Encore – Chapter Five – Brave New World


Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. In the last chapter, Leo won the lottery and proceeded to have fun on Day As by buying a Ferrari. In this chapter, Leo experiments with his powers and tries to figure out how they work.

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Chapter 5: Brave New World

 

I woke up with a jerk. I was in my bed, the sun streaming in from the window. My phone’s alarm clock was ringing on the bedside table. I picked it up and checked the date. It was the same as yesterday. That guy literally punched me into Day B, I thought with a shudder. So apparently, getting knocked out on Day A meant that I would be sent straight into Day B.

I gingerly touched my right temple, bracing myself for pain. To my surprise, it wasn’t the least bit sore. Which made sense: getting beaten up had never actually happened. So if I ever do get in a fight or get hurt, better to do so on Day As, I thought.

I hopped out of bed and went to grab breakfast before heading off to work. It was Day B, which meant that the craziness was over and I was back in my old boring routine. I sat down on one of the metal stools ringing the small kitchen table, grabbed some bread, butter and raspberry jam, and made myself some French tartines.

My father joined me a few minutes later, scratching the pants of his two-piece blue and white striped pyjamas. He nodded with a grunt, poured himself a cup of coffee, and sat down opposite me.

Pierre Melikian was a man of few words. At 1m70, he was shorter than me by ten centimeters, but what he lacked in height, he made up in brawn. Years of climbing the steep, pitted Southern cliffs had gifted him with a shoulder span that was awe-inspiring. Especially when compared to, as Hanaa had once put it, my own ‘sickly thin build’.

A few years back Hanaa had met my dad when I had invited her to spend the weekend at my place to work on a class project. He had said so very little to her she had been convinced that he hated her. Growing up, I had sometimes had the same impression. Something about my father’s cold blue eyes, deep behind thick round glasses, and his receding hairline of curly black hair that he kept trimmed neatly short inspired silence and respect.

It was only growing up that I understood that my father was simply someone who took his work extremely seriously. The youngest of four, he was born in the poorest suburbs of Paris. It was only through devoting himself to his studies that he managed to break free of the blue-collar cycle and enter one of France’s top engineering schools. The last year of his Masters had been spent on the Aix-en-Provence campus, and he fell in love with the South so thoroughly that he convinced his Parisian girlfriend to move there with him when he graduated. Barely a year later, they had gotten married and had me. I was still unsure of the exact order in which those two things had happened, but I had never had the guts to ask.

Work had been the force that had allowed him to elevate himself and his children to the French middle-class. He had since become a Senior Sales Manager in a large IT company, one of the surviving few in the failed Silicon Valley of Sophia, and made it a point of being first-in and last-out every day. The silences of my childhood had eventually made sense – my father was only able to let go of his work when he was climbing a mountain.

“So I’m thinking of moving out,” I said.

My father looked up, raised an eyebrow, and dipped his jam and bread tartine into his coffee. He always ate his breakfast this way, a weird habit that hadn’t been passed on to either me or my younger sister Lara.

“I got a raise, and I think it’s time I got my own place,” I lied.

“Good,” he said. I wasn’t expecting him to say more, but he added, as if an afterthought, “Make sure to break it gently to your mom.”

Work, climbing mountains and my mom; that pretty much summed up my dad’s priorities in life. My mom had revealed to me that my dad proposed after he took her on a hellish two-week trek through the Alps, walking 12 hours a day and eating nothing but pasta and beans cooked over a portable gas stove. To him, if she could endure that, she was the one. She had, and she was.

But my mom had grown incredibly depressed when my sister Lara had moved out to live with her boyfriend, even though she was now only half an hour away. My leaving would make it an empty nest, and she was sure to take it hard. My dad had a point: I would have to plan this a bit carefully if I didn’t want to hurt her.

I finished breakfast, stepped into the bathroom and stripped. I examined my face in the mirror. There wasn’t even a red spot where the guy from the club had punched me. This power is awesome, I thought. It meant I couldn’t get hurt on Day As. I jumped in the shower, and started to think as the hot water drizzled down my face. I wasn’t feeling the slightest bit hung-over either, which given how much champagne I had guzzled down, was surprising. Clearly, as far as my body was concerned, yesterday had never happened. So it wasn’t just the days that were rebooting, it was also my body.

I realized this was a good thing. If my body weren’t rebooting, I would be aging twice as fast, as for each day, I would actually be living two. Without the reboot, by the time I reached 45, I would look 65.

But as the lack of a bruise or a hangover made clear, anything that happened to me physically in Day A disappeared as soon as I woke up in Day B. Except whatever I remembered. That was actually the only thing that carried over: my memories. As far as the world was concerned, nothing had happened except in made up fantasies in my head.

