Contest #154 shortlist ⭐️

44 comments

Contemporary

Lawrence “Nova” Novikov thought the slate-gray skies on Mount Mallett had conspired against him. Raindrops stung like bees. Hailstones threatened to shred his vinyl parka like buckshot. And the wind! Gusts from every direction tossed him on the narrow mountainside trail, threatening to fling him into the deep canyon at his side. But he persisted, planting each footfall with care in the lashing precipitation. 


Between slaps of thunder, he paused to fumble his GPS wayfinder from the pocket of his soaked trousers. Only a half a kilometer to go, he thought. He squinted into the monochrome panorama. I should be able to see it by now.


Nova winced as lightning sparked like a camera flash. Thunder rattled the ground beneath his feet. Almost no time between. Too close.


He plodded on.


Every hair on his body raised. A moment later, another bolt of lightning detonated the gnarled skeleton of a desiccated fir, three meters up the hillside to his right. His ears compressed painfully, the amplitude of the ensuing shockwave too great even to register as sound. He curled into a reflexive crouch, arms wrapped around his head.


Cowering, he did not see the smoldering remnant of the tree until it was far too close to avoid. One of the falling timber’s larger branches batted his temple as it splintered into the canyon.


The world darkened to a silent black.


* * *


Dozens of candles surrounded Nova in the rustic log cabin. The storm outside shook the door on its hinges, as if trying to invade the warm space. He breathed in wood smoke and the hint of something savory bubbling on the hearth.


“For a minute there, I thought you might not make it.” A shadowed figure sat cross-legged in an armchair across the room. His gravelly voice was more growl than speech.


“W-what is this place?” Nova asked. “Who are you?”


“Am I not the one you sought?” The figure rose into the flickering candlelight, whose warm glow accentuated the man’s unkempt mop of wiry, copper hair and flowing, red-gray beard, creating the illusion that his entire head was aflame. “There’s no one else up here.”


Nova swallowed. “Are you … Thorne?”


The man nodded. “I am.”


“How did I get here? The last thing I remember I was … there was a tree, and—”


“I saw it all.” Thorne waved his arm to the front of the cabin. There, outside the window, a flicker of lightning illuminated the distant hillside where Nova had just been struck. “You were lucky.”


The corner of Nova’s mouth quirked up. That would be a first, he thought.


“Shall we get down to business?” said Thorne.


As Nova sat up, throbbing pain marched through his skull. “They … they say you can send people back to their youth. To re-live their lives, with all their present memories intact.”


Thorne nodded. “I have done this.”


“I would like to do that.” Nova rifled through his vest pocket, withdrew a thick envelope, and extended it to his host. “I would like to be eighteen again.”


“Why?”


Nova frowned. “Does it matter? Suffice it to say my life is a joke. I want to … no, I need to correct some mistakes. I need to know … how it might have been.”


“I see.” Thorne sighed, pocketing the envelope. He scraped his armchair across the room before Nova and sank into it. “In that case, before we proceed, you first must hear the story of the last man who did this.”


* * *


The last vestiges of Stephen’s life in the world outside his Otisville prison cell had crumbled. Marlene, his soon-to-be ex-wife, had just departed the medium-security penitentiary’s visiting room, having informed him of her plans: A dish of warm divorce papers would be the last meal she’d serve him. Stephen’s lifelong business partners—two brothers from his college fraternity—had both taken their own lives many months before, in lieu of public disgrace and prison terms of their own. And his own parents, to whom he had always been their eyes’ apple, had summarily disowned him in their humiliation.


If only I could go back and make the right decisions, Stephen thought, I wouldn’t be in this mess.


He believed he knew the exact decisions that had led him into his ultimate cage.


In his sophomore year of college, he’d met Ellen at a party at the Sigma Chi house. Smitten with the music major’s understated beauty and unconventional, quirky style, he’d focused on her to the exclusion of everything else—including his studies. In response to his flagging grades, his parents had introduced their son to Marlene, a Senator’s daughter, along with a choice: Entertain Marlene and keep their good graces; or continue his pursuit of Ellen and lose their riches forever.


