“Just press that button there and it all restarts.” A man dressed in shimmering white robes appeared in the distance. He smiled. A crooked halo sat on top of a head of fluffy brown hair.
He raised his hands in the air and a beautiful world came to life. A forest of trees sprouted to the skies, their leaves dripping with god-like power. Streams of crystal blue water flowed to the right, and to the left stood white-tipped mountain ranges. Beyond the conjured horizon, the arms of lively flames moved with the breeze. All the elements in one place. Earth, wind, fire, water; they were all entwined together, like a painted canvas.
In the middle of it all, sat a large box.
Wren blinked, studying the mysterious item in front of him. Vines of green, pink, and yellow danced in the air as they untangled themselves. A pulsing button at the center of the box emerged and the vines fell limp at his feet.
“Is this a joke?”
“No…” The man cocked his head back, his bottom lip puffed out.
“What is this? Who are you?” Wren squinted at the strange world before him. The oddly dressed man. The box.
“This is your chance, Wren, to start over. To do it again.”
“Do what again, exactly?”
The haze of confusion began to lift. This wasn’t some weird dream and he wasn’t lost in a magical world. Visions of those last few moments flooded Wren’s mind.
A phone; half of a text message. Honking.
The screeching of metal-on-metal.
His eyebrows folded inward as the truth settled in his gut. “I—” He ran a hand over his face and steadied himself. “So this is like a reincarnation thing.”
The man in white raised his hands over the box. A smile slowly spread across his face as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, eagerly. “By pressing this button, you can go back. Before it happened. And all those little moments you wished you could relive? You can.”
“No?” The man jerked his head back. “You don’t wanna take a minute to at least think about it?”
“What about my life says I’d wanna do it all over again? Taking care of my drunken mother while still learning to tie my shoes? No, don’t think I’d wanna do that again. Maybe the months I spent strapped to a hospital bed after deployment? Nope, not that, either. Oh! Maybe I could relive the years my daughter wouldn’t talk to me. The years I spent down a bottle after…” Wren hung his head and swallowed the lump sitting in the back of his throat. “After my wife died.” His eyes widened and he met the robed man’s gaze. “After you took her from me!”
“Woah! A simple ‘no, thank you’ would be fine. You don’t need to be rude.”
No. This wasn’t happening. Wren shook his head and stepped backward. “This is ridiculous!” He whipped around, ready to walk away. But where would he go? It was all just some twisted play on his imagination. Conjured by a strange man in a robe. He slumped his shoulders, and turned, facing the man.
The deep lines in Wren’s face softened. “So…do people actually choose to do it again?”
“Well, of course. No one wants to, you know, die.”
“Look, I can see you’re having some trouble with this.” The man walked across the field of overgrown grass and stopped. In one swift motion of his hand, an old stone gateway appeared.
It looked like an ancient, forgotten ruin. The nature that teemed with life in the rest of the world, lay dead among the broken pillars and cobblestone. Perfectly constructed archways were stained with mold. Bones of long-gone animals littered the ground.
The robed man passed through the archway, pausing in front of a grey door. “You just gonna stand there? Come on.”
Wren pushed his hands to his temples and reluctantly followed. "Just a little ‘trouble’ is all. Is that what this is?” An exasperated sigh escaped his throat. He stared at the two stone bats that sat on either side of the door. There was something different about them, something ominous. He shook it off and moved towards the robed man. “Is there another life behind that door? A good one?”
A light erupted from beneath it. Shadows paced back and forth on the other side, clawing at the door’s edges.
The man stood tall in front of the two door guards. A viscous sound erupted from his throat. Both stone sculptures shook and crumbled, shaking the ground beneath them. From their broken shells, emerged two bats the size of mammoths, eyes as yellow as the sun.
A single flap of their wings and the door flew open.
The smell of rot and burnt flesh hit Wren like a punch to the gut. He stumbled backwards. Shrill cries pierced his eardrums. Emotion coursed through him like a Tidal wave. Pain. Regret. Angst. Guilt and shame that was strong enough to split open a grown man. Was this Hell?
“Something like that.”
“You asked if it was Hell.”
“Not out loud.”
“C’mon. You’re dead. You saw me create trees and fire. You’re standing in front of a literal Hell. And you doubt that I know what you’re thinking?” He rubbed his hands together. “So what’s it gonna be?”
“I don’t wanna live that life again. I know how bad it is.” Wren crossed his arms and turned away.
“You wouldn’t be living the same life.”
Wren considered the man’s words. “So I’d be someone else?”
“Well no, you’d still be you.”
Wren clenched his fists, his face twisted in frustration. He sighed.
The man in white stifled a laugh. “You don’t have to make the same decisions or take the same paths. Be someone else. Anyone you want. Someone powerful? Here, I’ll make you a deal.”
He pulled a large, spinning ball into his hands. Bright white tendrils tinged with pink and orange flowed through it. Their frayed ends danced as the two men stared into the ball.
Another world began to bloom.
