By Hayley-Jenifer Brennan
Undecided. That’s what was written on the skin of my wrist in bold, black lettering. I didn’t remember getting a tattoo. I tried to pull my sleeve down over it, but it kept riding up. Frustrated, I tugged at the sleeve a bit too hard. The man on the couch next to me coughed and shifted awkwardly at the sound of the fabric ripping and it was then I realized I wasn’t alone. When I examined the tattoo again, I realized it was a branding. I quickly stole glances at the other patients’ wrists, trying my best to go unnoticed by them as I struggled to read what theirs said. Everyone waiting had one.
People who were at ease tended to be much quicker than those who seemed antsy. People who were jittery were constantly being asked to move to another part of the practice if they were in one place for more than a few moments. I was the only person who seemed to be neither one nor the other. Undecided, the branding said. I wished I could hide it.
“Grand aul day for it all the same,” an elderly man told a very uncomfortable-looking teenage girl as he sat down next to her on the couch across from me. “Delighted now I made it through the wedding.”
She got up and left without saying a word.
“If you’ll just take a seat here,” a child-like voice attached to a man with piercing eyes told a newcomer as his slender greyish hand pointed to the free space next to me. “Someone will be with you shortly.”
I scoffed. Someone similar had told me exactly that well over an hour ago and yet, here I was, still waiting as I’d been told to, but nobody came. What shit service. The waiting room wasn’t particularly inviting. It was hazy and grey but the lights were like those glaring clouds that force you to squint and give you a headache right at the front of your skull. It was almost like the room couldn’t decide whether it was light or dark. I let out a little puff of air from my nostrils. The irony of being an Undecided person in a room that couldn’t make up its mind was not lost on me, even if everything else I should have known was. I continued to pick at my brown-tinged nails. I couldn’t remember whether it was my wife or my mother who hated that habit.
If I was being honest, I couldn’t even remember how I’d gotten here in the first place, or where I’d been last. I should probably have been more worried or embarrassed, but this wasn’t the first time I’d woken up somewhere I didn’t recognize and had no recollection of how I’d gotten there. This was the first time, though, that I also couldn’t remember where I’d been last. I was so sure I’d been at home, but then I couldn’t picture home. I was sure for a while too that I’d been waiting for my wife, but then I couldn’t picture her either. Then I started questioning whether or not I even had a wife. I had a wife, didn’t I? I had a house, didn’t I? I had a name, didn’t I? I was sure I did. It was on the tip of my tongue, much like a cigarette should have been but wasn’t.
Cigarettes were definitely a problem for me, I knew that much. Someone was always mad at me for smoking. I could clearly hear their voice in my head yelling at me to give them up, but I couldn’t picture their face. They must not be that important.
I looked down at my wrist again, eyeing the tattoo in the hopes that, if I kept staring at it, it would turn into a watch. I had no phone and there was no clock in the waiting room, so I had no idea how long I’d been there. It must have been ages if I’d forgotten my own damn name. Any time I tried to ask one of the attendees for the time they just ignored me and tended to someone else instead. What shit service.
It took another good hour of thumb-twiddling and knee-bouncing before it occurred to me what everyone else in the room seemed to already know. I’d been considering it – secretly, of course – in the back of my mind for a while but now the realization nudged its way into the same part of my brain that was suffering from the lighting-related headache and my stomach dropped to my toes in terror. Maybe the headache was what took me so long to come to the understanding that I was dead. I stood up when I realized, panicked, and several people turned to stare at me as I went to shout but no sound came out. The room swayed and the sounds became muffled and as soon as the thought solidified, a door opened and one of the grey attendees appeared and beckoned to me. I hesitated, looking around for an escape, but the greyish man took hold of my shoulders and steered me roughly through the door.
I felt like I was going to pass out. A glass of water was thrust into my hand and the attendee left me in a new room, the door slamming shut behind him. Panic rose in my chest as I looked around the room and I tried to gulp in air, but it tasted like copper on my tongue.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Hastings.”
There hadn’t been anyone in the room a moment ago and, for a second, I refused to turn around to see who had magically appeared. That was until I realized that this new person knew my name – or my surname, at the very least. Mr. Hastings, I breathed a small sigh of relief. That was me.
When I turned I jolted in recognition at the young boy who was standing behind a large, mahogany desk. He was thin and pale, with freckles and thick-rimmed glasses, and sported a suit that was definitely more expensive than mine. I sat down across from him but more out of shock than obedience.
