If only we could change the past...but what about the future?
If Only
It was odd, how in pain, the world always seemed clearer, sharper, more beautiful than ever before. It was odd how the snow, falling gently to the ground behind the hospital window, resembled falling stars, plummeting down to Earth. It was odd how the rhythmic tick tock of the clock was as pristine as the dripping of water, filtering through Willa’s ears even as the aches continued.
With the little effort she could muster, Willa wrenched herself from sleep, the blessed place where pain did not exist, and listened to that relentless tick tock. She hated that sound, for it brought reminders of the wires snaking from her body. It brought reminders of what was and what could no longer be. It brought reminders of the memory in which time had run out.
Tonight, however, she planned to listen to that sound, planned to watch the red second hand make its final revolutions of the year. She planned to count the seconds until one year became another, to listen for the clocks to strike midnight, for the doctors and nurses to celebrate a new chapter of hope.
Or so they thought.
Willa sighed as the familiar tsunami of agony washed over her, lighting her blood on fire and beating a drum in her brain. She buried her face in the stiff, starched pillow, listening to the tick and the tock.
If only I could go back, she thought. If only I could change that one moment, that one choice.
If only.
11:30 now. Just 3,600 more ticks and tocks until a fresh chapter of “joy” began, until everyone vowed to change their lives for the better. If she could speak through the tube in her throat, Willa would have reminded them to be cautious, for one small action could change everything.
If only I could have taken those words back before I lost her forever.
If only.
3,540 more seconds. 3,539. 3,538. Tick. Tock.
Tick.
“Willa? Willa, my darling!”
The snow swirling outside the window coalesced into a woman. She was made of golden winter sunlight, and stars twinkled in her eyes.
This was Willa’s grandmother, Belle, who had died many years before.
Somehow, Willa found herself shaping the words through her dry, cracked lips.
“Grandma? But—but I thought you were—“
“Yes, my darling, I’m dead. But I’m also alive, in your memories and your heart. And it’s New Year’s Eve, after all. Who says we can’t have a little magic?”
For the first time in many months, Willa smiled.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Since it’s New Year’s Eve, I’m offering you a luxury few can afford. I suppose you’ve done many things you regret, and, seeing as you cannot leave this hospital, you have no chances to repent. However, the whole of your past is at my fingertips. If you desire, I’ll take you through the years, and you may choose one, only one, thing to change.”
With Belle’s words arrived a memory, the memory that had haunted Willa for five years, the memory in which she shattered her most precious gift, the memory she lost the chance to do over.
Until now.
“Take me,” Willa whispered.
Belle held out her golden arm, and Willa took it with her quivering one. The world spun and spun, the whitewashed room and the tick and tock disappearing into nothing. At last, all Willa could see was snow...
Two friends sat together on a park bench, their reflections mirrored in the icy expanse spread out before them. This was their favorite time of year, when the lake became a dazzling blanket of ice.
Ten-year-old Willa gazed into the distance, small flecks of snow landing on her eyelashes. A small smile touched her lips as Olivia, her best friend, pelted a snowball at her. The two friends laughed, joyous, innocent as they had always been.
Present Willa watched it as if she were watching a movie, one already spoiled for her. She knew what was coming, yet she stood, mesmerized, as the scene unfolded once more.
Past Willa regarded the frozen lake, adjusting her scarf. “I wonder what would happen if we tried to skate there,” she said.
Olivia raised an eyebrow. “The ice would crack under us and we’d drown.”
“Must you always be such a pessimist?” Willa asked, rolling her eyes. She edged off the bench, placed a careful foot on the ice, and turned back toward Olivia. “Look! I’m standing on it, and I’m fine!”
Olivia sighed, but nonetheless, she sprinted after her friend, dubiously considering the lake as Willa edged farther across it.
“Don’t,” she warned. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Since when have I cared about dangerous?” To illustrate her point, Willa darted across the ice, her feet flying lithely over the sparkling sheet. Midway across the lake, she turned and ran back, jumping into the snow and throwing her hands up in victory.
Present Willa sighed from her invisible vantage point. She’d been such a carefree girl at ten. After all, the sickness hadn’t happened yet. Nor had the words that shattered her heart forevermore.
As if Willa had hit play on a remote, the scene continued.
“Dangerous is another word for stupidity,” Olivia countered.
“Fine. If you want to be a scared chicken, be a scared chicken.”
“I am not a scared chicken!”
Present Willa leaped, flying toward her past self. She knew what was coming, she knew the words that would arrive, she knew how her heart would be evenly split in two.
She had to prevent herself from saying those words. She had to...
“Then prove it. Walk to the middle of the lake and back. Go on. I dare you.”
Willa stopped short, arrested in motion, as the words, those innocent words, left her past self’s mouth.
Olivia groaned. “I had better get something for this.”
“You get to not be called a scared chicken. Now go.”
