The Trolley ProblemCategories Science Fiction
The main artery of Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility had been deserted long before I arrived, but the silence surprised me. I’d expected some mind-numbing, blaring alarm system at the very least. Instead, only the light buzzing of the fluorescents punctured the thick stillness.
My heart settled into my throat somewhere along the drive up to Vermont and I had yet to dislodge it. I’d checked and rechecked my blazer half a dozen times since I left the car. A piece of me still thought I might still wake up, drenched in sweat with nothing left to do but run until my lungs threatened to burst.
The end of the hallway came abruptly, marked by a door standing ajar, a sign that read ‘Correctional Officers Only Beyond this Point,’ and a single black shoe. Some officer had lost that shoe on their way out and not even considered turning back. It didn’t surprise me, but I did wonder what lies he’d tell himself to fall asleep at night.
The door swung open easily. Another hallway so short you could miss it, and then a plexiglass window peering into a room packed with women in tan jumpsuits. It must have been soundproofed, because several of the inmates seemed to be shouting at each other but I couldn’t make out a word. I stopped just short of the window and took them all in, wondering if they knew what had happened on the outside. I realized I had the benefit of a two-way mirror to observe them all in silence; no one took notice of me even as I stepped forward to place a palm against the cool plastic.
I thought it would take time and effort to scan through them all, but she sat on the edge of the room on a bed, watching the argument with a blank expression on her face. She looked the same as the last time I saw her. I expected signs of age, maybe the little crinkles that appeared beside my own eyes. Prison would do that to a person, I thought. Instead, she hadn’t aged a day. Her red curls were short, cut just below her chin, and her face was bare, but otherwise she was the same Moira.
She opened her mouth to mutter something to her bunkmate. The woman beside her smiled and shook her head.
Moira could be pleasant. I’d forgotten that. Maybe I’d blocked it out.
When Elliott knocked on the door of my downtown duplex just after Colbert exactly a week earlier, I thought it was some kind of practical joke. Maybe Moira probably needed money and she’d sent Elliott up to knock on my door while she waited around the corner in her car. It would be just like her.
I didn’t allow myself to really look at Elliott until we sat down in the family room, no Moira in sight. When she pursed her lips, she looked just like her mother. The physical similarities had never been lost on me even when Elliott was just a toddler. She’d always had Moira’s slightly upturned nose and full cheeks, and now even their voices sounded the same.
Elliott was the only thing out-of-place in my minimalist space, a bundle of hair readjustments, ragged fingernails, and sloppy eyeliner. She kept her feet planted firmly on the floor as I crossed my legs, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do about this ghost from my past.
“Mom’s in trouble,” Elliott said, staring at her hands.
Of course, I thought. Why else would you be here?
“It’s bad this time,” Elliott went on. “Really bad. She got arrested for tax stuff again and…anyway, she told me to come here and stay with you. She said you’d know why.”
I did know why, but I wished I didn’t. High on the bewildering nature of new life, I pledged to take care of the new baby in Moira’s arms fifteen years earlier if anything ever happened to her mother, because what could possibly necessitate such a thing? Moira’s fiance had been working overtime to make ends meet. They were hopelessly in love, ready to get back to their tiny apartment and their church friends and start their life.
“Mom told me to come here if anything ever happened.” Elliott’s eyes flicked up to meet mine.
“She did?” I failed to keep the bitterness out of my voice. “What else did she tell you?”
“That you’re a lesbian.” Elliott looked down again.
It stung too much to laugh. Of course that was all Moira had ever told her daughter about her former friend and confidante. “I guess that’s all that matters.”
“It matters,” Elliott mumbled. “I’m that way, too. Queer.”
My jaded smile faded. “Oh,” I said after a few moments listening to the cicadas in the garden box outside the window. “I didn’t know.”
“You mean Mom didn’t mention it during your weekly phone calls?” Elliott asked wryly. Against my better judgment, I already liked her. “I don’t want any money or anything. She can stay in jail for all I care. I just…need a place to be.”
