Editor’s Choice Award
By Shannon Frost Greenstein
I glower out the window, the rain finally beginning to fall. Errant drops splash against the glass, obscuring my view as the scenery zips by in a blur.
It is nothing but strip malls and liquor stores out there, this I already know. There isn’t much to be gained by watching the world pass, but I am bored, and I am impatient, and I am dreading this journey home. Staring sullenly at the monotonous nothingness outside is about all the energy I can muster.
“Passengers, we’re nearing Jarvis Station! Jarvis Station, next stop!”
I wince as the garbled voice from the loudspeaker shouts at me through a burst of feedback.
I lean forward until the tip of my nose nearly touches my faint reflection, a cloud of vapor appearing against the cold windowpane as I exhale. I let my eyes lose focus, trying to look not at New Jersey but through it, like the entire state is just a stubborn Magic Eye 3-D book. I finally give up, unable to see anything more than I ever did as a child.
My sister was always the one who could see that extra hidden dimension between the covers of those books, that secret image rising up from the page like a phoenix. She is the only reason I am returning on this trip; she is the only redemptive thing about going home.
“This is Jarvis Station, TrainWorx passengers! Please keep your hands and arms inside the car until we have come to a full stop, and thank you for riding with us today!”
“It’s not exactly by choice,” I mutter, tearing my gaze from the industrial sprawl outside. According to a detailed chart digitally projected onto the ceiling of the train, Jarvis Station means the next stop must be mine.
If my mind wasn’t wholly focused upon wishing away the minutes until I can escape back across the country to my fellowship and my lab, I would feel gratitude that this ride is nearly over. It seems like I have been here, sitting motionless and sulking for an aeon, despite the speed at which this futuristic trolley has been chewing through the miles of rural America.
Real talk, I went so far away for college —as far as I possibly could—that it is no small ordeal to get back to where I come from, and I mean that both geographically and existentially.
“Thomson Station next! Last and final stop, Thomson Station!”
I stand, prepared to brace myself on the luggage rails overhead, but there is no need. This, too, I already know, or should have remembered. After all, TrainWorx brags so often about its smooth rides I’ve memorized the tagline, and I find myself humming the commercial while brushing my teeth.
“We are faster than all the rest,” I half-heartedly sing to myself while pulling down my duffel bag from the rack above, “put our carriages to the test.” I place the bag on the empty seat next to me and stretch. “Newer means better, TrainWorx is the best, our rails are like butter, please come be our guest.”
I stoop to pick up the paperback copy of Natural Goodness from my feet where it fell as the landscape grew ever more familiar and it became abundantly clear I did not have the attention span to read. I rise and pause for a beat, allowing my brain to finish the stupid commercial with a hearty, “Download the TrainWorx app today!” Then, with a deep sigh, I stuff the book, my phone, and the empty carafe which once contained coffee into my bag’s exterior pocket and begin to make my way down the aisle.
You’d think traveling at 600 kilometers per hour would make balancing difficult, but I have to hand it to the fledgling transportation monopoly—I really can’t feel the velocity at all.
Today is my first time taking the high-speed line. This is mostly because it is so new—I saw a rumor on Twitter that engineers were still welding in California when the inaugural run started in Maine—but also because I never before had the need, or the desire, to return home quickly.
I rarely, to be honest, have the need or the desire to return home at all.
But my sister sounded frantic in her text last night, detailing how much worse our mother’s drinking had gotten, listing the recent symptoms we both pretend are not the start of her descent into dementia, finally begging me—with capital letters and lots of exclamation points—to come home for moral support.
She does not typically ask for much. There is no arguing she got all the worst parts of the “Nature and Nurture ” debate, the fumes of our single mother’s parenting after her eldest daughter had already left the house, the brunt of all the abuse. While my sister’s soul is older than her years, her years still only number seventeen; she has been putting up with alcoholism in the only parent she has ever known for far longer than anyone her age should have to. And, for quite some time, she has been doing it entirely alone.
I sure as shit have some “Survivor’s Guilt” about bolting for UCLA at the first possible moment and not looking back. Don’t think I don’t. But I also have a fierce survival instinct, honed over the course of a childhood I wished was never mine. I have all the hindsight afforded by medical school and years of therapy. I have the sense memories; I have the scars.
I know, deep in my wise mind, that I would not have survived if I had stayed in New Jersey any longer. I would have succumbed to the trauma through self-destruction; I would have been irrevocably broken.
I know, though I try to forget, my sister is the same age now as when I left. She is far stronger than I ever was, but I know, too, she cannot survive for much longer. Don’t think I don’t.
Oh, honey, I had texted, are you serious right now? Do you have any idea how this is the worst possible time to be away?
Tell a grad student to feed your damn mice, she replied. You’re not even close to curing cancer yet. And I’m suffering.
It really is a terrible time to risk the experiment, frankly, but her words spoke volumes—namely, how she dropped the gerund form of that gold old infinitive verb to suffer; or, to submit to or be forced to endure; to labor under; to put up with.
She doesn’t often use hyperbole. It really must be exactly that bad.
I can barely take any time away, I hedged. I have a peer review coming up.
TAKE TRAINWORX!!! was her response, and the impossibly-sleek bullet trains I’ve seen all over the news recently pop into my subconscious. THE CROSS-COUNTRY LINE JUST OPENED!
I’m SURE I won’t get a ticket just like that, I had predicted, downloading the TrainWorx app even as I protested.
Other than an alarmingly-catchy jingle, however, I actually knew next to nothing about our new railway, shining source of national prestige and international envy though it was. It’s not that I didn’t care the entire system is being venerated as the reincarnation of American ingenuity. But like I said before, I have little need to traverse the expanse of our great country, and even less of a need to do it in a hurry.
