A few seconds. I looked down for just a few seconds and I ended up being treated to an experience that has permanently warped my sense of reality.
I was driving home after work, I’d had to stay late to help clean up and the sun was already on its way down when I finally got out the door. I’d had a podcast playing on my phone and for some reason it’d randomly paused, so I glanced down for just a moment to see why it’d stopped.
When I looked back up, I was faced with a pair of headlights flooding my vision and I couldn’t even hit the horn before I collided head on with the other car that had drifted out of its lane.
I strangely don’t remember any of the pain that I had to have felt. I mean, I was in a car accident, and when I woke up from my week long coma I definitely felt pain. Both my legs are broken, along with several of my ribs and my back. My face was so swollen I looked like I’d been used as the personal punching bag of a heavyweight boxer.
But no, I don’t remember any pain. Just the light. And then I was walking down a dark hallway, following the light.
I can already tell what you’re thinking- a light at the end of a dark tunnel, I’m clearly going to heaven and this is my story of how it’s really like up there. That maybe God’s actually devouring the good souls and maybe hell was the better option, or maybe God’s dead and the angels are coming down to end the scourge of humanity.
Um. No. Not really. I didn’t go to heaven. Didn’t go to hell either. I’m not sure if either of those exist anymore.
I got the impression this wasn’t quite what I’d been told to expect when I heard a man speaking with a posh British accent.
“- Sure, she got to enjoy life to its fullest with her luxury vacations and fine food, but was it really worth it to lose it all at age twenty eight? All because she took a drunk nap behind the wheel of her car.”
A softer voice responded to his, feminine and barely above a mumble.
“I don’t understand why she’d made such a poor choice at all.”
The British man chuckled.
“Humanity is known for such things.”
I picked up the pace, heading right for the light until I came out in a theater box.
I’d never been in one in my life before but it didn’t take long at all to realize that’s exactly what it was, a theater box overlooking a lovely if not nearly bare stage and an uncountable amount of seats, the rows stretching back until they faded out of sight.
In the box with me was a petite young woman, probably only a year or two older than me, dressed in a scarlet gown with a tulle skirt and her brown hair neatly pinned up, sitting at a small table and looking down at the scene below. She was the first to look back at me, her eyes widening as she realized I was there. “Oh, I… what? You didn’t roll yet,” She said, brows knitting in concern before she grabbed the arm of the man next to her and tugged on the sleeve of his blue-gray tweed suit. “Irvin! Irvin, I think he’s lost!”
The man didn’t even twitch. “It’s just a mistake, sometimes they happen. He’ll leave when he figures out it’s not yet his turn.” Finally he turned, an older dapper looking gentleman with a white handlebar mustache and a pleasant expression. “Come on in, boy, she’s almost done with her roll.”
The woman bit her lip before scooting to the chair on the left and patting the one she’d vacated. “Here, take a seat, I guess. I’m Penny.”
I don’t know why I listened, it’s insane when you think about it, but I took my seat between the pair of strangers. It was then I realized I’d also been dressed up to the nines, in a black tuxedo that I remember once renting for a friend’s wedding. Said tuxedo had been puked on by a wasted bridesmaid so I’d had to purchase it, but the stains were nowhere to be found now.
Once I sat down, the older man gave me a firm handshake. “And I’m Irvin. Pleasure to meet you, Matthias.” I couldn’t even ask how he knew my name before I heard a strangely familiar rattling sound. Irvin just pointed towards the stage and I saw there was a woman standing next to the table, staring aghast at the dice on the table.
It was a trio of ten sided dice, d10’s if you play table top games like I do, colored bright red and glittering like rubies. I couldn’t have had a clearer view of them if I was standing right next to the woman who’d just rolled them. I flinched as a disinterested and disembodied voice filled the room.
“Final score- 434. Proceed to stage right.”
“Let me roll again! That’s not fair!” She snapped, actually stamping her foot on the ground as she tried to pick up the dice. They might as well have been glued to the table, she couldn’t make them budge an inch.
“Final score- 434. Proceed to stage right,” The voice repeated. With another stomp and huff, the woman stormed towards the proper direction.
At first I thought I was seeing things, but it was not my imagination that her long blonde curls were retreating back into her scalp, the color darkening to off brown. A flawless face with mauve lipstick morphed and changed until it was unremarkable, with a pair of crooked glasses sitting across the nose and acne scars stretching across cheeks and forehead. Glamorous party dress turned into khaki slacks and a clumsily buttoned pinstriped shirt, and now gone was the beautiful girl, replaced by a drab and completely forgettable man.