Feeling the seat under me, I wondered whether I’d been sitting outside for years or hours or possibly only minutes and whether this was like a normal doctor’s office where time meant absolutely nothing to anyone except the parking warden.
“What’s your status, Mr. Hastings?”
That much was clear to me, even if the why or the what was not.
This was a big room in a boxy space, as though someone had taken a laptop and put it in a phone cover. It did not make me feel in any way at ease, and it certainly did not make me any less upset that I’d been dead for who knows how long and nobody had bothered to inform me. The young boy fixed his tie and my eyes fell on his name-tag which read “Life”. Ah. Of course.
“What’s odd, Mr. Hastings?”
“You look like me.”
“Nonsense. I don’t look a bit like you.”
My Life wasn’t looking back at me, though, and was instead scribbling some notes on the paper in front of him, not bothering to give me any words of encouragement or even a smile to let me know that things might turn out okay. The tattoo was irritating me now too. It was itchy and warm and it felt like it was cutting off the circulation in my wrist. It was making the tips of my fingers tingle and not in the way they had done when I held my wife’s hand for the first time.
What was her name again? What was my first name?
“We rarely get second chances, Mr. Hastings.”
“What would you do if you did?”
I contemplated my answer as I drank some of the coffee-less water the attendee had given me while my Life explained how my case was to be reviewed. It was very unusual that someone would be Undecided, but when that happened – when they’d done an equal amount of Good and Bad during their lives – they would meet with their Life to discuss a possible Second Chance. If the Good was “good enough” and the Bad was “not-too-bad”, a Second Chance would be granted.
It was a lot to take in, but Life didn’t seem to care about me processing it. I took another gulp of my water.
“We generally don’t start from when you’re born.”
“We usually start from your first Bad.”
“My first bad what?”
“Your birth is not your fault.”
My first so-called “Bad” had never seemed significant until now. The tattoo began to heat up, searing my skin when Life opened his ledger and began telling me about the Bad. As he told me, I started to remember. It was revealed that I’d stolen penny sweets from the Pick’n’Mix when my mum wasn’t looking at seven-years-old. My Life kept the face I’d had before my first Bad. He tutted, arching an eyebrow at me and I looked sheepishly at down at my fingers, embarrassed at what other Bads I might have forgotten.
The pain seared through my wrist again when I stole a toy soldier from my friend because I didn’t have one and my friend had five. I never gave it back either and the pain zinged through my arm once more.
I did a number of Goods between that Bad and the next. Things like tidying without being asked and helping my sickly grandfather and putting out milk for the stray cats on my street. I breathed a sigh of relief when I looked down at the tattoo and realised it had faded significantly and wasn’t hurting as much.
I popped the pimples on my face as though they were bubble wrap when I was a teenager. I was fourteen and those wretched pimples made me so angry that I’d done exactly what the dermatologist told me not to do. Surely – I looked up at my Life for reassurance – there was no penalty for being ugly? That wasn’t something I could control. I choked up a little when I saw myself like that again. I’d been so hateful towards myself at that age; and so angry with everyone else all the time. I looked down at the tattoo, ready to watch it judge me as harshly as I’d done to myself, but it didn’t change.
“I’m sure you recall the Moustache Incident.”
I found myself readjusting my position in the chair when Life spoke, as a young girl entered the bubble wrap memory, and suddenly I started to see the events of the Moustache Incident. The tattoo blistered and sizzled when I made fun of the girl for having a moustache and I told her she looked like Hitler. The seven-year-old face of my Life sitting in front of me now was disgusted with this development, shaking his head as the memory played out. I silently prayed that that would be the worst of my crimes but I knew that couldn’t be the case if I was sitting here Undecided. I was almost afraid of what was coming next, despite not being able to remember it just yet.
I went to defend myself. I went to say that I never actually thought she was ugly. I thought that I was ugly and that made me want to make her feel how I felt because I thought she was beautiful. I stopped, though, when I watched my fourteen-year-old self spit on her as she walked past me on the street. I shut my eyes when fourteen-year-old me called her a virgin in front of everyone at the school dance. Even though it was true, the tattoo boiled again. It really hurts now. Life didn’t say anything but he fixed me with a look that told me that I deserved it.
