"What if" can kill you. I know that.
I don't think there's anybody who knows it better than I do. Especially since Jeremiah.
But it's a question I ask every day of my life. It's part and parcel of getting tomorrow's newspaper today.
It's in the nature of the job. Inevitably a day comes when there are two saves that you need to do at the same time, and they always seem to be on opposite sides of Chicago. Or maybe you just have to be doing one while you're on the way to the other, and it's not always possible to set up your schedule so you can do it. You have to choose--to prioritize. And because you come to know that very few people are going to believe you if you try to warn them ahead of time, you have to go in with a plan of action, no matter how elementary it is. And what the Pentagon likes to call "an exit strategy"--that helps too.
Logistics. That was Marley's word.
Lucius Snow's was "choice."
When he came to me in the basement of the carpet store, he said that getting the Paper was a choice. I don't understand how that can be, because I've tried to reject it--more than once--and it keeps showing up at my door, regular as clockwork, every morning. Nobody asked me if I wanted to do this. I didn't even know I was under consideration for the job, till it landed on me.
But there is an element of choice in it. You have to make decisions, life-or-death decisions, every day. And having that kind of power is scary.
I know Monday-morning quarterbacking is a waste of time, but I deal in lives--saving them, turning them around--and sometimes I can't help wondering if I did the right thing. And I know it doesn't seem to matter if I fail now and then, as long as most of my saves work out. But I guess I wouldn't be me--I wouldn't be the man They picked to get the Paper, whoever They are--if I didn't wonder...
What if I'd been able to save Jeremiah? Would I have learned that I'm not expected to be perfect? That it matters more to Them that I try, and most of the time I succeed?
What if I'd gone with Chuck and Marissa to the airport instead of trying to save Amanda? Looking back, I see now that I was setting the tone for my whole style of serving the Paper. I always feel more comfortable, somehow, if I can choose to save individuals, people whose faces I can see, instead of masses of abstracts. And she was only six, she had her whole life in front of her.
But so did that kid travelling alone on her dad's plane.
What if I'd gone to the airport? Would the El have gotten stuck? Marissa said it happened because, maybe, she and Chuck weren't supposed to be there. Did that mean I was supposed to instead?
If I'd gone with them, or alone, and I'd gotten to the airport, would I have been able to stop the plane from taking off? Probably not. Who'd have believed me? It wasn't even as if I could have said I had a tip there was a bomb on it. Birds--who'd have listened to me about the birds?
And if I had been able to stop it, what then? I'd have saved all those people at the cost of Amanda's life. I'd have known that, had to live with it, the rest of my days.
So I made a choice. I counted on Chuck and Marissa to save the plane, and I went for Amanda; by the time I knew they'd failed, it was too late. I couldn't know Amanda's dad was the pilot; I couldn't know they'd radio him and he'd scrub the flight. By saving one person, I saved all the rest.
Marissa would say it was God's hand. Chuck said it just showed how everything's connected in our complex, interconnected world.
What if Dad hadn't found out about the Paper when he did? Would Cat have taken it to him after I got trapped in that abandoned theater? Who would have gotten it instead? Would they have been able to find me in time? Would everything have fallen into place the way it did with Mom and Crumb and the Carpathians?
I don't think it would. If Dad hadn't already been in the mix, that would have created a whole different set of circumstances, and I might not be alive today.
What if Henry hadn't found out about the Paper? Who but a little kid--somebody who believed in justice and common sense and happy endings--would have thought of bugging the State Department until they finally sent somebody to McGinty's and ended up bringing the delegates here? The talks would have crashed. Of course I probably wouldn't have had to save the place from those terrorists, either. But there'd have been a war in Eastern Europe. And, on a more personal scale, the Admiral's daughter probably would have eloped, or gotten pregnant, or something; her boyfriend might have deserted so they could be together, and she'd probably have ended up estranged from her father, maybe for life.
