Choosing a Life

branchingIn fifteen minutes, Alex Darren would blow his brains out, seemingly without explanation, and on live TV. This event would rock the world for far longer than the usual news cycle.

Sheila sat down next to Alex on the cushy couch in the studio.

Mr. Darren, thank you for talking with me,” she began.

Please… call me Alex,” he smiled, flashing his famously irresistible charm at her.

Alex, thank you. You don’t give many interviews, so let me get straight to the point.”

Saying that Alex Darren didn’t give many interviews was an understatement bordering on the absurd. In fact, he’d only accepted this particular offer out of sheer boredom. Having won the Lottery six successive times, he had gone on to finance many lucrative ventures in areas as diverse as entertainment complexes in Shanghai and San Francisco, foundations for synthetic biology and quantum computing, as well as various heavy metal acts. His philanthropic interests included patronage of the arts, a number of university philosophy departments, and his own signature Darren Institute for Theoretical Physics. He owned three islands in the Caribbean alone, two baseball teams, and a hypersonic space plane. His extravagant lifestyle combined with his full head of jet black hair, forest green eyes, and sharply chiseled features made him a favorite among the paparazzi, whom he tolerated with aplomb. In the two decades since his meteoric rise to fame and fortune, however, he had never deigned to speak to any member of the press.

You’ve been called the luckiest man alive. Some have speculated that you made a deal with the devil, or that you have access to some sort of top secret technology. How is it possible to be so unnaturally fortunate?”

No, it’s nothing like that,” laughed Alex. He was quiet for a moment, and then he started to explain. “About twenty years ago, I had a dream.”

Alex stopped speaking abruptly, appearing lost in a haze of thought. Sheila sat silently, looking awkward. “Please, tell us about your dream,” she probed gently.

I dreamt that I was dead. I was watching my funeral on TV. Then I realized, I must be alive, since I was, at the same time, sitting in my living room, watching TV. I woke up with a start, and with a new understanding. We all live because we are alive in this reality. It seems so obvious when I say it like that…” Alex trailed off. His face was as impassive as a wall of stone. He seemed to be focusing intensely on a distant point beyond the studio walls.

Sheila was visibly uneasy in the silence. “Please, tell us more,” she somewhat sputtered after a few beats, not knowing what else to say.

Yes… This was the idea that came to me. You see, this is the life I choose to live. Allow me to demonstrate.”

It was at this point in the interview that Alex drew his revolver from his attache case. Predictably, Sheila shot up from her plush seat and began screaming. Alex then took the weapon to his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Sheila took a month in therapy before she was allowed back on TV. The world took much longer to mourn this tragic and mysterious loss of a great man.

Alex took the weapon to his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The weapon did not fire. Alex waited patiently for Sheila to relax back into her seat. He handed her the revolver.

Sheila examined the cylinder. “It’s… fully loaded,” she said. “How…?”

Alex was nonplussed. “I suppose it misfired,” he shrugged. “After all, we wouldn’t be here talking so amicably if it hadn’t.”

Sheila’s vacant, unjournalistic stare spoke more than any words she could have mustered.

You see, many years ago, I was desperate,” continued Alex, unperturbed. “At the age of twenty three, I had lost my miserable, pathetic job, assistant-managing a sporting goods store. I was out of money. My wife of two years had just left me a few weeks back. The power had been cut that night, since I couldn’t pay the bill. I sat there, in the dark, contemplating my life, and I made a decision. I said to myself, I will play the lottery. My rule was simple: If I don’t win, I will kill myself. I made this choice. It was that simple. So, I drove to Walmart and charged that revolver in your hand to my credit card. Then I took my last two dollars in loose change and bought a Lotto ticket.”

And did you win?” asked Sheila, on cue.

I did… and I didn’t. This is what you must understand, if you wish to understand the answer to your question.”

Sheila leaned forward, sensing that she was in the midst of the most significant interview of her career.

I suppose I probably killed myself. But the answer to your question lies in this one word… probably. It was at this point that I had a sort of epiphany. You see, while most Lotto winners are content to accept their good fortune as the will of God or whatever, this experience threw me into a deep personal crisis. It began with me questioning the reason for my winning, and ended with the dream I described to you.”

You say, it ended?” prompted Sheila.

