Vera pressed her back into the dirty green tile of the middle school bathroom. This was real: the coolness of the tile, the paper towels that missed the trashcan. What wasn’t real was what had just happened. It couldn’t be.
Her hands shook as she pulled her phone from her pocket. The sweat on her palms left slick lines on the usually pristine touchscreen.
Her mom answered on the second ring.
“Come get me,” Vera took a shuddering breath and a fat tear rolled down her cheek. “Please,” she added.
If the day had already been odd, the fact that her mother agreed without argument or question simply added to it. Vera didn’t mind that kind of odd. She had no idea how she was going to explain what had happened. Even thinking about it again was…dangerous.
She moved instead.
Vera snuck out of the bathroom, checking that the halls were clear before bolting to the side door by the gym. It was the only door that stayed unlocked besides the front door, but since that was right next to the principal’s office, it wasn’t an option. The last thing Vera needed was to get caught cutting class.
It was the kind of gross spring day where everything was wet, despite the fact that the rain had stopped hours ago. A light fog hung in the air and clung to the exposed skin on Vera’s forearms. She rubbed her hands over the goose bumps to get them to go away. She tried very hard not to think about anything.
It seemed like ages before her mom’s red SUV pulled into the winding lane up to Judson Middle School. Vera sprinted to the car, her book bag smacking into her back painfully with each step. She’d filled it with the entire contents of her locker. She didn’t plan on ever going back.
She opened the door, threw the overstuffed bag in the back seat and had her seatbelt on and door closed before her mom even had a chance to say hi.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what’s wrong?” Vera asked, looking over at her mom. Her hair, usually pin-straight and perfect, was mussed. Her lips were pursed into a tight line.
“We have to pick up Max,” was all her mom said before she started driving again.
Her little brother’s school wasn’t far away, ten minutes tops, but it seemed longer since her mom was acting so weird. The radio was off. The only noise was the windshield wipers periodically clearing away fog from the windshield.
Vera cleared her throat; anything to break the silence. Anything to know she wasn’t about to be in trouble on top of the horrendously terrible morning she’d had.
“Not now.” She parked at the elementary school. “I have to go in. And try to explain to his teachers…”
Her mother gave a warning look and Vera shut up. Maybe she wasn’t the only one having an off day.
After the door thudded shut, and Vera was alone again, she found it hard to keep her mind focused. She had drifted back to thinking of her day so far, and how it had happened…
Before her thoughts had wandered off too far to be reined back in, her family burst through the front doors of the school. They weren’t alone. Her mom was dragging Max by the forearm, but he kept glancing back at the pack of yellow things behind them. They grew larger and larger. Vera thought they might be birds or monkeys or some weird kind of combination, but they roared like lions and bleated like lambs. Max laughed. Mom yelled something at him and they popped.
Vera closed her eyes and opened them again, making sure something wasn’t wrong with her eyesight. But she knew what she had just seen. She knew she wasn’t alone. She wasn’t sure if it made her feel better or far, far worse.
“What was that?” she yelled when her brother sprung into the backseat.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mom said, “And you,” she turned to Max, “stop it.”
Doors slammed, and their mom backed out wildly and slammed on the gas.
“Is it happening to you too?” Max asked through a laugh.
“Yes,” Mom said. “Vera?”
“What?” Vera looked between her mother and brother. Max’s daydreams becoming real she could almost buy, as much as she could buy her own, but their mom?
“That’s why you called me to get you, isn’t it?” Mom slammed on the brakes as a car pulled in front of them. She cursed under her breath and then gasped as her duplicate appeared outside the car and shook a baseball bat at the other driver. “No, no, NO!” she said to herself and the figure disappeared. “That’s been happening to all of us today. Right?”
“I thought you’d think I was lying,” Vera kept her eyes on the spot where her mom’s twin had just stood, until they were too far down the street to see it.
“What did you make happen, V?” asked Max.
“None of your business,” Vera hissed. “How do we make it stop?” She almost didn’t even care why it was happening. Okay, she cared a little. Why her? Why her family? Why today? Why in the middle of math class…
“I don’t know. But I-I’m sure we’re going to figure this out,” her mom said. It wasn’t terribly believable.
“Why? I think it’s cool! Did you see the size of those things?” said Max.
“Yes, and so did your teachers. It doesn’t matter if you like it, it needs to stop.”
“I don’t like it,” said Vera. “I don’t want all of my thoughts broadcasted to the world. They’re in my head for a reason.”
“What did you think that was so bad? I bet it was something about your boyfriend.” Max taunted.
“Shut up,” said Vera. She didn’t even have a boyfriend.
Their mom pulled into the driveway. A neighbor looked at them curiously but she waved them off.
“Flu!” she shouted. Vera acted the part of a sick kid coming home from school until they were safely inside. Max was quiet just long enough, waiting to taunt his sister again.
“I bet you were kissing him, huh?”
Vera smacked her brother.
“Mo-om!” Max whined.
“Stop it,” their mom said. She sounded exhausted.
Vera wasn’t about to tell anyone about what had happened in Ms. Heller’s math class, especially not her brother. The image of her in a flouncy wedding gown, about ten years older and three times bustier, holding hands with Nick Felts came back to her with horrifying clarity. She tried to stop thinking about it, before it came to life again in her own living room, but the stunned and amused faces of her classmates appeared instead. They lined the room and pointed and laughed at her. Vera felt fresh wetness brimming in her eyes and brushed them away.
“Vera, honey,” Mom said, “think of nothing. Think of white. Think of emptiness.”
Vera thought instead that she was glad her mom would fix whatever this was. The people faded, slowly, until there was just the ghost of a laugh.