Or could I bring something else over? I thought about leaving messages on my body, but those would disappear as well. I couldn’t conceive of a way to bring any physical thing over either. If I moved something to a specific place, it would just return to where it had been when I woke up on Day B. If it happened on Day A, there was simply no carry-over to Day B.

Then again, this was all more or less a hypothesis. I had only had this power for a little over a week and barely even understood it. A few tests were in order if I wanted to understand its limitations.

So that night, after work, I went into the kitchen and grabbed the sharpest knife I could find. I brought it back into my room and sat at my desk. I turned it over, watching it catch the light and wondering if I really wanted to do this.

I knew that if I got hurt on Day A, it would disappear. Day Bs seemed to count though, as everybody around me only remembered those. So technically, if I hurt myself on Day B, I would still be hurt on Day A. There was only one way to be sure.

I pressed the steel against the soft skin of my underarm, which had the advantage of being hairless, and drew in one slow motion. A bright red line of blood immediately pooled around where I had cut. I pressed on it with one of the make-up removal cotton pads I had taken from the bathroom, and waited for the blood to clot. When the flow stopped. I examined the wound: it was 3 cm long, a line of crusty blood surrounded by red and puffy skin. It hurt a bit, but nothing that bothersome.

The next morning, I checked my underarm as soon as I woke up. The cut was still there. The skin was bright red and puffier than before. It hurt sharply when I touched it. Alright, I thought, this proves it. If I got hurt on Day Bs, I would still be hurt on the following Day A.

That night, to validate my findings, I made a second cut above the first one, which had already begun to heal. It was only slightly pink and barely caused me any pain anymore. I also took my pack of Camels, forced myself to chain smoke all fifteen remaining cigarettes in a little under an hour, and went to sleep.

I woke up in Day B and was delighted to find that I didn’t feel like I had shards of glass in my throat. My body had rebooted, and that meant that I didn’t feel the effect of the previous night’s chain smoking. I looked at my arm, and as expected, there was only one cut, the one I had done two days ago in Day B.

What I hadn’t fully expected was that the cut had regressed when compared to last night. It was once again swollen and painful. It made sense. I had rebooted to exactly where I had been yesterday morning. That meant that all the healing that had occurred in Day A had magically disappeared over night.

I came to two important conclusions. First, and most exciting: I was living a smoker’s dream. If I only smoked on Day As, I could indulge in my nasty habit as much as I wanted and suffer none of the consequences. Since only Day Bs counted, I would have the lungs of a complete non-smoker. More importantly, I would also get that delicious smoker’s buzz every Day A morning, as my body would be completely free of nicotine.

Rule number 4: Only smoke on Day As, I wrote.

As incredible as this power was, it also came with a severe downside. If I got drunk on a Day B, I would have to suffer through a hangover for two days in a row. If I got sick, recuperation would feel as if it took twice as long. That sucked.

I was fascinated by the discovery, but I needed to get to work. As I sat at my desk though, I couldn’t help but keep thinking. What were the limitations of this power? How did it actually work? I had a better grasp of what was happening to me, but could I maybe control it better?

I yawned. In my haste to get to work, I had forgotten my usual breakfast coffee. I stood up to go get one at the espresso machine on the first floor when I had a sudden and brilliant flash of insight. What if I fell asleep now, at 10 a.m.? Would I wake up in Day A, and completely skip boring and dreary Day B? I pushed back my keyboard, set me head down on my folded arms and fell asleep.

“Leo?”

I awoke with a jolt. Thierry was looking at me with a mix of concern and annoyance.

“Are you ok?”

I looked at my computer screen. 10:45 a.m. I had slept for 45 minutes, but I had still woken up in Day B. It hadn’t worked. I masked my disappointment.

“Sorry Thierry,” I lied, “I worked a bit late last night.”

“Well, good, but still…”

“I know. Shouldn’t sleep at work. Sorry.”

I wondered if that meant I needed to be sleeping in my own bed in order to change days, but dismissed the idea when I remembered that I had switched days while knocked out in the club in Juan-les-Pins. Maybe it was also a question of duration. 45 minutes was short. Maybe I needed to be asleep for an hour, or two hours at least before I skipped to the next day.

Over the next few days I continued to experiment by taking naps of varying lengths at different times. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that nap duration had no impact. However, it seemed like the key to switching over was falling asleep past the 10 p.m. mark. I needed more data to figure out if it was 10 p.m. specifically, or if it had to do with other factors, like sundown. At this point though I felt like I understood enough to be able to move on to bigger things. I was also simply getting tired of all the sleeping.

These experiments were more of an intellectual curiosity, and they weren’t at all my main focus. If anything, it was a side project compared to my real activity: making the most out of my Day As.

