Nth Chance

By Konstantine Paradias

I saw myself across the street today, waving at me; did my absolute best to ignore I-across-the-street, despite my constant protestations. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that I-across-the-street was grasping a slip of brightly-colored paper. I picked up my pace, then bumped onto a young man who shoved me back violently, causing me to tumble back, spilling all my worldly possessions onto the sidewalk as my nylon bags ripped.

I-across-the-street ran toward me the minute he saw me stumble. I used the pedestrian crossing (I’m finally catching up, though this seems absurd) and made my way towards me, the paper still firmly grasped in hand. I-from-across the street said:

“It’s 42! Monday’s forty-”

Then a semi-truck with damaged brakes rolled over I-in-the-crosswalk, making a sound like two dozen knuckles popping in unison, followed by a loud series of thumps.

Around me, the crowd was screaming or pointing their fingers at the bloody mess spattered all over the asphalt. The young man that had shoved me mumbled something about kittens before violently vomiting. I picked up my possessions, stuffed them in my coat pockets and turned my back on I-all-over-the-asphalt without sparing me a single glance.

Even a sight as traumatic as watching an exact and perfect duplicate of yourself dying in the most horrible fashion can grow tedious after the first dozen times…

[divider]
My name is David Jinks. And I’ve been killing myself trying to pull off the same blindingly stupid experiment every day for almost a year now. Well not myself, strictly speaking. Try to think of the multitudes of Davids that have perished as possible Davids. I once tried giving them numbers, in an attempt to rationalize with these strange events. I not only grew used to the horror, but also terribly tired of it.

Oh sure, when David-1 slipped from the balcony railing while he was busy explaining that he was ‘I, from the future!’ and I saw him crash head first on the ground, I nearly went insane with grief.

But by the time David-39-or-so was impaled by a stuffed swordfish, which was launched from the roof of a car that braked to avoid running over a dog crossing the street, I merely shrugged and kept on going. Even let out a chuckle.

I have managed to piece together a possible theory (or even explanation) to the origins of the Davids that plague me, as well as their deaths. It is a story I have begun to piece together since before David-3’s untimely demise by accidentally swallowing a salted peanut — to which we were both allergic — while drinking beers at a bar. As David-3 was swelling, eyes tearing up, he gasped out a brief explanation:

He was from the future.

My mind was reeling with possibilities when I was visited by David-4 in the homeless shelter. David entered the bathroom to relieve himself and moments before he slipped on a tile, breaking his neck on the toilet bowl, I found out that:

He was hailing from a future when I was rich. Not financially secure, or even moderately rich, but mind-boggingly rich.

David-5 tapped my shoulder as I was hunched over a burning drum barrel with some of my colleagues. He had not yet tried Hooch’s moon-shine, which made him turn around and spit the fluid, rich in alcoholic content, into the drum barrel. This caused the fire to leap up at him, setting his shirt on fire and causing the bottle of moonshine to combust into flame, eventually turning him into a cinder. He told me that:

I was living the big life. I was a great man, and Sheila had come crawling back, and the kids didn’t hate me anymore.

I met David-6 under the bridge where I went to sleep sometimes on hot nights. He was playing with Ginny, a stray pit bull that I was feeding with scraps whenever I had the chance. Before Ginny got inexplicably agitated and ripped his throat open with her bare teeth, he informed me that:

It had all started with just one lottery ticket that I would win five years from now, given to me by some stranger as I’m begging outside Grand Central Station.

David-7, baffled by the fact that I jumped right to the point as he sat by me on the park bench and confused by my knowledge of his identity, tried to find out how I could have possibly known all this before a stray bullet fired by a police officer during a crack-house bust got him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Overall, David-7 would have been useless, had he not served to provide me with the following very useful bits of information:

Each David had no knowledge of the actions or fate of every David before him. Each David acted of his own accord, but each David had the same purpose — to make me rich before the appointed time.

I attempted to inquire of David-8 when we met inside the abandoned 50th street subway station. It had been an old hideout of mine, away from the prying eyes of my fellow homeless and without any living creature in sight. I had picked an old ticket booth to meet with him in, one that seemed stable and would allow for an extended discussion.

David-8 let out an effeminate scream of panic as I tapped the dirty glass and motioned him over. I had him sit down. I didn’t offer him anything to eat or drink, despite his protestations. I told him:

“You’ve come here to tell how I am going to get rich and get Sheila and the kids back five years before I win that lottery ticket.”

“How … how could you know that?”

“You’ve told me. Well, to be fair, you didn’t exactly tell me. Not you, anyway.”

David-8’s expression was that of such confusion, it looked as if he was watching crabs forcing themselves on a dolphin.