The tattoo wasn’t sure what to make of my teenage years. Any volunteering or Good deeds I did were quickly overshadowed any time I stole alcohol from my dad’s stash and drank it in the bushes with a few other friends. Dad was an angry drunk and I gladly took beatings meant for my mother on several occasions. According to the tattoo, protecting my mother was Good but almost everything else I was doing was not. It changed from dark to light and back again so quickly that it almost looked like it was flashing.
“Do you think we should take responsibility for our own actions, or is it alright to blame them on circumstance?”
“Something tells me that I should mention that we have free will,” I laughed in response to Life’s question, but his expression remained stony.
“Keep that in mind,” was his reply.
When I was eighteen, I cheated on my college entrance exams. Nobody ever found out, but that didn’t matter now. My Life knew everything and, ever since the Moustache Incident, I was refusing to meet his eyes. The cheating came as no surprise to either of us, but my Life sucked in a sharp intake of air through his teeth regardless. I didn’t ever remember feeling more scrutinized but, of course, I only had eighteen years to base that assumption on so far.
College was when the drinking and smoking habits really manifested themselves. They stopped being things that I did to fit in and be “cool”, and they started to become the only reasons I’d get up in the mornings. It would be easy for me to tell Life that it was a side-effect of losing my mother so young, or because I was following in my father’s footsteps, but we would both know that I’d be lying. I wondered then if lying in here would make any difference to the end result, or if it didn’t count after you were already branded with a tattoo. I didn’t test it to find out.
I found myself wishing that I could remember more than just the little fragments and snippets that I was given each time. I wanted to know the bigger picture. I wanted to know if I had any worthy or redeeming qualities left by however old I was now. I wanted to know if I had a wife, or children, or a home. I wanted to know my first damn name.
“The memory loss is a way to keep the incoming memories pure and unedited,” my Life said monotonously.
I stared at the seven-year-old. I supposed that I shouldn’t be surprised that my Life could read my mind, but it was still jarring. It meant that the little shit had left all my previous questions unanswered, despite knowing how panicked I was. My Life sat forward at his desk and clasped his hands as though he were about to share a grand secret. I wondered for a second how I looked now and what face was staring back at the face of my childhood. Had I died young? Was I mutilated? Was I attractive? I had no idea.
“People tend to misremember things, or choose to believe things happened differently to the way they actually did. The memory loss ensures that the Goods and Bads are filtered correctly and without circumstance.”
“But what if you do something bad because you had no choice in that situation?”
“The wrong thing done for the right reasons is still the wrong thing.”
A long pause.
“I don’t even get to know my first name?” I asked quietly.
“Names are incredibly important around here, Mr. Hastings. They are given or taken away depending on whether you go Up or Down. It keeps the Downers from ever gaining any fame or respect from fellow Downers and it reminds the Uppers to stay humble.”
“And what if I stay here, in Limbo?”
“You remain Mr. Hastings.”
My Life didn’t say anything more on the subject and the next memory was quickly called to the stand. I wondered if I had been as adverse to chit-chat when I was alive as my Life was now, or if that was just part of the job description. My next memory was twenty-three and I braced myself when I realized what was coming next.
I had had an affair with one of my college professors for a passing grade. That was trouble with getting into college on an exam that wasn’t really yours. The tattoo didn’t look as black and scaly as I’d imagined it would when I stole a glance at it, but it was enough that I was worried my review would end with me becoming a Downer.
“Not really looking good so far,” I said.
“At least you’re not a lawyer, Mr. Hastings.”
“They try to defend themselves out of the Bads?”
“They chew very loudly.”
The tattoo gave me little more than a tingle when I saw the memory of twenty-seven. That was the year I met her – my now-wife. I couldn’t stop the smile when I recognized her and I felt a calm wash over me for the first time since I’d woken up in Limbo. I remembered the time we spent getting to know each other as I helped her prepare for her driving test and the feeling of elation the first time we’d kissed under the mistletoe at my Toy Soldier Friend’s Christmas party. Suddenly I felt the urge to pick at my nails again, nervous that not all the memories with her would be like that. My Life eyed me knowingly.
“Amelia,” I said her name softly, the feeling of it familiar on my tongue. “I love her.”
