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The queue seemed endless. It moved patiently forward as the former therapist began to tell his story to those immediately around him.
The interview started as it did with all his clients.
"Your friend recommended you came here." A statement, rather than a question.
She was emphatic. "No. There was never the slightest suggestion. I simply noticed, well, that he'd changed. We've known each other for, oh, perhaps five years. And I've always thought of him as a regular guy. Then came the change. Six months on, the change has lasted. He's more considerate towards others. At the same time he's enhanced his capacity to enjoy life. So I asked him what happened."
"What precisely did he say?" asked the therapist. There was the faintest stress on the word 'precisely'.
His client paused, giving herself time to think. And as she recalled her friend's words, her eyes roamed the room. The furnishings were few, but in impeccable taste. The obligatory glass desk, two leather-and-chrome swivel chairs, one for her, the other for the therapist. In one corner a secretary perched on a matching stool, unobtrusively taking notes. And in another corner, in a niche behind heavy armoured glass and a discreet security system, stood an elegant enamelled vase whose value she could only guess at. Room lighting was indirect, the colour scheme mostly moss green.
"He said he'd been to you. You weren't peddling any crank religion. You'd given him - no, provided him with something which changed his outlook in a fundamental manner. Something I wouldn't believe if he told me. And he added that you were horribly expensive."
The therapist smiled.
"Correct. In every detail. Your friend, and many others like him, are my only advertisements. People who know them, notice a change, become curious and - if they are suitable - when they come to me I help them."
"Suitable?" she queried.
"Essentially they must have enough wisdom not to squander what I provide. The price tag serves the double purpose of making me rich (I'm not ashamed of saying it) and concentrating my clients' attention on the special nature of my services. And, let me add, you're under no obligation to accept these services unless you freely choose to do so."
She nodded slightly. "But what are these services? And why did my friend say I wouldn't believe him if he told me?"
The therapist settled himself more comfortably in his chair.
"I will tell you. And you will think I am simply a charlatan. Then I will give you the opportunity to test what I say. After that, well, the rest is up to you. At worst, we have both passed an interesting hour or so. At best, we will have achieved something unusual and enduring. All I ask is that you will hear me out. Say 'But that's impossible' if you must, but hear me out."
"Try me," she said. "It's only fair to say my radar is turned 'way up. But I saw the change in my friend, so go ahead."
"If I were a romantic," he began, "I would say that I sold second chances. Everyone - old, young, women, men - at some point in their lives, find themselves wishing they could have done differently, made the opposite decision, turned right instead of left, perhaps been bold rather than cautious. Hindsight - somebody called it '20/20 hindsight' - is a marvellous thing."
"But always too late," she commented.
"Of course," he agreed. "Except. Let me get quickly to the point. The past is the past and it cannot be changed. But down the centuries, philosophers (and physicists in recent years) have suspected there is a certain fuzziness around the time we label 'now' that permits of some degree of freedom, some elbow-room as it were. Theologians have heated debates over free will versus necessity. We ordinary mortals experience days that hold a sense of foreboding, or a feeling of expectancy. We speak of premonitions. We are aware time can pass far too quickly or slow to a crawl."
He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "In short, even if the distant future is unthinkably random, and yesterday and all the past behind it is set in stone, there is a very small period of time around this instant that is capable of being captured, re-lived and changed."
She laughed out loud. "Time travel! But that's impossible."
"Exactly what I predicted you would say," he agreed. "But I also promised you the opportunity to test my claim for yourself. So, to the practical details. The, ah, window of opportunity, to use the jargon, is a mere five minutes or so. After that, the past becomes history and can never be altered. But if you or I decide it should be changed, we can go back, re-live the moment, and act it out differently. Would you like to try?"
She was slightly taken aback. "Try? Just like that? Try - what?"
As an answer, he slid open a desk drawer and produced an ordinary carpenter's hammer. It seemed out of place in such urbane surroundings.
"Please take this. Now come over here."
He led her to the niche where the vase stood. Deftly he punched the code on the keypad that controlled the security system. Then, taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked the armoured glass screen and swung it aside.
Close up, the vase was beautiful.
"Now, I want you to test my claims. If they prove false, there is no liability on your part. If they prove valid, even then you are not obliged to proceed further. So - with the hammer - smash the vase. Go ahead now."
In another corner of the room, the secretary stopped taking notes and sat forward, watching carefully.
His client raised the hammer She hesitated for only an instant, then brought it sharply down on the lustrous, richly coloured surface of the vase.
There was a splintering crash as the vase collapsed into fragments. A sudden intake of breath from the secretary; more than a gasp, less than a scream. And the therapist was looking anxious, taking the hammer from her, and leading her back to the chair.
"You told me to hit the vase. Wasn't that what you wanted me to do?"
"Just sit down again," he told her, "there isn't much time."
"...with the hammer - smash the vase. Go ahead now."
And she was standing in front of the niche, hammer in hand, before the lovely enamelled vase, its beauty intact.
"Go ahead, please," the therapist urged her. "You have to prove my claims for yourself. Why do you hesitate?"
She looked round at the secretary who had stopped taking notes and was sitting forward, watching carefully.
"But I did. I broke it. Your secretary was startled. Even you seemed concerned. I did break it." Only by an effort did she stop herself saying 'I did so'.
The therapist closed the armoured glass screen that protected the vase, locked it and reset the security system. He seemed satisfied.
"This is how it has been," he said "with every person who has come here. I tell them to break the vase; they tell me they have already done so. If they are telling the truth (and I am certain they are) they have in fact done the deed and come back in time to a point before the event took place. In your experience the breakage and the reactions from me and my secretary have simply ceased to be an ongoing reality, and have faded into an option which you performed and then, by exercising your right to a second chance, you rejected."
