When he opens the door to his one-room apartment, the room is dark, the way it is every night. The only difference on this night is that when he turns on the light, there’s someone sitting at his kitchen table.
A woman he’s never seen before takes a sip from one of his mugs. “Hello, John,” she says.
“Who are you?” the man asks, pulse skyrocketing. “How do you know my name? How did you get in here? Why are you drinking out of my favorite mug?”
“Calm down, jeez, you humans are always on edge.” The woman sets the mug down and stands up. She straightens out her businesslike pencil skirt and strolls forward, hand extended for a handshake. “Angel 313 at your service.”
John looks down at the woman’s hand and doesn’t move.
The woman sighs and drops her hand. “Look, it’s New Year’s Eve and your life sucks. The folks upstairs are celebrating the new year by beta-testing some kind of do-over program to try and set lost, innocent souls such as yourself back on track.”
John blinks. “What?”
The woman sighs again, and this time the exhale is accompanied with an eye roll. “Look, ten years ago you had a pretty nice life, right?” she says.
John nods slowly. He doesn’t like to think about the past—it always fills him with guilt.
“Right, well, you’re not the only one who was on track for a happy life and then lost it all after a series of mistakes,” she says. “A couple hundred angels, myself included, have been sent to give certain people a chance to re-do one moment in their life to try and get themselves back on track. You are one of those people.”
John squints at the woman. She’s a good actress, he’ll give her that. “Right,” he says slowly. “Well, thanks for stopping by, but I have work tomorrow, and I need to get some sleep–”
“Come on, you know there’s something you want to change,” the woman says. “There’s something you wish you’d said, or something you wish you hadn’t said. You could take back the huge argument you had with your ex-wife, you could take back the things you said to your boss that got you fired from your old job—name some mistake, and I can help you fix it. Of course, it has to be something you did. Anything outside of your control—like what happened ten years ago, for example—can’t be altered.”
John stares at her. “How do you know all this about me?”
“I told you.” The woman is clearly exasperated. “I’m an angel. I’ve been sent to help you fix your life. Do you want my help or not?”
John doesn’t believe her, but he still can’t help but think back. There’s so much in his life he regrets, but one specific moment in his life stands out.
The woman’s eyes widen. “Really? That’s what you want to change?”
John gapes at her. “Wh–you can read my mind?”
“You know that isn’t going to change anything, right?” the woman says, ignoring his question. “I told you I can’t change what happened–”
“I know,” John snaps. “I know you’re not going to let me re-write something that big. I just... that’s what I’d want.”
The woman nods. “Alright, then,” she says. “Here we go.”
John blinks, and he’s home.
Well, not home. He hasn’t lived in this house for almost ten years. Still, whenever he thinks of family, of belonging somewhere, this is what he thinks of. The small cottage he used to live in with his wife and daughter.
He’s standing in the kitchen, watching the snow fall outside. His wife is upstairs, falling asleep with the TV on. The room is bathed in a warm glow from the dim kitchen light. He knows this memory like the back of his hand, only now he’s here, living through it again.
“Huh,” John says. “That lady was actually telling the truth.”
He leans against the counter and waits, knowing what’s coming, knowing that any minute his daughter will arrive.
John turns and smiles at his daughter, who’s standing in the doorway with her thumb in her mouth and a book in her hand. She’s just like he remembers—three years old and so small he could throw her ten feet into the air, if he wanted to.
“Yes, Katie?” he asks her. Looking at her like this is hard. Remembering her has always been painful, but to actually see her in front of him is agonizing. He wants to cry, but he swallows the lump in his throat and holds back. He’s already ruined this night for her once. He’s not going to do it a second time.
“Storytime?” she asks, holding the book up for him to see. It’s the book he used to read to her every night. He hasn’t seen it in years.
The phone rings, just like John knew it would. He gives his daughter a smile and reaches for the phone, already knowing who it’s going to be and what they’re going to say.
“John, you got to get in here,” his old secretary says. “The computers glitched and we lost all our data for the month, and your boss is going crazy. We need you here ASAP to help salvage whatever we can–”
Ten years ago, John had interrupted his secretary with an “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Now, he smiles and says, “I’m sorry, Char, but I can’t come in tonight.”
He hangs up the phone without giving his secretary a chance to respond.
John turns to his daughter with a grin. Ten years ago, Katie’s eyes had swelled with tears. This time around, she beams at him. “C’mon, storytime!”
John laughs and follows her up to her room. This, too, is painfully familiar. The pink walls, the stuffed animals, the butterfly stickers that were permanently glued to the wall—it’s all exactly as he remembers it. He scoops Katie up and blows a raspberry into her stomach, making her squeal and squirm in his arms.
“Daddy, stop!” she giggles.
“Alright, alright.” Grinning, he sets her down in the bed and crawls in next to her. He takes the book out of her hand and opens it to the first page as Katie snuggles up beside him. “‘Once upon a time there was a tree,’” he reads, “‘and she loved a little boy...’”
Katie is asleep by the time he finishes the book. Closing the book slowly, he presses a light kiss to her temple. “Goodnight, baby,” he says before slowly creeping out of her room.
He shuts the door gently and sighs. He can hear his wife snoring down the hall, and part of him wants to go to her. He misses her. He knows that their marriage, as strong as it might’ve seemed at the time, was never ready to handle the kind of tragedy that befell them, but he still misses the time they’d spent together. Still, the angel had said he only could change one thing. He sighs again and squares his shoulders.
“Alright,” he says. “I’m done.”
He blinks again, and he’s back. His apartment is small, dark, and the street lights from outside cast everything in strange shadow. The woman, the angel, is staring at him, eyes shining.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “You didn’t change anything. That moment, it doesn’t hold any real importance in your life.”
“Yeah, well.” John turns away. “It did for Katie. That was the last chance she had to have her dad read her a bedtime story.”
The woman blinks furiously. “You humans are so strange,” she says, voice thick. “Whenever I think I have you figured out, one of you goes and–and does something like this, and I just... I can never figure you out.”
The man shrugs. He doesn’t really care if the angel’s touched by the moment he chose to re-do. He didn’t do it to fix his life, and he didn’t do it to impress this woman.
The morning after the moment he chose to re-do, John’s wife went into Katie’s room to wake her up for breakfast, and Katie was dead. She’d been fighting against cancer since the moment she was born, and everyone had thought she’d won. It’d been months since the last sign of disease. Nobody was prepared for the way Katie had suddenly passed on.
John’s marriage fell apart almost immediately, and it wasn’t long before he lost his job, too. He understands the angel’s confusion—he could’ve gone back and saved his marriage, or gone and made sure he didn’t lose his job—but at the same time, there’s no other moment he could’ve changed.
Ten years ago, Katie had died after her father chose to go to work instead of read her a book. Now, Katie’s last memory is filled with warmth and love.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” John says. “I have work tomorrow, and I need to get some sleep.”
The angel hesitates, biting her lip. “Look, I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she blurts. “But your daughter’s going to be... so happy when you finally join her.”
John has to bite his lip to keep himself from letting out a gut-wrenching sob. “Thank you,” he says, voice breaking.
The angel nods. “Just one day at a time, okay?” she says. “You’ll see her again one day.”
John can only nod. He doesn’t trust himself to speak.
“Goodbye, John,” the angel says.
He blinks, and she’s gone. His apartment is dark and the room is empty, just like it is every night.
The clock on the wall turns to midnight, and the new year begins.
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