He is sweating bullets as he nervously chews on his nails, eyeing the wall calendar in his home office, then tilting his head over to peer down at the unmarked checklist sitting atop his mahogany desk. Ralph can’t believe how fast time has flown. Can it really be 12 months now of repeatedly telling himself, “Oh, I’ll get around to starting that list tomorrow?”
“Okay, maybe this won’t be so tough,” he thinks. “Let’s just start at the top of the list and work my way down, I still have 24 hours to get this stuff done. How hard can it be?”
“Well, shit.” Ralph sees the first item on his to-do list: “Make amends with past co-workers, friends, and family that have been wronged by my actions or words.”
“Maybe if I start with an easier one down the list…” His finger scrolling the page frantically in search of something he can knock out in a few minutes to boost his confidence level. “Aha!” he exclaims, locating item #7 on the list: “Do one act of random kindness for a neighbor today.” “There, that can’t be that hard to do, right?”
Then he remembers that his neighbor closest in proximity is gone on vacation to Hawaii for the holidays, and the neighbor down the road just recently passed away. “Oh, God,” Ralph shouts, as he realizes this only leaves Sheila, Goddess of Destruction and Damnation.
He’s thought to himself many times that her parents misnamed her – she is a “Karen” if ever there was one. Only this lady doesn’t just demand to speak to the manager, she calls in the city for your lawn being a half-inch too tall or a flake of paint falling off the side of your house. Or Heaven-forbid you ever watch a movie in your own home a decibel louder than normal.
“Oh, wait! There’s Bob just up the hill, I borrowed a hammer from him a few months ago and never returned it, now I can just go and give it back to him, and then…”
A scowl forms across his face as he remembers, (a) he broke the hammer while using it, and (b) Bob is a Jehovah’s Witness and every time he interacts with him, it’s a 45-minute conversation of polite head-nodding and bringing home an armful of brochures that end of in the fireplace.
As he’s trying to make his decision of attempting an act of kindness for Sheila or Bob, there’s a knock at his door. He peeks through the hole on his front door, a little worried that it might be Bob and his friends proselytizing; they love to do that on Saturdays, he remembers. Ralph is relieved to find a postman holding an envelope, so he opens the door and greets the mail carrier.
“Special Overnight Delivery for a Ralph Barton.”
“That’s me in the flesh.”
“Make sure you open it immediately—those were the instructions given by the sender. Farewell.”
Ralph tears the golden seal on the back of the envelope and extracts the letter inside, and begins reading it aloud to himself:
“A friendly reminder of the terms of our deal. You have until the clock strikes 11:59 pm this night to complete every item on your checklist of Resolutions that you assured me was, and I quote, ‘Very do-able.’ Hope you had fun spending that $1 million dollars in cash. Good luck with your list, and just in case, I recommend you begin packing a suitcase with some things for a ‘warmer climate,’ if you catch my drift. Ta-ta for now, chow, bye-bye, Your Pal, Lucy Fur. P.S.: Legal Dept. made me include a copy of the contract with your signature. Stupid lawyers, even down here.”
Just what he needed, yet another stress-inducing reminder. Like he could forget the deal he made with the stranger in a trench coat in that hotel bar one year ago. The stranger had Ralph, after several drinks, write out the Top 20 Resolutions that could change his life for the better. The stranger would provide Ralph with a suitcase full of a million dollars in cash. He could use the money for anything he desired, no limits on that part of the deal. The only catch, and it was a big one, was that Ralph must complete every single item on his to-do list by 11:59 pm on 12/31/22, or he would have to permanently relocate to somewhere with very warm temperatures year-round.
Yes, Ralph being stupid-drunk at the time didn’t help his judgment out any, but he’s pretty sure he would’ve done the same thing had he been sober. Who would turn down $1 million dollars, right, no matter what strings are attached? Ralph just wishes he had written the list after he knew about the bargain, so he could have chosen easier tasks for his twenty things.
Staring at the page, he asks himself, “Did I really write ‘#19: Negotiate peace in the Middle East?’ Man, how cliché and unobtainable… What was drunk-me thinking?”