His shoulders slumped as he vanished behind the curtain, head bowed with shame as the life he’d had before was clearly gone for good.
Penny cleared her throat and looked over at Irvin. “From socialite to…” She trailed off, unsure of what to say next.
“From Brianna Pandilla to Noah Smith.”
Irvin chuckled and adjusted his glasses. “Noah won’t really do much in life. Unremarkable in school, will never go far in his career, although he won’t have much in ambition anyway. No, he won’t even marry, and will die in his sleep at age forty three from a brain aneurysm,” He said in a way that he’d seen this all before.
I was speechless. What do you even say to a sight like that?
Penny shook her head, clearly awestruck as I was but in a different way. “I don’t understand it either, but Irvin has such a talent, he can predict lives like no one else here,” She said.
“Oh, such flattery,” Irvin’s eyes twinkled in a grandfatherly way as he looked over at Penny, “But really, it’s a learned skill, not a talent. It’s not about the end score, it’s about the numbers that make it up along the way.”
I swallowed, finally remembering how to use my mouth again. “Was she… reincarnated?” I asked.
Irvin nodded. “It’s quite the sight, at least at first. Nowadays? It’s hardly interesting, unless someone rolls the chosen score of the day. Speaking of which, ‘tis my turn today for that, so why don’t you help me?” Judging by the fact he was looking right at me and not Penny, I didn’t doubt the question was aimed at me, so I nodded. “Good lad.”
Irvin produced a small slip of paper, from where he got it I have no idea. “Pick a number between one and three thousand,” He said.
“What?” I wasn’t even sure if I heard him correctly.
“Well, really it’s a number between zero and two thousand, nine hundred and ninety seven, but close enough,” He waved his hand. “Come on now, pick.”
I stared at the blank paper and decided to just go with what had to be a bizarre fever dream. “One thousand five hundred,” I said.
“Oooh, right in the middle, popular choice but popular can be good.” With elegant penmanship Irvin put 1,500 on the paper before letting it drop out of the box. I craned my neck over the edge to look where it went but it was long gone.
Penny tugged my sleeve now and pointed towards the stage. “Look, the next person’s coming through!” She whispered excitedly.
The theater quietly clapped as an elderly man crossed the stage, helped along by a cane. Once again Penny looked expectantly at Irvin, who adjusted his glasses and squinted before recognition flashed through his face. “Of course, John Davis, rolled a 1622. Lived quite the long, fulfilling life- marriage of sixty years, eight children, twenty-two grandchildren, and even got to see two great-great grandchildren be born. For a family man like John, that was very important to him. Of course there were some ups and downs, but he died happy, surrounded by his family,” He said.
I didn’t say anything, just watched John pick up the dice, give them a quick shake, and watched them land across the table.
Five. Six. Five.
Pleased with this, John took another roll.
Zero. Five. Two.
Clearly not as happy with that result, judging by his frown. I leaned over to Irvin and whispered, “Do they know what they’re rolling for?”
“If they don’t outright now, they have an inkling,” Irvin murmured, eyes watching excitedly the elderly soul downstairs frantically giving the dice another shake.
Two. Zero. One.
“Final score- 818. Proceed to stage right.”
John hesitated for only a brief moment before he hurried away, his receding hairline growing dark and filling out to a strong widow’s peak. His back straightened, shoulders broadened, and the cane dropped to the ground as the elderly man morphed into a near giant, built like a brick wall with a stern face and a wicked scar taking his left eye with it.
“Could’ve played out much worse,” Irvin said. Neither Penny or I needed to ask. “Losing his eye in war will send Michael Slattery into a horrid depression, but thanks to the army paying for college he’ll end up becoming an architect. He’ll marry twice, perhaps three times, whether or not those marriages will pay off I can’t say. Sometimes the dice can’t explain everything. But his life will be full and he will die at age seventy-two, cancer, probably of the lungs, since he’ll be addicting to vaping.”
Penny looked puzzled at the term ‘vaping’ but I just groaned. “What, that won’t disappear by the time he’s old?” I asked.
Irvin laughed, shaking his head. “You’re great fun to have around, Matthias, more fun than Penny,” The girl gasped, clearly offended, “But nothing is that easy. Come on now, have a drink, ask anything that’s on your mind. It’s pretty rare people actually get lost in the audience, and I would like to enjoy your company.”
