Prose Header

Do You Wish to Proceed?

by A. A. Khayyat

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


“What?” said Raven, raising his head from the sanctuary of his hands.

“I need the marker,” said Eileen. “I’m going to try something.”

Raven grabbed it and tossed it to her. “What are you doing?” he said.

Eileen ignored him and ran her hand over the “Thank you for your input” message. It faded to her sweeping touch. Eileen raised her eyebrows and turned to Raven. “Did you see that?” she said. “We could wipe these off.”

Turning back to the board, she licked her lips and wrote, “Please, help us!”

The whiteboard responded a few seconds later with a window labeled, “Help” that cascaded down into a list of instructions. Eileen scanned through them and peered at one instruction in particular. She let out a sigh of relief.

“What is it?” said Raven.

“We’re good,” said Eileen, reading the line again. “What we...” — she stopped herself — “what you did, Raven, won’t be finalized until we leave this place. It says it right here.” She pointed at the instruction line.

Raven nodded and then closed his eyes. His breathing came and went naturally now. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“But,” continued Eileen, “I have the marker now, and if you try to anything stupid I’ll claw your eyes out.”

“You’re right,” said Raven. “I’m sorry, I should’ve been more careful.”

Eileen turned back to face the whiteboard. She read over the instructions and stopped at another one that quickly drew her attention. “Check this out,” she said, pointing at the bulleted sentence. Her lips moved as she read it.

Raven stooped next to her, peering at the board. “We can get to the Master Edit utility,” said Raven. “If we replenish our...” his voice trailed off.

“Fogweed,” said Eileen to herself.

Raven fished out the bag in his pocket and unfurled it.

Eileen winced at the sight of it but, after exchanging glances with Raven, she nodded, and he grabbed the flaky, stringy pieces of the grayish green plant and brought it out of the bag.

Eileen wrinkled her nose at the pungent, earthy smell. “I’m going to throw up.”

“Please, don’t,” said Raven, holding his hand out. “Don’t be like Morgan, barfing out all those shots in Billy’s studio apartment.” He looked around. “What if this is Billy’s apartment?” He managed another awkward grin.

“Don’t bring up shots,” said Eileen, shuddering. “Or Morgan. Or Billy’s pigsty.”

“You brought up the vomiting first.”

“Okay, stop!”

Raven and Eileen locked eyes and almost simultaneously stuffed the fogweed into their mouth. They chewed on it like llamas, with their jaws working up, down and sideways as their teeth strained against the rough fibers; Eileen gestured wildly with her hands, her face contorting with every bite. Raven chewed on stoically.

They then sat opposite each other, hugging their knees, waiting. Raven tapped his fingers and whistled a tune. Eileen’s eyes shot around the room, fiddling with the marker in her hands.

“Nervous?” Raven asked.

Eileen nodded, still twirling the marker.

“It would have been nice if we could go way back. And change things without screwing things up, you know.”

“Yeah,” said Eileen.

“I’m just scared, Eileen,” said Raven, hugging his knees tighter.

“Don’t lose it on me now, Raven,” said Eileen. “We’re doing this together.”

“Not the fogweed,” he said.

Eileen looked at him, turning the marker around in her hands.

“I would have liked to bring my parents back,” he said, nodding. He opened his mouth to say something else but wiped a tear instead and turned his gaze away from Eileen. “I’m sorry, Eileen.”

“Raven,” she said length, “you’re okay.”

“I’m a loser.”

Eileen licked her lips and frowned in thought. “You’re the brightest loser I’ve ever met, Raven,” she managed. “I’m sorry I called you pretentious.”

“No, you’re right.”

“You work things in your head a certain way, Raven,” said Eileen. “Forget about what happened before, okay? Move on. I’ll motivate you.”

Raven wiped another tear and chortled. “Thanks, Eileen,” he said. “You have a flair for words.”

“Beats your flair for...” — and she mimicked Raven’s voice — “kundalini.”

“So what’s kundalini again?” he said. “Is it a chakra?”

“I guess,” said Eileen. “I thought it was some kind of hidden, coiled energy, or something. I guess it’s a chakra.”

“I want to know what it really is.”

Eileen shook her head. “Why?”

He shrugged. “Enlightenment is a glorious thing.”

“Or just an arbitrary thing. Maybe it’s a big cosmic joke.”

At that they both stared at one another, a look of sudden surprise twisting their faces. Eileen blinked and looked around the room; the walls shook, fluttered and were swept away like bed sheets in a hurricane, disappearing into pitch-blackness. Only the ground stood still.

