Fantasy Fiction Science Fiction

We all have regrets. Coulda, woulda, shoulda…fill in the blank. It drives some people into insanity. Or into therapy. Or worse.

           Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

           Shoulda is the worst of the trio. I should have done this, but I did that, and look where it got me. Where is not the preferred place or you wouldn’t have asked the question in the first place. The ideal was a life well-lived, no regrets, and a long look in the mirror each morning, smug smile appearing, and a silent nod to the living icon. You. You really are great.

           A lot of people have shouldas. Most people. That’s how LivYurLyf got into the business. The business in this case was a super-App; a virtual reality App that went beyond anything that magic mushrooms or hypnosis could achieve. It took, heck still does, the concept of metaverse from a place of networking to time, infinite time, and puts you in the life you want to live. For a while.

           LivYurLyf had the apt motto, “The Way Life Should Be.” The State of Maine sued LivYurLyf for copyright infringement but failed on one count and won on another. They failed because Maine’s motto was “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” LivYurLyf hadn’t used the name Maine. The court decided “The Way Life Should Be” applied to tourist-related efforts specific to Maine, real stuff like beaches, mountains, and lobsters, while LivYurLyf could use the motto specific to their virtual reality monster as long as LivYurLyf didn’t become a state.  

           The effort Maine won, however, was that LivYurLyf offered a slimmed-down discounted version that could be downloaded and show in extraordinary detail the charms of Maine which boosted tourism revenues by 20% after an aggressive campaign that included, at extra charge, a chowder and lobster dinner (delivered hot, not virtually) and intense odors of the coast, the pine forests, and even the smoky fireplaces at quaint inns provided by an eMist machine, also made by LivYurLyf, with the cooperation of International Flavors & Fragrances. The amount of smoke was adjustable, and you could choose the type of wood as well.

           LivYurLyf was that good.       

           Coulda, woulda, shoulda regrets follow a recognized pattern according to psychologists. They start with a point in your life where you’re unhappy about something, then you go back to a time when you made the choice – regrets are about choice, not circumstance – reimagine that choice and project forward to now and how happy you would have been. What LivYurLyf figured out was how to create a virtual world based on a combination of brainwaves, chemicals (especially the neurotransmitters implicated in depression-like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin), electronic impulses to simulate physical anticipations and responses to meta events, plus a low but constant dose of a cocktail of LSD and psilocybin. The aptly named experience was called a Tryp. A Tryp could last from several hours to several months for a few well-heeled but miserable people in for an annual contract.

           The Way Life Should Be was, virtually, a reality if one with a finite timeframe. “A while,” was what the counselors recruited by LivYurLyf said was enough. Problem was the while could be a long while, a vastly long while, and like compulsive gamblers or addicts of any substance, once people got into it they didn’t want to leave. Ever. People were losing their jobs, their families, their wealth, in exchange for finding a life of true, if virtual, happiness.

           Social media experts at LivYurLyf pointed to thousands of examples of people who went into their metaverse and came out with confidence and determination to change their life to one that now seemed real. Indeed, they were offering scholarships to a lucky few and created a loan program for people wanting to finance a new education with the help of former Wall Street investment bankers who had agreed to accept a ban from the financial, not virtual, industry. “Charged, not convicted,” was their mantra when asked about a potential conflict.

           Despite the warnings of psychologists, psychiatrists, and a host of others, right-leaning politicians didn’t want to interfere in free enterprise and left-leaners invoked the hope that imagining a better world might inspire people to a more equitable, diverse, and just future. That white supremacists discovered a world to their liking, and uber-liberals marched in May Day parades, was beside the point. Dreaming doesn’t make one guilty. Besides, LivYurLyf was making a fortune.

           Timing is everything. Henry Mather was at his desk, in his remote office, and took a break from the tedium of responding to texts and emails from a variety of people on his team demanding an immediate response to instead surf the internet. He recalled a book, What Color is Your Parachute?, and wondered how he’d gotten to where he was; working remotely, late at night, still not having had dinner, and wanting to tell every passive-aggressive colleague to shove it. He was too old for What Color is Your Parachute? but remembered the brief moments of inspiration when forcing him to imagine what made him happy. Maybe those things had changed. Or maybe he never knew what made him happy. Real dreams were pure fantasy, totally out of reach, especially to a five-foot-eight Henry who imagined an extra foot (vertically) and a chance to play in the NBA.

           That’s when he got the message.

           LivYurLyf had bought an algorithm that triggered an ad that dovetailed with any number of web searches about life changes – from careers to marriages, from nostalgia to fantasy baseball. Their ads were alluring, to say the least, effectively offering a different life in a virtual world to those already seeking something evidently different. They hooked tens of millions that way. For most, it was a tour down memory lane or a chance to try on something different.

