This is a short story I wrote for a friendly competition my friends and I have every Halloween. Since I was writing this I didn’t have time to do a regular post this week. I hope you enjoy it!
I am the owner of a magic backpack. Every morning I can open it up and discover whatever I need for the day. It just appeared in my room one night. When I found it that first morning, I curiously opened it to discover it held $227.68, several blankets, and a few bags of extra large marshmallows. That evening I was planning to attend a friend’s bonfire but I was running a bit late so I chanced speeding to try and get there faster. Unfortunately I was pulled over and was written a ticket for speeding that came with a $227.68 fine. When my friends and I arrived we discovered the ground was still damp from the rain that had fallen earlier that day; the blankets provided a great buffer between the ground and our buns. Also the person who had been in charge of bringing the s’mores ingredients discovered when they opened their grocery bag that they had forgotten the marshmallows at the store. I saved him a trip back when I retrieved them from the backpack.
Over the course of weeks and months and years I grew comfortable with my backpack and the power it gave me to prepare for whatever was coming that day. My friends celebrated my legendary foresight but I never told them how I did it; who would have believed me anyway? Still it was really awesome to know I could be prepared for anything. At least until I began to realize that my magical backpack came with some rules.
By this point I was a freshman in college and as I followed my morning routine one day before heading out to class I checked the backpack and discovered a sheet of paper that appeared to have the answers to a test written on it. It was for my Pre-Calculus class and I knew I had been keeping up pretty well with the material and I was a bit leery about cheating, especially so early in my collegiate career. So I decided to abstain from reading or memorizing the answers. I was, however, unsurprised when I arrived in class a few hours later to discover that we were having a pop quiz to check how everyone was doing in the class. I still managed to get all but one question right, and because it was a check-up and not a true test it didn’t even count against my final grade, anyway. But I never got another answer sheet again – something I greatly regretted when I forgot to study for my psychology exam and failed it without any help from the backpack.
From that point on I realized I had a choice. I didn’t have to use whatever items the backpack provided me, but if I didn’t there would be no guarantee it would help me in a similar situation ever again. This led me to make some…questionable decisions. For example, after graduating college I applied for my dream job as an entertainment writer for The New York Times. The morning of the interview the backpack offered me a Purdue University tie despite the fact that I went to BYU. I hadn’t even considered applying to Purdue. Still, I dutifully wore the tie to the interview and when the HR Manager asked me about it I concocted a story about how I had wanted to go to Purdue but couldn’t afford it and that BYU had offered me a better scholarship. It turned out that the manager had also wanted to attend Purdue but also found she couldn’t afford it. Thus, our camaraderie established by my white lie, I had the inside track and was eventually hired for the job. Could I have gotten it without the deception? I’ll never know.
Several months later I was on a trip to Los Angeles for the premiere of a new science fiction flick starring one of my favorite performers. I opened the backpack the morning of the premiere to discover, among other more mundane items, a scrap of paper with my boyfriend’s cell phone number written on it. I was very confused by this discovery because, of course, I already knew his phone number in order to be able to identify it in the first place. After a few minutes of thinking I realized the backpack was probably trying to get me to call him but I knew he was at work right that moment so I put the phone number in my pocket and went about the rest of that day, intending to call him as soon as I had finished my work that evening. After the premiere I was approached by that favorite performer of mine and I was invited to an after party. Unable to resist the chance to spend time with someone I had admired from afar for so long, I went. I had completely forgotten about the phone number in my pocket. I arrived back at my hotel around 4 AM, still buzzed, and dropped onto my bed and into immediate sleep without even bothering to take off my shoes.
The next morning I woke to discover only a handkerchief and a pamphlet about survivor’s guilt in my backpack. I immediately remembered the phone number from the day before and called my boyfriend. There was no answer. I flew back to New York and raced to my apartment but found only a message on my answering machine. It was from the local police department. My boyfriend had gone out to have a few drinks with some friends the night before and had been struck and killed by a drunk driver as he walked to the bar. If I had called him when I had meant to he would have been delayed at least a few minutes and it would have saved his life. All it would have taken was a single phone call. That’s not too much to ask, is it? It shouldn’t have been.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this. I’ve kept it a secret for decades. Why tell someone, now? Especially you, a stranger whom I have never met before?