What if Chuck hadn't been in on the Paper from the very beginning? Would he have had the experiences that taught him to be what he likes to call "a kinder, gentler Chuck Fishman"? Would he have moved to LA and been a success in Hollywood today, touching lives, creating jobs, entertaining people and giving them pleasure, no matter how silly some of it is? (Bikini Squad, Cat's left hind leg!) Or would he have stayed on at Strauss & Associates and gotten more and more fixated on money until he ended up just as bad as Pritchard? (Talk about a fate worse than death...and the Paper and I may have saved him from it, without even knowing we were doing it. Or knowing I was doing it, anyway.)
What if Brigatti's partner hadn't gotten caught in traffic, and I hadn't joined that dinner cruise just in time to get shanghaied as his replacement? The Lermontov would be gone and Brigatti's career would have--well, could have--been ruined. And would Jade have made up her mind to move to California and go straight? Would she and Chuck have met and fallen in love? They really seem to be making each other happy; of course it's still kind of early to be sure, and God knows at the same point in my marriage I was sure it was forever, but...
What if Cat, or the Paper, or something, hadn't sent me back in time to 1929? Crumb's father would have died in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and he wouldn't have been born. Who would have saved the President--and me--from Marley then? What would have become of all the lives we've touched since?
It's enough to make you dizzy, to think that you saved the life of the father of the man who saved your own--made it possible for him to exist and save your own.
The biggest what-if of all. What if I hadn't realized that there was more to getting the Paper than getting rich? Oh, sure, I used it to win a few races, but I gave all the money to Marissa for her dog. It wasn't like I was Chuck, betting on football games till he had $3700 cash in his briefcase.
I told him right at the start, the Paper was a powerful tool, not something to be messed around with. But that's what I did at first, just mess around. It was like I said to Chuck--I'd always hated the job, hated the tie, hated the whole money-first-everything-else-tenth culture. With Marcia out of law school and into a good firm, I didn't really have a need to stay on--I could have quit, or better yet maneuvered myself into getting fired so I could collect unemployment, and found something I enjoyed more, something that was better suited to who I am--but I coasted along on momentum even after she kicked me out. Then the Paper came, and I realized I didn't have to work for a living if I didn't want to. It took Sherman being hurt for me to understand the real purpose behind my getting it. Behind anyone getting it.
If I'd ignored that lesson, what then? Would the Paper have been taken away from me? I didn't have a successor yet; who'd have gotten it instead?
Whoever they were, they wouldn't have been me, wouldn't have been coming from the same places I do; so they probably wouldn't have made the same choices.
Or would they?
When Sam Cooper was here, he kept doing the same saves I'd have done--the ones I tried to do, not knowing he was on them already. Or look at Snow. He had his big saves, he must have--like that ferry accident he stopped somehow. But he also chose to save me. Just an ordinary unimportant eleven-year-old kid from a hick town in Indiana. Who would have cared about my loss except my own family? Nobody.
Maybe that kind of compassion, that kind of empathy for unimportant little people, is part of what makes Them choose you to get the Paper. When you think about it, why don't They send it to people who have more power than Sam or Lucius or me, people who could really make influential decisions and affect not just one life or two or even two hundred, but millions? People like heads of state, CEO's, military commanders?
Why do They pick us--any of us? Me, Snow, Sam, Joey Clams, Lindsay, any of the hundreds of people who probably get, or have gotten, Papers all around the world? We're just ordinary, everyday people who lead ordinary everyday lives, until the day a cat or a dog or a pigeon shows up at our doors with tomorrow's newspaper.
What-ifs. They can kill you, or drive you crazy...
if you let them.
"Live your life," Snow advised me. And in a very real sense, that's all any of us can do--but me and the others like me most of all. Just live one day at a time, make the best choices we can, and try not to second-guess ourselves. What's that saying?--"All you can do is all you can do, but all you can do is enough."
It's true, you know.
"What-if" can kill you.
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