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I open my eyes to another annoying, inescapable, and tortuous Monday morning, which is all too familiarly accompanied with my obnoxious alarm blaring. I rub my eyes and get up, knowing if I don’t get up now, my little sister will barge into my room and bother me more. The morning that greets me when I step outside is deceptively pretty and calm. Almost too pretty for a Monday.
At breakfast, my little sister glares at me when my mom turns around, crossing her arms and shooting a look of pure menace in my direction.
“Alice ate the last of the Lucky Charms!” Sarah pouts. “She knew I wanted them!” Obviously, no one has informed her that she doesn’t have a monopoly on all of the cereal. As her sibling, it is my duty to inform her.
“I can’t find room in my schedule to care.” I respond in a patronizing voice laced with mock concern. “And I enjoyed every last bite!”
“Mooooom!” She howls. “She’s being mean!”
“Brynn, please! I don’t know why you girls have to bicker over every last thing! Behave!”
My morning is less than special, and by lunchtime, I’m more than ready to go home.
“Would Alice Wells please report to the guidance office.” The loud speaker summons me. The old PA system is staticy and always makes it seem like the speaker is talking through a mouthful of something.
I walk through the mostly empty halls, past rows of lockers, closed classroom doors, and flyer-lined walls.
When I was into the guidance office, I’m met with the patronizing, extremely fake smiles of several women who are all eagerly waiting in a clump.
“Alice!” My counselor barks through her toothy smile. She grabs my arm like we’re old friends. “Why don’t you sit down?” She asks it like a question, but it’s an order.
“Sure.” All the other women look like her clones.
“We wanted to inform you that you got an award for your spectacular theater participation! Yay!” She gives a little cheer that makes me cringe. I don’t like this lady. She gave me a detention for coughing too much during a student award ceremony. Who does that? No sane, decent human being.
“That must be a mistake. I’m not in the Drama Club. I can’t sing, act, or dance. I do the writing magazine and Photography Club.” I don’t know what this lady is smoking, I just know that she needs to stop smoking it. This is a small school, so, she knows who in our grade is a theater geek and who is a band nerd. I’m also pretty well known for my writing. And, since when has this school cared about the Drama Club?
“No, I don’t think it’s a mistake!” She desperately exclaims through clenched teeth.
“It is!” I laugh awkwardly.
“Let me check.” Her smile is blinding. And threatening. She resembles a wolf baring its teeth or something.
She picks up a certificate and scans it, looks at me, and looks at the paper. “It says right here, Alice Wells.” She hands it to me.
“I, I think this says ‘for her outstanding participation in Brook Valley High’s Photography Club’.” I’m thoroughly confused. I hand it back to her, my eyes narrowed in confusion.
She pushes it back to me, “that’s what I meant, Alice!”
I look at her and recoil. One of her eyes, is, well, missing. Not in a bloody, gory horror movie way, but like someone erased her right eye. I shake my head and blink, whatever I saw is gone. I must be losing it.
“What’s wrong, Alice?” She asks, her head cocked to one side.
“Nothing.” I grab the certificate and leave.
I think about it, and I’m certain that I saw part of her face missing. Certain! I have a vivid imagination, but nothing can compare to that.
When I take out the certificate later, I’m shocked. There’s no writing on it, nothing. It’s a completely blank piece of paper. I shake my head and realize that I was wrong.
“It sounds like you need to get more sleep and consume less than five cups of coffee per day.” My best friend, Rosie, tells me.
“Funny, funny. I’m serious. I keep seeing these weird things.”
“It’s all in your head.” She pats my arm. “All in your head…”
“Good, that’s proof that I’m insane.”
World history takes the cake for the weirdest class of the day. I’m sitting with my head in my hands, trying not to doze off, when something my teacher says makes me snap to attention.
“I don’t think any war has ever been as far-reaching and impactful as World War II.” It’s not what he says, it the way he repeats himself, like a record skipping. He isn’t repeating himself to remind us, but in a weird way. I sit up and look around the room. No one has noticed. Weird. I go back to dozing.