I opened my magical backpack this morning and the only item in it was this handgun.
I reached in and pulled it out without looking at first, absentmindedly thinking about something else. When I realized I had something heavy and metallic I looked and immediately dropped it from surprise. It’s a good thing real guns aren’t like those in the movies or it would have gone off and we might not even be having this conversation, right now. I quickly stuffed the gun back into the backpack and fretted about what to do next. What on earth was I supposed to do with this thing? Was my life in danger? Someone else’s? Was I expected to shoot a person or a wild animal or maybe just a target? Did I need to commit murder, for some reason, or would it be in self-defense? I’d never owned a gun before, never shot one. Was I supposed to miss wildly or would I discover, as I had so long ago during that interview, that I would know what I needed to know when I need to know it?
The thing about this backpack is that it always gives me what I need, but it never tells me when or why or how or any of the other things that might make it easier to use. It seems reasonable that there have been times I’ve even used something from the backpack in a way that it didn’t expect, unless we accept that the backpack is not only prescient but also omniscient. Perhaps I’m an unreasonable skeptic but that seems a bridge too far, for me.
Easy there. Sorry for waving the gun around so much. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you, accidentally. I just use my hands a lot when I am talking.
Anyway, so I tried throwing away the backpack a week after my boyfriend died. It reappeared in it’s usual spot by my bed the next morning. So I drove out of the city, built a fire and I burned the blasted thing – it even provided the necessary gasoline and matches that morning. Still, it reappeared the next day. So I gave up and I kept using it. I hate this backpack with every fiber of my being. But at least if I am using it I know I have tried to prevent harm coming to my friends and family. Even though the more I have considered the more I have realized that the likelihood of my doing so is ever more remote.
This backpack gives me everything I need but never tells me what I need it for. It may seem miraculous, and indeed I have absolutely found it to be so on many, many occasions. But most of the time it’s maddening. What is this paperclip for? To keep some papers together? To pick a lock? To throw at a passing, obnoxious squirrel? How could I know? How could anyone know? And while I know what happens if I don’t use something it gives me, what happens if I misuse something it gives me? Sure I could use that pencil to write myself a to-do list but what if I was actually supposed to use it to write a letter to my mother and not doing so causes her to die, somehow? And if I fail there will it still give me the tool I need to prevent my brother from dying next week? Or will I cause two deaths because of one innocent mistake? Or more? Did I already lose all of those opportunities forever when I forgot to call my boyfriend?
So that brings us here, together, now. I have this gun. And our captor has issued a command that one of us must kill or both of us shall die. You were prepared to attack me until I displayed my firearm. The backpack has provided, and the situation seems clear. But is it? Should I use this gun to kill you so that I can keep living and protecting my friends and family from whatever harm may befall them, assuming I even can? Does it have some other purpose in mind? I also have to wonder if perhaps the backpack arranges these scenarios. If I can accept that I own a backpack which can both see the future and manufacture or obtain materials to provide to me against those outcomes, is it possible that this backpack is arranging that future for me so that I will have reason to use the items it gives me?
I do so hate time travel and prophecies. They never help as much as you think they should; they never make any sense until afterward, if then. And yet I find myself having lived decades enduring at least one of these on a daily basis. There’s no more time. The answer must be the obvious one, this time, after all. I’ve known what I need to do with this gun from the start, really. For whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry.
Attached evidence technician’s note: After listening to the living victim’s testimony following his rescue the previous night I decided to check the backpack’s contents again this morning and discovered this written monologue. It matches up with several of the items from the vic’s testimony though disputes others – primarily that the victim had been prepared to assault the dead victim; the living vic assures that there was never any intention of attacking the dead vic before dead vic blew their own brains out.
The backpack was checked for contents last night and discovered to be empty. It vanished into thin air immediately after I removed the papers. I don’t know why it thought I needed these but I’ll tell you what I didn’t need: to be written up for misplacing evidence and a psych eval.