“You’ve been at this seven times already. Eight, with you included. Each time you die.”

“I…” he stuttered. He’d gone whiter than paper. “I … died?”

“Well, not you. The seven ones before you.”

“Seven times? Seven … oh dear God, no…”

“Oh shut up. I’ve watched me — that is, you people — die each and every single time, right in front of my eyes. I’ve had to live with that crap, while you didn’t! Now, man the hell up and give me some answers, before you bite it too!”

“What? No, no, wait! I can’t stay here! I need to go back! What if I die? Then it’ll all have been for nothing! Oh God…” David-8 made a move for the door. I grabbed his sideburns like Ms. Forager did back in Sunday School and tugged hard. I knew that the sensation would make him sick to the stomach.

“What were you trying to tell me? How can I get the hell out of this life? How will I get rich five years earlier? Tell me, you bastard!” He was mewling now, a sickening and pained sound. I never thought such noise could ever come from my mouth.

“Experiment … small time scientist research team … they’re experimenting with time or something … never quite figured it out … please stop it, please!” he squealed and I let him go. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he kept talking:

“You’re … I’m … we’re going to volunteer for it in six months from now. There’s going to be just one test, where they’ll zap us—”

“Zap me. It’s me they’re zapping, not you.”

“Sorry.” He looked so pathetic. “They’re going to zap you with a beam. Nothing will happen. They’ll pay you anyway and stop the experiments. It’s going to be four years before you get real sick and you unhinge from time while you’re in the hospital, dying. You’re going to see how you get the lottery ticket, and you’re going to stick around the station waiting for the guy to drop you the ticket.”

“Four years? It takes me four years to start time-hopping?” We were both silent for a while, then I asked: “What am I dying of?”

“Liver cancer. When you’re rich, you’ll have two years to live, tops. You’ll do a lot of procedures and try all kinds of treatments, but you won’t make it. I’m from six months before you’re dead,” he said. I felt as if someone had casually dropped the Grim Reaper’s great big chariot on my shoulders, then ran away.

“How do I get it? How do I get the cancer?”

“Well, you live like shit, David. You spend the nights in shelters if you’re lucky, but mostly under bridges. You eat terrible things, you drink worse, and you smoke a lot when you can get it. You also like sleeping over sewer gratings in December because they’re warm, but that is way worse for you. Also, you burn plastic bottles when you need to stay warm whenever you can’t get any wood or paper.”

“So what do I have to do? Wait six months, so I can get zapped?”

“Well, you could do that,” he said, grinning like a fox, “or you could try playing these numbers on next week’s lottery.”

His hand was reaching for something in his jacket pocket, when a loose beam creaked and fell, tearing down the booth window and knocking its glass loose, which in turn fell on his head. His skull cracked upon impact with the reinforced glass, and David-8 was deader than a doorknob, just like that.

Yes, I did check his body. No, I could not get the ticket, since his fingers had locked around it the minute he died. Yes, I tried to pry it loose. No, do not ask with what. When I did finally get my hands on it, the number had been smudged with David-8’s blood. I spat, left him where he’d fallen and waited for the next one.

David-9 was waiting for me in the soup kitchen on Meatball Night. I sat across from him and picked up the conversation from where I’d left it off with David-8.

“Any way I could get to the scientists to zap me with that beam sooner?”

“Wh-what?” his confidence and that weasel smile of his melted away. I got to the point, told him what had happened so far. He was about to go pale, when I snapped my fingers right in front of him, like Sheila did when I wasn’t paying attention to something she was saying (for example, that she’s divorcing me, or taking the kids and the house, or accusing me of mediocre performance in bed). Snapped the bugger right back to planet Earth.

“Not unless you have two million dollars handy,” he said, in response to my repeated question.

“You and I both know I don’t. So what can I do?”

“Well, have you considered trying the—” I grabbed him by the wrist before he even began reaching for his jacket’s inside pocket.

“Don’t. Any other ideas?”

“Nothing I can come up with right now. Give me a minute, why don’t you? I’m going to pop back to my time, make a withdrawal then come back here and give you the money. What do you say?”

“I think that’s a terrible idea.”

“Oh?”

“See, I was thinking about why you people die every time I see you. It’s because you keep trying to make a drastic change in my life. I know you all come back here so you can get me richer five years earlier, so I don’t get liver cancer, so you don’t die six months from now. But the problem is, you all keep trying to give me money. Which is obviously going to mess things up, which means it gets you killed.”

“So what are we going to do? Just let things keep going the way they are? Let you kill me with your shitty way of living? Let me live my remaining days, hauling the spoils of your failed pyramid scheme idea?”

