”Please, tell me a little bit about yourself, Mr. Wall. Why do you want to change?”
“Well,” I said, “it all started back when I was in middle school.”
“Middle school?” said the man. “Hm, yes. We can work with that.”
I fidgeted. I had never done anything like this before. “So, uh, how does this work, exactly?” I asked the man interviewing me.
“There’s no need for details at this time,” he said. “Right now, I need to make sure that you’re worth spending our money on.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
The man sighed. “It’s the same every time,” he muttered under his breath. “Look, sir. You obviously want to change your life, yes? While our methods are excellent — quite excellent, in fact, for accomplishing that, there are other…simpler methods.”
“Simpler methods?” I asked. “What, like therapy and stuff?”
“Exactly,” said the man. “Fitness programs, therapy, there are all sorts of ways one can change oneself and come out as a better person. Are you positive none of those methods will work for you?”
“Yeah, I’m positive,” I said. “Now, you wanted to hear my story, yeah? So shut up and let me tell you.”
The man gave me a look of disdain. I was a lowlife, there’s no doubt about it. But he should at least be giving me some respect. After all, the people that run this place let me in here. If I had to guess, I’d say that he sees people like me all the time.
“All right,” I started. “So I was in middle school. There was this big kid who liked to bully new kids. Since I had just moved, I was a fresh target for him. Pretty soon, we got into a fight. I won. I got a reputation, too. Nobody messed with me anymore. Except the kids who were always in deeper trouble than I was. By the time I got to high school, I was dealing drugs with the rest of them. Around the same time, my parents got a divorce. My mom moved out of the country, and my dad was too drunk to take care of me. So I became a gang member. I dealt more drugs. I was always careful. Even now, I haven’t been caught. In fact, you’re the only person outside my gang that could convict me. You’re not going to tell anybody about this, are you?”
“If all goes well, it won’t matter,” said the man. “Are you finished? Because nothing you have said so far is something that we can deal with.”
“Well let me finish, then,” I said. “I wasn’t stupid. I used proxies to deal drugs for me. I dealt in all sorts of stuff — weed, crack, meth, you name it. Nobody suspects a 10-year-old of carrying around a load of meth in his backpack. I would always split the profit 50/50 with the kids. Until eventually, one of them got wise. And greedy. He wanted more money. I didn’t want to give it to him.” I paused.
“So what happened?” asked the man.
“I killed him,” I said. “We started arguing. He pulled out a knife. I pulled out a gun. It wasn’t pretty. There were four other kids that saw what happened. And I couldn’t just let ‘em go, y’know?” My voice wasn’t cracking. I felt calm. But I still had to wipe away a tear or two.
“I see,” said the man. “So you…?”
“All of ‘em,” I said. “All five. And they were smart kids, too. I was ruining their lives before I took them away completely. One of them was a prodigy, even. He could play the piano better than most adults.”
“Hm,” said the man. “Well, I suppose we can take you into consideration. Wait here, please. And press that button if you need anything — we might be a few hours.” He got up and left me alone.
I sat there, waiting. This whole thing seemed a little off to me. I mean, “restart your life?” “Refresh your future?” The slogans were dumb. But I was out of options. I sighed. I wasn’t a patient man, but what else could I do? So I sat and waited. The man was right — it was a while before he got back. And he brought several other people.
“Hello again, Mr. Wall,” said someone I hadn’t seen before. “We’ve decided on what we’re going to do with you.”
“And?” I asked, getting up from my chair.
Another man spoke up. “Unfortunately, we have decided not to send you through the program,” he said. “The chance of you changing yourself is far too small.”
I sat back down again. “So I didn’t make it, huh?” I asked. “Those five kids are gonna be dead forever?”
“That’s correct,” said the man who was interviewing me. “Look, from what I gather, you seem genuinely apologetic about your actions. However, our program costs a lot of money, and we can’t afford to waste it. Believe me, your actions are heinous enough to warrant our program. But if you were a better person —“
“If I was a better person,” I said, cutting him off, “then I wouldn’t need your stupid program, and five kids would still be alive.”
That got them to shut up. “Look,” I said, “I know I’m scum. Which is why I came here. If we go back to the root of the problem, then maybe —“
“Do you really think you can do it?” asked a man in the back. He stepped forward. “Hello there. I’m the president of this program, Leo Goldstein. It’s a pleasure to meet you…Wall, was it?”
“Rob Wall,” I said. He stuck his hand out and I shook it. “So you’re gonna give me a chance, then?”
“My men are very meticulous,” said Leo. “But their methods are flawed. You see, if someone came here willingly ready to change themselves from the inside out, then they wouldn’t need our program. Many men and women are able to get their lives back on track, and lead honorable lives, even after performing actions far worse than yours. In fact, a few even become titans for good.”
“What’s your point?” I asked.