After I showed Elliott to the guest room and climbed into my own bed upstairs, it all struck me as poetic. Of all the people in the world, only Elliott and I truly understood what it felt like to be shunned by Moira. That made me the only person in the world Elliott could relate to – and wouldn’t that fact alone eat Moira up at night?
The first attack on Kazakhstan had been puzzling, but it hadn’t caused widespread pandemonium. Pundits chalked up the destruction of Astana to secret nuclear testing. Video footage caught behind the scenes at the UN Summit seemed to show the Russian president chuckling with an aid at the exact moment of impact, so the 24-hour news cycle had its headline: Russians Plotting to Wipe Out Western States Next?
When Dubai went next, talks got more serious. The government of the United Arab Emirates shared grainy footage of an unidentified object with the FBI, and suddenly aliens were on the table. Still, few people took the threat all that seriously. One of the late-night hosts quipped, “Where’s the president’s concern over these ‘illegal aliens?'”
Things changed in a matter of minutes.
I woke late that day. Elliott and I had stayed up until midnight talking the night before, and I hadn’t the heart to cut it short so I emailed my partner at the firm and pushed our morning meeting back to Friday. When I jogged downstairs to start the coffee, the TV was on.
“Morning,” I called as I walked past the den.
As I fixed my coffee, I wondered about Elliott’s mental health. Did she worry I would kick her out eventually? She’d probably been too young to remember all the times I rocked her to sleep or wiped the food off her face. She probably had no recollection of sobbing in her highchair while Moira ordered me out of the house.
Probably for the better, I thought as she poured Elliott a glass of orange juice. Three-year olds aren’t supposed to know the word ‘dyke’ anyway.
“I brought you orange juice,” I announced when I entered the den. “And it’s not the pulpy crap. I know you said you like no pulp, so I stopped yesterday afternoon…”
I trailed off as the image on the local news station sank in. Shaky helicopter footage showed a smoldering, barely recognizable New York City skyline. Skyscrapers were blackened, sparking like firecrackers. Beneath the burning buildings, the city streets were brittle charcoal, black rivers of ash and debris.
“Another attack,” Elliott whispered. “It’s on every channel.”
“Jesus,” I managed. “You shouldn’t be seeing this. Let’s turn it off-“
“Mom’s in Vermont.”
I sank onto the couch beside her. “I’m sure she’s alright. They’re probably evacuating the prison.” I felt the lie like a burr in my sock, scratching away at my composure. Federal inmates weren’t the priority at this point. It didn’t take a genius to put that together.
“She’ll be okay.” Each word was stilted when Elliott spoke. “She can take care of herself.”
No, she can’t. I’d gotten Moira out of more scrapes than I could count. I saved her from expulsion at Northwestern by lying about a blatant act of academic dishonesty. I saved her from her fiance when his true colors started to show and he threatened to lock the new baby in the car to stop her crying. Moira didn’t know how to help herself – she didn’t have a bone of self-preservation in her body.
Damn it, I thought on repeat. Damn it, damn it, damn it. “We have to pick her up.”
“What?” Panic bloomed in Elliott’s eyes. “No. She’ll be alright. I know she will.”
“I know she won’t,” I countered.
“Please,” Elliott sighed, shaking her head. “Please, let’s just stay.”
The desperation in Elliott’s voice rang in my ears as we loaded the car for the 15-hour drive. I knew she couldn’t truly want bad things to befall her mother – she just needed to feel safe. Elliott wanted the same freedom that I’d started to take for granted.
Was it freedom if I leapt at the chance to save her again? I told myself any good person would drive to rescue an old friend from an impending invasion, even a friend who laughed coolly and squeezed my hand and whispered, “You’re not a lesbian. I can sense that kind of thing. I never would have gotten within ten feet of you if you were.”
“We’ll just get her out of Vermont,” I told Elliott over and over as we packed. “Just a little farther away from the attack. Once we’re out of any major city, she’ll be on her own.”
Elliott nodded, but I knew she worried Moira would sink her claws in and never let go.