I made a list of everything that I had always wanted to try, and decided to cross everything off of it. I went waterskiing with Cedric for a whole afternoon, cruising between the islands off the coast of Cannes. I went skydiving with Hanaa, and got punched in the arm when we both made it safely to ground and I cracked a joke about her turning so white she could have passed for a Caucasian. I bought jet skis for all three of us, and convinced them to spend an afternoon riding all the way to the beaches of St Tropez.

Once we got there, we stopped at a bar by parking our jetskis on their private beach. We walked up, dropped our bags in the sand, and lounged back in deck chairs.

“Even you have to admit that’s quite a way to make an entrance,” said Cedric, poking Hanaa in the stomach. She slapped his hand away and laughed.

“Let’s say it’s in my top ten.”

“Man, I can’t believe you won the lottery!” said Cedric for the fifth time that day, and what felt like the hundredth when I tallied up all the recent Day As. It was becoming repetitive.

“Yeah.” I took the menu offered by the waitress and ordered three glasses of champagne.

“Does it count as drinking and driving if you’re on a jet ski?” asked Cedric.

I put on my sunglasses and closed my eyes against the beating sun. We had been baking in it all day long and I was starting to feel tired.

“Ask Hanaa,” I said, “She’s the legal expert.”

“Fuck if I know,” She lit up a cigarette. “I don’t think anyone cares as long as you don’t get into an accident.”

“Given that Cedric handles that jetski about as well as he does a car, we might want to start worrying about that then,” I laughed.

“Hey!” Cedric protested, “It’s not my fault the whole driving license thing is rigged. Every time I pass the test I get the same examiner! I open the door and that bitch is like: ‘Oh, you again? Well, can’t do worse than last time right…’ And I panic and mess it up.”

Our champagne arrived and we cheered. I hesitated to say ‘To no tomorrow’, but the wittiness of the phrase had lost its luster. I’d simply been using it too much, and they never remembered it anyways.

“To us!” I said.

“To us!”

We drank and looked out at the sea. Somehow it was bluer in St Tropez than in Nice. It might have been the perfectly white sand instead of the shingles, or the champagne buzz that was starting to kick in, but I found myself lost looking at the horizon. That is, until Hanaa slapped Cedric on the back of the head.

“What the hell was that for?” he protested, rubbing the bruise.

“Could you be any more discreet when you’re checking her out?” asked Hanaa with mock outrage.

I looked down to the beachside, where a blonde with nothing but a g-string bikini lay topless on a towel. She was clearly going for the full, no-lines tan.

“I wasn’t looking at her!” said Cedric.

“You probably should,” said Hanaa, “She’s way out of your league. Looking is the closest you’ll ever get.”

“Meh, I don’t know,” I cut in, “You should have seen him in The Village. Cedric made out with a girl that was at least twice as hot as that.”

Both of them turned to me with a confused expression.

“What?”

“When was this?”

“I didn’t make out with anyone from Le Village,” said Cedric, looking at me as if I had been hit over the head. Ironic, given that I had. “Pretty sure I’d remember.”

I blamed heatstroke and changed the subject. But that moment stuck with me. I was coming to the realization that Rule 1, which stated that social events were to be confined to Day Bs, was surprisingly prescient. It wasn’t that I disliked Cedric and Hanaa’s company. On the contrary, it made it way more fun. But I was growing sick of having to go through the “I won the lottery” explanations every single time.

All our jokes and all the new memories we created were ones that only I held on to. I was beginning to feel lonely. Worse, I had to constantly monitor myself, trying to recall if a particular thing had been on a Day A or a Day B. I came to the sad conclusion that if I was the only one who remembered, I might as well enjoy them alone.

From that moment on, on Day As, I started to go on adventures all by myself. I took a helicopter ride from Nice airport to Monaco, a mere ten minutes away instead of the one hour drive, just to see what it felt like (fun for the first 10 minutes, and then we landed). Once there, I went to the casino, but lacking the proper attire, had to go shopping first. I chose the first luxury shop I happened upon, an Armani store with a mind-blowingly beautiful Eastern European sales clerk, and bought black shoes, beige pants and a white shirt for ‘only’ 4,000 euros. Barely fifteen minutes later, I was picking up 100,000 euros in chips to play at roulette. I lost everything in under an hour while everyone around looked at me with a mixture of envy and despise. It was fun.

Eventually, I ran out of adrenaline thrills, so I decided to tackle the next thing on my list: travel. I took my car and spent a day in each of the cities within driving reach. I would book a hotel there, fall asleep, and wake up in my bed the next day, ready to go to work. I spent an entire afternoon roaming the little streets of San Remo, across the Italian border, gorging on pizza and gelato and Tuscan wine. I made friends with a group of law students in the university square of Aix-en-Provence, and spent the night getting ridiculously drunk in a small shot bar that had 88 different variations. I was fairly certain that the Pirate’s Revenge, a combination of three types of rum, was the one that did me in, as I couldn’t even remember getting back to my hotel. I drove up to Chamonix, a little alpine town hidden under the shadow of the Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain, and went skiing down the glacier for an afternoon. In Marseille, I roamed the port and ate some of the most delicious fried fish I had ever tried.