The conjured trees reaching for the skies slipped into darkness. The distant flames dwindled into ash. In its place stood a high rise office building, much like those that lined the city of New York. And much like the skyscraper office Wren had dreamed of being working in. Being able to see the glowing city as he worked late, knowing it would all be his one day.
An image of Wren appeared. He was dressed in a fancy, Italian suit. Confidence oozed from the firm smile plastered on his face. True success, Wren thought, watching the alternate version of himself live the life that should have been his.
Adjusting his crooked halo, the white robed man nodded. “That’s the man you always wanted to be. Strong. Sure of himself. The man lesser men strived to be. The one women melted for.”
Wren watched the unfolding images intently. Moment after moment. Powerful Wren. Rich Wren. Casanova Wren.
“It all boils down to one decision. Well, two. The first is to say yes and push the button.”
“And the second?”
“It's about the day you met Vivian.”
“My wife? What does she have to do with this?”
“Well… in this version of Wren’s life, she doesn’t make it.”
Wren frowned. “She didn’t make it in the old Wren’s life, either.”
“Right. But you still had a life with her. This Wren doesn't. It's not possible here.”
“I…No.” Wren shook his head, swallowed, and stepped back. “This is a mistake.”
“Are you sure?” The white-robed man pulled the next image into view. “While you can’t be a part of her life, your presence that day changes everything.”
A small coffee shop comes into focus.
Wren knew it well: Eighty-Second street, best pumpkin muffins in the whole city. And the place he met her.
A young Vivian enters the picture, rushing through the door of the coffee shop. Clearly in a hurry—late for an audition. (Wren knew that part well.) But this time, its different. There is no Wren in the doorway. There is no dropped cup, no shattered pieces littering the ground. And so she runs uninterrupted out of the shop.
“Seems like maybe she’s better off. I don’t see the problem.”
“Keep watching. That thirty seconds makes all the difference.”
Thunder cracks in the sky. A storm is coming. Vivian continues to run down the street and the traffic rushes past her. Her teeth clench as she tries to will her legs to run faster. She can't miss that audition!
The sky darkens and the clouds open. Heavy rain pours down on the bustling city street. It's a frantic blur as everyone beelines for the nearest shelter: in a car, beneath an awning, inside a nearby store.
But not Vivian. It's just a little storm, after all. And her future is at stake.
Vivian approaches the curb and steps out into the road without another thought. A car zooms past her, sending a puddle of water flying. She's soaked. “Hey!” she yells after the car, but it's already gone.
Stumbling backwards, her ankle rolls. The heel of her shoe breaks. She falls to the ground, knees stained red.
Another car roars through the scene. Quickly approaching. They, too, must be in a hurry. But Vivian isn't looking. And the driver never sees her.
Wren tore his eyes from the heart-wrenching scene. The moment faded from view, replaced briefly with darkness. One by one, the trees sprouted to the sky once more. He fell to his knees, dry heaving. This was not what Wren wanted. None of it. He grabbed his stomach and screamed out into the void.
“Just so you know, she doesn’t make—”
“I’ll do it. I’ll press the button. I’ll go back.” He was on his knees, pleading.
The robed man stood tall, a twinge of amusement visible beneath his halo. His robes flapped against a gust of wind. “I knew you would. You see now.”
“Just send me back. I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Push the button. It’s what you want.”
With trembling legs, Wren stood and stepped forward. One single breath in. And one breath out. No time to think or contemplate. His hand slipped into the box and he pressed the button.
Wind swirled around them. An icy chill enveloped Wren. Frigid. So cold he couldn’t move. The ground beneath him shook violently.
The ever-changing paradise fell away. The trees crumbled. Their leaves, no longer full of power, transformed into blood-soaked teeth. The teeth of monsters. The crystal waters dried and in their place formed a graveyard of ivory bones. Human bones. Innocent bones.
Bones of people just like Wren.
Darkness enveloped Wren as a sinkhole opened at his feet. Red and orange flames swam circles around him, like ravenous sharks, until they engulfed him. Swallowed him whole. Not even his screams could be heard.
The robed man once again raised his arms and wiped it all away like a bad painting. He laughed, “Got another.”
He tossed the glowing ball to the ground as if it were an old toy, its tendrils still dancing. The ball bounced and rolled into the shadows.
Quickened footsteps echoed behind him. A knot formed his gut. He forced it away and turned around.
A beautiful woman in white walked into the room, hair of gold flowing down her back. A pained expression formed on her face as she searched the room. “Lucifer, you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t. You promised!”
The man called Lucifer cackled as his white-robed disguise faded into black mist. Clumps of burnt flesh fell to his feet. His crooked halo vanished.
A bed of snakes slithered out from behind him, their red eyes glowing in delight. “The best part is that you believe me. Every. Damn. Time.”
“It's not a game! These are human souls you’re playing with.”
“Yes, Sister. You’d think you’d learn to not be late.”
The angel’s face reddened. She opened her mouth to speak, but Lucifer was already gone. Nothing but a colony of hungry bats in his wake.