Alex sat up in his seat, moving himself intensely toward Sheila so that their faces were inches apart. “Understand this,” he nearly whispered at her. “I lead this life because this is the life I choose… or none at all. I live this life, because I am determined to end the others. This, this metaphysical game of chicken that I play, staring Fate in the eye until she blinks… this is how I have become master of my destiny.”

Sensing that the mind of man before her might have been somewhat affected by his surreal good fortune, Sheila opted to turn the interview in a direction away from madness.

Alex, if I may ask, why have you never given an interview before this?”

I used to think, if people knew my secret, there would be mass hysteria. Can you imagine a world in which everybody does what I do? Sure, they’d all live, in their own realities, but it wouldn’t be much of a life. Everybody else around them would be offing themselves constantly! Utter mayhem.”

If you really believe that, then why did you finally accept to give this one?”

Well, I figured what the hell. I think most people don’t have the guts. The only reason it works for me is that, when I decide, I really mean to do what I decide. I killed them, my other selves. Or rather, they killed themselves. I’m the winner.”

This is all fascinating,” said Sheila, though the tone of her voice was patently incredulous. “But let’s talk about something else. Alex, you are often cited in the media as the most eligible bachelor of the decade. Tell me something personal, if you will. Why have we never seen you with a woman?”

Alex rolled his eyes and sighed. “How could I? For every happy couple this hypothetical woman and I would make, I would leave behind me infinitely many tragedies. Even I couldn’t do that. No, this life is mine, and only mine.”

Are you happy?” Sheila asked suddenly, veering off script. Even she was a bit shocked at the bluntness of the question escaping her lips. She had been drawn in by Alex’s unexpected candor.

Alex thought for some moments and answered, “I am as happy as the fates will allow.”

The media hysteria surrounding their very public romance had the Alex and Sheila on the cover of every magazine in the checkout aisles of the world’s supermarkets for a solid month. Eventually, the frenzy died down a bit, and they were able to have some peace. He took her to one of his islands, and they watched the sun go down over the featureless expanse of the Atlantic as they dined on the beach.

Marry me,” said Alex simply, handing Sheila a glass of Champagne.

Sheila took the glass. She stared silently into the streams of tiny bubbles, each rising in its own column to burst at the surface. “I don’t know…” She shook the glass and watched as the streams mingled and merged.

Marry me, or I’ll kill myself,” Alex insisted, and of course, she knew he meant it.

I will marry you… only if you promise to stop doing that.”

Without a word, Alex stood and walked into the house. Sheila knew better than to follow him. A moment later, he reappeared with the revolver in his hand. He looked her in the eye, and pointed the gun.

This is what I choose,” he said, and he lobbed the gun into the ocean waves.

The wedding took place three weeks later. Only Alex could have organized such an event in such a short time. He had quite nearly rented the entire nation of Tuvalu, and invited twelve thousand of his and Sheila’s closest friends to attend, who were transported by five-star cruise ships, first-class airliners, helicopters, and, one case, a small blimp. A hundred or so yachts clogged the minuscule port of Funafuti.

Following his interview, the suicide rate had somewhat spiked internationally, just as Alex had feared. A large sign was therefore posted, at Alex’s insistence, in a prominent location at the port, read “We are here to live life. Thank you for refraining from suicide while you are here.” The guests were all polite enough to oblige this modest request.

The festivities went on for a solid week, all fully catered from Sydney, Tokyo, and Honolulu. In order to excuse himself for the disruption to the Tuvuluans’ quiet lives, Alex offered to repave all the roads in the country and build a few schools, an offer which was graciously accepted at a comparatively simple ceremony on the day of the new couple’s departure.

To celebrate their first anniversary, Sheila had found a small hotel in a village in a backwater of Bolivia, overlooking a verdant vista of primal rain forest. In this place, she joked, they had just learned about TV last week. There was a chance here for a quiet evening.

Over dessert, Shelia chose her moment to reveal the news. “I’m pregnant,” she announced with a gentle smile.

Alex was overcome with a wave of euphoria. He never knew what he had wanted in life until he heard these words. Now it was suddenly so clear. He gasped and inhaled the chocolate truffle he had been chewing. He was choking, and in the commotion, he knocked a candle from the table onto a napkin, which caught fire. Startled, he knocked his chair hard backward, smashing the frail, rotting wood of the railing at the edge of the small terrace. As the piece of chocolate came flying out of his mouth, he fell backwards over the edge of the cliff and was killed on the sharp rocks, some twenty meters below.

And the three of them lived happily ever after.


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