I bet he could perfectly interpret the look of my face, the one that threatened him with grievous harm. He kept going anyway, the bastard.

“You blew half a million bucks on this! You took Richie along with you! You sold your business; you blew your kids’ college fund! What the hell were you thinking?”

“Same thing you were, chum. Spend money to make money.”

David-9 turned a very deep shade of red. He remembered spewing that mantra at everyone, using it as a multi-purpose aphorism for every occasion, even as he flushed his family’s (and best friend’s) life collectively down the gutter.

David-9 said, “Poor Richie. You shouldn’t have done it. You shouldn’t have talked him into it.”

“I? You mean we. Don’t think you’re better than me, just because you’ve got money now. Besides, he avoided the worst of it, didn’t he? Heart gave out and that’s that. He didn’t have to eat crap and live off garbage, like I do.”

David-9 looked up at me, a look of utter disgust and unfathomable sadness on his face. He looked so miserable and disgusting, the way his lower lip trembled. Bet Sheila thought that was cute.

“You’re … you’re disgusting!”

“No. We’re realists. Now, shut up and let me think.”

David-9’s fist crashed into my face with a speed and ferocity I wouldn’t have thought possible, nearly knocking some of my teeth out. I stumbled and fell back, watching David-9 walk out of the soup kitchen, slip on ice on the stairs and break his skull, five seconds later.

He’d been useless. I slept that night and thought of that miserable expression of his. It reminded me of how I looked in the hallway mirror, that night when Sheila threw me out.

There were ten more Davids after that, each less effective than the last. They couldn’t give me money to speed up the experiment and they couldn’t go back in time and stop me from making the mistakes that had got me where I was in the first place. None of them had thought of that and every time they decided to do something about it, they ended up dead.

So I decided to play it safe. I tried to save money so I could get more decent food or, at the very least, a proper bed to sleep in at night. I tried to cut down on the booze and drink more water. I tried to get a job.

But most of all, I tried to not miss the date of the experiment.

The scientist found me squatting by the old tram tracks on 45th and Robespierre. I was holding a cardboard sign that said: “Will give my body to medical experiments 4 food.” He thought it was funny and that I was desperate enough to participate in an incalculably dangerous and potentially lethal experiment.

I signed each liability waver, had a shower, shaved, and stood inside the test chamber. I looked down on the device with the Flash-Gordon ray gun pointer and spread my arms, pointing my chest at it.

I screamed as the device’s whine increased in volume, from a slight purr to the orgasmic contralto throes of a soprano in heat. Something ran through me and permeated every inch of my being. It felt a bit like the glue that was holding me pinned across the surface of time suddenly gave up its hold and I slipped just a tiny fraction of an inch.

There were no side-effects. The scientists measured me with more strange devices and noted my increased radioactivity, but other than that, they saw no change whatsoever. They debated whether they should zap me again, but they couldn’t form a consensus. In the end, they gave me my hundred bucks and let me go.

David-20-something met me in the diner I had begun frequenting and bought me a T-bone steak with all the trimmings. It looked like it has been cut off the flank of a wooly mammoth. I was stuffing my face as I was bringing him up to speed. I barely gave him any time to stutter or gasp. I’d grown pretty good at this.

“Now, this is the tricky part,” he said. “Normally, you’d need some time. You’d need to get the cancer to grow, get worse and then almost die before you find a way to pry yourself off time and start jumping around history.”

“What do you mean ‘almost die?'”I asked. David-20-something gave me the kind of look I used to give Richie every time he dared question the soundness of my next big scheme.

“What does it sound like? You need to get real close to dying, but not quite, you know?”

“And how am I going to achieve this almost-dead thing? It doesn’t sound like you’ve got a plan.”

“Actually, I do,” David-20-something said and pulled a gun out of his jacket pocket, which he proceeded to point at my face. The other people in the diner gasped and screamed in panic.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Don’t worry. I’ve looked into this thing, I took classes. All I need to do is shoot you somewhere where you’ll bleed real bad but cause enough of a commotion so the doctors can get to you before you bleed out. This way—”

“What if you miss? What if the bullet rips through my brain and I die?”

“You can’t die, you idiot! If you die, then you never become me so I can’t get back in time and shoot you!”

“Yeah, but right now you’re trying to change history by shooting me in the face, which will erase yourself from existence!”

“No, no, because if you’re dead, then I can’t have been here in the first place! Trust me, okay? This is solid!” He cocked the gun and was about to pull the trigger, when the chamber jammed and the gun misfired back at him. The bullet ran through his throat and into the diner’s wall.