Eating alone at restaurants however, regardless of how incredible the food was, quickly became a bit depressing. At first, I played a lot of mobile games, but as most of them had some type of leveling up, it immediately became incredibly frustrating. All of the progress from the day before kept getting wiped clean, and I would have to start from the beginning all over again.

On a whim, I bought a Kindle on a Day B, loaded it up with a list of all the best sellers of the moment, and brought it with me wherever I went. I had never been much of a reader, but then again I had really only been exposed to the dreary classics of French literature in high school. I still remembered having to power through Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, where entire pages were dedicated to the description of a table.

I quickly discovered how fun reading could be through Science Fiction though. Asimov and Philip K. Dick’s short stories hooked me in, and before I knew it I had moved on to Scalzi, Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons and so many more. My only challenge was that I either had to finish the books I was reading on Day A, or waste time trying to figure out where I had left off the next time I picked it up. If anything, it made me read even faster. I became intent on finishing any book I started before the day was over.

Whenever I wanted something lighter I would just download the latest magazines: Le Point, Challenges, Capital. It was while keeping up with the news that I realized just how little I had been paying attention to what was going on in France.

Somehow, the routine of my 9-to-5 had made me completely ignore what was going on around me. The newspaper titles were alarming, to say the least. France was being compared to the Ottoman Empire, and had earned the moniker “The sick man of Europe”. Italy, Portugal and Greece were still struggling to recover from the European crisis of the past few years, but at least for them the worst was over. Now all eyes were focused on France. The budget hole in La Sécu, our healthcare system, was growing deeper every year. The French government hadn’t been able to stick to their budget since 1974 – 45 years ago! Every year that passed made the situation worse. Meanwhile, the retirement funds were a mess, with older people living longer and longer while fewer youngsters hit the job market every year. Some politicians were starting to mention the idea of moving the retirement age to 68 years old, up from 60 barely a decade before, just to keep them afloat.

My reading became even more intense when I exhausted all of the options within a four-hour drive. I started to travel by train, which afforded me even more time for reading. A four-hour train ride got me to Lyon, in the middle of France, and I spent a long afternoon walking through their massive Park of the Golden Head, complete with its own zoo. I took a small trolley all the way up the lone hill of the city, and enjoyed a 360-view from the Basilica that was up there. I never took any photos – they would all disappear the next day – but I did my best to commit these moments to memory.

France prided itself on its train system, which it claimed to be one of the most advanced in the world, thanks to its high-speed rail, the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse – literally High Speed Train). Unfortunately, Nice wasn’t linked to the TGV network, and I had to endure a two-hour ride west to Marseille before I could even access faster trains. However much I liked the comfort of the train, I wasn’t going to get very far with it.

So I took the next logical step: airplanes. And here I was in luck. Nice was France’s second biggest airport, and this opened up a whole world of possibility. Looking over their website, I realized that I had access to over 200 destinations across the world. Better yet, since any money I spent in Day A reappeared in my account the next day, I was going to travel exclusively in First Class.

I quickly slimmed that list down though. Any flight that took over 4 hours would be a waste of time as I didn’t want to be spending all of my Day As in transit. I also decided to cross off any country that asked for a visa. Although it wouldn’t be too hard to apply for a visa in Day B, I would then be stuck for over a week, or a full two weeks in my Day A/B world, without a passport while I waited for the visa to be delivered.

Fortunately, thanks to the European Union Schengen laws that allowed for free passage of people, that still meant I could access all of Europe visa-free. 30 different countries, if one counted Switzerland and Norway. Taking out France and Italy, that left 28 entire countries that I had never even set foot in. I decided that I would go for the capital and any notable cities in each and every one. Because… well why not? If this amazing gift allowed me to travel the world, first class, why not do it?

I bought a map of Europe on Amazon, and stuck it up on the wall next to my bed. Using little post-its, I marked out every country and its capital, figuring I would cross them off as I went along. To the West of where I was, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. In what I decided to consider Central Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Malta and Switzerland. To the East, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus. To the North, Sweden, Finland and Norway.

On a Day B, I bought the Lonely Planet guides for all 29 countries and loaded them onto my Kindle for just under 400 euros. I decided that the plan would be to wake up at 5 a.m. every day A, drive to the airport, and just buy whatever ticket was available at that time. I would then read up a bit on wherever I was visiting on the flight over. This was going to be fun.

 

~ End of Chapter 5 ~

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