A man walks, unaware that he is part of some grand experiment. He walks, not knowing his choices are monitored, checked against lists, measured against outcomes. Rated to determine whether they are good or bad. Judged on how they will impact his life or the lives of those around him.
He walks. Will he turn right or left? It might seem like a small thing, but it could change the whole course of his day.
He turns right, takes a longer route to work so he can visit his favourite coffee shop and get a cappuccino and a muffin. He smiles at the barista, who smiles back as he does every time. The man wonders if he should ask the barista for a coffee. He wonders if that is a stupid thing to ask someone who spends their day making coffee. As always he does nothing and regrets it.
A line is added to his notes by an unseen observer.
He turns left, and runs for the bus. He sits next to a young woman with a baby in a pushchair. She bounces it gently with her foot. The baby grumbles and she glances sideways, nervous of judgement from the man in the smart suit. He smiles reassuringly, at her and the child, who stares at him wide eyed, sucking on two fingers. The mother visibly relaxes, some of the tension leaving her shoulders.
More notes. He has made both choices many times, but still they are tallied. Logged. Perhaps the ultimate number will tell them something about humanity. Perhaps it will tell them something about themselves.
He asks the barista out, and they date for a short time. It is mostly a happy time but it ends acrimoniously, as these things often do. He is sad for a while but the sadness eventually passes. He finds a new favourite coffee shop, even further off his quickest route to work.
He asks the barista out, and is politely but firmly rejected. He says something he doesn’t mean in his embarrassment and is asked to leave. He buys his coffee from the work canteen for the next six months.
The observers watch both play out, and talk in hushed tones about which is the better outcome. They do not reach a consensus.
He sighs, ignoring the young mother’s discomfort, and stares out of the window as she tries to hush her baby’s griping. She mutters an apology as he stands to get off the bus, which he also ignores.
He chooses a different seat and watches as another man in a smart suit sits there, who tuts and huffs and makes his displeasure very clear. The young woman makes herself smaller and smaller, trying to disappear under the weight of his annoyance. The other passengers are oblivious, or pull sympathetic faces that she cannot see, or tut along with the grumpy man at the baby’s noise. No-one says anything. The mother gets up to leave before her stop.
The other passengers are also tracked through their respective daily choices. They impact him. He impacts them. All on the record. All played out over and over, in a million different ways. Perhaps one day the results will be in, and the final judgement will be passed. Perhaps then all will be revealed, and they will tell us what they have been measuring. They will tell us what it has all been for. Until then, they watch and they make their notes.
A man walks. Will he turn left or right?
Sarah McPherson is a writer of short fiction and poetry from Sheffield in the UK. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Strix, Corvid Queen, Atrium Poetry, and The Castle (Royal Rose Magazine), among others, and she had been long/short-listed in competitions including the Writers’ HQ Flash Quarterly Competition and the Reflex Fiction Flash Fiction Competition.
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