"Second Chance, Stolen to Order" is something that I didn't originally intend to shop around too much. I wrote it on the spur of the moment after seeing a photograph that stirred up some bad memories, but ended up liking the concept enough to repeatedly rewrite it in an attempt to get someone else to care about it as well. Seventeen rejections later, and here it is for your perusal.
This is why I often tell people not to bother with rewrites beyond a certain point. This version of the story, which is around 4000 words, started off as a flash piece well under 1000. I repeatedly rewrote it in an attempt to get someone to care for it as much as I did. Not only are there four versions of this story, but it has three different names - first it was "Second Chance," then "Second Chance, Stolen to Order" (my preferred title), then "All Paths in One Little Package." I dumped a lot of time into this thing.
The problem is that, based on my responses, this story was being rejected based on the concept. There was never anything wrong with the writing - as with so many other project (up to and including The Fabulist), it was doomed before I even started writing it. You'll see why in the "Industry Responds" section, but try and figure it out for yourself first.
One more thing: If you want to help me out, go to this Twitter post and mock me. My goal is to get the worst Twitter ratio of all time, for reasons that have to do with the New York Times having shamefully poor standards for opinion writing and Bret Stephens being a whiner. Maybe you could tell me how much this story sucks, or if you like it...I don't know, make fun of my name or something.
Second Chance, Stolen to Order
Seven years of running dodgy packages around the planet and that was the first and only time I've ever actually had the parcel shackled to my wrist. My contact was a jerk about it, too. He fastened the handcuff way too tight around my wrist and I could feel the muscles throbbing gently in time with my pulse the whole time. Of course I complained, but the bastard wouldn't adjust it as much as a smidge. Stickler for the contract, that one, and the contract said that the cuffs didn't come off under any circumstances until after delivery. “We pay you well enough to put up with a little discomfort,” he said, and I couldn't argue the point – the customer is always right and all that nonsense, even (maybe especially) when the customer is an asshole.
It wasn’t just the one asshole, though. I got variants of the same story at every stop, and I do mean every stop - every time an airplane touched the tarmac, every time a car pulled over for gas, there was another faceless shady freak in a nondescript suit ready to hassle me. I must have dealt with at least a dozen of them, pushy creepers who didn't bother to introduce themselves before they examined the case for signs of tampering. Thorough, too, like doctors scrutinizing a patient with some weird disease. If there was any change in the case or the cuffs, anything as much as a smudged fingerprint or a patch of unusually colored dust, I had to explain it, and they expected details - “I don’t know” or “Maybe I brushed up against something” weren’t nearly good enough. If that’s all I had for them, then they started the grilling, probing my story for some hint of a lie. I had to account for every step I took, every time I sat down or stood up, every stranger who as much as brushed past my arm, every time I took a sip of something and turned my head for a fraction of a second. Even after all of that, they still didn’t believe me half the time. Yeah, like I'm nervy enough to steal a parcel. If I had that kind of ambition, I wouldn’t be doing this bullshit for a living.
They wouldn’t let me sleep, either. I guess these suited automatons don’t get that the humans get a little wiggy when we’re up for dozens of hours while being juked all over the country. Biology always wins out in the end, of course - I took a power nap whenever their attention drifted, and when I was a really good boy they actually allotted me a few minutes to close my eyes before bringing me back to reality with a friendly elbow to the solar plexus. Nice guys, those freaks. It wasn’t restful anyway - I kept having these weird stress dreams where this angry stone-faced matron of a fairy flew out of the briefcase, slapped me across the cheek and demanded that I say her name. When I told her I’d never seen her before and didn’t know her name, she slapped me again and insisted that I did. Crazy shit, man - like that every single time I drifted off. To be honest, it made me really want to know what was in the parcel in the first place.
Not that they told me what was in the briefcase, of course, they were totally mum on the subject. It's not like anyone ever goes into detail – not like I'd even want details or know what to do with them, there’s some information that can only suck more misery into your life.. But even the shadiest of clients – and all of my clients are plenty shady, though a few stand out from the pack – even the worst of them still gives me enough information to guarantee that I'll handle the parcel properly. Not this pack of charmers, though. “We pay you well enough to keep your curiosity to yourself,” they said, and they weren't kidding. Three million dollars – enough to keep a chintzy errand boy like me sitting pretty for ten lifetimes. Three million dollars, and the only things I had to deal with were bad circulation and sleep deprivation. They must have figured that if they dangled that kind of dough in front of me, I'd shut up and do whatever they wanted. They were right. I figured it was illegal, or hazardous, or wanted by the wrong people – probably all three. I didn't care. Hell, I'm not sure that my whole life is worth anything close to three million dollars, especially not after the shit I’ve done to it.