Oh, Ellen, he thought, if only I’d known.


Married life with Marlene had initially been contented, if not happy. He would soon, however, run afoul of her appetites for wealth and status. His entrepreneurial stumbles as the owner of an art gallery had all too often required parental subsidy to make ends meet on Marlene’s lavish budget. In response, Marlene had arranged a dinner party, at which she’d arranged for Stephen’s fraternity brothers to offer him a position with their successful hedge fund. Marlene, much as his parents, had presented to him a choice: Lucrative employment with his college mates; or a messy, costly divorce.


If only I’d tried a little longer, he thought, my gallery could have succeeded.


Throughout Stephen’s five-year sentence at Otisville, his elderly cell mate had spoken at length of Temporal Mind Displacement, and of the enigmatic man rumored to have perfected the discipline. Upon Stephen’s release after five years, he’d made his way up Mount Mallett in search of that man.


* * * 


Thorne ladled from the pot on the hearth. “Here. Eat.”


Nova scarfed the delicious stew. Between spoonfuls, he spoke with a full mouth. “So, what happened? Did you send him back like he wanted?”


“He got what he’d asked for.” Firelight reflected in Thorne’s steely eyes. “Does a man ever know what he truly wants?”


“I do,” said Nova. “That is, I know what I don’t want.”


“Regret can be a persuasive demon. It doesn’t always have your best interests at heart.”


Nova set down the empty bowl. “Tell me what happened to Stephen.”


* * * 


Suddenly, Stephen was a twenty-year-old college sophomore again. His life was a blank canvas stretching in all directions before him, and he decided that Ellen would be the one to paint it with him. Together, they would launch his art gallery and fill it with her work.


His parents, as they’d promised, wrote him out of their will, and stopped funding his college education. With the limited financial aid he’d qualified for, it wasn’t enough to afford tuition at the prestigious university. Not willing to leave Ellen, he’d transferred to a community college across town, where he would complete his business degree. Ellen had been thrilled at first to take Stephen into her off-campus studio apartment, but it wasn’t long before the canvas of their future grew brittle and yellow.


He was constantly underfoot of her art projects. Between both their studies and his part-time job, their free hours as a fledgling couple grew scant, and she grew ever more distant. Late one night, Ellen returned, make-up smeared and hair disheveled. She confessed that she’d met someone else, and had been with the rival suitor that very night. Stephen would need to find another place to live.


His parents rejected his attempts to atone. The Senator’s daughter, Marlene, had already taken up with another young man. Stephen had cost them their ticket to unprecedented social affluence. Moreover, they’d already had to suffer the indignity of acknowledging their son had gone wayward, sacrificing his family name for an utterly common woman. 


Stephen was homeless, unable to keep his job, unable to focus on his studies. He had no one to turn to, and nothing left to believe in.


* * * 


Thorne pulled out a bottle of whiskey and poured two glasses.


Nova sipped the caramel elixir. “So, you’re saying Stephen was doomed either way.”


“Doomed? No. That’s too strong a word. He wasn’t doomed, his dreams were.”


“What is a man without his dreams, his ambitions, his legacy?”


“We are what we are.” Thorne shrugged. “This moment is all that is real. The words I’m speaking are already an illusion by the time they reach your ears. The future is nothing but the aggregate sum of every present that will ever be.”


Nova scoffed. “If that’s the case, why bother having goals at all? Look, all I know is, I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my life, and I want a ‘do-over.’ Can you help me, or not?”


“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?”


“So far, all you’ve done is tell stories about some guy who made a bunch of bad decisions. That doesn’t mean I’m going to.”


“Of course you will. Everyone does. Every decision you make fragments into a thousand new paths, leading to new choices. New opportunities to thrive—or to screw up your life—and everything in between.” Thorne crossed to the hearth to set another log on the fire. “Anyway, you haven’t heard the end of Stephen’s story yet. There’s more.”


Nova rolled his eyes.