I was about to ask ‘what drink’ when I noticed that a beer glass had materialized in front of me, filled to near brim with a healthy amount of foam on top. I took a sip and saw that Irvin and Penny also had drinks, Irvin a glass of wine while Penny sipped at a milkshake. “Have I been reincarnated before?” I asked.
“Predictable, but easy question to answer.” Irvin lowered his glass and held up three fingers. “This would be your third life, boy. And before you even think of asking, I’m not going to tell you your score for this one. That’s a spoiler, and I think you’ll like to experience life as fresh and unknown as possible.”
That wasn’t a hundred percent true, but I figured badgering Irvin about it wouldn’t get me anywhere. “What about my previous lives then?” Was my next question.
Irvin shifted, uncomfortable for only a second before he relaxed. “Well, I think your second life we can just skip over as it isn’t worth the breath to speak of, but as for life one, well, that was back in the colonial era.”
“So long ago?” I asked, absentmindedly noticing a nerdy sort of woman walking on stage and examining the dice now in front of her.
“It’s not exactly done in the order of whoever dies first,” Irvin chuckled, “But your first life was wonderful. Just wonderful. A full life, the respect of everyone who met you, a loving husband-”
“I was a woman?” I interrupted.
Irvin nodded. “Sex and gender is not a consistent thing between lifetimes, you witnessed that with Miss Pandilla. Nothing is consistent between lifetimes at all, really. It’s all down to the numbers you rolled. And before you interrupted me, I was going to state how you lived to the ripe old age of eighty-four, passing within moments of your husband. Old, especially for the era.”
“Final score- 1098. Proceed to stage right.”
I’d been so focused about hearing about my first life that I’d completely forgotten to watch the dice roll happening below. Irvin whistled, nodding in appreciation as the frumpy woman down below transformed into elegance and the very epitome of beauty, exchanging lifeless brown curls and khaki skirt for waist length shiny black hair and a glittering silver gown, like one you’d see actresses wear to the Oscars.
“A high score, impressive,” Irvin nodded and we didn’t even need to ask what her story would be. “Alice Atkins will be a household name by her nineteenth birthday, going from television sitcoms to blockbuster summer films in a matter of years. Her childhood would be happy, her young adult years slightly troubled by anorexia and bulimia, but she will conquer. She’ll marry twice, once to a man that barely lasts a week and then to a woman, who she will stay with until her death at the age of one hundred and two.”
Damn. I watched her disappear behind the curtains before looking back to Irvin. “So just getting a high score isn’t enough? You said she’ll have an eating disorder,” I said.
“One of her numbers was thirty-three,” Irvin explained, “And no one leads a perfect life, no matter how hard they try. Odds are if they do try, it’ll get even worse.”
“What if she doesn’t choose to be an actress?” Was my next question. “What if she wants to be a singer, or maybe she’ll want to become a mailman instead.”
Irvin chuckled, shaking his head and looking at me with this gentle ‘oh you silly thing’ expression. “We might not know the smaller strokes in her life, what her favorite color will be, what songs she’ll like, or when she’ll have her first kiss, but the dice are never wrong when it comes to deciding one’s general fate.”
Penny gasped, drawing my attention back to the stage. I heard her whisper, ‘He’s so little’ before I saw the next one up on the stage.
The boy couldn’t have been more than five years old, more likely he was even younger. He had to keep jumping up to snatch each of the small dice off the table, and in the end he chose to sit on the ground to give them a roll.
“Poor Bobby rolled a seventy-three last time,” Irvin said, looking mildly sympathetic as the boy rattled the dice together, “His neglectful parents never gave him the love he’d need to thrive, so when he was offered friendship by an elder, he desperately grasped for it. It cost him his life.”
My stomach twisted at the thought. Bobby finally hurled his dice, watching them as they rolled across the stage’s floor.
Nine. Nine. Nine.
The mostly silent room exploded into excited murmurs. Irvin scooted forward on his seat and Penny held her breath as Bobby scooped up the dice again and rolled them.
Four. Three. Three.
“Come on boy, sixty-eight, try and get sixty-eight,” Irvin murmured, his eyes so wide I was afraid they’d pop out of his head.
“What happens if he rolls that?” I asked.
“He’ll get the number you chose,” Penny said, as if that explained everything. I was about to ask for clarification when I was shushed by the pair of them. The whole room was tense as Bobby took a deep breath and rolled one last time.
Zero. Six. Nine.
“… Final score, 1501. Proceed to stage right,” The disembodied voice said, softer and slightly disappointed.
