too late though.

‘Well, what do you think?’ the egg-headed man asked with inappropriate chirpiness. ‘Did it help?’

Nathan wiped his eyes and closed the window on the screen. ‘I’m not sure it helped. But never mind.’

‘Have you filled out the evaluation form?’ the man said. ‘Did you feel you had a good life?'

‘I gave it three stars.’ Nathan said glumly, pushing the paper towards him. ‘Can I go now?’

‘Three out of five?’ the man raised his eyebrows forming creases in his brow which just made his head look even smoother and shinier than before. ‘That’s not so good – did you have any suggestions for improvements? Or regrets?’

Nathan shrugged. ‘I never really thought about it before – but looking at your life with a bird’s eye view like that. Well… I guess I should have studied harder at school. It’s my own fault.’

‘A lot of people say that.’ The man nodded sympathetically and started to clear the paperwork away. ‘I’ve checked your file against your ID number and I’m pleased to say that everything looks above board. You’re free to go through.’

Nathan felt an irrational sense of relief and started to get up from his chair, but the man put a hand out to stop him.

‘Before you go, you need to make a choice. There are two exits from this room. If you take the door on the left-hand side, you’ll get the chance to try again based on the feedback we’ve discussed. You won’t remember our meeting consciously, but to all intents and purposes it will be a second chance. You’ll start again from scratch.’

Nathan couldn’t believe his ears. A second chance – this time it would be different. He’d work harder, make something of himself.

‘What’s through the door on the right?’ Nathan asked.

The man shook his head. ‘No one knows what’s behind the door on the right – it’s a mystery.’

‘Not even you?’

‘Certainly not me. I just work here.’

 

Nathan surveyed both doors as he approached. They were both an identical off-white colour with an aluminium handle. Despite the fact they looked the same, the door on the right filled him with fascination. It’s simplicity was strangely enticing.

Nathan paused momentarily looking from one ‘exit’ sign to the other, weighing up his options. He reached out to the door on the right, almost touching the handle.

No one knows. That was what the man had said.

But Nathan drew back, as if he was nervous the handle might be electrically-charged. He stood hesitantly in front of the two doors for a few seconds more, before striding over to the door on the left. He pushed the door open and walked through without a backwards glance.

 

*

Silence.

Nothingness.

Eternity.

*

 

A baby cries, announcing his entry to the world. ‘We’ll call him Nathan,’ his mother says. ‘After my father’.

Her husband looks at the child with fear and incredulity in his large brown eyes. The fear and incredulity are still there three years later when he walks out the door and never comes back. Nathan’s mother hugs her son with tears in her tired eyes. The boy knows his mother is sad but does not understand how to help.

His mother saves his milk teeth, swimming badges, and later his school reports.

‘My Nathan is going to be an architect,’ she tells everyone. And Nathan agrees, he wants to be an architect. For her.

Nathan studies hard. Really hard. But schoolwork is tough, and his grades range from good to mediocre. He sometimes smokes behind the design and technology building but decides to knuckle down and scrapes a pass for most of his exams. Enough to go to college. He studies math and design. He wants to be an architect but ends up leaning towards engineering. He has a knack for making broken things work. He’s offered a job as an engineer on some major urban building projects, bridges and housing developments. He boasts to his mates who have also returned from college. It’s fun at first and he makes a lot of money.

Then the work pressures start to creep in and make themselves known – he has no time for a social life. Each day resembles another and Nathan wonders fleetingly what the point of it all is. He drinks a lot and starts smoking again. His mother gets sick. He misses her very much.

And then it all changes. A woman called Greta walks into his life, a friend of a friend. They date for a bit. They have a lot in common, but work commitments get in the way. There’s plenty of time for marriage and kids, thinks Nathan. He dates another woman, Gwenda. He likes her name – it reminds him a bit of Greta. But it doesn’t work out. He dates Meghan, Polly, Ursula. Nothing lasts.

One day he wakes up and he’s 38 years old. Another hard day at work. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing all day. On his way home, his phone rings again. He reaches for the phone in his pocket wondering what on earth they could want now. Maybe his blood? His soul? He’s so distracted that he doesn’t see the black taxi when he steps into the road.

 

*

Silence.

Nothingness.

Eternity.

*

 

‘And so, we’re here again?’ the bald man in front of Nathan shuffles papers as he puts them in order.