After dinner, surrounded by the safety of my poster-covered walls and in the warmth of my room, I lay on my bed. The rhythm of rain falling on the roof and hitting my windows soothes me. I get up and gaze out my window. All of the sudden, a bolt of lightning strikes, and hits the ground. I watch as another bolt hits the same spot. Over and over and over again. That’s really weird. This whole day has been really weird. Maybe I should lay off the caffeine.
The next morning is slightly more bearable. I know that Tuesday means Taco Tuesday and one day closer to the weekend. I turn on the news while I drink my first cup of coffee and pick at a bowl of oatmeal.
“If you’re just joining us, we at channel five hope you have a wonderful Tuesday. Especially you, Alice.” I almost drop my coffee.
“What? Did she just say my name?” I ask.
My sister looks at me. “You’re weird! I’m so glad we aren’t twins.”
I look suspiciously at my cup of coffee, take one sip, and pour the rest into the kitchen sink. My mom gives me a funny look, I don’t usually waste coffee.
“The weather for this week is promising a lot more rain and some heavy winds. Don’t worry, Alice, you’ll still be able to hold your birthday party outside.”
I freeze. I look up from where I’m making my lunch and stare into the family room. Brynn sighs and rolls her eyes at me, telling me to stop being so weird. She reminds me that my weirdness is probably what is keeping me from getting a boyfriend. I remind her that she hasn’t had any luck in that department, either.
On my way to school, I think about everything that’s been happening. It’s like my life is The Twilight Zone. It wouldn’t be that weird if my life wasn’t usually anything other than unremarkable. First the award. My teacher. The lightning. The news.
Maybe I just need to shake all of this off. Get outside, get more sleep, and drink less coffee.
I hit a pothole and my bike flips. I land hard on the sidewalk and wince. My knees are shredded and my head is spinning and pounding. I touch my head and wipe away blood. I realize that I’ve bled all over my clothes. This is serious for a bike crash. I must’ve hit my head. Ignoring the black spots that cloud my vision, I wheel my bike home, limping the whole way.
I open my eyes and realize I’m in a sterile hospital room. I don’t remember falling asleep or passing out, I don’t know how I got here. Wherever “here” is. I’m restrained on a steel table in only a thin hospital gown. The feeling of being restrained is something similar to sleep paralysis. I can’t move my mouth to talk, I can’t move my limbs, either. A variety of tubes, wires, and cables are buried in my skin and snake out from under my gown. Someone passes by me, all I can see is a white lab coat and a huge syringe.
I gasp for breath and open my eyes. I’m in bed, nestled under my sheets.
Someone knocks on my room and enters.
“I’m so glad you’re awake!” My mom says. “You fainted when I was cleaning your wounds.”
I look at my bandaged knees under my sheets.
“You told me you got in an accident and had to walk home. Luckily, your head seems fine, you just bumped it.”
“Then why did you take me to the hospital?” I ask, groggily.
“Honey, I didn’t. I’m a RN, did you forget? It must have been that headache you were complaining about earlier, it gave you crazy dreams.” She laughs and looks at me for a response.
“Okay, thanks, mom. What time is it?”
“It’s almost eleven o’clock.”
I frantically search my body for puncture wounds or marks. I can’t find anything. That dream seemed so real. I felt pain and I saw the doctor and everything. I rub my neck and freeze. There’s a bandage on the base of my neck. I rip it off and tenderly touch my neck. There’s a long incision, sewn shut by stitches.
My mom examines my neck and tells me there’s nothing there. She checks me for a concussion and shrugs. She tells me to go back to sleep.
I can’t stop thinking about it, I’m sure there were stitches on my neck. I make my way downstairs as quietly as possible. I linger on the staircase, straining to her. Something is up with her, I can tell.