The audience all simultaneously groaned and Bobby’s face went white as a sheet, almost as if he knew he’d done something horribly wrong. Irvin groaned and sat back in his chair, his previous excitement deflated. “Damn. Just one over,” He said.
Bobby got up, already getting taller than the table he’d struggled to reach earlier. He grew much taller, turning into a young man. Red curls paled into gold, freckles vanished from his cheeks, and bright hazel eyes turned an icy blue. The new Bobby brushed off his slacks, made sure his fine suit was buttoned, and walked to the right side of the stage.
Before he vanished, he looked up at me and the hair on my neck stood right up as the man smirked. He exited the stage and I shivered.
“… What just happened?” I asked quietly.
“He rolled over the score,” Irvin took his glasses off to clean them on his shirt, “But only by a little. The pain he’ll cause will be horrible, but he will suffer for his sins in life.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “What- what will he do?” I asked. I could see Penny out of the corner of my eye, her lips pressed firmly together as she too awaited Irvin’s answer.
Irvin was quiet for a little more.
“… His victims will be no older than ten. The youngest will be seven. Due to his family’s wealth and status, he’ll be able to cover up his morbid nature, but as the bodies pile up, the suspicions will grow and grow… until one of the fathers personally tracks down the perverse bastard and kills him. Slowly. Painfully. Just like he did to those boys.”
I just froze. I heard Penny start to gag behind me and turned just in time to see her vomit all over the floor, chocolate milkshake splattering on the ground mixed with the yellow of stomach bile. My head just wouldn’t stop spinning and my vision swam for minutes before I finally managed to get control of myself.
“Why?” I managed to get out. “What did he do in his last life to make him turn into that?”
“Nothing.” Irvin picked up his wine glass, not drinking it, just swirling the deep red liquid in the glass. “Nothing at all. Each life is a clean slate, and for that, you certainly should be grateful. If you were living according to your second life, well, you wouldn’t be near as fortunate as you are.”
My heart sunk into my shoes.
“What did I do?” I finally asked the question that Irvin had purposely not answered before. “What did I roll?”
Irvin sighed. “On that day, I picked the number two thousand, three hundred and four. Random, I am well aware, but it’s difficult to roll that high. Meaning it’s even harder to roll above it. But you, my boy, rolled a two thousand, seven hundred and fifteen. Your sins outnumbered the ones the man you just saw, and you never paid for them. Not at all. The people that suffered by your hand were men and women, children and the elderly, and when I say they suffered, I truly mean they begged for the death you were hesitant to give. You never paid for these crimes. You died old, surrounded by loved ones, and with not a single guilty thought on your conscious.”
What are you supposed to do when you’re told that? I tell you what I did. I sat there, staring out at the crowd who’d already seemingly forgotten about the horrid person that was going to be born into the world, now focused on the next soul on the stage. Even Penny, who’d puked at the thought of it, had cleaned herself up and was now having a glass of ice water.
“Why is it like this?”
I shook my head.
“Why does it not matter? People like that kid- people like I was- shouldn’t it matter what we did before?”
At this point Irvin smiled almost condescendingly at me. Like I was a stupid child, asking why’s to questions that should’ve been obvious. And then he responded.
“What would be the fun in that?”
I leaped out of my chair once the horribleness of it all sunk in, looking to Penny for any sort of back up, any sort of criticism of this genuinely fucked system, but she couldn’t even look me in the eye. I backed away, back down the way I’d come.
Irvin raised his glass and waved goodbye.
“See you when it’s your time, boy. I’ll be sure to save you a seat if you roll the chosen score that day.”
I ran. I ran back into the darkness, tripping over my own feet as the light behind me faded away to a small dot, and then nothing.
And then I awoke in the hospital, screaming through the tubes and thrashing about as much as I could in the bed with all the casts on my body.
Believe me, I felt the pain from all that when the shock died down.
My parents were there, so was my girlfriend. My sister video called me the moment I was able to have a conversation that was more than two words at a time, calling me ‘stupid lucky’ for surviving. She wasn’t wrong, my car was completely destroyed. I shouldn’t have lived, much less lived with the likelihood I’ll be walking and living life to the fullest after several months of physical therapy.
The bereaved fiance of the woman that hit me came to visit me too and actually apologized to me about what happened. Her autopsy confirmed what he’d already known, she’d been drinking and driving once again. And because of her mistake, I could’ve died.
I wished him the best and told him not to blame himself.
After all, in the end, it was all decided by a roll of the dice.