‘Again?’ Nathan is confused. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Never mind.’ The man leans back in his chair and stifles a yawn. ‘Tell me, how would you rate your life experience on a scale of one to five?’

Nathan’s face twists in contemplation and his shoulders slump with disappointment. ‘Hmmm… maybe a three.’

‘Just a three!? What went wrong?’

‘Well…’ Nathan says, ‘I spent so much time working that I didn’t enjoy life as much as I could have. I realise that now.’

The man nods and writes something down in his notes. ‘Yes, it’s easy to do. So, if you went back, you wouldn’t work so hard?’

Nathan shrugged. ‘Well, I think it’s about balance. I might have liked to have had a family. There was this girl I met once… Greta. She was kind of cool. But I messed it up.’

‘I see.’ The man gets up from his chair and files Nathan’s paperwork in one of his desk drawers. ‘Well, everything looks in order anyway. And Nathan, my friend, you have a choice – there are two exits from this room, the door on the left or the one on the right. Which one will you choose?’

 

*

Silence.

Nothingness.

Eternity.

*

 

A baby cries, announcing his entry to the world. ‘We’ll call him Nathan,’ his mother says. ‘After my father’.

 

 

 

May 28, 2021 20:50

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32 comments

Batool Hussain
15:24 Jun 10, 2021

This seems so, so good for somone "brand new to writing." Great job!

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T.H. Sherlock
20:09 Jun 10, 2021

Thank you! That’s such a nice comment and means a lot. I’d never written anything myself before joining Reedsy but I do spend a lot of time reading! Since being shortlisted I’ve had a complete author’s block but hopefully I’ll be back writing again soon.

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Lee Kendrick
19:34 Jun 07, 2021

A good idea for a story. I liked the plot of Nathan returning to Earth to try to better his life from the last time. Clever move repeating the same phrases over again. As he continued to reincarnate. Yes, well done. Lee Kendrick

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T.H. Sherlock
20:06 Jun 10, 2021

Thank you Lee! I’m so glad you liked it.

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Rosie 95
13:59 Jun 06, 2021

But I wonder what was in the right door.

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Rosie 95
13:57 Jun 06, 2021

I really like this story! It's very creative!

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T.H. Sherlock
19:18 Jun 06, 2021

Thank you so much. Who knows what’s in the door on the right? I kind of feel that in some ways Nathan is choosing between life and death. But no one knows what death truly means unless they walk through the door.

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Kanika G
06:33 Jun 06, 2021

Wonderful! I loved it. I was smiling by the time I finished reading it. No wonder it was shortlisted! A very original and creative idea and you've executed it so well. It's kind of sad the MC ends up with regrets the second time round, although the type of regrets were different. It also shows people generally choose the familiar and comfortable over the uncertain and unknown. Maybe life keeps going in loops like this. Hinduism has a concept of reincarnation (although it states a soul is born again and again as different people). This was a ...

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T.H. Sherlock
21:31 Jun 06, 2021

I’m so pleased you liked it Kanika - I definitely like the idea of the universe being cyclic in some way. I just read your latest story - what an amazing read!

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Kanika G
15:02 Jun 07, 2021

Thank you so much for your wonderful comment on my story. It really made me smile. :)

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Kanika G
15:02 Jun 27, 2021

Hey! I came to your profile looking for a new story. I will check it out once you post it. Meanwhile, I would love your feedback on my new story. Thanks!

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T.H. Sherlock
08:59 Jun 28, 2021

I know - sorry! I’ve had complete writer’s block since I wrote this story. I also started a couple of stories since and never finished them in time for the deadline. I have an idea for one this week though and I’m about 800 words down. It isn’t flowing so well but it’s a short piece so I should be able to upload later this week. I absolutely love your stories Kanika. They always offer something new and different. Plus I enjoy thriller and crime stories - and you always seem in complete command of the story as an author. Your latest story is...

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Kanika G
10:01 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much for your feedback on my latest story. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I love reading and writing thrillers and crime stories too. It's my favourite genre. I particularly enjoy psychological thrillers, but I'm yet to write one. This one flowed so easily that I conceptualized and wrote it in 4 hours. I wish writing each week was this easy. :) I hope you snap out of writer's block very soon and I'm already looking forward to your new story. I'll keep an eye out. All the best!

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Hritesh Mishra
05:47 Jun 06, 2021

This is such an amazing story and very thought-provoking. I just wanted to ask you, what if Nathan had said- 'I should've paid attention to the road?' What happens next?