I couldn’t tell if the question was genuine or pointed, but it stung either way. Of course, we loved each other – we’d been married until death did us part. I wouldn’t have gotten down on one knee and she wouldn’t have taken my last name if we didn’t love each other…
But it would appear that I was wrong. Amelia had had the potential to be so many things. But she’d married me when I was good at keeping secrets and stayed with me when I wasn’t anymore. Now that I found myself face-to-face with my Life and the consequences of the actions I took during it, there was no way of hiding anything. My Life slowly replayed all the times after the “I dos” that I would get too drunk to drive home but I did so anyway. He said nothing as he showed me my memories of all the times I verbally abused Amelia when I got back from another night with the lads: another Christmas party, another bachelor party, another party for absolutely no reason. Life didn’t let me forget the time that I spent the last of our money for the month buying a round of drinks after a match for people whose names I didn’t even know. Life played these memories back for me quickly and yet still too slowly and, as I started to remember them little by little, I felt the tattoo get hotter and deeper and darker around my wrist until I was too afraid to steal a glance at it and see what it looked like now.
She’d wanted to be a doctor when we first met, but she ended up taking a job that she didn’t really want in order to pay for her half of our home. The house looked inviting when we bought it, but she never escaped the big red door that once looked so welcoming. I’d never even considered encouraging her to go back to college and strive towards achieving her dream. It wasn’t in our best financial interests. Probably. I’d always been envious of her intelligence. Maybe we could have found the money for her to go back if I hadn’t been so concerned with drinking it. Maybe I secretly always knew that, but it wasn’t in my best financial interest. Probably.
“Why did she stay with me?” I asked.
“She must have seen the goodness in you.”
“I don’t know if there is any.”
“You wouldn’t be here if you were all Bad.”
If it had been the other way around, I knew that I would never have been able to see any goodness in the person I had become. Amelia deserved better and both versions of the man who sat at the desk now were painfully aware of that fact.
There weren’t enough Goods in between those last few Bads for Life to even really consider and the things I was rewarded for as a child were too basic now for them to count. There was a difference, I realized suddenly, between being a decent human being and being a good human being. I didn’t volunteer, but I didn’t hurt anyone. I didn’t spare change for the less fortunate, but I didn’t use it to fund evil. I didn’t drive an electric car, but I also didn’t litter. I didn’t do enough Bad to be bad, but I didn’t do enough Good to be good either. I didn’t do enough with my life full stop.
I recognized myself in the final memory as the me with the Undecided tattoo. I was almost thirty-one and alone in the house with a cigarette, wasted after day-drinking with the boys for Toy Soldier Friend’s birthday. I had stupidly fallen asleep with the lit cigarette and it didn’t take long for it to fall out of my fingers and onto the carpet. Amelia had warmed me that someday I’d set the house on fire and, in the end, it would seem she had been absolutely right. I probably should have listened to her more. I definitely should have listened to her more.
“Amelia must be out doing the Christmas shopping,” I informed my Life, though my Life hadn’t asked. “Suppose she’ll be home any minute.”
I was avoiding the memory of today. Skimming through it as fast as I could and not looking at it directly. I’d been so concerned with the fact that nobody had bothered to inform me that I was dead that I didn’t even stop to realize that I’d been the one to do it to myself.
“You’re squarely at the halfway point, Mr. Hastings,” my Life told me, motioning with a cocked eyebrow to the worn-looking tattoo. It was not dark enough to be a Down but there was still enough of it there as not to warrant an Up either.
“That’s why you’ve been placed in the Undecided status.”
“I see,” I said. Though I did not.
The memory of tonight played on through the sirens and the smell of smoke, but my thoughts stayed with Amelia. Everything I’d seen of myself should have been enough that anyone else would have left me long ago. Everything else I’d seen of myself should have sent me straight Down. But she had stayed with me and I soon came to realise that I’d been placed in Undecided because of her. I was here because her final words to me before I came to this place were at my side in the ambulance when she’d stood away from me, crying. She was unable to look at me, but she had muttered the three words that gave my Life the opportunity to plea for my Undecided status. Three words that meant that I was granted the opportunity to have my case reviewed. Of course, it was Amelia who had done that – it always was.
“I forgive you,” she said.
I turned away from the memory, my eyes stinging and my mouth dry. I’d never been so thankful for coffee-less water in all the time that I could now remember. I liked myself a lot better when I couldn’t remember. I liked myself a lot better before I’d entered this room. I’d liked myself a lot better when I was seven-years-old, before I’d stolen a toy soldier and before I’d grown up and become competent enough to hate myself. I’d liked myself best when I fell in love with Amelia.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Life asked after a moment of silence.
“I should’ve done better.”
“Everyone says that. What have you really got to say for yourself?”