Something was troubling her. "There's a slight flaw in what happened," she began. "Everything really occurred - I don't want to argue metaphysics with you, it's just that I know the difference between dreaming and being awake - but I lost something in the sequence of events. After I broke the vase, you led me back to the chair, and suddenly we were beside the vase again. There were no intervening steps that I remember. I've no knowledge of how I went back in time."
"Of course not," answered the therapist. "I would call that missing part my trade secret. If you remembered precisely how you moved back to the event, I would have nothing to sell. So - to business. The way our minds are constructed, we can only travel this path twice. After that, a denial mechanism kicks in, probably to prevent our continual dithering over options we ought to decide on in real time. So, effectively, you have experienced the first of your two chances to change the past. If now, or at any time in the years to come, you want the power to control your very own second chance, for a considerable sum I will tell you the simple technique of how to do it."
He named a fee that ordinarily would have made her wince.
"And," he added, "you must realise that once you exercise your next option, there are no more second chances. So you should choose carefully. Yet perhaps live more boldly than ever before."
She hesitated for only a second. As she signed the cheque and passed it to him, she said: "Now, the secret, if you please."
Then, before he could answer, a thought crossed her mind. "But how will I know there is another chance without using it?"
"A good question," he said approvingly. "And the answer lies in the secret itself. The trigger consists of repeating the phrase 'I will go back' three times aloud, without saying anything else in between. As simple as that."
"It sounds like all the magic spells from the fairy tales I read as a child," she commented, amused at the thought.
"Absolutely," he agreed. "Perhaps those fairy tales are simply inherited memories of quite normal skills that have been largely forgotten. Anyhow, nothing will apparently happen the first time you say the words. The second time, there will be a rainbow-like effect on the periphery of your vision, and any sounds you hear will assume an echoing quality. All completely subjective, of course, and simply intended to warn you either to say something that cancels the phenomenon or to proceed to the third time. Try it."
"I will go back," she stated firmly. "I will go back. Oh, goodness, you're right. That rainbow is quite lovely and, oh, it's fading."
"Because you said something different," explained the therapist. "Well, the rest is up to you. Test the technique whenever you choose. Remembering always you have only one second chance remaining. And enjoy life as never before."
The queue moved slowly forward as the therapist finished his story. One of the small group who had been listening to him spoke up.
"She was typical of most of your clients, then?"
"Typical," agreed the therapist. "Most paid up there and then. A few took a day or two to make up their minds. Rarely did anyone decide they didn't want the ability to have a second chance."
Another of the group commented: "But however would a person decide to use that option?"
The therapist smiled slightly. "I don't remember anyone who actually used it. This was why they all became far more considerate to others - they didn't want to squander something so special merely to put right some thoughtless remark or selfish action. Yet, at the same time, each one started living more vividly. Not recklessly. Just choosing the more adventurous options."
Again the great queue moved forward. Immediately ahead was the high archway beside which a clerk sat, marking off names in a register. Above, the stars shone steel-blue, unwinking. Below, the surface under their feet was unreflecting, an absolute black. If it were transparent, it meant that beneath them was an unimaginable nothingness. Behind, the rest of the queue meandered in great sweeping curves until lost in the infinite distance.
Yet another of the small group had something to say.
"It was all a confidence trick. I'm certain of that. But how? What was the trick? How did you get away with it?"
At that, the therapist chuckled. His amusement was in total contrast to the serious, perhaps apprehensive mood of the queue. Countless hundreds of heads craned to see the source of the merriment.
"Of course it was all a trick. And the secret of a successful con lies in giving the victims something they really want. Which I did. Nobody complained because nobody used their second chance. It was far too valuable to waste when tomorrow, next week, whenever, there might be a more major occurrence or mistake that needed back-tracking on."
"But how did you do it?"
"Simple. Hypnotism. And hypnotism is simple. As long as your subjects are willing, which mine always were. They broke the vase, and while my secretary - my wife, by the way - was sweeping up the pieces, I was putting the client into a light trance. First I would tell them they would forget all that happened after the vase was broken and they were taken back to their chair. Then they were told they would come out of the trance as soon as I snapped my fingers. And finally I implanted a post-hypnotic suggestion. Which meant that if ever they said 'I will go back' twice, they would experience specific visual and aural phenomena. After which I snapped my fingers and continued in mid-sentence from a point just before the vase was broken."
As the queue moved forward to the archway, a final question was raised.
"The priceless vase - how could you replace it?"
The therapist shook his head slightly. "Beauty and value are largely in the eye of the beholder. In the case of the vase, beauty and value were enhanced by its being behind armoured glass, safeguarded by a top security system. I had a contract with a talented young craftsman who kept me supplied with identical copies to replace each broken one. All other details were simply amateur acting on the part of myself and my wife. After about six years we made enough of a fortune to quit. We sailed the Pacific for a while. Found a spot in the outer Cook Islands that suited us. And settled there until I died."
The group had reached the head of the queue. The clerk looked at the therapist.
"James William Taylor?"
"Born 1941, died 1998?"
"Your judgement will now begin. Go through the archway and go towards the Throne."
"I - I - will it be a fair trial?"
The clerk was puzzled. "Fair? Oh, no. God has never been fair. Just, yes; merciful, often. But have no fear, fairness is not part of His nature. You may proceed."
"One more question. While I was alive, I sold second chances; they gave people hope, encouraged them to live to the full. Will that count against me?"
The clerk shrugged and silently put a mark against the therapist's name. And James William Taylor, 1941 to 1998, began that final walk, the walk we all must take, to meet his Maker.
* * *
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