Two Roads Diverge

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in The Opposite of Memory: A Collection of Unforgettable Fiction, February 2024

“People use the hypercrystals for all sorts of reasons, of course. Not just big decisions, like this one.”

Sometimes two roads diverge in a wood, and you can never know what would have happened if you’d taken the other path.  Or so I’m told.  It hasn’t been that way since before I was born.

Like my mother before me, I lay my hand on the hypercrystal when it’s time to decide what I want to do with my life — whether I want to have a child and become a mother or… not.

People use the hypercrystals for all sorts of reasons, of course. Not just big decisions, like this one.

I’ve used the hypercrystal to decide what I want to eat for breakfast, what book to read next, or even if I should get up off my lazy ass and go to bed or keep bingeing whatever sitcom I’m hooked on at the moment.

Spoiler:  the hypercrystal ALWAYS tells me to go to bed; the future where I do that is ALWAYS, ALWAYS the better one.  Big surprise.  And even bigger surprise — only about half the time do I do what it says.  The other half, I fall asleep on the couch and wake up to a sore neck and stiff back. It’s never worth it.  Just like the hypercrystal said.  But people can be stupid that way.

Today though, I need to really decide.  I need to decide because I can’t stand worrying and dithering over this choice any longer, and I just need to know — should I push the button on the mechano-womb to start the incubation process or… not?

The crystal’s warm under my hand as I close my eyes and let the dual visions wash over me.

On one path, I press the button, and my fertilized egg begins to grow, dividing and dividing, still too small to see inside the machine, too small to be anything but a hope and dream bound up in nucleotides.

On the other path, I unplug the machine, wash it out, and put it up on Keith’s List for sale.  I make a decent chunk of money, ’cause the model my mom handed down to me is pretty high quality, even though it’s old and been gathering dust in her garage for years.

Back on the first path, I get increasingly excited about the growing fetus as I watch it through the scanner on the womb as months pass.  I also get increasingly scared.  It’s a lot of feelings to have.

Simultaneously, I see myself take the money from selling the womb and fit out my basement music studio with better equipment.  I get to work on writing an album for real.  Finally.

But in the future where I keep the womb, I don’t have to work on writing an album — songs simply pour out of my fingertips, every time I touch my guitar.  Songs of fear and worry.  Songs of concern and overwhelm.  They’re beautiful, but haunting.  And then the baby comes, born from the machine, and for a time, I stop writing music at all.

For a long time — well, it feels like a long time in the visions, outside in the real world, all of this takes place in the blink of an eye, a mere handful of heartbeats — I watch myself grow into my role as a serious musician and also, but separately, a devoted parent.

The two lives run parallel, centering the same person — me — but become so different in their basic fabrics that those two versions of me grow into entirely different people.

Usually I watch a vision just long enough to decide.  It doesn’t take long to see which breakfast cereal will make you happier.  But this choice is harder, and I watch the two paths for as long as they go.

Then I open my eyes.

I think about what I saw.

Both lives will have their ups and downs.  Both lives are filled with music; that’s too much a part of me to ever be drowned out.

Only one of the lives holds my child — a perfect, wonderful being so magical that I can’t imagine robbing the world of their presence.  They are the shape of my heart.  The soul of my life.  My purpose and my deepest love.

And I know what I have to do.

You won’t like this. You may not even believe it.

But I unplug the machine.

Because I can’t do that to myself.  I don’t want to feel that much.  I don’t want to be overwhelmed and consumed.  Eclipsed.  I just want to go about my days, writing my music and worrying over trivial decisions about breakfast cereal.  That’s enough.

Maybe later I’ll call my mom, tell her about my decision and describe the amazing grandchild I’m denying her.  She’ll get a real kick out of that.  Then maybe she’ll help me pick out the best ways to spend the money I’m about to make from selling the womb.  She’s really sharp about getting good deals when upgrading studio equipment.

For now, though, I’m going to have a bowl of cereal, poured out of whichever box is still out on the counter. I don’t even care what kind it is.  I’ve made enough decisions for today.

Sometimes, two roads diverge in a wood, and you choose to walk down the easier one, even if it means skipping out on an amazing view of the sunset.  And that’s okay.

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