There’s one universe in which he succeeded. He planned for months, bought the guns, shot his mother, drove to the school, and killed 20 children.
But that’s only one. There were others.
So, in 2012, he got caught before it happened, or, he got treatment, or, he was never born in the first place. His mother never taught him how to shoot, or maybe she never owned guns. Her child was born healthy and stayed healthy. He lived in another state, another country, or was born one minute earlier and lived an entirely different life — any number of other possibilities, ranging out in infinite array across the quantum foam of the universe.
In 2013, Melissa played kickball with some friends and kicked a homerun. She ran the bases smiling, her friends cheering. Her friend Ally clapped her on the back as she ran by. The sun was shining, and the air smelled of freshly cut grass and clean dirt.
In 2014, John drew a picture of a dragon, and he thought it was pretty good. His art teacher did too, and entered it into a citywide contest where it won third prize. John was proud of the certificate and the ribbon that he received. His parents even had them framed. They hung in John’s room for years, until he went to college, and put everything into storage.
In 2015, Samantha decided that she wasn’t going to eat meat anymore. She’d seen a documentary showing how chickens were raised and it had upset her so much that she cried for days. After a rather tumultuous adjustment, her mother agreed to help her be a vegetarian. Samantha lasted for almost three months not eating meat. After she accidentally ate a beef burrito, she and her mother agreed they’d eat less meat, and more vegetables.
In 2016, Irene forgot her book bag on the bus on the way home from school. It contained her retainer, her homework, and two library books. The panic she felt on discovering the loss made her feel sick. When she finally broke down and told her parents, they were mad, but not nearly as mad as she thought they’d be. The next day the bus driver had her bag for her, everything still in it.
In 2017, Simone got into a fight with her best friend that lasted for almost a week. They said terrible things to each other. It was over a boy they both liked. He ended up going with another girl, and Simone and her friend made up over their mutual hatred of this other girl. They wrote notes back and forth during English class until the teacher intercepted one. Simone got after-school detention for three straight days.
In 2018, Jake wondered if he was gay, because he really liked to write poems.
In 2019, Cindy joined the swim team, because she needed something to do after school and on weekends now that softball season was over. Her favorite stroke was the backstroke, and she found out she was pretty good at it, even though she didn’t care for the swimsuits. She thought they were too revealing.
On Christmas of 2020, Kate got her first kiss from a boy. She thought her head might explode.
Chad argued with his dad on the first day of spring in 2021, about who was going to win the World Series. Things got pretty heated, but in the end, his dad conceded that he might have a point about the Yankees’ pitching prospects that year. Chad felt very smart, even later when it turned out they were both wrong (for some reason, the Orioles did well that year).
After an argument in the fall of 2022, Jeremy decided to run away from home. He wandered around for an hour or two in the trees that bordered the highway near his house, watching the cars whoosh by and feeling worse than he had ever felt in his life. Eventually, he walked back home, finding his way in the dark. Something about the darkness felt comforting, and he found that, as late as it was, he could still see pretty well. When he came over the hill he saw his house lit up brightly, warm and glowing. His parents hadn’t even known he’d gone.
In 2023, Paul drove his girlfriend home after their date. The car was lit only by the porch light as they sat in her driveway, and when she leaned over to kiss him, she smelled of bubblegum and shampoo, and something else that he didn’t know the name of. He felt a painful stab of longing in his chest that stayed with him for days as he examined it, turning it over and over inside him until it faded. He spent many years seeking out that feeling again.
Gwen fell in love three times in 2024. Once with a guy in her class, once with her best friend, and once with a song she heard on the radio that explained exactly what it felt like to be nineteen and in love with two different people.
Amelia changed majors in college twice, and for the last time in 2025. She had discovered that she actually liked chemistry. The stories of orderly bonds and intricate molecules clicked into place in a portion of her brain she hadn’t known was there, and the anxious thoughts that had shadowed her entire life dissolved as she worked out problems that always had solutions. Her parents were relieved. “As long as you’re happy,” they said.
Jayden worked at his father’s store and wondered if he’d ever leave Connecticut. In 2026, he sent his resume to a company in Nevada, and they agreed to take him on. The fight with his father on the day he quit was terrible, and they didn’t speak for almost two years, not even on holidays.
In 2027, Isaac gave up drinking.
When the phone call came in 2028, Crissy was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the bills that seemed impossible to pay. The settlement was just barely enough, but it would do.
In 2029, Linda had her second baby, and called him Adam, because she liked the name.
August 2030, just before her twenty-fourth birthday, Adelaide wrote, “I will live in Paris one day.” It took her another three years to get there.
In 2031, Elijah discovered a vaccine against a deadly disease that killed hundreds of people a year in South America. He still wasn’t sure if he’d done enough.
In 2032, Nicole still had her whole life ahead of her. She walked down a street in Brooklyn where she lived with her girlfriend. On the ground, she found a penny, face up. It glittered in the sunshine. With a smile, she picked it up and put it in her pocket and forgot all about it, forgot about how lucky she felt in that moment, how amazing it was to be alive at all.
Scott Lee Williams lives with his wife and a cat in Brooklyn, where he writes stories and thinks thoughts. You can read more of those stories and thoughts at his ongoing daily project Four Each Day, where he posts a four-line story every day. Most of the stories are even basically true. Some of his other work has also appeared in Devilfish Review, and there’s also Twitter (@scottLwilliams), where he sometimes tries to be funny. Thanks so much for reading.