Does it sound like I'm complaining? Don't think that for a second. True, I certainly never imagined that I'd be doing this for a living when I was six, but it was fated to be and I accept it. What else was I going to do? I've never been the smartest one around, and I certainly don't have any notable talents, unless you count my knack for dealing with scumbags. The only things I have going for me are desperation and disposability, which might be the most valuable skills around these days. Being a tight-lipped no-name errand boy has worked out all right for me, I certainly do better than some of the people I know. And yes, maybe there have been a few times when I've been up really late, maybe really wasted, and started looking back through my life for that one junction where I took a wrong turn and ended up here. I’ve hurt people, it’s true, and there are other people I trusted when I should have known better, and some great opportunities that I just threw away like they were nothing. I get a few drinks in me and I start going back over my life story. Everyone does that, I think, even though it's ultimately meaningless.
Well, meaningless for most people. Those thoughts aren’t so meaningless if you know the right people, like some throwaway loser willing to bet his soul on the stacked deck of life. But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Having a case shackled to your wrist loses its charm pretty quick. I know a lot of people harbor some kind of espionage fantasy where they're the agent tasked with transporting the critically important plans while dodging enemies spies bent on their murder, and the handcuffed briefcase is a big part of that. In real life, it's a pain in the ass. It's real conspicuous, for one – nothing draws eyeballs like handcuffs, except maybe handcuffs and a briefcase that’s too bulky to sit in your hand nice. People see the cuffs and they either slip away, avert their eyes and pretend that everything’s normal, or they edge closer, hoping that they can glean some secret piece of information about the spy among them. Actually, given what a mess I am, most of them probably assumed I was involved in the drug trade, or the gun trade, or something like that. It’s a shock to me that I never got questioned by the cops - maybe the rich prick behind this whole job had connections, I don’t know. I do know that it would have been a lot easier if they gave me a plain piece of luggage no one would notice, but it's not like anyone was going to listen to me.
By the last leg of my little mission, I was totally out of it, the stress and pain and exhaustion mingling together and working a special kind of magic on my brain. The whole thing felt like some awful dream, the kind that you talk about when you’re hammered and don’t have any more intelligent or interesting topics to bring up. That weird fairy…I saw her everywhere, dancing around just outside of my field of vision, treating me to a collection of ugly stares and quietly mocking my ignorance. I questioned my sanity, but what’s sanity when three million bucks are on the line? Just a few more hours and I could tell her to go to hell.
My last stop was a giant, gaudy mansion at the end of some little inlet out in the middle of nowhere. I'd be more specific, but the suited freaks had a bag over my head for the last leg of the journey. I didn't think people did the whole head bag thing in real life, but I guess the rich prick who commissioned this job was a paranoid crank. That's my assumption, anyway – when the shady suited freak du jour pulled out the head bag and I registered a complaint, all I got was “We pay you well enough to follow orders” just before the lights went out. They had a point. Dignity's another one of those things I gave up for the paycheck. I’d have sold it long ago for a lot less if I only had a buyer.
They unfastened and unblinded me only when I'd reached some inner chamber deep in the bowels of the rich prick's house, halfway to the Earth's core judging by the length of the elevator ride. There were only three of us down there in that featureless little room. There was the last of the shady freaks, who may well have been one of the freaks from earlier - none of them had enough personality to tell them apart, they could be clones for all I know. There was the rich prick himself - no one you'd know from the news, but you can always recognize that special sort of imperial pomposity that only comes from years of having your ass kissed. Last, of course, was their disposable errand boy. The whole situation was plenty tense, and I was ready for the rich prick to give that little nod that meant it was time for some unseen gun to blow off the back of my head. But the way he really acted...I've never seen that exact light well up in a grown man's eyes, that look of impossibly deep boyish awe, like he was on the verge of the best Christmas anyone would ever had.
The shady freak dragged me over to a sterile metal table and forced my arm onto the steely surface. “Don’t move.” A quick flash of movement and the jingling of keys and the handcuff was freed from my wrist, the throbbing ache stilled for the first time in an agonizingly long while. “All right, step back.”
“This is it.” The rich prick had to will himself to step back from the case long enough to complete the transaction. “...Three million dollars, correct?”
“That's right, sir,” I said.
Pricks like this don't deal in cash. He waved to the freak, who passed over a manila envelope. “It’s the safest option, and I threw in a little extra for the inconvenience. You do know how to turn that into money, right?”
“I can figure it out,” I said. “For three million, I'll hire someone to figure it out for me.”
“It was worth every penny, believe me,” said the rich prick. “The finest acquisition I've ever made.”
