This story is by Kelly Graziadei and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Draft a Better Life, it reads. I find it while scrolling through the want ads. It glints like a piece of gold in an otherwise teeming cesspool of garbage jobs and lackluster positions.
I don’t hesitate to click it.
The offer is a simple one: for a week’s worth of writing assignments, something I could do in my sleep, I get the chance of a lifetime. A life do-over. The way I want it. The way it should have been.
I go ahead and sign up for it. I wasn’t going to find anything in the listings anyway.
The guy that shows up at my apartment that evening has just come from his last day on the job. He tells me I’ll be taking over for him.
“Christ,” I say, “isn’t it a little macabre sending the guy who’s leaving to train the next one? You are quitting?”
He doesn’t answer me. He hands me a manual. It’s just two and a half pages, but the font size is small enough to require a microscope.
I stare at him like I have just been handed AIDS in a can. I ask him why I’d need a manual for something he can just teach me right then and there. He says it’s not a manual, it’s a contract. Now it feels as though I’ve found not just AIDS in the can, but herpes and gonorrhea too.
“You must agree to the terms,” he says, as I squint at the words. “You will work on your life drafts in between your writing assignments. Each assignment will be given to you via the email you used to sign up. They will differ in terms of their difficulty, but it should be something you can handle. You said you graduated Berkeley?”
“Then you should have no trouble.” His grin creeps me out. But it vanishes as soon as it appears. “First you must agree to the terms.”
That’s funny, I thought I already had when I signed up. I nod my head again. Thinking about this new life, a chance to cut out all the crap, to be the me I knew I was meant to be—only the good parts, none of the bad—I know I have already made my decision. Even when I read the last line of the contract, the part which I have skipped to—the part about a demon taking over my body should I fail to keep up my end of the contract—do I nod.
“Just remember to work as hard on the assignments as you do on the drafting. People are relying on them. Little babies in Uruguay,” he tells me, with his grin.
“Of course,” I say.
He stares at me. He’s scary as hell, like a character from an Edgar Allan Poe story, looking like he hasn’t slept for two weeks. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as scary since I watched the second Poltergeist movie with that skeletal reverend. But I don’t say anything.
“There’s no going back once you’ve signed your name,” he says. “No re-dos. You don’t even get to finish what you’ve started. You hear me?”
Seriously. Scary. I will be sure to keep the portrait of Dorian Gray far away from me in my next life. “I hear you.”
“Alright.” He unlocks his gaze from mine. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been holding my breath. “Alright, sign there then. Be sure to use pen.”
I grab my pen from my desk. I scrawl my name. I feel light and airy. I feel ecstatic with wonder and awe. I could practically leap over and kiss him, only he’s not my type.
“That’s it,” he says. “Everything’s set. First assignment is due at seven. First draft, seven twenty.”
“First draft?” I say.
“It’s in the contract.”
He turns to leave.
I feel a pinprick of worry in my gullet, but it’s probably just because I’m excited. I can write a paper after all. I can write dozens.
I watch him open the front door. There’s something off about him. Maybe he couldn’t write a paper. Maybe I just feel bad for him. But who in the world wouldn’t want a job like this? Who would trade it?
For that’s what he’s done.
“What will happen to you?” I say. And he turns and laughs like something has possessed him before slamming my door shut.
Never mind, I have a life to draft. I think, this will be easy for me, I went to college. I shove a notice for the electricity aside so I can get to my laptop. There’s enough charge to get in the first writing assignment and the draft. But the assignment looks hard. And not very fun.
I face a blank screen. I play the hours out in my head. If I can get the draft in by half past six, then I’ll have enough time to figure out the assignment. I always do better under a crunch.
I tap out the first sentences of the draft, feeling high as heaven.
Then I backspace. None of that will do, I think. I sit there, fingers poised above keys, mind cogs turning, but nothing else comes out. I have to think about it first, I reason. You can’t just come up with the perfect life off the seat of your pants. There are vast, cosmic algorithms for this stuff.
But for an hour, I write and then delete what I have written. I do this a hundred times. I stare at the clock. First deadline is less than two hours away. If I mess it up, I might as well write: useless lowlife who sells knick-knacks to lost tourists beneath highway underpasses.
I panic for two more minutes, then I get down to business.
I write: at the age of two months, my adoring parents realize how good I am at most things and enroll me in a school for gifted children.
I write: when I am three, I am fluent in four languages and can play the oboe. It is not long after this I discover my passion for stem cell research.
I write: I pass all my classes with flying colors. I impress my professors so much, they invite me to conduct their classes for them, enfolding the students in brilliant rapture.
I write: I graduate college.
I stop cold. I knead my fingers through my hair. I massage my eye sockets. There are two more notices pinned above my laptop, one about the water, the other about eviction. I write: I am a worthless piece of shit.
I quickly backspace, not wanting to see that play out.
Once when I was in college, I had to write a paper on economic status and success for my socio-political science class, which I kill. But after the first workshop, my professor hands me back my paper, telling me I need a serious edit. Something about “lack of coherence” and “an entitled outlook.” I go home, confused, and later pull up the paper on my laptop. I read it over a few times. I don’t see what he means. Without the same adversities as the lower class, it is harder for some of us to get into the colleges we want. It makes perfect sense.
If he was a good teacher, he would see that. This, I think, is exactly what is wrong with the world. The small-minded undermining the vast. And so, as an act of rebellion against the many forces great and small that aim to control me, I decide to leave it as is.
And get a letter grade reduction for sticking to my morals.
That’s all this is, I think, staring at the truncated paragraphs of my life draft. The larger man picking on the smaller. They’ve set this up so I can’t win. And now I can’t write. I can’t even think.
Sweating, I glance over at the clock, knowing what it will say. I start typing. Type, backspace, type. I am crying now. I race through six pages in half an hour. Most productive thirty minutes of my life. I have fifteen minutes until the first deadline. I abandon the assignment and read through my draft for ten of it. For the next three, I start all over.
Everything I’ve ever wanted, I think.
A minute before the deadline for the assignment about granting life extensions to humans born in third world countries is due, I shut my laptop without saving. I can’t write a paper, it turns out. Maybe that’s why I flunked out of college.
I am transported to an apartment looking remarkably like my own. I hand the next guy the contract. I feel a thousand worms bore through my flesh.
I can’t speak.
“You must agree to the terms,” the demon says for me. “Be sure to use pen.”