* * * 


Stephen climbed up Mount Mallett a second time, with a new plan.


He would return once more to age twenty, and once again assent to his arranged relationship with Marlene. But this time he’d employ another method of satisfying her materialistic hunger. With his knowledge of the future, he could jockey financial investments in various Internet startups and cryptocurrencies to become a wealthy man. That way, he would never need to team up with his fraternity brothers, and get caught up in their fraudulent schemes that had landed him in prison.


And it worked. Before he’d even graduated from college, he’d amassed an eight-figure net worth. Marlene publicly gushed over her brilliant, successful boyfriend, and delighted in their lavish, hundred-guest destination wedding at the St. Regis Resort in Bora Bora. She gave him three beautiful children, and managed their expansive Connecticut estate and its full-time staff, while he continued to parlay their riches into close to a billion dollars.


That kind of wealth changes a man.


It became a challenge to distinguish true allies from sycophants. Even his own family and friends were suspect. Does Marlene only love me for my wealth? Do my parents only love me for my success? Do my own children only love me for the gifts and advantages I afford them? Are my friendships only as enduring as the lavish parties I throw?


Evenings and weekends, he found himself habitually dressing down and sneaking out to working-class neighborhood bars. There, he could interact with people he would never suspect of wanting anything from him but his genuine companionship.


And that’s where he met Claire.


* * * 


“I thought you were trying to talk me out of this,” said Nova. “All that sounds pretty good to me. I’m sure I’d be able to sift out the chaff with my friends and relatives.”


“You may think so, but until you are in that position, you really don’t know. And even if you think you do know someone’s heart, there’s always a niggling doubt, there to sour whatever tentative goodwill you’re able to muster.”


Nova crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, anyway, it sounds like Stephen had the best of both worlds. All the money and power he’d ever need, plus an outlet for true friendship with the working class folks. What’s wrong with that?”


Thorne chuckled. “Plenty. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the working class folks don’t take kindly to multi-millionaires ‘slumming it’ with them.”


* * * 


With Claire at his side, Stephen was on top of the world. He’d furnished himself an apartment in the suburbs to keep up appearances, and invented a whole back story about his blue collar life for all his chums at the bar. They’d all go out bowling or playing pool after a hard day’s work. Claire would cling to his arm the whole time in doting admiration.


His double life was just what he’d needed to satisfy his desires for both material comfort and genuine connection. He could have happily lived out his days juggling both identities. But, as it happens, secrets have a way of seeping out of even the tightest seams.


After a string of late-afternoon meetings one day, Stephen grinned to find several missed calls from Claire. How she misses me when I’m not around, he thought. Hurrying to Claire’s apartment, he found her front door ajar. A sweet, metallic aroma hung in the eerie stillness.


In the living area, he found Claire slumped on the sofa with a bullet hole in her forehead. The wall behind her had become a Pollock painting of blood and brain. He rushed to her side, shutting the lids on her lifeless eyes, taking her hand … weeping.


A voice came from behind him, in the kitchen. “Hello, Stephen.”


“Marlene!” Stephen stood and backed away, his fingers stained with Claire’s blood. “What have you done?”


“Your little hussy there called me this morning after she saw your face in the paper,” Marlene spat. “She was none too happy that you’d lied to her. She told me everything. All your bullshit. Your secret life. This here”—she waved toward the deceased—“is what you get for betrayal, Stephen. Do you have any idea how humiliated I am?” She drew a snub-nose pistol from her purse.


Staring down the barrel of the gun, Stephen’s intestines roiled. “Marlene, Honey, please. We can work this out. Put the gun away.” He stepped toward her, hands raised.


“Stay where you are!” she commanded.


It was all over in seconds. Stephen lunged for the weapon and fought to extricate it from her fingers. But in the tussle, the trigger depressed. The shot temporarily deafened him, trailed by a reedy, high-pitched ringing.


Marlene’s eyes glassed over before she crumpled to the floor, blood seeping from her chest into the pile carpet.