“Well, due to your criminal background, there are a few things that could happen if our program wasn’t utilized,” said Leo. “First, you could get caught, and end up in prison. Obviously, you’re not helping society any there. You could die in the streets — again, not very good for society. Or you could continue your life of crime. No matter what happens, it doesn’t end well for you or society.”
“So what, then?” I asked. “You’re saying you want me to go through the program?”
“In a nutshell, yes,” said Leo, smiling. “You’re perfect material.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I…I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything,” said Leo. “Just come right this way, and we’ll get you set up.”
The president and his men led me down several hallways, elevators, and locked doors. Eventually, we ended up in a room with a big, white tube with a chair in it. The chair had some weird brain hat attached to the back of it.
“Sit here, please,” said a man. I sat in the chair, and the hat was lowered over my eyes. I couldn’t see anything anymore.
Suddenly, a voice came into my head. “Mr. Wall, can you hear me?” asked Leo.
“Yeah,” I said. “Loud and clear.”
“Wonderful,” said Leo. “Look, I’ve had my men prepare everything. They’ve left. It’s just you and me.”
“Okay,” I said. “Why is that?”
“Well, I want to go over some of the program’s…finer details with you,” said Leo.
“What, is it unsafe or something?” I asked. “Is there, like, a chance I could die?”
“No, no, not with our program,” said Leo, dismissing that entirely. “Your body will go through just fine.”
“I get it,” I said. “So my brain’s gonna be all wonky, is that it?”
“Not exactly,” said Leo. “Look. What we’re dealing with here, in the simplest of terms, is time-travel. You’re aware of this, yes?”
“I figured as much,” I said. “But I figured it was worth a shot anyway.”
“Excellent,” said Leo. “Now, listen closely. We can send you back, but there’s a big catch. There is an unreasonably high chance that you won’t accomplish your goal.”
“Wait, what?” I asked. “You mean those kids are still gonna…”
“Please let me finish,” said Leo. “Like I said, there’s a good chance that your life will play out exactly the same. Here’s why. Every time you go back, your memories past your current age are fuzzy. Your future becomes a dream — or in your case, a particularly gruesome nightmare. Often, the brain will just write off a nightmare into nothing — it will be forgotten completely. But every so often, the brain remembers a nightmare with perfect clarity. If this happens, then there’s a chance for you.”
“Hold on a second,” I asked. “How do you know all this?”
Mr. Wall, I have been through my own program seven quintillion, three-hundred and eighty-five quadrillion, nine-hundred and four trillion, one-hundred and sixty-six billion, eight-hundred million, one-hundred and fifty-four thousand, two-hundred and ninety-eight times,” said Leo. “I know this because of a counter in my brain that keeps track of any dream with a certain brain wave — the brain wave of this particular reality —“
“Look, I don’t care about all that brain chip stuff,” I said. “But why?” I asked. “How come you’ve done your own program so many times?”
“Immortality,” said Leo. “Though I am only immortal for a few years at a time. I was lucky enough to discover time-travel on my very first run through life. That gave me the ability to learn about all sorts of other things. I’m sort of a ghost writer of technology now. All sorts of famous scientists buy my ideas, and make the world a better place.”
“But wait a minute,” I said. “So you keep doing it?”
“I’ve traveled back so often, and I’ve made so many memories, that it’s hard to keep track of them. But suffice it to say that I’ve got about a hundred ideas, and no matter how hard I try, I’ve only been able to implement about three or four of them. I’ll never be satisfied until I can turn every last one of them into a reality. It’s a simple matter of getting lucky.”
“But shouldn’t you have accomplished your goal by now?” I asked.
“This is what you’re going to find out the hard way, I’m afraid,” said Leo. “My mother died of cancer when I was in my 30’s. Of course, I’ve invented the cure for cancer several times over, but out of all of those times, I was only able to save my mother a few million times. Sure, every time I’ve cured cancer, I’m likely saving thousands or even millions of lives. But my mother…for whatever reason, people one forms a close bond with are harder to change. And you, Mr. Wall, are trying to save not one, but five lives who are close to you.”
“So I should be prepared to come back here if I fail,” I said.
“Oh, you will,” said Leo. “Mr. Wall, I’ve met you before.”
“What?” I asked. “But how come I don’t…”
“Let’s see,” said Leo. “If my numbers are correct, this will be about your thirty-thousandth trip back to save those kids.”
“Thirty…thousandth…” I was shocked. Not only did I have no memory whatsoever of this place, I had never even really thought about time travel. Or being from the future. Or anything like that. If that’s the case, then…
“Happy trails,” said Leo. Suddenly, there was a flash of light. The chair I was in started shaking, and I felt an incredible amount of pain and energy rushing up and down my body. My heart felt like it was beating a billion times a minute. Finally, everything went black. I heard a voice just before I passed out.
“I believe in you, Mr. Wall.”