Traffic leaving Chicago crawled like a dying animal, inching forward with a half hour between each movement. The air was thick with honking and curse words, and every face we passed was wide-eyed and tight with panic. By the time we reached Indiana, we were flying. The cars on the other side of the divider were animals crowding the slaughterhouse door, no space between them as everyone fled the East Coast.
Elliott and I drove in silence for the first hour, alternating between radio static and choppy interview audio rehashing the attack. “Do you have any CDs?” She asked finally, crumpling an empty bag of pretzels.
I snorted. “Have you even seen a CD?”
“I’m not a newborn,” she replied, and I could hear the smile in her voice. Popping open my glove compartment, she added, “I bought a Lady Gaga CD with my own money once.”
“Do you know the one where she’s…” Elliott faltered. “Naked on the cover with this blue ball-“
“In front of her vagina?” I completed. “That’s Artpop and it’s probably the worst album she ever put out.”
“I didn’t buy it for the music.”
Elliott stuck a CD into the player and some ancient mixtape started mid-song: ‘Fast Car.’ I couldn’t help remembering the Tracy Chapman concert I’d taken Moira to back in college. Things were so different back then. Matthew Shepard had just been murdered. AIDs had decimated the queer community. It was lonely as hell, but I counted myself as one of the lucky ones. I figured didn’t need to be out if I had someone I loved, and Moira loved me back in her way.
“Things have gotten so much better for people like us,” I murmured, half to myself. “Obviously recent events have complicated the path forward, but we’ll figure this out. It’s on the upswing, no matter how it looks right now.”
“Really?” Elliott’s tone was white-hot. “Maybe we can get married now, but bad people don’t change – even if you really fucking want them to.”
Neither of us spoke again until the CD started over outside of South Bend. “I thought she’d be angry,” Elliott began like we’d been in the middle of a conversation. “Mom, I mean. When I came out. She used to mention her dyke roommate and I thought those moments would be perfect. I could spring it on her and watch her face crumple, but it was inevitable that she’d throw me out. I saw no alternative unless I kept the truth to myself for the rest of my life.”
I put my hand on hers and felt it tremble.
“But when it finally happened she said, ‘Thank you for telling me. Now we can deal with this together. There’s places for girls like you and they’ll make you better.'”
I thought my blood would boil my own skin off.
“So that’s what I mean. Somehow I think calling me a dyke might have been better. It’s this…facade. Of civility. That’s what scares me. You don’t know who really wishes you’d get your ass kicked in a dark alley, you know?”
I blinked back tears I hadn’t noticed before. “I know.”
Moira looked up and her eyes locked onto mine. Panic took over. I stumbled backwards into the shadows, heart threatening to jump from my throat and splatter all over the floor.
Not a two-way mirror, just plexiglass.
To her credit, Moira didn’t alert the other inmates. Instead, she stood without another word to her bunkmate and skirted the edge of the room until she reached the window. Up close, I could see that a few of her laugh lines became permanent while we lived our separate lives.
I just had to open the door and let her out. It stood a foot away from me, well within my reach. I would let her out and the others would follow, and that was justice. Everybody’s records are exponged when cities are vaporizing left and right.
It isn’t just for her. I can help them all.
Her wide blue eyes shifted the embers of my rage. Nothing in her face showed signs of surprise.
She’d expected me to come.
I took one step backwards, watching the fear set into her face. It felt like walking through cement at first, but the steps became easier the more I took. I rounded the corner and passed the guard’s shoe on my way out. I understood then; once you start to leave, you can’t turn back.
“Hey!” Elliott hung out of the open window of the car as I approached. “Is she coming?”
I slid my sweating palms into my slacks. I’d sent every woman in that prison to hell, Moira included.
“She’s not there. They must have cleared the inmates out after all.” I swallowed hard and settled into the front seat, sure Elliott could hear the lie in my voice. If she did, she didn’t mention it. When I forced myself to meet her gaze, I said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”
I swear I saw her shoulders relax. “Yeah,” Elliott agreed. “We will.”
Elle Hurley received her BA in Literature from Oregon State University. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, where she writes fiction and frequently wonders if anyone’s voice will ever top Freddie Mercury’s. She tweets @ elbelle1918