* * *


Thorne turned to stand by the window. His shoulders drooped. He craned his head skyward and sighed. The storm had softened to a steady rain. The fireplace snapped and hissed.


Nova frowned and knitted his brow, considering the tale.


“You see, it doesn’t do any good,” said Thorne. “You might think your life is a mess, but it could always be worse. There is no more guarantee that you can make things better in the past than in the present. All that matters is the endless now, and what you do with it. The present is your perpetual gift to the future.”


Nova stood and shook out his stale muscles. His clothes had mostly dried from the arid wood fire, despite the humidity outdoors.


“I think I’m going to leave now,” said Nova. “I-I’ve changed my mind.”


“Wise man.” Thorne put his hand on Nova’s shoulder. “Then you may have this back.” He held out the envelope full of cash.


“You keep it,” said Nova. At Thorne’s protest, he smiled and said, “Call it the going rate for stew and whiskey in these parts.”


Nova pulled on his parka, cinched the hood straps, and took his first step into the present.


And he never looked back.


July 09, 2022 16:45

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44 comments

A.G. Scott
18:01 Jul 09, 2022

Hey! Been a bit. I thought the confrontation with Marlene in particular was very well done in terms of how it grips the reader, and I think overall you unfurled the argument of the story artfully and compellingly. And, as usual, all the language is pleasant to the eye and ear. By way of critique: the opening couple of paragraphs, for my taste, might be a little over-described. The imagery is powerful and elemental and dramatic, so I feel like the language could be simpler, more urgent.

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Jon Casper
11:05 Jul 10, 2022

Hi A.G.! Yes it has been a while since my last post. I'd been working on the first draft of my first novel, to the exclusion of all else. My excellent beta readers sure have given me plenty of work to do on the next draft! (Astounding how blind we can be to issues with our own writing sometimes.) Going to shelve it for a bit before I sit down to tackle another draft. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback on this story. I'll take a look at the opening scene and see if I can tighten it up. Is there anything in particular that stands out as ov...

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A.G. Scott
12:52 Jul 10, 2022

I see! Congrats on taking that step and sticking with it. I've tried on and off to get a novel going but it seems I have commitment issues. I went back and looked; I think what hung me up were adjectives like corpulent, inconstant, near-instant, etc. The most interesting parts of the sentence are the actions (stinging like bees, the threat of falling off the edge--and in the case of the thunder, you tell us right afterward that it was near-instant through your character's thoughts). It's like burying the lead a little bit. Hope that's clearer.

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Jon Casper
13:06 Jul 10, 2022

Thank you for the explanations. It seems I have run afoul of this issue before (over-using adjectives), and have not learned from my mistakes! I have edited the opening scene, and you are absolutely right. I lose nothing from removing the adjectives, and it makes things more intense. Awesome feedback. Much obliged!

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Michał Przywara
20:21 Jul 09, 2022

Great story (within a story)! Thorne tells a cautionary tale, and refreshingly, Nova listens to him. This is despite the power being offered to him. I'm sure everyone can relate to him, each of us having our own "if I could do it again" moments. I like that each of Stephen's loops initially appears good, and only afterwards is it revealed how it leads to misery. It's clear Thorne is a storyteller. I wonder how many times he's told this story? I wonder how many listened to his warning, and how many proceeded despite it? And I wonder how Tho...

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Jon Casper
11:12 Jul 10, 2022

Hello, Michał. You make an excellent point about mistakes. It's a lesson I perpetually forget, and only after beating myself up for my failures, do I remember that failure is the best instructor. I'm learning many things about writing from my blunders. I liked leaving those questions about the nature of Thorne's power unanswered. I wanted the reader to wonder. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you so much for your insightful feedback.

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Michał Przywara
21:00 Jul 22, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

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Jon Casper
21:29 Jul 22, 2022

Thank you so much!

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Yves. ♙
02:22 Aug 08, 2022

How ambitious: you've fit so much into one story, and it feels totally unhurried! Particularly enjoyed those light descriptions, which I always have trouble including while moving the plot along. Congrats on the shortlist!

