Title: the trolley problem
A/N: For the Chaos Theory zine! I wanted to explore some of the branches Max went through.
Summary: "The trolley problem." Ms. Hoida stood at the front of the classroom, writing out the words on the blackboard. "Who lives and who dies?"
Max tried not to snort. What an easy question—the answer was obvious.You'd pick the path with one person every single time.
"The trolley problem." Ms. Hoida stood at the front of the classroom, writing out the words on the blackboard. Her chalk hit the board in hard taps, confident strokes that did not match her quiet demeanor. "It's a common philosophical question, one that will be explored in the book you will read this semester."
She turned around, smiling brightly at the class. "The question is this: a trolley is barrelling down the tracks. In the distance, you see five people standing in your path. There's a fork in the road and you can save them by changing tracks. But in doing so, you'll kill a lone worker who's on this second track. You can't warn them nor can you stop the trolley in time. What do you do?"
There was a long silence as no one answered. Ms. Hoida raised a brow, looking at them curiously. "Who lives and who dies?"
Max tried not to snort. What an easy question—the answer was obvious.
You'd pick the path with one person every single time.
Max crouched in the darkness, the jackhammer beating of her heart so loud she didn't know how it didn't give her away. The girls' change room wasn't that big, the white tiles echoing every sound. It was a miracle that Mr. Madsen hadn't heard her yet.
Pressed against the cool metal lockers, she peered around the corner. Max could barely make out his back, the light of his flashlight swinging away as he inspected every nook and cranny for an intruder. This was exactly what she expected to happen when she joined Chloe for a midnight swim: trouble. Trouble that would mar her school record forever.
Something cold and soft touched her arm and Max covered her mouth to muffle her scream. It was just Chloe, it was only Chloe. She could still smell the chlorine from the pool as water dripped down her spiky blue hair. Max turned to look at her, her outline barely visible in the almost non-existent light. Mr. Madsen stepped forward, his footstep echoing on the tiles, and Max pulled Chloe along as she quietly tiptoed toward the exit.
If they could just sneak out—
"Who's there?" Mr. Madsen growled, swinging around. His flashlight landed on them and Max felt like a deer in the headlights, waiting for the car to crash. "Chloe. Why am I not surprised?"
"Fuck," Chloe muttered before snarling back, "Not like you know how to have any fun!"
Max swallowed, watching the two argue, their words growing more heated by the second. She could fix this. All she needed to do was concentrate and she could fix this. Closing her eyes, she focused on time, on the photo negatives of her past, going through them until she found one just before they chose the girls' change room to hide in.
"Anyone there?" Mr. Madsen called out, his flashlight shining into the girls' change room.
Max quietly made her way back to the pool, intercepting Chloe before she could hide. "Boys' change room."
"What?" Chloe stared at her, confused, before realization dawned. "Super Max to the rescue, huh?"
Super Max. It didn't feel particularly heroic to use her powers like this, but she'd take what she could get.
"How does it look?" Sitting on the desk, Warren tilted his head back, angling his face toward the light. His hands rested between his legs, keeping him balanced as he patiently waited for her inspection.
Max set down the first aid kit on a free desk. Luckily, the science room was empty for once, free of Brook or her teachers. Leaning forward, she tucked a lock behind her ear as she studied Warren's face. Under the light, his skin looked paler than usual, the dark circle around his eye blacker. There was a cut on his bottom lip, dried blood crusted at the edges. "You look…" she paused, not sure what to say.
"Beat up?" Warren suggested playfully, grinning.
"Beat up," she agreed, pulling back to open the first aid kit. "I can't believe you did that."
"Me neither." He chuckled before wincing. Gingerly, he touched his lip and groaned. "Man, Nathan packs a punch for a rich guy."
"He really hurt you," Max warned, her eyes flickering to his black eye. She couldn't stop staring at it.
"I just wasn't ready." Raising his fists, he punched the air in front of him. "Next time, I'll be the one punching him."
"Or you'll be the one—" Getting beat. Getting shot. She'd almost forgotten about it, the bathroom shooting that chain-started her powers. Nathan was dangerous, far more dangerous than anyone realized.
"Or what?" Warren raised a brow, staring at her.
Max faltered, not sure what to say. "He's just…dangerous." Her fingers rifled through the band-aids idly. "Just…be careful, okay?"
"Yeah, you don't have to worry about me." Chest puffed out, Warren winked at her dorkily. "I'm kinda like a hero, you know?"
"Heroes don't usually get beat up," she pointed out. If she went back to the parking lot, if she and Chloe got there quicker or warned Warren, would he be okay? Sure, he was smiling now, but he was also in Nathan's bad books.
And Nathan wasn't the kind of person who settled for getting even.
"I'm sorry," Max apologized. Before he could ask why, time was rewinding itself.
