Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 8), February 2011.

Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Or, more specifically, to be the you you could have been if only things had gone differently? Of course you have — we all have.

Which things, exactly? Well now, I don’t know. That’s up to you. All I know is that everyone I’ve ever met has had their share of regrets, of what-ifs and if-onlys and I-should-have-known-betters. We’ve all made mistakes — taken chances we shouldn’t have, or failed to take chances we should have; pursued some wild dream that could never come true, or stayed in a safe but soulless rut; said words we wished we could take back, or stayed quiet when saying the right words might have changed everything. Words like “I love you” or “Please don’t leave.”

Oh, I’m sorry — did that hit a nerve? I do apologize. Here, let me buy you a pint to make up for it. I recommend the oatmeal stout — dark as hell, smooth as heaven. Try that once, and Guinness will never seem the same by comparison. See, that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about, on a smaller scale. A moment’s choice, a lifetime changed.

There, that’s better, isn’t it? Told you it was good. Anyway, I really am sorry — I didn’t know. You looked like a man who had regrets, but I didn’t have any way of knowing what kind, or how fresh. It was just an example I figured most people could relate to.

So, where was I going with this? Ah yes, choices. The kind I was talking about are really just the tip of the iceberg, you know — the ones we can tell are turning points, whether beforehand or just in hindsight. But what about all the others — all the little choices we make that have effects we never realize? You stop to get a coffee on the way to work, and miss being hit by a car that would have left you in a wheelchair. Or you take the bus instead of walking, and the winning lottery ticket someone dropped on the sidewalk gets picked up by someone else instead. You read a magazine on that bus instead of just staring out the window daydreaming, and you miss getting an idea that might have led you to write a novel. Or you put the magazine down and smile at the person across from you, and that’s how you meet the love of your — oh, sorry. Straying into sensitive territory again. My apologies. Another stout?

Really, it’s probably a good thing we don’t have any idea of the real consequences of most of our choices — we’d be so paralyzed with indecision that we’d never do anything at all.

But here’s the thing about choices: they’re not what you think. Not exactly, anyway. The way we’re used to thinking about them is that you make your choice, and one thing happens while the other doesn’t. But it isn’t quite like that. Have you ever read anything on quantum physics? Remember Schroedinger’s cat? No, no, don’t worry, he didn’t put a real live cat in a box and maybe-kill-it-maybe-not. It was a metaphor. The idea was to illustrate that when a turning point happens, it isn’t just either/or — both alternatives happen. The cat is alive and dead, at least until you collapse the wave function, as they say, by looking into the box and seeing which it is to you. The idea is that reality isn’t just a straight line — it’s more like a tree, with an infinite number of branches. What we think of as turning points are more like branching points — forks where reality divides. Where two separate realities are born.

So, you didn’t get hit by the car — but in another world, another branch, you did. Another you picked up the lottery ticket. Another wrote that novel, and another — well, let’s just say for another, recent events worked out a little more pleasantly. So your choice in any of these matters wasn’t whether or not to do something — as soon as it became possible to do it, you did and didn’t do it, simultaneously. Your real choice was simply which you to be.

Yes, that’s a good question. Where am I going with this? It’s not just drunken philosophizing, I assure you. That would require more than two beers, for one thing. You see, the thing about the many worlds interpretation is that, to most people, it’s just theoretical: you still collapse the wave function by observing it — that is, you bind yourself to one reality, one you, by seeing what happens. But what if there was a way of expanding it again? Of making all the possibilities, all the different yous you could be, equally real and accessible?

No, no — I’m not trying to sell you on some new age self-improvement nonsense about choosing your own reality. Anyone who believes they can have complete control over their reality is either delusional or has led a very, very sheltered life. That’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about at all. Let me guess — your ex was a fan of The Se— Right, sorry. Dropping the topic now.

Bartender? Another round, please. Thanks.

No, what I mean is — well, I seem to have a gift, of sorts. Sometimes, I seem to be able to reopen those turning points. Sometimes, I can look at a person and see not just one life, but a flux of possibilities. It’s hard to describe — a little like looking at a double-exposed photograph, but much, much more so, because instead of two images, there are an infinite number. I can focus on the present one, with effort — it’s how I can sit here talking to you. But without that effort, they’re all equally present to me. And the thing is, it’s not just a matter of perception — they really are all real to me.

Until I collapse the wave function — open the box, as it were, and settle the fate of the cat, who is, in this case, you. And that fate is not necessarily going to be what it was before.

The catch? Well, of course there’s one, and it’s substantial: I can’t control the result. I can’t choose which other you you’ll become — only that things will be different. I can’t make your life perfect. I can’t make your woman come back. All I can give you is a second chance — another roll of the dice, as it were. What comes up is beyond my control. The question is not what you would you prefer to be — it’s how badly you don’t want to be the you you are now.

Why? Well, that’s a good question. I’d like to say it’s purely altruistic, that I’ve been given a gift and I choose to use it to help unhappy people. But that’s really not the whole story. The truth is... as with the cat, when I collapse the possibilities, I’m collapsing them for myself as well. The moment you open the box, you are either in a world with a live cat, or a dead cat. And the moment I settle your fate, I settle mine as well. When you shift realities, so do I. And let’s just say—well, I’ve made mistakes as well. More than I care to think about. And no matter how many second chances I give myself, I never seem to get it right.

Oh god, don’t look at me like that! Like you pity me. I’m trying to do you a favour! You’re obviously unhappy. And I’m giving you a chance to change it all. Why wouldn’t you take it?

No, I can’t give you time to think about it — because I don’t know how long the flux will last. If I see you tomorrow, I don’t know if it will be there or not. Tomorrow, you might look just like everyone else — a single life, a single possibility. Collapsed. No, you need to choose now.

Please. I’m begging you. I can’t — I mean you can’t — be happy this way. Another chance could make all the difference. Just one more chance... Please?

Story prompt: “Now or Never”.