I could feel the words in my mouth, but I didn’t really know what they were. I guessed that they might have been some sort of apology or plea, but there was hardly any time for that and too much of it if the words weren’t long enough.
“I’d like to go home,” were the words that I settled on. My Life mulled over this for a few moments before sighing.
“Before we can proceed, I need to inform you of the stipulations of the possible Second Chance.”
I blinked. I’d almost forgotten about the possible Second Chance – my mind was so focused now on Amelia and how her Life would have been better without mine. I thought about her as my Life informed me of the rules. I would be asked to change an otherwise fixed-point in my timeline. If I happened to choose the right event, the knock-on effect would be enough to change the events leading up to my death – enough that I would be granted a Second Chance. If I chose the event incorrectly, my life would end up exactly the way it already had and I would stay in Limbo as one of the grey attendees for eternity. I was listening to my Life, but not really. When it came to it, I surprised both myself and my Life with the event I chose to change.
“I never want to have met Amelia,” I said it so confidently and, despite us both being a little shocked at the choice, once it was said it couldn’t be unsaid.
“She deserves to have had a different life to the one I gave her,”
We sat in silence for a moment, my seven-year-old face staring curiously at me before nodding slowly in acceptance.
“Then it is done,” he said.
My Life didn’t seem too different after the event was changed. I was still a selfish man with a drinking problem, only now I had never fallen in love and proposed to a woman who had been the only reason I’d had the possibility of a Second Chance in the first place. I prepared myself for the pain of the tattoo to become unbearable, for its ink to become permanent on my skin. I prepared myself to have my name stripped of me forever and to make my descent from the waiting room with the other Downers, but it didn’t happen.
“Have I chosen the right event?” I asked, my mouth agape with shock and my Life looked back at me with a blank expression as a new paper appeared on his desk. This one had a heading that I could finally read. Approved, it said.
“H-have I been granted the Second Chance?” Hope welled up inside my chest.
“I think that depends, Mr. Hastings,” my Life smiled for the first time since we’d met, absentmindedly thumbing through the papers.
“How loudly do you chew?”
“Good morning, Mr. Hastings,” a friendly voice said as Mr. Hastings’ eyelids fluttered open.
“We were a bit touch-and-go there last night, but you’re doing very well this morning.”
“Amelia,” he muttered, taking in the tall woman with the dark hair and bright smile.
“Yes, very good,” Amelia grinned. “You recognize me.”
“You’re my…” he stopped, confused.
“Your doctor, Mr. Hastings.”
“Right, of course,” he said quietly. “My doctor.”
He took her in, her white lab coat and the stethoscope hanging around her neck. It didn’t seem out-of-place on her at all.
“You were lucky the fire brigade got to you when they did,” Amelia said as though she were speaking to a child, fixing the flowers beside his bed instead of looking at him. “If it weren’t for your friend Alex – who sent you these lovely flowers, by the way – I wouldn’t be looking after you right now.”
Mr. Hastings smiled, giggling a little. Now Amelia turned to face him, curiosity in her eyes.
“You know,” he grinned. “I stole a toy soldier from him once. Think I might buy him a new pack of them after this.”
“I think he probably deserves them,” Amelia said. She paused to check his monitors and then shone a very small but very bright light into his eyes. “Your progress today is really, very good.”
She seemed surprised. “Last night, when we brought you in, you were very confused. I’m delighted to see you doing so well today.” She turned a nozzle on one of the machines beside him and smiled encouragingly before stepping away.
He didn’t say anything but he suddenly felt embarrassed. He did vaguely remember thinking she was his wife.
“I’m sorry…” he said as Amelia made her way to the door. “If I made you feel uncomfortable.”
She laughed kindly at his apology and how seriously he appeared to be taking it.
“Don’t worry,” she remarked, sounding remotely like a schoolteacher. “I forgive you.”
He lay in contemplation for a few moments before he began to feel drowsy from whatever medication Doctor Amelia had administered. She was a nice woman. Probably too good for him, he figured. But maybe he’d ask her to dinner when he was feeling better if she seemed interested. As his eyes began to close and the smell of the flowers at his bedside filled his nostrils, he felt the sudden urge to look down at his left wrist. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but what he saw was nothing more than a pale blue hospital bracelet that stated his full name, Kevin Stephen Hastings, and nothing more.
About Hayley-Jenifer Brennan
Hayley-Jenifer Brennan is a new writer, and is very excited to be featured in The Book Smuggler’s Den.