She’s sitting on the couch. Next to her is a machine that vaguely resembles a potato. I am weird. Why am I thinking about potatoes right now? I sure am one for existential questions, aren’t I? The machine is a metallic silver and shiny. She’s looking into it intently.
She tilts her head back and slumps over. I wonder if I should go down and see if she’s okay? I squint and see some wires extending from the potato orb unfurling and reaching towards her face. What is it with me and potatoes? The wires latch onto her face and I jump.
Okay, maybe I should check on her. I quietly make my way down the stairs and over to her.
“Mom?” I say, tentatively. She doesn’t move. “Mom?”
I’ve reached her. The potato thing is in her lap. Up close, it bears the word TopTechCo. etched in the metal. I’ve never heard of them.
“Mom?” Nothing. She might be sleeping, or she could be having some sort of medical problem.
I tap her shoulder, and her head lolls forward on her limp neck. I jump backwards and then I see something that really makes me jump. Her eyes. They’re similar to the cartoons when characters get hypnotized, and have the black and white swirls in their eyes to show that they were hypnotized. Her eyes are full of static, the way of tv is when it’s not working.
I back away from her and run back into my room. There’s no way to explain what I just saw. And, blinking didn’t make it go away. What is going on?
My phone rings and I jump. I glance at the caller ID, it’s Rosie. I answer it on the second ring.
“Hey. My name is Ben. I need you to listen closely to everything I have to say, I don’t have much time.”
“What are you doing with Rosie’s phone?” This is making me panicked and suspicious. Who is this guy?
“Don’t hang up on me. You have to listen. Have you been seeing weird things recently? Things you wouldn’t normally see?”
I pause. He must know something I don’t. “Yes.”
“Good. My plan is working.”
“My name is Ben Taylor. I’m from TopTechCo. The things you’ve been seeing are real. They’re glitches in your world. You see, everything that you see, feel, taste, and touch is a simulation. You’re one of their “lab experiments”. I want to help you. They’re going to shut you down because your simulation is breaking.”
“Shut me down?” I tremble. What is he talking about?
“Kill you. They’re going to kill your physical body and that will kill you.” He pauses. “Do you not believe me? We don’t have time for that. Go to a mirror. Look under your eyelid, and you should find a little chip. I made a glitch so you should be able to see it.”
I check in my vanity mirror. He isn’t lying. I can see it. “What?”
“I know this is a lot to handle. Everything is a lie. But, you have to trust me.”
“I don’t know.” All of my life. It’s nothing. If he is telling me the truth, then nothing is real. Nothing about me.
“We can figure this out later. Right now, we need to get you out of there. Listen closely. Have you seen anything like a metal orb? It should be silver. Find it. Then, plug it into the chip in your eye. Be careful, I’m helping you, but others won’t be so kind.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“What other choice do you have?” He hangs up.
I’m alone on my room, wondering if he could possibly be telling the truth. I have no idea. The only time I’ve ever felt this helpless was when we didn’t know if my dad would survive heart surgery. I hate not knowing things. Maybe, I’ll try it. What the harm in plugging that thing in? I look like an idiot? I already do!
I decide to go for it and I walk back down the stairs to the couch. My mom is still there with the “metal orb” thing plugged in. I think I prefer potato thing. Her eyes freak me out. I slowly extend my hand and snatch it from her lap, tearing the wires off of her in the process. I dart back up the stairs, each stair feeling mile away from the next one. I hear movement behind me and I run back into my room and lock the door.
My heart is pounding with anticipation and something like excitement. I hear a knock at my door.
“Alice, Alice, are you in there? You took my...my muscle relaxer. Dear, you don’t need to snatch things. And, I need it back.” She knocks frantically while she talks. “Alice! Open! This! Door!” With every shout she pounds her fist against my door.
I’m silent. I back away slowly, and head towards my vanity.
“Open the door! Now!” Her voice is full of anger and fury. She is scaring me.