David-20-something had bled out by the time the cops arrived. They took me in for questioning and I suddenly realized that I could very well end up having to explain the two-dozen identical corpses with my I.D. that had been popping up all over the city.

Funny how this had never really occurred to me before. I couldn’t stop thinking of a Precinct Morgue just chock-full of Davids, of morticians of every age, creed, and color digging their hands into my flesh and looking at my insides. Wondering why twenty-four identical men with twenty-four identical cases of advanced liver cancer were all conspiring in unison to kill a hobo with the same name and I.D.

I kept thinking of paradoxes and whether or not trying to explain this to the police officers would unravel the universe or not. I was halfway through fabricating a complex explanation involving cloning and government conspiracy, in order to cement their view of me as ‘another crazy old homeless guy,’ when we pulled off at the precinct.

To my horror, they did not interview me. They did not question me or even console me. They just patted me on the back, bought me a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie, asked me a couple questions about the ‘unidentified shooter,’ and sent me off.

I was insulted, to be perfectly honest. But I barely had time to make a scene. I needed to almost kill myself as soon as possible.

David-20-something-2 came to the rescue the very next morning, standing over me as I slept on my shelter bed, his hand on the gun’s trigger. He was shaking all over.

“Don’t mess this up,” I told him, and he panicked. He was about to start with the usual stuttering and the questioning, but I slapped him to shut him up and put the gun muzzle under my chin. He got cold feet and tried to stop me. We fought for the gun a bit and one of us must have squeezed the trigger, because a round went off in his gut. I screamed, kicked at him, put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger.

Want to know what time travel feels like? Drink yourself silly and then go straight to bed. The bed will feel impossibly soft and comfy at first, but then you’ll feel like you’re sinking in it. The mattress begins to sink all around you, like space around a black hole. Your pillow will wrap its soft, comfy jaws around your head and attempt to swallow your face. After a while, you’ll be sunk so deep inside the mattress that it will feel as if you’re completely submerged in a stifling, soft prison. By then, it will feel as if you’ve fallen down a hole in the world, a million million miles deep, with a hole the shape of your sleeping body somewhere in the impossible altitudes above.

Time travel is exactly like that, only instead of a mattress and a pillow, there’s history. You glide through time and when you want to stop somewhere, you wake up and presto! You’re there.

I found myself looking across the street at my own hunched form, looking at a man down on his luck who had just tossed a lottery ticket in my hat, six months from now. The David that was begging looked up at me and he cackled. I woke up, in a hospital bed, knowing the secret to time travel and with a gash across the right side of my face where the bullet had scraped against my skull. The doctor said that if it had gone just two inches to the left, I wouldn’t be here now. He also told me that I had been diagnosed with liver cancer.

I tried to protest, to tell him that this wasn’t the plan, but try complaining while missing the right part of your jaw.

Davids kept coming to visit me every day while I was in the hospital. They told me that I’d find a good plastic surgeon and an even better dentist for my face. They helped me follow my chemo and they were even there for me on the day I left the hospital. They each died, of course, in increasingly improbable ways. My favorite was the 30th one, who accidentally stuck his hand inside a medical waste basket and got himself pricked with a needle that (as it turned out) had been used on a junkie who was an asymptomatic carrier of a strain of Marburg virus. I remember watching him bleed to death inside that makeshift containment unit and go, “Oh, well.”

So I waited and I got my hands on that ticket and I won me a few million dollars. Sheila came back to me, along with the kids now that their dad was finally somebody. But he was being eaten alive from the inside out, and the doctors were telling them he barely had six months to live.

So I locked myself in my study, trimmed my beard, grabbed my briefcase filled with unmarked hundred-dollar bills, and let myself fall through time, looking for the perfect point in my past, the past where I could make the greatest improvement to my life. I found the point, the one where I had just spent my first month homeless, cowering under a bridge. I saw myself, a shivering bundle bundle of rags. The plan was simple: kick the briefcase at him, then make a run for it. Let him figure it out, he’s a smart man.

And then the cornerstone of the railway’s arch gave way, just as the last car of the train rolled over the bridge and a half-ton of bricks crushed me and the briefcase into an indistinguishable pulp.

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Konstantine Paradias is a jeweler by profession and a writer by choice. His short stories have been published on OHP’s Petulant Parables Anthology, Breathless Press’ Shifters anthology, EveryDayFiction.com, Schlock! Magazine, Static Movement’s Behind Closed Doors and Long Pig anthologies, as well as Black Cross Productions’ ‘Heroes Wanted’ anthology, Aphelion Magazine, DarkFire Press and the StoneForger’s Den. His first fantasy ebook, Stone Cold Countenance, has been published by bibliocracy. com. His website is called Shapescapes

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