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Tamara Shaffer
04:15 Aug 06, 2022

I loved the opening storm: "Raindrops stung like bees"; "shred his vinyl parka like buckshot"; and "as lightning sparked like a camera flash." There were so many, but these are my favorites. The idea, going back in time (a desire of mine) is such a great concept for a story, and you told it magically. My only suggestion would be to eliminate the final sentence; I think it weakens the previous sentence, where he takes his first step into the future.

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Jon Casper
09:35 Aug 06, 2022

Hi Tamara. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story. Your idea for cutting the last line is a great idea! I wish I could go back and delete it now. :\ I appreciate your taking the time to read and give feedback.

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08:14 Aug 05, 2022

An avid story captivating all senses. Wonderful work.

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Jon Casper
09:31 Aug 06, 2022

I appreciate the kind words. Thank you so much for the feedback!

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Amanda Lieser
19:37 Aug 02, 2022

Hi Jon, I loved that you chose to create two stories in one. I was enchanted by the lessons you told through Stephen’s experiences and I felt like I was right with Nova the whole time. I really loved the way you added the element of magic that never changes. This was my favorite part: “Regret can be a persuasive demon. It doesn’t always have your best interests at heart.” Nice job and congratulations on the short list!

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Jon Casper
10:01 Aug 03, 2022

Hi Amanda. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the story. Thank you for reading and for the kind words!

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Delia Strange
08:17 Aug 01, 2022

Hey Jon, it's been a minute. Congratulations on the shortlist, it's well-deserved. The story had me hooked from the very beginning. The descriptions were vivid and put me in the scene. Here are the sentences that made me stop reading to appreciate them. "Raindrops stung like bees" "Nova winced as lightning sparked like a camera flash" "The storm outside shook the door on its hinges, as if trying to invade the warm space." "[...] creating the illusion that his entire head was aflame." "A dish of warm divorce papers would be the last meal s...

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Jon Casper
09:59 Aug 03, 2022

Hi Delia! Yes it has been a while. Glad to hear from you. Thanks for the remarkable feedback. Very good insights. I wasn't aware that "scarfed" wouldn't translate -- that is good to know. I find I must agree with you about the "eyes' apple -- in hindsight, considering how I'd wrestled to make that line fit in there, that should have been an indication that something was amiss. Your suggestion of giving some more insight into Nova's reasoning would definitely have amped up the ending. (I had the word count available for it, too. A missed oppo...

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Eric D.
20:23 Jul 27, 2022

Fascinating story Jon, I loved the bits with Stephen the most. Congrats also on the shortlist.

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Jon Casper
09:49 Jul 29, 2022

Thank you, Eric! I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

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Kevin Broccoli
16:26 Jul 27, 2022

I thought you did a nice job of building as you went along so that the pay-off felt like it had more weight due to it as a direct result of the concept. Good job.

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Jon Casper
20:02 Jul 27, 2022

Hi Kevin- Thank you so much for the kind words. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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Marie White
01:03 Jul 26, 2022

I really enjoyed reading this story - you did a great job of keeping up the suspense. It was really interesting to see how the different scenarios panned out, and how even what seemed the most promising of them ended in disaster. Great work!

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Jon Casper
09:11 Jul 27, 2022

Hi Marie- I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the story. Thank you for the very kind words.

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05:06 Jul 23, 2022

Congratulations 👏 it's so awesome to see you on the shortlist! About time too! Reedsy finally saw sense. Your comments and stories make my writing better, there's no doubt about it. So my shortlist is your achievement too. Thank you!

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Jon Casper
09:48 Jul 23, 2022

Katharine, what a wonderful compliment! I feel the same way. Your feedback helps me improve every story. Your unwavering encouragement has been a big reason for me to keep throwing my hat into the ring. So, thank YOU! It sure feels nice having that star on my profile.

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K.J. Dyer
19:36 Jul 22, 2022

Absolutely enjoyed this story. Well done. I loved that the story within the story had multiple endings with equally bad results. Very visually crafted, I could truly see the scenes.