I fumble with the orb and hold it close to my eye. It reads “communications” beneath the TopTechCo. name. I cringe as long wires emerge from the metal and reach towards my eye. They remind me of worms and I struggle not to scream. They plug into the chip under my eyelid and pain erupts throughout my body.
Suddenly, my door flies off the hinges. My mother enters, a long knife gripped in her white-knuckled hand. Her face glitches from the one I’ve known, or thought I’d known, for years from a mask of rage and fury. I scramble away from my desk, the orb hanging from its wires, still. I throw a chair in between us, and head towards my window. She races towards me, her mouth wide open in a silent scream of rage.
I snatch the mirror from my vanity and throw it at her. She ducks, and the mirror only hits her in the chest instead of her head. Stumbling over bits of glass, she keeps walking. I hurriedly open my window, looking down at the faraway ground, I jump. I land on one of the scraggly hedges outside, feeling the twigs and leave poke and scratch me. I see her in the window above me, preparing to jump.
I leap up and limp into the road. The bandages have fallen off my legs, and there’s no sign of any injuries on them. I shake off the weird thoughts and stumble onto the asphalt.
My mother has jumped and spotting me, she runs at me, knife held high. I glance back at her once, my brain racing on shock, and decide I need to run. I dart across the road into the trees on the other side of the street. From around the corner, a van tears around the corner and slams into my mother and sends her flying. She lands a few feet from me, her body writhing violently. I stop in my tracks and see the person in the van get out.
The person is a guy a couple years older than me. He looks at me nervously and motions for me to come to him. Cautiously, I jog towards him. He tells me he is Ben Taylor.
“We don’t have much time. Did the orb not work?” He asks. He is tall with shaggy brown hair and round, wire framed glasses. He licks his lips nervously.
“No, I lost it.”
“I brought another. The people here might start attacking us soon. This world is breaking, and for some reason, becoming violent. Hurry.” He pulls out an orb and connects the wires to my eye and his. He twists the orb and enters some sort of code into the keypad.
My breath leaves my body, and I feel like I just got the wind knocked out of me. Everything goes black.
I wake up, gasping for air. The room I’m in is mostly empty aside from beeping and whirring machines. Panic fills me, and my heart climbs inside my throat. I have no idea where I am. Several restraints hold me to a steel table that is so cold, that the cold seeps through my thin hospital gown.
I try to sit up, but the restraints hold me down. I start kicking and pulling to no avail.
“Stop! Alice!” A voice commands. “I’m saving you, but you can’t make that much noise.”
Oh, right. Ben Taylor. I try to remain calm, but the reality of my whole world, my whole existence, as fake has begun to set in.
Suddenly, the hallway echoes with the noises of people yelling and shouting and running. Ben Taylor’s face turns pale, all the color draining from it.
He runs towards the door, and throws a tray of instruments in front of the door. He turns around, and he’s mid step, when the door flies open, and a spray of bullets lodge themselves into his back. He falls lifeless on the floor in a pool of blood. I scream and strain against my restraints. They don’t budge.
Soldiers surround me, and my world fades to black after a syringe full of liquid is plunged into my arm. I fall into nothingness, there is no escape.
“It’s a shame that we had to dispose of her.” Dr. Michaels sighs. “But, worlds do break.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Dr. Nichols replies. “She knew that she was helping us. Everyone wants to work for the greater good of humanity. Next time, we must make sure that there aren’t any delusional employees that have access to our experiments. Or, we might just have to install that kill switch in everyone, just like we planned. How else could we be entirely sure that everything was safe?”
“I think that’s a good idea. What should I tell the employees?”
“Nothing, like always.”
“You are dismissed.”
Doctor Nichols shifts through the papers on his desk, looking for the report on the Borders Project, his plan to spread a concoction of diseases all over the world to lessen the population and exterminate the weak. His super soldiers were already in the making. What a shame that the girl from his stimulation experiment, or, Project Echo, didn’t live long enough to see what the world would become.