By: James Fowler
B sits before a computer, entering information. A enters.
B Come in, have a seat. Be right with you.
A Just questions with this one, right?
B Right. Ten minutes, tops.
A And thirty bucks for participating.
B That’s it, three dollars a minute.
A Better than other campus gigs. That’s why I volunteer whenever I see a flyer.
B Yes, you’ve been seen haunting our halls.
A I enjoy the tests. Some are kinda strange until they’re explained.
B Social-science mystique. Today, though, questions and answers. Thinking-cap stuff. Shall we start?
B Some may give you pause at first. It’s okay to reflect before answering. We’re talking fundamentals here.
A Basic, got it.
B Alright, here we go. Would you choose to know in advance how many years you’ll get to live?
A Like, how old I’ll be when I die?
B That’s another way to put it.
A Whoa, deep end. Well, let’s see. I’d know how much time I’ve got to do stuff. That’d be good. But then there’d be a definite countdown, you know. I mean, there’s always one, you just don’t know how much. Hmm. So if I have to choose, I’ll go with yes, I want to know.
B Yes, good. Now, saying you know the year, would you also like to know the month, or even the day?
A Damn, that is getting specific. Month or day. You could plan a hella going-away party, that’s for sure. But you might be all depressed and junk, bumming everyone out. I’ll have to say no. Year’s enough.
B Alright, next question. If you could, would you choose to know in advance how you’ll die?
A Oh man, you’re making me earn this thirty. Sure you’re not from philosophy?
B Let’s call it existence psychology.
A This is some heavy stuff. Like, myth grade. Okay, knowing how I’ll croak. Uh, are we supposing that even if I do, I won’t be able to do anything about it, like in those teen-scream flicks?
B We can suppose that.
A So it’s fated. Drag. I guess not then. Who’d want to know if it was going to be real bad, for instance? You’d spend the rest of your life freaking about it.
B So the only thing you’d want to know is how many years you had? Otherwise, you’d rather wing it.
A Yeah, pretty much. See, my dad, he died suddenly a couple years ago. Heart attack. Boom. No goodbyes. If he’d known he only had forty-nine years, he might’ve done more of what he really wanted instead of putting it off until retirement, which never came. Maybe I’m sharing too much here.
B Not at all. We’re looking for thought process as well as answers to tabulate.
B Any other thoughts?
A Well, yeah. As long as we’re on winging it and keeping some things unknown. A lot of good things are unexpected, right? Bad things too, but it’s fine when something sweet just drops in your lap. Like a song you really like. You can download and play it whenever you want, but if you’re driving along and it suddenly comes on the radio, that’s even better somehow. So getting the right mix of what you can control and what you can’t, maybe that’s what it’s about. I dunno, I’m just riffing now.
B All useful. Let’s try the next question. If you could, would you want to know what, if anything, comes after life?
A That’s big.
B We can break it down. Would you want to know if there were nothing after life?
A Ouch. Who could handle that? People say not knowing is the hardest thing, but knowing could be the real ass-kicker. I guess it might make some folk grab life by the cojones, but most would just want to build a pillow fort.
B So we’ll count that as a no. What about reincarnation?
A That might be worth knowing about. It could get you working on your karma so you don’t come back as a bottom feeder. Though I don’t see why it should just be this planet. Why not be recycled as an alien life form? Anyway, it makes more sense than the single-swing religions.
B Speaking of which, what about knowing for certain there’s a heaven and hell?
A Same as karma, I guess. Light a fire under you.
B It’s a yes, then?
A Sure, why not?
B And would you choose to know in advance which one would be your destination?
A Damn, do all roads lead to fate, or whatever the Bible crew call it? I mean, knowing you got it made in the shade, that’s cool. But the other thing? That’s like knowing you’ll die some bad way times forever. And you can’t say, “Just tell me if it’s good news,” ’cause then silence would mean it’s bad. Maybe there’s some trick logic way around it, but beats me.
B Closer to home now: If you had good health until the end, how long would you like to live?
A Bet you think I’ll be greedy and say I want to be immortal. But this boy knows his Book of Serling. We can only take so much. After that, it’s a life sentence. My dad and his dad didn’t make it to sixty, though, so getting that far would be nice. Course, as I close in on that, seventy will probably start looking pretty good. So as long as you’re offering, I’ll go with seventy-five.
B According to the data we have on you, and our proprietary algorithm, would you like to know our projection for your lifespan?
A For real?
A Uh, okay.
B writes down a number on a slip of paper and passes it to him.
A Huh. So I pretty much get my wish.
B Definitely in the ballpark.
A So does your formula predict anything else?
B It does, but based on your stated preferences you won’t want us to tell you.
A You’re not screwing with me now, are you? Is this part of the test?
B No, we’re finished. Thanks for participating.
A Wait, you’re saying you know exactly when and how I’ll die?
B I’m afraid I can’t say any more. Protocols prohibit it.
A Well, you should call this experiment the Vulcan Mind Mess. You sure got inside my head.
B Just hand this form to Ms. Delphine at reception. We’ll have your check ready by week’s end.
A exits in bewilderment.
James Fowler teaches literature at the University of Central Arkansas. He has published short fiction in such journals as The Labletter, Anterior Review, Little Patuxent Review, Best Indie Lit New England, The Chariton Review, the Southern Review, The Chiron Review, and Elder Mountain; his poems have appeared in Futures Trading Magazine, Aji Magazine, Gyroscope Review, Dash, Lullwater Review, Cantos, Westview, Angry Old Man Magazine, and Cave Region Review.
His volume of poems, The Pain Trader, is forthcoming from Golden Antelope Press.