A train approaches a fork in a deserted area of the woods. Three people are walking in its course and will be hit if it continues on its path. There’s no way to warn them and there’s no way they can escape. However, you can save them if you pull a switch that changes the direction of the train, but there is someone walking on that track also. He would have to die. Do you sacrifice one to save three? Or do you allow fate to take its path?
You sat there as you did almost every afternoon when the weather was fair and your back wasn’t acting up. You watched the tadpoles dart in and out between the rocks and the occasional frog leap from stone to stone to tree stump. The stream flowed alongside the southbound train tracks for miles until they diverged into the south and west tunnels. The stream was always calm, save for the infrequent ripples of train track vibrations or when you fingers found a smooth rock to skip across the water.
Your finger traced Ollie’s tiny footprint, planted three days since, yet still clearly defined, as if he and Nicole had just visited. That was how time passed up here, slow and steady like the methodical clang of a grandfather clock. But life seemed to move much faster; it felt like yesterday that you were tying shoes on Nicole’s small feet, and now she had her own little soles to take care of.
You were sitting there when you noticed the tadpoles scurry to their posts in the mud and the water tremble, almost imperceptibly. The faint rattling of the tracks told you that the 57 South was ten minutes behind schedule and you stood up to verify that it was, indeed, the 57. And you noticed the echo of incomprehensible voices in the south tunnel, where the train would be in a matter of seconds. As your hand grasped the firm rubber handle of the track’s switch, you noticed someone kicking pebbles against the wall in the west tunnel. Your breath died in your throat.
Jim’s thoughts consumed him as his feet made their way down the narrow tunnel. He tried to walk on the wood planks, now only on the gravel, now on the metal sidebars. The sack on his back didn’t help the tension between his shoulders, and neither did the echo of his last words to Sophia that morning.
It was just another one of their fights: he shouldn’t have run out like that. It wasn’t even her, really; he loved his wife and had since the day he met her. It was almost as if she had cast a spell over him and he still hadn’t shaken it off six years later.
It was just work, the Pepsi campaign, and now all of a sudden they had a baby on the way. He’d be a father. The word hit him right in the stomach; someone would be calling him “daddy” and looking to him for every question, every little dilemma. What made him qualified to be someone’s father? He would be responsible for a whole human being. What if the kid turned out to be like Herbert at work, a sucky excuse for a person who just bullied people into doing what he wanted. Or what if they were a slimy backstabber like Rohan? Wasn’t it really their parents’ fault for raising them so horribly?
Anyway, at the rate the campaign was going, they all might be broke by the end of the year. Pepsi had trashed their last commercial pitch and threatened to pull out if they didn’t come up with something better by the end of the month. Jim thought that camping might clear his head like it used to in his boy scout days. However, twenty years later, his body didn’t have the elasticity it used to, and he might just end up a little sorer and a little tenser.
“Excuse me, ma’am! Hold on – excuse me!”
Arnetta hastily pulled up her pants and stumbled out from behind the tree to flag down what seemed to be the only other female for miles around. It was just her fucking luck to get her period in the middle of the wilderness. Damn evolution.
“Excuse me, ma’am, sorry, do you have any pads on you?” she asked, realizing as the woman turned around that she might have missed the mark.
“Sorry, kid, haven’t needed those since the Big Pause of ’99.” The woman laughed forcedly. “Plenty of pine cones around though.” Her laugh deepened, but Arnetta was not amused. Somehow, the thought of shoving a pinecone up her crotch didn’t strike her as funny. However, it seemed that the woman had taken a liking to Arnetta.
“Name’s Frances,” she said. Frances was a petite woman, but incredibly toned for her age, which Arnetta guessed was some forty years beyond her own. She was outfitted entirely in black spandex to her mid-calf, followed by a pair of complicated running shoes that made Arnetta’s worn sneakers look dated.
“What brings you to these ol’ woods? I’ve only come out for some exercise. Is your camp set up around here?” Francis asked.
“I –uh, I’ve been coming up here since I was younger and …” Arnetta trailed off. It seemed that Frances was deep in her own thoughts already. She rummaged in her tall rucksack and pulled out a large map. She mumbled under her breath for a few seconds before pointing right and announcing, “This road.”