Checking the time on his smartwatch, and seeing it is already 4:03 pm, he anxiously begins pacing the hallways of his house. “Have I really just wasted 3 hours overthinking things and staring at this list instead of actually accomplishing anything?” He begins shaking his head side-to-side when he looks down at item #2: “Don’t procrastinate anymore!”
His hands holding the list and reminder letter are shaking with fear, so he does the only thing he knows that will calm him down—he heads to the kitchen to pour himself a strong drink. Just as he was about to gulp down the long island iced tea shot from his glass, he spills a drop on his checklist, and it lands right on #4, “Cut out drinking alcohol.” “Son of a bitch!” is his response as he launches the shot glass into the wall and shatters it.
“Ralph, that was a close call right there, are you okay?”
Scared shitless, Ralph looks around left-to-right through his living room to see if he’s going insane, hearing voices in his head. Then he breathes a little sigh of relief when he sees his living room TV was left on and is showing an old episode of Looney Tunes featuring Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog, and he assumes that is where the voice was coming from.
He determinedly examines the list, hunting through it for the perfect one he can easily knock off – then suddenly he exclaims, “FUCK!” It is because he saw #8: “No more cursing or swearing.”
Trying to calm himself further, he grabs his pack of Camel 99s and reaches into his coat pocket for a lighter. Just as soon as he lights the cigarette, however, his memory is jogged, and he vividly remembers that he wrote #5: “Stop Smoking!” He sets the cigarette across the top of his ashtray and starts biting his nails again. Breaking #8 again, he yells, “Shit!” Yep, you guessed it, #9 on the list is “Stop chewing on my fingernails.”
He decides he needs to get out of the house and clear his thoughts, and he figures he might be able to kill two birds with one stone, if he takes a walk over to his neighbor’s house (thus accomplishing #3: “Exercise More!”) to do an act of kindness for Sheila, like mowing her lawn or taking the trash out to the curb.
Sheila seems genuinely shocked by the knock on her door, and the sight of Ralph, who has not exactly been her favorite neighbor. “Yes, what do you want?” she asks him. “You haven’t joined up with Bob’s cult of brochure-peddlers, have you? Whatever it is, I’m not buying it.” Ralph says, “No, nothing like that, Sheila. I’m actually here trying to make amends for any past wrongs and to do an act of random kindness for you, like mowing your lawn or taking your trash to curb.”
“What are you trying to say, asshole? Are you saying my grass is too tall? Are you accusing me of letting my trash pile up in the house? You don’t think I’m capable of taking out my own garbage?” As she was bombarding him with angry questions, he took a step back with his left foot and wasn’t even aware that he kicked Sheila’s orange and white cat right down the porch steps.
Sheila says, “Stay right there, you monster, I’m going to grab my shotgun and give you what you got coming!” Ralph hightails it out of there like the Roadrunner from one of those aforementioned Looney Tunes cartoons. He makes a mental note, “At least I’m taking care of the ‘Exercise More!’ part of the list.” He tells himself that when he gets back home, he needs to grab his pencil and check that one off the list.
He makes it back to his house, panting from running so fast, he stops, leans down and rests his hands on his knees while catching his breath. When he finally looks up, his jaw drops as he sees bright orange flames engulfing his house. His first thought is that he must go inside and get that list out or he is doomed. Ralph, with no concern for his safety, storms the burning front door, searching for the list. Remarkably, the list is unharmed, still on the kitchen counter where he left it, next to the cigarette he forgot to put out. “Well, I guess I can forget about checking off the ‘Stop Smoking’ item,” he thinks.
All of a sudden, inside the inferno raging through his kitchen, he feels a hand pat him on the back. Ralph turns to see a familiar looking face, wearing a trench coat. “Hi, it’s me, Lucy. You remember me, don’t you? My, my, my, look at the time,” he states, as the clock flashes 11:59 pm.
“At least it looks like you’ve been practicing dealing with the hotter climate. Come on, follow me out to my Hummer, let me drive you to your new place.”