Olivia sighed, but she tentatively placed one foot on the ice. It held, and she took a small step forward, then another.
“How much longer?” she asked.
“To the middle of the lake and back. Come on! Time’s ticking!”
Past Willa watched, a mischievous smile on her face, as Olivia took another step. “What if I fall?” she questioned.
“You won’t fall. Keep going!”
At last, Olivia made it midway across the lake. Present Willa covered her eyes, dreading what would come next.
“That’s it! Halfway there. See? You’re fine. Now come back!”
Olivia turned—
—And the ice cracked.
Willa, past and present, could only stare as Olivia disappeared under the ice, her mouth a silent O. Past Willa searched for a blonde head, a knit hat, but no sign of Olivia remained.
“Olivia?” Willa called out. “Olivia? Are you...okay? Answer me, please!”
There was no answer. A dark shadow bloomed on Willa’s face as she remembered, with a shock, that Olivia couldn’t swim.
With a screech, the world slowed to a standstill. Past Willa was frozen, horrified yet unable to move, as her best friend drowned.
Present Willa knew what happened next. Past Willa sprinted across the park to get her parents, but it was too late. Much too late.
They recovered Olivia’s body later. A funeral was held, and Willa sat, empty, broken, nothing more than a shattered soul, as her best friend was laid to rest in peace, all because of her and those foolish, foolish words.
Willa’s family moved soon after, to a new place, far from the lake and its dark throes. And there, Willa was diagnosed with a disease that the doctors called “incurable, but treatable.”
No one knew what had caused that disease. Perhaps Willa caught it from another person. Perhaps it was lying dormant inside of her all this time. Perhaps it resulted from that raw feeling Willa could not put a name to, the one that scraped at her heart and her soul each and every minute.
Whatever it was, Willa knew it was a punishment for saying those words, for shattering one of the greatest gifts life had to offer. It was a reminder that she could never repent for what she lost to her carelessness. With every rattling breath, every bruise on her skin, every tick and tock, Willa knew it was her fault that Olivia was gone forever. She knew that life gave you no do-overs.
Until now.
Suddenly, Willa found herself looking through the eyes of her ten-year-old self. She found herself seeing the lake, where Olivia was slowly drowning but still alive.
She found herself seeing a chance.
With no hesitation, Willa danced over the broken ice, taking a deep breath and diving into the lake. The cold water prickled her skin and sliced into her bones, but Willa didn’t feel it. All she sensed was Olivia, slowly falling, her coat billowing in the water, her blonde hair a cloud around her head, her eyes wide with fright.
Upon reaching her best friend, Willa wrapped her arms around Olivia and kicked her way up to the surface. She gasped in the winter air as she fought to keep both herself and Olivia above water.
“Willa!”
Willa turned to see her parents and Olivia’s parents racing toward her. She swam to the shoreline, each breath labored and heavy, each beat of her heart reminding her that with every second she stalled, Olivia lost another chance at life.
With one final stroke, Willa deposited her friend in the snow. Olivia was shivering, her breaths choked and shallow, but her frightened eyes managed to meet Willa’s wide ones.
“Olivia,” Willa whispered. “Liv, listen to me. This isn’t the innocent friend you know. This is a Willa five years from now, a sick Willa, a Willa who lost you. This is a Willa who let you drown and who regrets it every second of her life. Liv. Liv, can you hear me?”
Olivia’s skin was like porcelain, so fragile, so cold. She choked once again, struggling to breathe, water spilling out of her mouth.
Willa was losing her. She was losing her best friend, losing her right before her eyes, losing her once again even though she returned to take her words back, to ensure Olivia lived. She returned to repent, to receive a do-over, but this? This was the same nightmare all over again.
“Liv. Don’t die on me. Please. I’ve already lost you once, and I can’t lose you again. If I did—if you died because of me, because of those stupid words, because I was too late—I would...I would never be able to live with myself. Please just stay alive for me, Liv. Please. Be strong. You’re strong, right? You’re not a scared chicken, you’re a friend, my best friend, the other half of my heart and my soul. You have a whole life ahead of you, a whole life of memories, happiness, friendship, so don’t—please, don’t—“
“Willa.”
Olivia raised her frigid hand and caressed Willa’s tear-stained cheek, then let it fall to the ground once more. She regarded Willa with her blue eyes, clear as the water lying underneath the deadly ice.
“Promise me...”
She choked, coughing up more water, her voice raspy and faint. Willa crouched over her best friend, searching for a way to revive her, a way to repent, a way to do it all over, a way to save Olivia before she lost her forever...
“Promise me... promise me...you’ll be strong...”
Olivia took a final, rattling, choking breath—and lay still.