Max exclaimed from the kitchen, and Vera feared those big beasts must have found their way into their refrigerator. Mom sighed and the two walked in.
Max was arms deep in a bag of chips, a huge grin on his face. The ordinary scene was disturbed by a large pink giraffe bent at the neck to fit into the room.
“Max, get rid of it,” Vera insisted.
“It’s mine,” Mom said. “I can’t get it to go away.”
Max tried to feed it a potato chip. Mom dialed a number on her cell.
“Who’re you calling?” he asked without looking away from the giraffe. He tried to touch it, but it sort of warped around his fingers. Vera hadn’t thought of touching one of them. All she wanted was to get as far away from them as she could.
“The doctor,” Mom said.
“What’s she gonna be able to do?”
Mom ignored him and listened to the hold music. All three jumped when a loud knock came from the front door. Vera and Max looked at their mom. She rose slowly, setting the phone down, with the hold music still playing from it. She put it on speaker.
“Stay here,” she said.
Max didn’t listen. Vera didn’t either. They went to the living room window to try to see who it could be. A black van was parked across the street. Vera didn’t think it had been there earlier. They both turned to listen to the voices from the hallway.
“It’s really best if you don’t come in,” Mom said.
“I must insist,” answered a low voice.
Vera pressed her ear against the door and listened as her mom’s footsteps approached the living room and hesitated.
“I can help,” said the man.
“Your filter is broken.”
“No, our water is fine.”
“You don’t need to be afraid,” said the man, “it’s happened before.”
The door flew open, revealing a man with a tan, square face. His beady black eyes fell first on Vera and Max and then the giraffe, which had poked its head through into the room.
“Whose is that?” the man asked.
“Mom’s,” said Max. Mom glared at him.
“This has been happening to you two as well?” he asked them.
Vera didn’t like how he brought himself closer to the ground to speak to them, like they were little kids. Maybe Max was, but she certainly wasn’t.
He could tell by their silence that they had.
“Well then, I want you all to know that this is something I have been studying for quite some time. We aren’t sure why it happens, or why it happens to the people it happens to, but we are working towards a solution.”
He moved to the couch and sat down. The family stayed standing.
“I hope I’ll have your cooperation?”
No one moved but the giraffe. It shook its head no. Vera couldn’t help but laugh. The man didn’t seem impressed.
“If you all will come with me, back to my research center, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll help you control your thoughts so that we don’t have any more pink giraffes running around, and you can help me learn more about why some mind-reality filters break. What do you say?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
From the other room, the hold music stopped and a voice said “Hello?”
Mom bolted to get it.
Max wandered over to the man.
“What do you think, little guy?” the man asked.
Max looked him up and down, and then shoved the man in the chest.
“Max!” Vera scolded. Mom returned to see what the fuss was.
So he showed her: his hand passed right through the man’s chest.
“This is awkward,” the man said.
“Whose are you?” Mom asked, covering the bottom of the phone.
“Would anyone else like to answer that question?” The man looked at each of them in turn.
None of them claimed him.
“This is very bad, then,” the man said. “Worst case I’ve ever seen.”
“Kids, stop it,” Mom said. “Get rid of him.”
“I don’t think they can,” he said. “Just like you can’t get rid of your giraffe.”
“Did someone say giraffe?” the voice on the phone squawked.
“I’ll have to call you right back, sorry.” Mom hung up. She looked at Max and Vera and then back at the man. “Which of you is doing this? It’s not funny.”
“It’s not me, obviously,” said Max. “I wouldn’t think something so boring.”
“Well, it’s not me!” said Vera.
“It’s bad if you don’t even know what you’re thinking anymore,” the man pointed out. “I can still help you, though. Who could know more about this phenomenon than someone that is part of the phenomenon?” The man stood up and nodded towards the door.
“How can we get in your car if it’s not real?” Max asked.
Vera didn’t have words. It scared her that one of them were thinking this man into existence and didn’t even know it. She didn’t trust it. And Max, though she wouldn’t admit it, made a good point.
“Who says I’m not real?” the man asked as a shockingly white smile spread across his leathery face.
“How about I drive?” Mom offered.
“Oh, no, no, no,” the man’s smile widened, “in your condition that can be very dangerous. I insist.”
Mom sighed and took a step towards the door.
“You can’t be serious,” Vera said.
“Maybe if it’s coming from one of our subconsciouses or something it has the answer. Probably a safer bet than telling the doctor, anyway.”
“He could be dangerous,” Vera argued.
“He can’t do anything to us that we don’t imagine,” Mom said, a puzzled expression coming over her face at the sentence she just uttered.
“Let’s go with him,” Max said. “Could be interesting.”
“No.” Vera crossed her arms over her chest.
“Might I suggest a family vote?” the man said.
“No you may not,” said Vera. “They’ll obviously vote yes.”
Max scrunched up his face and a duplicate Vera appeared. She had much more of a scowl on her face than Vera hoped was real.
“I vote yes,” the duplicate Vera said.
“Excellent!” the man clapped his hands together.
“You can’t do that!” Vera shrieked.
“I can’t tell which one’s real,” Max said. “It’s scary.”
Mom and Max and the man started walking. So did the duplicate Vera.
“Mom!” Vera said.
“It’ll be fine,” her mom said.
Vera watched them walk out the door, down the driveway, and approach the van. The man opened the back doors.
One moment, Vera stood in the door watching them walk away, and the next she stood on the pavement behind the van.
When the doors opened, they revealed three grubby children huddled together, a small moon hanging from the roof of the van, and a half eaten pizza. Vera whipped around to ask the man for an explanation and was shocked to find she was already sitting in the van as it pulled away from her brick house.
Copyright 2017 Beth Grace