           If only the experience wasn’t so very real.

           Henry didn’t really want to be an NBA player. What he wanted to be was a writer, a hugely successful writer, replete with erudite appearances on TV shows, Pulitzers, movie adaptations, and a modest demeanor that only superficially covered the ego that would accompany the kudos. And money. And women fawning on the great author. Or men. It was the fawning that counts.

           He took advantage of the teaser rate, 50% off the first Tryp, and went to one of LivYurLyf’s multitude of facilities set up in medical office centers (over the protests of the legitimate medical professionals). After an hour of counseling on the experience, the risks, and filling in a long online set of forms, Henry was ushered into a small room with subdued lighting, an extraordinarily large version of an MRI tube, and a temperature so perfect one didn’t think about it. Henry was given the full Monty VR headset, a jumpsuit connected to wires that went into a very sophisticated computer monitored by a counselor, and a pill.

           “I hate MRIs. I’m kind of claustrophobic,” he said to the counselor as he backed toward the exit.

           “Relax,” smiled the counselor, “Take a look inside.”

           What Henry saw was not the interior of any MRI he’d been in. It was like he had come out of a tunnel into a vast space that defied logic. He pulled out and looked again. It was another world. He was on a white sand beach, palm trees swaying, with a comforting warm breeze coming up from a surrounding forest. It smelled of Pina Coladas. “When you slip in,” she said. “I’ll monitor every step of the way. If you need anything, I’ll know.”   

           Henry was plastered with various ECG pads, a wire-mesh head covering with more electronic probes and given a concoction that tasted very much like the Pina Coladas he sniffed on the beach. “Now it’s your life,” said the counselor helping him onto the sliding bed. “Enjoy it.”

           When she’d said, “slip in,” Henry thought she referred to the bed. He was wrong. The slipping in was an immediate state of relaxed confidence as he journeyed back through the years. It was his life rushing past him, but not as if he faced death. He was able to, and not just metaphorically, pause events, events he’d lived, events he regretted, and rethink at those moment what he should have done. How strange and wonderful to be at a place today, go back in time to see how you got here, change the trajectory and move back to the present. In the space of a few hours of this Tryp he was a doctor, a writer, an actor, single, married to someone else, married to several other elses. He was a soldier, a sailor, a good, no great golfer, thirty pounds thinner and ran a marathon (which he didn’t care for because the pain and recovery were too real).

           But it wasn’t imagined; it was real, very real.

           He was just looking at his virtual Rolex, thinking he’d easily get to see the Red Sox win, again, when he heard the words of God. Well, it seemed like God. “Henry,” came the heavenly whisper in his ear. “Time for this one to come home.”

           The counselor offered him another cup of something, more Mai Tai than Pina Colada, and helped him to his feet. She took some vitals, removed the adhesively attached EKG pads and asked how he felt. He had been in such a state of mind, was it only mind?, that her administrations seemed too indifferent, too perfunctory. “I’m...” He thought he had the answer but lost it amidst the memories just created. “I could have,” he said then stopped. “I was, I mean I am. I can be…”

           So much more.

           She smiled and handed him a thick folder that reviewed his Tryp, what worked, what didn’t, with highlights marked with an L for low and H for high to indicate where, physiologically, he had been. “We rely on your body’s response more than words to indicate moments of happiness or joy, but if we continue, we’ll talk about that as well,” she said. Henry rubbed his calves, still sore from the marathon, and asked how soon he could return. She smiled and ushered him to the receptionist who took his credit card and handed still another brochure explaining various plans LivYurLyf offered. “You can use your FSA or HSA account, as well,” he said adjusting the quarter-size black gauges in his earlobes.

           Henry tried to stay with what had happened on his drive home, but he was interrupted by calls from his wife, then his son who despite being 27 still needed a periodic cash infusion, and from his daughter who insisted on being referred to as his offspring and got obstreperous when he called her “she” instead of they and was in a particularly angry mood on that call because “they” were coming over with “their” boyfriend and he had questioned “them” about why if “they” had a boyfriend, who “they” referred to as him, “they” weren’t still a “she.” “We’re not having the same conversation,” they” said to which he asked if the ‘we’ in this case was them or us. The joke either fell flat or he’d just driven into a drop-out zone.

           After putting away recycling into the multitude of bins specified for each element on the periodic table, Henry tried to meditate on the multitude of paths his life might have taken, could have taken. If only. The counselor had cautioned that all clients shouldn’t address those potential outcomes with “if only” but rather with “at least.”          

