THIS IS HOW IT WILL BE by David Hartley (2nd place, Apr22)

A few hours after his birth, the child was shown his whole life in a picture book. The title was This is How it Will Be, and the author was CN Strathroy. It took a short while for the boy to realise that his own name was not CN Strathroy and when he eventually went back to read the Forward, which he had skipped initially, he found this experience of name confusion had indeed been documented. The boy’s name, as the sixth panel on the first page informed him, was PK Flyover, and he was destined to live most of his adult life in a functional building overlooking a traffic island in a grey city that had failed to rebuild after a war. He would marry and twice become a father, but both his children would go on to do bigger and better things, and he would eventually grow to resent them. As the picture book noted, the boy would seize a rare chance and do one fulfilling thing – compose a modernist symphony for a prestigious string quartet – but this would come so late in life that it would be packed out with more regrets than pleasures. And so, he would be left with the daunting prospect of a pleasantly inoffensive care-home, just a little further outside of the city, where he would learn backgammon and Settlers of Catan before losing the ability to focus on either. The final page of the picture book was just a large black void, but the boy had understood what it meant before he’d understood anything else.

Well-thumbed and heavily annotated in scribbles, the boy relinquished the picture book and was given a further few hours to contemplate. The offer was this: take the life documented in This is How it Will Be or open the mystery box. The mystery box was right there next to the boy and had been there the whole time. There was no indication of what was contained in the box, but it was large enough to hold a fairly sizable object or set of objects. The box was not dressed up in any fancy wrapping. It was a wholly innocuous cardboard affair with the top section folded in on itself so that the contents were obscured. Those contents, the boy assumed, would offer an alternative to the life depicted in the picture book. It could be considerably better or considerably worse, there was no telling. There was, the boy thought on multiple occasions, the possibility that the box contained a bomb. There had been a depiction of such ordinance in the picture book, as there was to be a time when PK and his family would be evacuated when an unexploded missile is discovered near to their apartment – one of the more interesting episodes of his life. The boy was not frightened at the prospect of revealing a bomb. It would obliterate him, he presumed, and then he wouldn’t need to learn and forget backgammon and Settlers of Catan.

The boy’s time was running out. He requested but was denied another quick flick through This is How it Will Be. He desired to see the faces of his wife and children again, even though they were nothing more than rather simplistic and stylised cartoons figures with only a handful of lines of speech. But he had sensed his future love for them, so he felt another quick look would help him to decide. But the book was not returned.

He crawled to the box and regarded it. He’d been informed that if he so much as touched the box, that would be an indication of his choice. Being such a young infant there was a chance he would fall asleep, roll off the bed and accidentally touch the box, so he made sure to keep his distance. Regardless, he was determined to stay awake until the very last moment before finalising his decision. The main problem, he reasoned, was that beyond what was depicted in the various chapters of the picture book, he did not know anything else about the world he had been born into. Therefore, he had no real conception of what better or worse would look like. He could not, for example, imagine himself to be an astronaut as there had been no mention of the cosmos or space travel in the picture book, save for some depictions of the starry night sky in the background of a few panels. So, if this box contained a spacesuit, the boy would not know whether that would be a good or bad thing.

This peculiar conundrum puzzled him greatly. As the last few minutes ticked on the countdown clock, he began to feel duped. There was no alternative to the picture book, was there? Most likely, this box simply contained another copy of the same book. Ha-ha, his handlers would say, this is all you’re getting, and his selection of the box would merely be used as an indication of his character. He would still be PK Flyover, with his apartment close to an unexploded bomb, and his vague wife and children, and his mostly untapped talent for writing music, but they would know him as a child, a boy, and a man who would risk it all for the chance of something better. And that would be his card marked.

The time ran out. The handlers returned. They did not ask for his decision. They could see from his stubby little fingers that the choice had already been made.

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