This is wrong. The single thought replayed over and over in Max's head as she stood in front of the dormitory, staring down at the steps. A single, framed picture of Kate sat on the middle rung, surrounded by rings of candles and bouquets of white lilies. In the dark, the lights flickered, casting multiple shadows over her picture. A white bear sat at the bottom of the staircase.
Kate likes rabbits. Max stared at the stuffed bear, fighting the urge to pick it up and chuck it over the field. But that wasn't what was wrong, was it? Bear, rabbit, it didn't change the fact that this was a memorial for Kate.
That Kate was dead.
As the thought struck her, she hunched over and covered her mouth. The acidic taste of bile lingered on her tongue, even though it had been hours since she'd last vomited. If Max turned to her left, if she tilted her head a centimeter, she could see the spot where Kate fell, hear the sickening crunch as she landed. Yellow caution tape still surrounded the spot, the cops not finished with their investigation.
This is wrong, she thought again, trying to force her legs to move. If she went up a floor, she'd find Kate's room. Maybe she was playing with her rabbit or reading a book. A light would spill through the cracks of her closed door, her soft humming barely audible as Max walked past. On her whiteboard would be some stupid insult and Max would erase it and doodle something cheerful.
Somewhere, someone was crying, and Max wasn't sure if it was her. It was automatic this time, her grip on her powers, the world slipping around her as she fought the flow of time.
This was one fate she couldn't allow to pass.
A gunshot echoed in Max's ears as she stared at the ground, at the blood pooling around Frank's body. It spread slowly, unevenly on the concrete. Red spots dotted her shoes.
Next to her, Chloe dropped her gun with a clatter, her hand covering her mouth. "He…he attacked. It was the only way to protect us." Desperate, she turned to Max, tears in her eyes. "Right? That's…there's nothing we could have done."
Max studied her. Behind them, the ocean waves calmly lapped on the beach and seagulls cried overhead. It was strange, she felt oddly peaceful as she nodded and looked back down at Frank. He stared blankly at the sky, his beloved dog next to him. "It's okay, Chloe." She had lived through this scene five times already and there were other, better outcomes. "It'll be okay."
Her ears were the only ones that would remember Frank's death gurgle. Her eyes were the only ones that would remember this sight.
Next time, next time she'd say the right thing.
Max shivered, tightening her grip on Chloe's wet, clammy hands. In the middle of the storm, in the midst of all this destruction, her warmth was grounding. Rain plastered Max's hair to her face uncomfortably, but she didn't push them away, too afraid to let go.
The wind howled around them as they stood at the top of the hill, at the edge of the cliff. The lighthouse lit the sea up every few seconds, but there was no safety in its beam. The storm was upon them and it would take more than a ray of light to rescue them.
"Max." Chloe's voice was soft for once. "You know what you have to do."
She shook her head, keeping her eyes glued to their interlaced hands. "I can't do anything about this. I'm not that super."
"Max," Chloe repeated, tugging her hands up and forcing her to look up. "Look at the town."
She didn't want to. Even after running through it, saving her classmates and friends, seeing the fire and damage, it was easy to pretend out here. It was quieter at the lighthouse, the storm drowning out every other sound, and maybe the town was fine. Maybe everything was fine and they just had to wait it out.
"Look, Max." Impatience leaked into her voice, and Chloe tugged Max's hands again urgently. "Look."
Despite herself, she did. She turned her head, followed Chloe's gaze to the ruins of their town. To the hurricane landing on the shoreline, ripping buildings off the earth. From here, she couldn't hear the screams, but she could imagine them.
Oh, she could imagine them.
"They're all going to die, aren't they?" Max muttered, watching at the storm move closer and closer to the diner. To Joyce. To Frank. To Warren and Kate and—
"Yeah, but they don't have to." Chloe clutched her hands tightly, forcing her attention back to her.
Immediately, Max knew what she meant. "No."
She tried to pull away but Chloe didn't let her. Despite how slick her hands were from the rain, her grip remained tight. "Max!"
"I can't, Chloe! That'd mean…" Her eyes welled, her sight growing even more blurry. "That…that day, in the bathroom…Nathan, he-he—" killed you, but Max couldn't utter the last words, couldn't make them real.
"I know! And I…I don't want to die, Max!" Chloe shook her head, her voice cracking. "But I don't want them to die too. I'm just me, you know? One person, against a whole town—it's an easy choice, isn't it?"
One person versus many.
The Trolley problem, Ms. Hoida had said, her chalk hitting the board confidently. Who would you save?
Chloe or the town.
Chloe or Kate, Warren, Joyce, her classmates, her neighbours, perfect strangers.
Max could hear wheels rolling down a track, feel the cool metal of a track shaft between her hands. Left or right, the many vs the one.
It was an easy choice.
It was supposed to be an easy choice.
"I…I…" Max stared up at Chloe helplessly.
Whatever path she took, only heartbreak lay at the end.