Eileen and Raven sprang to their feet and craned their heads around, taking in the void that surrounded them.

Over the whiteboard floated a message radiating like a neon sign. “Welcome to the Master Edit utility. You may choose the events you wish to edit. Write the number of the window on the whiteboard and finish with a period and the word, ‘Done.’”

The void slowly began to fill up with windows, showing the familiar truck driver, along with other events they did not recognize.

“I can’t feel my legs,” said Eileen, blinking and stooping over.

“Neither can I,” said Raven, scratching his head. “Holy...”

Eileen tried to focus her eyesight on the whiteboard. She read the message and turned to the windows, some which were still popping into existence. “Okay... Jesus, where the hell do we start?”

“We can’t save anybody because other people will die,” said Raven, his eyes wide open. “Remember that.”

Eileen staggered to the whiteboard and felt around the storage bar. “Did we lose the marker?”

“It’s in your pants,” said Raven, shaking his head. “It’s in your pocket. I’m going to sit down. I can’t stand anymore.” He fell back and lay sprawled on the ground.

“Don’t pass out on me,” said Eileen, rubbing her eyes and breathing harder.

Raven curled up in a ball and turned away.

“Raven, what are you doing?” she said, uncapping the marker.

But all Raven did now was murmur deliriously. Eileen shook her head in quick motions and closed her eyes, straining to get her breath back to normal.

The windows began to circle their way around them, still increasing in number. The sound they made began as a low rumble that now filled the whole void like a million trombones stuck on one note.

Eileen clutched her head and gritted her teeth. She was ready to scream when the noise stopped and she opened her eyes. One window, labeled, “Heart attack,” floated beside her. She jabbed a finger at it and a tree of other windows shot out. The ones under the header, “Pre-heart attack,” branched out endlessly into other trees.

Breathing more easily now, but sweating profusely, Eileen watched how far the events spread out and then wrote, “Start over,” on the whiteboard. Everything sank back to the “Heart attack” window.

“What can I edit in pre-heart attack option?” she wrote.

“You cannot edit pre-heart attack events,” the whiteboard wrote back.

“Why did you offer us a chance to edit the event when we got here?” Eileen scribbled vigorously.

“Pre-heart attack events are prohibited even at Master Edit level. Try again.”

She hit the window again and went for the “Post-heart attack” windows and another tree emerged. The gunman’s face stood out in one of them.

“Can I edit post-heart attack events?” she wrote this time.

“You cannot edit pending post-heart attack events,” the message retorted.

“Why?” Eileen shouted. “Damn you!”

“What can I edit exactly?” Eileen’s marker worked against the whiteboard.

“Nothing at the present moment.”

Eileen slammed the marker on the storage bar and screamed. Then her eyes opened wide and she straightened. Turning back to the whiteboard and picking up the marker, she wrote, “Can I delete heart attack event?”

“No, you cannot delete the heart attack.”

She bit her lip. “Can I delete the post-heart attack events and make new future events?”

“Yes,” the whiteboard said.

Raven stirred and made it up to his knees. “Eileen?”

“Oh, my God, Raven,” said Eileen, turning around and forcing a smile. “I got it!”

“Sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t feel anything.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I figured it out. Oh, my head.” She stumbled backward and grabbed the whiteboard.

“Goddammit,” said Raven, clutching his head. “I saw—”

“Listen,” said Eileen, turning back to face the windows. “We can’t stop the heart attack.”

“Yeah, it’ll screw everything up. Eileen, I—”

“In this particular event, the present stops at the moment of the heart attack,” she said, sniffing. “After that it’s all future stuff. We can edit them to be anything we want.” Her eyes opened even wider. “Raven, we can save the people at the pile-up and stop the gunman.”

“What if that has consequences, too?” said Raven, rubbing his eyes.

Eileen shrugged. “There’s nothing else we can do. But I have a good feeling about this.”

Raven gazed at Eileen — now looming over him with an expression of anticipation — and then to the whiteboard. The Help window faded, and the message on the whiteboard reverted back to, “Would you like to create a future event?”

“You were wrong,” said Eileen. “We can’t change the past to suit our needs, but we can create our own future.”

Raven nodded after a pause. “Okay, Eileen,” he said. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Eileen smiled and extended her hand out to Raven. He grabbed it and wobbled up to his feet.

Returning to the whiteboard, Eileen wrote, “Delete all post-heart attack events. Done,” and waited for the new message prompt: “All post-heart attack events will be deleted. Do you wish to proceed?”

“Yes,” the marker tip squeaked.