I'll be honest – it was killing me not knowing what was in that case. I'd assumed that the rich prick was having me transport something he'd had stolen to order, a rare piece art or a coin or something else for one of his less public collections. But when I heard him talk, and I saw that rapturous glean in his eye, I knew that it was something bigger than my limited little mind could grasp. There was magic in there.
The rich prick must have seen me staring at the case, because he got this weirdly whimsical expression and suddenly turned chatty. “...They didn't tell you what's in here, did they?”
“Not my business, sir,” I said.
“But you're curious?”
“Well, I'll tell you. This is a second chance. The most valuable thing in the world.” The prick caressed the case as tears welled up in his tiny piggy eyes. “A second chance…”
I’ve heard my clients say some weird shit, but this just plain did not make sense. “What do you mean a 'second chance'?”
“A second chance at anything. Any mistake, any failure, any sin – undone in an instant.” The prick was sobbing under his words. “Most people never get one, you know, not even me. It’s not something you can just buy or make. You have to earn it. My God, what I did to earn this one.”
“I don't understand.”
“Then you've lived without regret,” said the prick. “And that means you are a luckier man than I.”
“You’re saying that when you open this case…”
“...I get to go back.” The rich prick showed me this manic sort of joy that I’d never personally witnessed in all my years doing this garbage. “Just one chance, just one! But oh, what I can do with that chance…the wounds I can heal, the pain I can erase…I’ve been waiting years for this.”
“A second chance...” Without thinking, my hand drifted toward the case. It was obviously crazy, but I believed the prick. I don't know, I guess it was wishful thinking. Losers like me never get second chances, and yet here was one that I could touch, one that I held in my hands as I traveled across the country. The one thing that could answer all those questions that led to all those long nights, or at least one of them.
The rich prick’s jaw locked and he thrust himself between my greedy hands and the object of his desires. “Don’t think of it, don’t even dream it, boy.”
Don’t dream it. But I already dreamed about it, and it was at that moment that I understood what those dreams meant, what that weird fairy thing was trying to tell me. Her name was Redemption and I’d been chasing her my whole life, hoping just for the satisfaction of brushing my fingers against her wings and getting some moment of relief from decades of pain, some genuine healing that would end the need for rotgut analgesia. She was the one who led me here, made me sign that contract, turned my eyes so they fell on that case at exactly the right moment and at exactly the right place.
The shady freak flashed a sidearm. “You’ve been paid, now it’s time to go. Get away from the case, you're done.”
Maybe it was fate that put me in the perfect position to get the freak’s gun, or maybe Redemption guided my hands. A second earlier, a second later, I'd have been splattered all over the walls. An inch closer, an inch further back, and I’d have met the ground with my face shortly before the freak put some fresh holes in my skull. Maybe I'm just an egomaniac, but I could feel the universe itself spurring me to action. It only took one shot to put him down – clean through the heart at barely a foot away. And then it was just me and the rich prick and that look of shock and agony on his piggy face.
“You can't do this!” wailed the prick. “You don't know what I've done, what I have to fix!”
“I can guess.” The gun was steady in my hand, the barrel resting level with the rich prick’s head as I stared him down. “But there are things I need to fix, too. Lots of things.”
“You are young! There are other ways!” The rich prick had the second chance cradled in his arms like his only son. “I need this second chance! It's the only way!”
“It's no different for me, I guess.”
I squeezed the trigger again. You know, if he was smart enough, the rich prick might have considered using his second chance to shut his big mouth and move me on my way. Then again, maybe he had thought of it and just couldn’t stand the thought of wasting his chance. A second chance - more valuable than a man’s life. A second chance - more valuable even than the life of the owner.
The universe must have come to my aid again as there's no earthly way I could have escaped from that estate. It was impossible, and yet I did it, all the while carrying the most valuable thing in the world. I still have it, hidden in my crappy apartment, tucked away quietly in my closet under a pile of old memories. Every so often I take it out and hold it, but I've yet to open it up. I won't even touch the latches, won’t even look at them too hard. There's another life inside of that case, a solution to all of those regrets that loop through my mind at night, but the idea of it terrifies me in the way that I can't really articulate. I keep waiting for Redemption to appear again and give me some guidance, but the weird lady isn’t making herself known. She’s done her part, I guess. But as for the case, and whatever’s really in there…I don’t know. Maybe it would be wrong to open it up, to use this second chance that I got through bloodshed and betrayal. Maybe it’s too dangerous to use it at all.
Then again, maybe I just don't want to squander it. Guys like me don't get second chances, you know.
The Industry Responds!
We thought this was an interesting concept, with a great first sentence, but the narrator's late-story choices felt unearned to us, and we wanted less convenience aiding them on their way. -Escape Pod
(I try to avoid breaking in to this section, but seriously, the story is explicitly about fate - you're complaining about "convenience"? -Ed.)