The Dead: Book 22 (frag. 2)
"So it wasn't just the last few years, since the illness?" the tall one said.
My childhood was, well, unusually painful. I won't go into detail except to say that I'm talking about both emotional and physical pain."
The shorter one nodded vigorously.
"If it is of any use to you, we can confirm your judgement on this point. It is one of the factors which make your case so unusual."
"My friend's right," the taller one said. "You suffered greatly when you were young—so much that it's surprising you managed to escape with both your mind and your feelings intact. Many who've suffered less sacrificed their ability to think or to care in order to survive."
"Indeed," said the shorter, "from a statistical point of view..."
The taller interrupted.
"And so, after your youth..."
"I was a burden, one way or another, on everyone I loved."
"Through no fault of your own."
"I would've given anything to avoid it, but I still felt responsible, and that was worse than the failures, the shame, or even the hunger and pain."
"You made choices..."
"And they turned out wrong—almost every time. I paid heavily, but those I cared about paid, too, and that was far worse."
"I'm not going to tell you it isn't true, Thomas, because it is true. You've had the most misfortune, the most pain, the most unhappy existence we've come across in a long time."
"Is that what makes me so special?"
"Statistically," the short one replied, "as I was saying, your life is an outlier. The probability of so much, and, indeed, such varied misery being concentrated in a single existence is, from a purely mathematical perspective..."
The tall one held up a hand.
"That's half of it. The other half's who you are. Most people deal with your kind of life by dumbing themselves down, by losing all empathy for others, by retreating into a haze of denial. But you didn't. And that means it was even worse for you, because you were fully conscious of every miserable moment."
"I see. And this is important to the two of you because..."
"Because it's our job to offer you a choice—to coach you through a decision."
"Something to do with those two doors."
"Well, if they don't lead to heaven and hell..."
"You've come to the end of your life on..."
He shot a questioning glance at his short friend, who gave him the word he wanted.
"Yes. Of course. Earth. You've come to the end of your life on Earth, and it hasn't been a very pleasant one."
Thomas cocked his head to one side.
"And so you're being given an opportunity to do it over."
The laughter that exploded through the room caught Thomas by surprise.
It was several moments before he realized that it was his own.
"You've got to be kidding!"
But neither of the pair were smiling.
"Not the same life, Thomas. A completely new one."
"You mean a better one?"
"There aren't any guarantees, of course, but..."
The short one spoke up.
"Statistically speaking, the odds that any randomly picked life would not constitute a significant improvement upon the one that you have just..."
"We won't belabor the point, Thomas. Is it likely to be worse?"
"No. I take your point. So that's one choice. And the other..."
"The other option is to move on."
"I don't understand."
"You've come to a moment which has been largely formed by the life you've just, shall we say 'escaped from'. If that life had been, well, what my friend here would say was 'within a standard deviation from the mean,' you would have gone through the door he stands in front of. But because you are an unusual case, you get the chance for a do-over."
"But what's behind his door?"