“Write your desired post-heart attack future event and finish with a period and the word, ‘Done.”

Eileen glanced at Raven and wrote with half a smile. “Delay all other drivers. Speed up gunman to be the only casualty of the pile-up. Done.”

The whiteboard flickered. “You are about to submit a new future event. Do you wish to proceed?”

Eileen wrote, “Yes.”

“If you are done, simply place the marker back on the storage bar. Thank you for your input.”

The ink faded and the whiteboard returned to a glistening, immaculate white. Eileen placed the marker back on the storage bar and took a deep breath. Raven placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned on her.

“Here,” she said, grabbing on to Raven. “Let’s sit down.” She eased him down and sat beside him.

The whiteboard disappeared and the room hummed. Eileen and Raven looked around them and waited.

“Thank you, Eileen,” said Raven.

She smiled.

“Sorry for passing out on you,” said Raven.

“What the hell happened to you?”

Raven blinked and chuckled. “I saw my parents.”

“Really?” she said, smiling.

“They were happy,” he said, nodding. “I think. In some kind of,” he paused, “bizarre way.”

Eileen squinted her eyes. “I guess that’s good.”

“They joked around. More than just that, actually: it was weird. I tried asking them what enlightenment was, and my dad made a hissing sound, like a snake, then took off his shirt and put a new one on. My mom just cracked up.”

“What?” Eileen said, laughing.

“I don’t know. Dead people go insane, too, I guess.”

“It makes sense,” said Eileen, shrugging. “Insanity is hereditary.” She giggled.

“Aw shut up,” said Raven.

A familiar sound crackled right beside them. They turned to find the rectangular portal, with its flickering, red and blue frame, hissing at them.

“What if we screwed up again?” said Raven.

“I don’t know.”

“What if we leave and everything’s different?” said Raven. “Will we even see each other?”

Eileen stared at the rectangle. “Only one way to find out.” She began to move toward the rectangle.

Raven grabbed her arm. “Thank you, Eileen.”

“Come on,” said Eileen, jerking her head toward the rectangle. “I have a good feeling.”

As soon as they crawled in the space, the pins and needles washed over their bodies and they opened their eyes on the grass right beside the highway. They massaged their heads and groaned.

A thunderous screech snapped their attention to the highway as a semi-trailer careened toward them. They got to their feet and jumped away just before the truck tipped over and ground its way in a shower of sparks and a deafening squeal. They got up and watched as, a moment later, a familiar car crashed head-on into the trailer, crumpling up upon impact.

Other cars screeched and came to a stop a good distance away from the fallen semi-trailer. A few of them rear-ended the vehicles in front of them, but the drivers emerged, mostly unscathed.

Horns began honking as the mangled car, halfway inside the trailer, burst into flame and the truck driver crawled out of the shattered windshield, clutching his chest and bleeding from his forehead.

Eileen and Raven rushed over to him and dragged his heavy-framed body over to the grass. He watched them with pleading eyes, still clutching his chest. The right side of his face was smothered in blood.

“You’re going to be okay, sir,” said Eileen.

He held up his cell phone with bleeding hands. Raven took it and dialed nine-one-one.

Several minutes later, the red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles lit up the world again. Raven and Eileen sat on the grass and watched. The gunman’s car, reduced to a mashed ball of smoking gray and black after the firefighters had done their work, sat right against the underside of the trailer. Paramedics and police officers stood right beside it.

“Are you okay?” Eileen said.

“Yeah,” said Raven. “I’m glad it’s over. Are you?”

“Yeah,” Eileen said, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. “I think I killed a man.”

“You killed a man who was going to gun down an entire family.”

“Still,” said Eileen, staring at the charred vehicle. “It feels horrible.” She sniffed and wiped a tear.

“Hey,” said Raven, throwing his arm around her. “You saved a family. You saved us. I’m proud of you, Eileen.”

Eileen dropped her face on Raven’s shoulder and sobbed. Raven pressed her closer and rested his head on hers. When he looked up at the crash site again, he saw the gunman, lying on another gurney with an oxygen mask pressed to his face.

“Eileen,” he said, pointing. “Eileen, look. That gurney, over there!”

Eileen looked up, wiped the tears clouding her eyesight and peered in the direction Raven was pointing toward. The paramedics rolled the gunman to an ambulance and lifted the gurney inside. Several police officers stood by the ambulance.

“He’s alive for now,” said Raven.

Eileen nodded. “Let’s go home. I’m tired.”

Copyright © 2017 by A. A. Khayyat

Proceed to Challenge 719...

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