           Henry tried. At least I had a decent career. At least I saved a lot of retirement. At least we’ve traveled a lot. A least I don’t have some awful medical condition. At least the mortgage is paid off. At least the kids are happy. That gave way to questions. Are the kids happy? He wondered what they talked about in therapy. Decent career? Well not like Jack Kornfeld, MD, who always sat on the aisle because he’d tell people he was on call even when he wasn’t. “Professional privilege,” he’d whisper. Or his freshman year roommate Robert Faye, President of that stupid corporation who’d invested $1,000 in Bitcoin in 2011, now worth $17 million which he called chump change.

           The at-leasts gave way.

           Henry went back, and back, and back again. The going back was about both the LivYurLyf center and his life. His travels to and from the center were interrupted by calls and texts from his family, his work, telemarketers, and the flashing lights of a police car when, lost in his thoughts, he ran a stop sign. In the tube that day he imagined his life as a police officer, erased that and was an FBI agent investigating art fraud.

           These weren’t fantasies; these were real possibilities. His mind followed a decision tree. Some of the branches ended short or broken; he followed one to a nasty divorce, another to a bad car crash, still another to an investment scam. Other branches grew to great lengths and appealing lives, better lives. Great lives. As the bills for the tryps mounted, he got anxious, but LivYurLyf noted that insurance might pay, out of network, and that the tryps were medical deductions when advised by their in-house medical staff. The latter were partially compensated in stock options.

           His wife nagged him about the cost and time he was spending. His boss asked why he was suddenly so cheeky. His kids asked where he’d gone wrong with them and then proceeded to tell him.

           The Tryps were supposed to make him happier, to guide him to a future, a better future, to at least have fun trying on different, quite literally, costumes. They were a lark, a moment, or supposed to be. He whined to a fellow traveler in the waiting room, a not unattractive woman he wouldn’t have dared speak to if it hadn’t been for his chances to see his life differently. “Well,” she said with a wink. “It is all so seductive. I discovered how much I like caviar, but then you don’t want caviar all the time, do you?”

           Before Henry could say “yes” he was back in the tube heli-skiing in the Bugaboos, sitting with a not unattractive woman enjoying caviar at the sumptuous dinner after the runs. Between the caviar, the altitude, and the woman’s rum and Diet Cokes, he felt nauseous.

           LivYurLyf offered Henry a special gift, a long weekend replay of his Tryps and random walks through the branches of the life that could be. Henry accepted gratefully even as he calculated how much of his recreational budget had gone to the company. Still, he’d invested a not insubstantial portion of his IRA in LivYurLyf, NASDAQ symbol TRYPR, and it was up 37% since he started his journeys. Not bad for six months.

           He started down the usual path, to his elementary school years. There was a Little League game against the Bobcats, but this time he caught the fly, threw to second for a double play. Henry breezed on through high school since he’d been there dozens of times already. College took him down several detours until he landed, comfortably, as a writer once more, especially pleased over the galleys of his latest book, one that almost wrote itself. He got up from the desk in his home styled on TR Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill down to the mounted trophies from the FauxFur company he thought was a sound idea. What a life he was leading in this version. Ground Hog Day come true.

           He was at the edge of his property, the other side of the pool fence, when he heard the crying. That didn’t belong in this life. He went to the edge of his vast yard and saw a little girl had fallen from a swing and a boy, younger than her, was trying to help her up. He too was in tears, not knowing what to do, and had a bloody scraped knee of his own.

           Henry knew the scene.

           He ran to the children saying “oh my” in a gentle voice. He brushed dirt off their wounds with wipes he had in his pocket, kissed the scrapes, and blew on them. “There,” he said,” Feel better?” The girl sniffled a yes as her crying subsided. “Me too,” said the boy. Henry lifted their shirts to blow vibrating bubbles on their bellies. That got the children squealing. He gathered them in his arms – my, they’re getting heavy! -- and they hugged his neck until he begged “Uncle!” The house was different now. It wasn’t a Victorian Mansion, certainly not Sagamore Hill, but what the realtor called a “mid-century” classic raised ranch when Henry and his wife bought it thirty years ago.

           Carrying those children home, Henry thought he was the luckiest man in the world.

On his way home, he picked up a fungi pizza, well done, with caramelized onions for himself and his wife, her favorite, a Margherita for his offspring and their boyfriend, and pepperoni for his son. He also texted himself a note to sell his position in LivYurLyf. Such upside could only go so far.

April 29, 2023 12:57

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Carolyn O'B
18:10 May 11, 2023

I was sent your story to critique it, Many of your sentences are too long. Read your story aloud, I use the text to speech feature. By hearing it, you will know what corrections need to be made. Coulda, woulda, shoulda… (I used this line in one of my stories.)


Show 0 replies
Mary Bendickson
19:02 May 01, 2023

Knocked the prompt out of the park on this one! Or slam dunked a three-pointer! Or won the Pulitzer! Or...all of the above. What a life!


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.