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T.H. Sherlock
21:38 Jun 06, 2021

Thank you so much Hritesh! It’s an interesting question. I think even if Nathan lived until he was 100 years old and avoided black taxis for the rest of his life there would always be some things which he’d feel like he could have done differently, opportunities he didn’t take or different decisions he might have made.

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Scott Skinner
12:12 Jun 05, 2021

Interesting concept. It's like no matter what Nathan does it's going to end up the same. I wonder if he'll ever be able to avoid the black taxi. Part of me thinks not. I also wonder if he'd ever rate his life above a 3. This sort of plays on the idea that people don't really know what's best for them/what they want, until, maybe, it's too late. Congrats on being shortlisted!

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T.H. Sherlock
20:31 Jun 05, 2021

Thank you Scott. Part of me thinks not either... I really wanted to try and show Nathan as an average guy with the different highs and lows of an average life. We often focus so much on what we don’t have that we sometimes fail to notice the things that we do have.

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Writer Maniac
07:04 Jun 05, 2021

Woah. This story was incredible. The concept of waiting in an airport lobby type situation to go to Heaven is quite intriguing, and one I've never seen before. Nathan was a relatable character who was never quite satisfied with his life. Very well-written, and congrats on being shortlisted!

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T.H. Sherlock
20:13 Jun 05, 2021

Thank you so much! I’m so glad you liked it.

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Ellie Yu
17:37 Jun 04, 2021

I don’t know if you’ve watched this show called The Good Place, but this piece really reminds me of that. Your writing mixes this kind of comedic setting with the sobriety of life and death and whatever comes in between. And the way Nathan is resurrected is beautiful, especially seeing him trying again and again. It raises a lot of interesting questions. It’s all thought provoking and very lovely. Congrats on being shortlisted!

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T.H. Sherlock
23:32 Jun 04, 2021

Thank you Ellie. I still can’t quite believe it was shortlisted. I’m ecstatic! Especially as there are so many talented writers on Reedsy. I haven’t seen The Good Life but I’ll definitely check it out. (I’m sure I’ve seen it advertised on Netflix). I was toying with the idea of how we can never really know whether our decisions are for the best or not and the premise kind of stemmed from there. I guess we never truly know.

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Amaranthine Sky
14:31 Jun 04, 2021

This story is so creative and really explores the meaning of life, including how hard it truly is to live life to the fullest. I admire the MC's perseverance though, especially how hard he tries to make his life worth it and takes the door on the left each time. I loved how this concept was explained so smoothly and flawlessly. This is probably my favorite story I've read here; I just came back to this old account on reedsy after a while of collecting dust in a corner : ) Looking forward to reading more of your work! Amazingly written. Ed...

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T.H. Sherlock
23:25 Jun 04, 2021

Wow! Absolutely gobsmacked to have been shortlisted!!! Thank you so much for commenting - your feedback has really made my day.

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Amaranthine Sky
00:11 Jun 05, 2021

No problem! : )

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12:40 May 30, 2021

This concept is really interesting. I like the way you ended the story with that sentence, I think it brings it together nicely. I've read stories like this, but I've never read a story where you get to choose. I love the idea of a second chance, what's more, I love the idea of not knowing what's at the other side of that door on the right. I truly adored this story. Keep writing. Sincerely, Ruthy_May

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T.H. Sherlock
22:40 May 31, 2021

Thank you Ruthy May! I'm so pleased you liked it!

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22:41 May 31, 2021

An absolute pleasure!

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Babika Goel
17:40 Jun 20, 2021

Wow. Samsara- "Repeated death n birth cycles" so well explained. The other door would have freed him from samsara, it was "moksha". ... only achievable with a principled life with no desires.

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David Downs
00:28 Jun 11, 2021

T.H. Sherlock your story had me totally locked in! The concept is BRILLIANT. I’m new here but I’m planning on making some contributions of my own soon! ✌🏼

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A.Dot Ram
15:43 Jun 03, 2021

Interesting. I didn't expect it to be on a loop. Maybe third time's a charm. Or maybe this isn't just the third time.

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A.Dot Ram
15:28 Jun 04, 2021

Congratulations on the shortlist! I enjoyed this story.

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T.H. Sherlock
23:27 Jun 04, 2021

Maybe not! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. And congratulations on your win! Much deserved.

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