“Last stop approaching, end of the line! Thomson Station approaching!”
I shift my weight from foot-to-foot, the straps of my duffel bag biting into my shoulder. I am getting anxious, now that I am so close to my family, and I find myself wishing yet again that I had been born of the forest and raised by wolves.
I sense the sudden panic from the front of the locomotive—a muffled outburst that quietly shatters the interior silence of the trolley—before I hear it, I see flashes of frenetic movement through the partition, a haze of TrainWorx-colored blazers pouring into the car.
Glancing around, I see I am not the only one who has overheard this disturbance. Passengers are pausing in the process of collecting their bags and putting on their coats, squinting at the commotion in the conductor’s cabin. Trying to ignore a growing sense of unease, I peer out of the closest window; then I gasp, my eyes widening with shock, adrenaline filling my nervous system, my heart immediately leaping into my throat.
We are still traveling much too fast.
Trees whip by at impossible speed. The uproar in the trolley is swelling, frantic shouts breaking out as unbridled terror spreads, instantly contagious, infecting employees and passengers alike. The collective panic feeds off itself, mortal fear rendering clear decisions and executive functioning essentially impossible.
“Oh, my God!” I squeal involuntarily, tensing every muscle in my body, anticipating an impact for which I still have a bit of time to wait.
All the conductors are pounding at the illuminated control panel; pounding somewhat futilely, it would seem, like too many chefs spoiling the soup.
“Switch it!” a TrainWorx blazer bellows, his arms flailing helplessly in the air. “The other track!”
It is now so crowded in the first car that movement has essentially ceased, even as the very air itself seems to vibrate and thrum.
“No! It would take out the platform!” another voice cries out.
“But we’ll hit the barrier!” the first screeches. “It will kill us all!”
Then they are all yelling at once, and all I can make out is a hysterical voice repeating, “I WON’T DO IT!” Over and over again.
Through the window, through the rain, I can almost glimpse the silhouette of the station looming ahead. I imagine formless shapes dotting the platform, commuters and taxi drivers and family members, all waiting for this train. Then the shapes sharpen into men with briefcases, older women with canes and walkers, a crowd of teenagers.
A baby carriage.
And my sister.
I haven’t yet spotted her in the crowd, but I know she’s there, eager to drive me home.
I get in around 6, I texted earlier that morning. I know you’ll be late, but PLEASE don’t be too late.
Sister, I will be there EARLY, she had texted back, with a slew of exclamation points and an emoji of a llama, for no reason I could discern.
I feel, amidst the otherworldly sense that I am literally watching the universe descend into entropy, a rush of true sorrow. She is so young, practically an innocent, and has been bearing a cross that, in a just world, would be partly mine to bear as well. I should have come back more. I shouldn’t have left her alone for so long in the clutches of our mother.
This command, though quite loud, does not sound hysterical. It sounds deadly serious. It sounds like someone with absolute power.
I stare, frozen, at the pistol grasped in the hand of another TrainWorx blazer, pointed directly in the face of the driver. An eerie silence emanates from the front of the trolley.
The human species might be desensitized to violence, but we all respect the sovereignty of a gun.
“Switch it now.”
My blood is running cold and I cannot feel my fingers or toes. Time seems to be slowing, running down like a tired watch. Each second stretches for an eternity before the next can even start to form, and I have time to wonder absentmindedly who is going to feed the mice at the lab once this track runs out.
“Please…” the driver says falteringly. “Please…all those people…”
“WAIT!” I scream as loudly as I can, finally grasping what is happening, finally grasping the implications. “YOU CAN’T!!!”
I start to push and shove the other passengers crowded around me, desperate to get into the conductor’s cabin. I see my sister’s face in the part of my brain I have never been able to control. I see her as she was when she was little, when even I was still little, before we realized that maternal love isn’t supposed to hurt so much. I see her as she was when I left for school, waving tearfully from a window. Then I see her on her wedding day; holding her firstborn; old and gray, stooped and smiling.
“MISTER, YOU CAN’T!!! PLEASE!”
I have always left her behind.
The pistol cocks, the noise so loud in the unnatural silence that I can’t imagine the gunshot will be any louder.
“I’m not going to ask again,” says the man, and I believe him with every fiber of my being. He, indeed, will not be asking again.
I can’t get to the front of the car no matter how many elbows I throw. I literally hear the ticking clock, the seconds before we hit the barrier or before the gunshot rings out or before the driver switches the tracks and we mow down all the people that love us.
I feel the last fraying threads of my sanity giving way. There is a battle warring in my psyche, the internal fight between my will to survive and my will to protect. I want to throw myself through the glass and throw the lever myself; I want to huddle in a ball until all the noise stops, soothed by the thought of my sister living a happy, fulfilled life, free from resentment and hatred in a way I never have been.
Then there is gunfire. It is pandemonium in the front of the train, with several men grappling for the pistol. I’ve lost track of who wants to kill my sister and who wants to kill me; no one seems to be on any one side any longer. Pure intuition has taken over, the human all-too-human knack for going down kicking and screaming.
I see the split in the track ahead through the windshield of the train. I offer up a prayer, though I am not quite sure to whom, and not quite sure the outcome for which I’m hoping.
It turns out survival instinct isn’t about self-preservation at all.
It is, instead, simply the drive not to succumb. It is the urge to breathe just one more time, and once after that, and once after that. It is the resolve to fight, and when fighting is futile, it is the commitment to preserve anything that can be saved, Darwin singing in the background like a Greek chorus.
In the very last moment before it will be too late to switch the track, the split second before the driver decides which of my mother’s children gets to live, I make a decision.
I forgive her.