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Jon Casper
20:01 Jul 22, 2022

Thank you for the glowing compliments, K.J.! I appreciate it!

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Seán Mc Nicholl
15:04 Jul 22, 2022

Congratulations on the well deserved shortlist Jon!!

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Jon Casper
15:22 Jul 22, 2022

Thank you so much, Seán!

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Samuel Yates
17:41 Jul 21, 2022

Wow, great story! A well-told point of view for 'if I could do it all over again!' I Loved the twisted ending with Marlene. I enjoyed the concept of 'A cautionary tale of changing the cards that life has dealt you!' Well done!

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Jon Casper
18:50 Jul 21, 2022

Hi Samuel. Many thanks for the kind words. I appreciate the positive feedback!

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Matt Allen
18:45 Jul 17, 2022

It's a lot to digest. Each paragraph is excellent, mind you but the descriptors may be overdone for my taste.

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Jon Casper
18:49 Jul 21, 2022

Hello, and thank you for reading. I appreciate the feedback!

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Katy Borobia
14:13 Jul 17, 2022

Oh my goodness, this story is amazing! The story-within-a-story and the three different timelines were masterfully done and very believable. I have a few favorite lines: "Marlene, his soon-to-be ex-wife" "Regret can be a persuasive demon. It doesn’t always have your best interests at heart.” Well done!!

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Jon Casper
17:05 Jul 17, 2022

Hi Katy. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story. Many thanks for the wonderful compliments.

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14:03 Jul 10, 2022

Hi Jon, Good to see you back. A few thoughts: I really like the opening paragraphs as they are - I see someone else thought they were too descriptive - but I like the imagery and the turns of phrase. I wasn't sure about this line: His gravelly voice was more a growl than language. is a voice expected to be language? It just doesn't quite sit right somehow - perhaps swap language for words? Or distinct words. His gravelly voice was more a growl than distinct words. I don't know - something like that. His entrepreneurial stumbles as...

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Jon Casper
14:34 Jul 10, 2022

Hi Katharine! Glad to be back. Plenty of excellent, eagle-eyed notes here, as always! Thank you for the many corrections. I'd deliberated at length over my defiance of the "said" rule there. I recently beta-read a novel for someone who'd peppered their dialogue with exceptions to this rule here and there, and found that I somewhat enjoyed the variation, when not over-used. A couple of the phrases you'd snagged on (Thorne's eye color, e.g.) I rephrased to evade the issue, and I like the revision better. Good catch! Much obliged for the t...

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Zelda C. Thorne
06:33 Jul 10, 2022

Hi Jon, I enjoyed this. A timeless desire I think, wanting to have another go, as it were. Liked the story within a story aspect, the way Stephan's choices led to worse and worse results! Good one.

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Jon Casper
11:17 Jul 10, 2022

Hi Zelda! (Great pen name, by the way.) It was a therapist I saw for a while that gave me this perspective. I'd been grousing about how I'd felt like I'd been absent the day they handed out the manual for life and relationships. If only I knew then what I knew now, I could have avoided so many blunders. She pointed out my error in logic, much like Thorne did for Nova. Thank you very much for the read and the feedback.

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Zelda C. Thorne
14:32 Jul 22, 2022

Ooooo shortlisted! Congrats! 👏

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Jon Casper
14:39 Jul 22, 2022

Thank you! First time on the list! What a feeling....

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Zelda C. Thorne
15:39 Jul 22, 2022

About time! Overdue.

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Kevin Marlow
02:21 Jul 10, 2022

An astute cautionary fable with a timeless message, when one reaches for all the marbles, he often loses them all.

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Jon Casper
11:21 Jul 10, 2022

Hello, Kevin. Great synopsis! I like that comparison. It's a hard lesson to learn sometimes, and one that's easy to forget. I think it's ingrained in the human condition. It takes diligence to be OK with making mistakes and use them for what they are: lessons. Thanks for reading and for the feedback.

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