The Deciding Factor

Been a good long while, but I’m back with a writing prompt from Reddit:

You have died. While waiting to be judged, you are offered the chance to clear one entry from your file before the decision is made.

There were no other parameters so I took a couple small liberties, as I am known to do. Hope you enjoy!


The Deciding Factor

by Rick Cook Jr.

I was staring at a physical manifestation of all the deeds of my life. It was curious, in that it seemed much smaller than I expected, maybe the size of a petty criminal’s rap sheet. As I flipped through the pages and came to what should have been the end of this small file of paper, the pages just kept being there to turn. And the stack of read pages never grew larger as I flipped pages onto it. Curious.

“Clear an entry? What’s that mean?” I asked.

The angel standing before me did not respond.

“Like, I can go through my entire life, line by line, and remove something. It, what, increases my chances of going to Heaven?”

Still the angel didn’t respond. Stupid angel.

“Does it just get removed from consideration?” I was easily twenty or thirty pages into the file, but when I thought about looking at the first page, it was the first page I turned back over. There, at the beginning, the moment of my birth. I flipped to the end, and there was my death.

“How long do I have to decide?”

The angel stared at me and said, “You have until you decide to decide.”

“Geez, man. Just say ‘as long as it takes’.” The angel did not smile or sneer at my jest, only stared. I didn’t think I’d get much more out of him, so I ignored him and set about reading my life. If I could remove the worst thing I’d ever done, would it improve my standing and get me into Heaven? That was what the angel had said when I entered this spaceless void. Could it possibly matter, one insignificant moment in an entire life? I had to take the chance.

After what felt like an hour I was bored. A line by line breakdown of every single action and thought, however insignificant, taken by a person – especially a baby – was like reading the most boring story imaginable. You know what a baby does all day?

Subject slept.

Subject cried.

Subject ate.

Subject urinated.

Subject urinated.

Subject cried.

Subject stared at the stars on the mobile above crib.

Just pages and pages of that. I skipped ahead because if I read every single line I’d be here as long as I had actually lived this life with none of the benefits of experiencing it again.

I was now in my fourteenth year of life. Holy moley, this was a crazy time.

Subject imagined Maria naked.

Subject got an erection.

Subject blushed.

Subject asked to go to the bathroom.

Subject stood up out of chair.

Subject hid erection under bookbag.

Subject walked to bathroom.

Subject masturbated.

This was embarrassing and miserable!

I was now glossing over unimportant events because it was taking too long to read each line. I had an idea.

I flipped a page and was rewarded with a much truncated list of a single day’s actions and thoughts. Anything I thought was mundane and harmless was left out, and I saw only significant actions and thoughts. Entire weeks might be on a single page.

The picture that started to develop of myself was disconcerting. In my twenties now:

Subject had lustful thoughts about Kara.

Subject flirted with Kara.

Subject cheated on Nicole with Kara.

Subject lied to Nicole.

Subject stole ten dollars from Ken’s desk.

Subject donated five dollars to charity.

Subject broke up with Nicole.

Subject made Nicole think it was her fault.

For every good deed or thought there were a dozen awful things. Stealing small items or money, wishing violence upon coupon shoppers for taking too long in line, brake-checking and general road rage. Lying to people, cheating at friendly games, a lot of groping and emotional abuse. Taken piecemeal each had seemed insignificant, but now the picture was clear.

I was a bad person, and I was going to Hell.

I couldn’t fix this by removing one line. What was the point if there was no chance?

… Was it a test? Forcing me to relive all the horrible things I’d done to people, so that I might repent? But how could I repent for real if I knew that was the point. I wanted to repent because I didn’t want to burn in Hell for all eternity, not because I wanted forgiveness or felt bad about the things I’d done.

I could stay here. Refuse to make the decision. Purgatory must be better than Hell, right? But what if refusing to make the decision was in itself a decision, and my judgement moved ahead “as is”. What if that was the point?

Gah! Too many possibilities.

I looked at the beginning of my life all soft and new and boring and good, then at the end of my life angry and frustrated and selfish, in a car crash where I was at fault for aggressive driving and trying to force people to move so I could get ahead. I looked at my first stolen kiss. Getting fired for theft of office supplies. That summer in Scotland with freckle-faced Colleen. The first time I beat Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo. My 30th birthday celebration. The time I had Johnny Walker Blue. Ignoring the injured man on the street corner because I was going to be late for the movies.

Another idea occurred to me. I couldn’t go to Heaven, but I could take a chance and pray.

“How do I remove the line once I’ve decided?” I asked the angel.

He didn’t respond, but a pencil appeared on the page I had been looking at. Fifteen years old, the night I sweet-talked Maria into having sex with me and we both lost our virginity. Good memory. I wondered how Maria was doing these days.

I turned the page and stared at the line, then erased it.

Subject died from blood loss.

I came awake, an oxygen mask over my face, tubes everywhere, blinding lights. Excited voices shouted all around me.

“He’s back, my God, he’s back. It’s been five minutes. Get the bag over here. Holy God I can’t believe it. He didn’t have enough blood left to pump, but somehow he’s back.”

They say you shouldn’t gamble your life away. Second chances rarely come, they say. What do they know? I wonder if I can tip the scales in my favor now that I know what the stakes are. If I can stop serving only myself. Maybe, just maybe, if I do enough good, I’ll stop doing good to save myself and start doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

Is it possible to be selfishly selfless?

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