You play it safe, choosing to stay at the base camp instead of scaling El Capitan in search of your lost climbing partner Sven. That night the marauders come screaming in, slaughtering all. The End.
You turn to page 27, and there, behold—the sacred idol! But suddenly a rabid monkey leaps out from the brush and bites off your nose. The world slowly fades to black as you bleed to death from the gaping hole in your face. The End.
You agree to a duel, but your gun gets stuck in your holster. As you lie dying in the street, your life flashing before your eyes, you remember that time in Little League when you dropped the fly ball that would have won the game. Your coach called you Butterfingers for the rest of the season and after that you never played softball again. The End.
On page 83, you accept the marriage proposal of the sheik, thinking it will fast-track you out of the harem and on to better things. On page 45, the sheik leaves you at the altar, running off with Kylie from Accounting instead. This will be the first of many betrayals by men you’ll endure.
Mutiny, mayhem, murder. Abducted by aliens, impregnated by aliens, left behind by aliens when they found you wanting. The Yetis attack, the Yetis close ranks, the Yetis pick someone else for their team. The End.
You turn down Brendan’s invitation in hopes that Chad will come through. But Chad’s just not that into you and on Prom Night you watch reruns of The Fresh Prince and dance the Carlton alone in your basement by the light of the TV. The End.
You fail to defuse the bomb on time. Your body rejects the antidote. The fever melts your eyeballs. Hostile forces take over the city. Your ex- is dating your former best friend. The job goes to someone else. You’re wearing the same clothes as yesterday and everyone at work now thinks you’re a slut. There are no suitable mates for you on this planet and you are doomed to die alone.
The End, The End, The End. Victory is never yours.
You’re the star of the story! the cover proclaims, but you’re beginning to think you’re just the dupe, the rube, the loser. Not everyone can be a star, your mother says, someone needs to be the supporting cast. This doesn’t seem right, but at ten, what you understand about life isn’t much.
At forty, you’re no closer to cracking the code.
Still, you try. You go to page 25, where you find a hungry tiger behind the door. The End.
You try again. You go to page 78. From behind that door, the lady emerges, smiling as she slips a dagger neatly between your ribs. The End.
No matter what you choose, your path keeps ending with you crawling through the desert, no water in sight. That oasis, the mysterious stranger on camelback, the aliens descending, the promise of affordable health care and a full pension at retirement? All mirages. Fooled again, sucker.
So long ago, before you made your first choice, the hope you felt—it’s finally here, you thought, the adventure begins!
You are a mountain climber, an astrophysicist, a daredevil, an undersea explorer.
You are a temp, a substitute, an Amazon warehouse employee.
You are a college graduate in the middle of a recession with a useless degree and $80,000 in debt. You take a job as a Sandwich Artist at Blimpie’s and at night you eat your mistakes while bingeing on AppleTV.
You wait on curbs outside movie theaters, two tickets sweaty in your hand. You lean in with eyes closed for kisses that never come.
The mystery of the Mayans goes unsolved. The lost jewels of Nabooti are never found. The Evil Power Master keeps winning the war.
And yet . . .
When you saddle up to leave Deadwood City, your horse stops short at the fork in the road, two dusty paths stretching out before you.
Which do you choose?
Julie Innis is the author of the story collection Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture. Her work has appeared in The Greensboro Review and Post Road, among others, and is forthcoming in Willow Springs. Follow her on Twitter at @julie_innis.