Arnetta wasn’t sure why she followed. It seemed like the natural thing to do at the time. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be alone, she just preferred to be around people. Jeremy had told her only three days before that he wasn’t coming with her. He’d decided that he should go home for spring break. She’d wanted to laugh in his face and scream at him at the same time. He was always like that; he claimed he was gay, but they both knew there was chemistry between them. It made him nervous. But she wasn’t going to cancel her plans because of him. She was going camping to get away, away from school, away from her family, away from the oppressive nature of the world surrounding her. She found herself mounting a set of train tracks behind Frances’ athletic form. She watched her feet navigate the precarious wood as Frances went on about some exercise video. They neared a bathroom stop and veered off course.
Frances calculated that if she allotted about six minutes for a bathroom break and then walked at a steady pace for the next hour, she could get back to the RV by sundown. Then if she looked over the footage and sent something to Tony, they might be able to get some of Fit in Nature rolling, find a location, and get a cast. Maybe this girl she was walking with could even be in the back row? She seemed like the crunchy-granola type. Viewers loved that stuff.
Mid-pace to the women’s bathroom, Frances’ path was interrupted by what she assumed to be a bear. As she hurtled backwards, however, she realized that it was only an excited middle-aged man with a thick furring of facial hair.
“Frances Aldrich? As in Fit Over Fifty, Making Shopping Aerobic, and other installments in the series?” he asked excitedly.
“Yes – yes I am,” she replied, a little startled by his enthusiasm.
“Oh, excellent! Mother and I do your videos on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She’ll be delighted to hear that I met you! I’m Bart Rickson, by the way.”
Frances stared at him for a moment, but decided that fans were fans, no matter what form they came in. He might be an opportunity to test out a few new ideas, maybe help her find a location for Fit in Nature.
After emerging from the bathroom, she found him waiting for her, one foot tapping wildly on the mess of pine needles and loose dirt. He followed her as she resumed her path on the train tracks, the girl she’d met earlier about five feet back. He fired questions at her while she wondered what Tony was doing and if they might be able to go over ideas tonight before bed. It was convenient having a director who doubled as a boyfriend.
Bart couldn’t contain his excitement. He told Frances all about his plan to spend a month in the woods when he turned fifty in order to reconnect with nature. By now, he reasoned, his mind and body had been entirely subsumed by the media world. The only way to be truly pure was to go back to the roots of humanity. Maybe she would feature him in her next video – maybe they could even partner and create their own joint fitness empire: Sweat with Bart and Frances. Mother would be so proud!
As the train tracks veered toward a tunnel, he noticed another girl who looked to be around twenty or so a few feet behind him. Frances’ publicist maybe? Or daughter? No, as second glance, he realized her skin was more tanned than Frances’ was, and her face much rounder.
“I’m Bart,” he said, swiveling to face her, “are you a fan of Ms. Aldrich also?” She gave him a confused look and replied, “Arnetta. I’m just … hiking.”
“Oh, how interesting! It really is the only way to connect with the remnants of early humanity these days …” Bart’s voice trailed off, hearing the rattle of train tracks not too off.
Jim used the echo of his voice against the walls of the tunnel to rehearse what he would say to Sophia when he returned. The dark bricks seemed to approve. Maybe he would write this all down and mail it to her so that it would last longer than the breath it took to say. “Love you Sophia, and baby-fetus-egg-child-thing.”
Arnetta swore off all thinking for the rest of the week. She wouldn’t wonder what Jeremy was doing, or worry about what papers she had due when she got back to college, or, for that matter, what the hell she was supposed to be doing with her life. No, she would spend the next hundred or so hours just doing. And the first of those would include tuning out this Bart guy who reminded her of her high school guidance counselor.
Frances had begun doing aerobics on the train tracks. She made a mental note to incorporate this setting into her next video. She noticed the tracks start to vibrate under her feat and heard the building chug of an engine. Her heartbeat seemed to slow as her palms grew cold.
Bart studied Frances’ smooth movements and attempted to mimic her. He pulled a small piece of paper from his breast pocket to jot down her patter and decided to write a quick note to mother. At eighty-three, it was unlikely that she would answer the phone anyway. He noticed Frances stop, and looked in her direction. Bart heard an engine, he was sure, but the tunnel was too dark to make out its form.
You are paralyzed, hand poised to pull the switch so the train won’t collide with the people in the south tunnel. They won’t make it out in time; the train is coming fast and the tunnels are at least two hundred feet long. Your own aged body will make little difference. You might flip a coin if you had more time, but the decision is now. You have to choose.
© Lyndsay Kerwin, 2008
Entanglement by Lyndsay Kerwin was read by Lynsey Pow at the Liars' League Winners & Losers event on Tuesday 12 August