And Willa let out a shriek, a wild, animal, bloodcurdling, inhumane shriek that pierced the air and shattered the shocked silence. It swirled into the air, disturbing the uneasy atmosphere, startling the birds, and darkening the world with sorrow. It lit Willa’s blood in fire, kindling it into an unspeakable fury, an unspeakable heartache, splitting her heart open as she screamed, sobbed, letting her fat, salty tears sprinkle the snow. She cradled the body of her best friend as a tsunami of utter defeat crashed over her, for her one chance to do it all over, to save her friend, to put the shattered pieces back together, was gone, all gone, wasted and broken and smashed to smithereens like her cracked and bleeding soul...
And Willa woke, once again in the confines of her hospital room.
It was as if Belle had never come and Willa had never traveled back in time. Only the clock, ticking and tocking its way past 11:50, indicated the change that had taken place.
As Willa stared at the clock uncomprehendingly, feeling the pain once more, her eyes strayed to the photograph beside her bed. It had been taken years ago during a vacation Willa took with Olivia. The two best friends, wearing gap-toothed smiles, had gathered in front of the camera, their arms wrapped around each other, looking as if nothing in the world would ever wipe the grins off their faces.
With the pain of memory, Willa recalled what Olivia’s smile had truly meant to her. When Willa was bullied in second grade, Olivia remained by her side through it all, providing a well-timed joke whenever it became too much. When Willa was at her worst, sinking further and further into a deep hole, Olivia was the one to lift her up and help her see the positivity in life once more. Olivia gave herself up for Willa, and Willa gladly did the same for her best friend.
She picked up the picture with numb fingers, once again witnessing Olivia’s sparkling eyes, her radiant skin, the laughing smile that never faded. A single tear slid down her cheek, followed by another, and another, as Willa sat, head bowed, broken-hearted.
If only...
If only she was quicker to save Olivia, if only she hadn’t wasted precious time, if only she’d been more persistent, if only she had tried harder, Willa’s best friend would still be alive. Olivia would still be smiling and laughing and joking, easing Willa’s pain and giving her a purpose in life.
Twice, Willa was given the opportunity to save Olivia. Twice, she had failed. Because of her, Olivia would never smile or laugh or joke again.
Willa had been given a do-over, a chance, and she had wasted it.
She pulled her arm back to hurl the photograph across the room—and paused.
If only...
But there was no if only. There were no do-overs, no keys that could unlock the past. History was history, controlled and sealed away by vast cosmic forces that no mere human could ever comprehend.
There was no if only, because if only was not a possibility. There could only be now and what happened next. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how hard she wished and how hard she hoped, there would be no do-over. Olivia was gone, and nothing, not even New Year’s magic, could bring her back.
Promise me, Olivia had said. Promise me, you’ll be strong.
But I’m not strong, Willa thought. I can’t save you. If life won’t give me a do-over, if you’re gone forever, what’s the point anymore?
Be strong.
Be strong.
Be strong.
And suddenly, in her heart, Willa knew.
Olivia’s body would always be gone, but her spirit and her heart would never truly leave. Wherever she was, she was watching her best friend, and she was sending her all the hope and light and love in the world.
And it was Willa’s job to take that love and do it over the right way. It was her task to find the light in the darkness and remain optimistic, even when she was at her worst. It was her obligation to live and make Olivia’s death worth it.
Willa knew Olivia wouldn’t want her to dwell on the past. Olivia would want her to remain happy, to bring stars to the night sky, to make a rainbow with the rain, to keep loving and laughing and learning and living and being. Her best friend, besides everything else, wanted her to be strong, to live, to go out and change the world and imagine not if only, but imagine what could be.
Perhaps one could not change the past.
But one could change the future.
As the clock stroke midnight and announced the new year, Willa made a resolution, one she planned to keep.
I will make you proud, Olivia, but not by going back in time to save you. I will make you proud by seeing the light, by remaining positive, by continuing, by making my life worth it. I can’t do over the past, I can’t do over a memory, but I can do over how I view the past, and how I view myself. So I’ll enjoy life. I’ll make the future the best it can be. I’ll live.
If you’re listening, know that I’m still so, so sorry, and I would still save you if I could, but I’ve realized...I can’t change the past. I’ve realized it’s better to imagine what could be then to dwell on if only. It’s better to live for the future than for the past.
So I’ll look to the future. I’ll change how I view life. I’ll live for others and for myself. I’ll live for you.
As Willa listened to the tick and the tock, she realized, for the first time in years, that the pain that came with the sickness was tolerable, if not bearable, if not lesser. The physical pain was drying up, along with the pain of if only.
And she saw that in the window, among the falling snow, Belle was watching her, golden light swirling around her body. Beside Belle was Olivia, smiling, laughing, waving goodbye.
This wasn’t goodbye, though. Olivia would always be alive in Willa’s heart.
Instead, Willa had said goodbye to the past and had greeted the future, which was lying before her, full of endless possibilities and chances and love and hope and life.
Not if only.
But what could be.
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