Oh my god. I don’t even know where to start this or how to make it clear how important it is. I cannot quite grasp any of what has happened. Even with everything we did, even with all that I know, there is just too much to process. None of what I’ve seen today should be possible. Three years of waiting for them to realize what I’d done. Three years waiting for them to come after me and knowing that, under no circumstances, would I help them and feeling secure that I was the only possible way for the RED project to continue. And now this.
I drove to Mom’s house. I was hoping she’d be there. I was half expecting her house to be empty and find someone waiting to snatch me. I was already braced for torture. I was trying to convince myself I wouldn’t buckle, not even if they tortured my mother in front of me. I couldn’t give in, I kept telling myself. Not for her, not for anyone. I know what the alternative is; I can still hear Johnson screaming. I can still see the blood. Every single night, he visits my dreams and I watch it happen again. I always try to help him, but there is nothing I can do. I can’t save him, but I can save everyone else.
I knew when I left that I might some day have to damn everyone I knew and loved to save everyone else. But this… I did not expect this. It is so bizarre. There is no way it can be a thought out plan. Which means that something far worse is happening. I went to my mother’s house, trying to convince myself that, whoever Mom found in my apartment, it was a trick. She was just a prisoner and, terrible as that might be, it wasn’t the end of existence. Now I suspect something wholly different.
I stopped in front of the house, at the curb. I grew up there, in that perfectly nice neighborhood where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens and the smart girl who could do complex equations in her head was nothing more than a freak of nature. I had memories of every loose board and creaky door in my mother’s house. I’d caused more than a few of the noises stomping up stairs and slamming things around. There was a kid on my old tree swing and, once I saw him, I couldn’t quite look away. I’d spent hours swinging there when I was about his age, waiting for Dad to come back. He never did. There was an eerie feel seeing another kid swinging there, but maybe that was just the frantic upset I was feeling.
The kid had sandy hair and hazel eyes and there was something familiar about him. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve often come home; I thought I must have seen him before. I’m not kid friendly. But I felt strange looking at him. Oddly… connected. No matter what I told myself, I couldn’t shake that.
I walked up the driveway and I was so preoccupied by the boy on the swing that I didn’t get a good look at the house right away. You grow up in a place, you get a little blind to it anyway. I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually looked at it. Then I did see it and I felt a weird imbalance, as though my whole world was tipping sideways.
The house has always been white with storm blue trim. It was something I tease Mom about; she agonizes over colors every couple of years, then always ends up doing it the same way. She is as predictable as the chimes of the clock in the town square. I’d even expected it to come up in the next few weeks. But the house in front of me was not white and blue. It was dove gray with black trim. And neat, decorative shutters. Our house had never had shutters before. I turned and checked the number on the post by the driveway. I knew it was the right house, even before I confirmed it was 712. I think I already knew my strange day was about to get stranger.
I walked up to the door. I had to dry my sweaty palms on my slacks, which were looking a bit rumpled after my night sitting in a booth, trying to figure out what to do next. I could feel another panic attack coming, but it was still faint enough that I could control it. I rang the doorbell, then I looked back. The kid wasn’t swinging anymore. He’d twisted around to watch me and wore his curiosity openly.
The door opened and I turned back. And there is no describing what I felt. I was prepared for Clipboard Man – Johnson’s name for the man I’d seen coming out of my building. Johnson gave everyone nicknames. I was hoping for Mom, of course. Even Dad would have been less of a surprise than the person that greeted me and it was not a pleasant surprise. If my insides had been shoved in a blender set to puree, I could not have felt more nauseous. The woman standing at the door was me. Only… not.
I inherited my mother’s dark brown hair and brown eyes. The woman in front of me had my father’s sandy hair and a hint of green in the brown of her eyes. And I knew her. The way she held herself, the way she peered out at me, one leg crossed behind her and balanced slightly backward on the ball of that foot. There was a dishtowel over one shoulder and a baby girl nestled in the crook of her arm. The baby peered up at me with my father’s green eyes.
“Can I help you?” Her voice was different from mine, too, but so familiar at the same time.
I wanted to run away. I knew I couldn’t, though. Not if I wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t. “I – I’m looking for Rosemary D—”
She flinched. Eerily, I felt myself mimic her, as if, despite the differences, we were truly the same person. The urge to begin laughing nearly overcame me, but I managed to hold it down; I suspected that, if I gave into it, I wouldn’t be able to stop.
“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly, “but that was my mother. She’s been dead for twelve years.”
“Dead?” I knew I’d have to get away, knew the swelling panic wouldn’t be controllable much longer, and I couldn’t curl up here, on Not Me’s porch. I could not stay here or anywhere else I knew until I straightened all this out. But I had to know. “How did it happen?”
The baby made a soft, unhappy noise and Not Me shushed her. There was so much love on her face. So much mother in her pose. Even though I couldn’t even envision ever wanting children from where I was standing, on the other side of that door. The hysterical laughter crawled up my throat again, pulling my panic attack with it. “Breast cancer,” Not Me said. “When I was twenty.” Twenty. The year I’d realized I wanted to spend my whole life figuring out the big questions, the ones only quantum physics could answer.
“Who’s that at the door? Babe?” My world took another pirouette sideways. The man that had just stepped out of the living room was Mike. My neighbor, Mike. EMT Mike. Hang up on me and turn my mother’s phone off, Mike. And, as much as Not Me looked different, he was the exact same. He spotted me and I swear I saw recognition shiver over his face. He came up behind Not Me and I wanted to knock away the hand he put on her shoulder. “Can I help you?”
“She was looking for Mom,” Not Me said. She looked at me. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I’m Ann.” It popped out of my mouth before I could stop to worry what she would think of it. I watched her, waiting for the surprise and unease. It didn’t come.
She smiled. “I’m Lisa. This is my husband, Mike. How did you know Mom?”
Mike’s eyes were still on me. He wasn’t smiling. He looked almost angry. “I’m a distant cousin,” I said.
There was no mistaking the bright pleasure on her face. This was a woman that loved family. She was someone who thought the more the merrier. And, with a stomach twisting side step, I could feel her life closing around me. She loved scrapbooking and baking. She did crafts with her son and she loved her husband, even if he did scare her sometimes. She reached for the door. “Why don’t you come in?”
I was already backing away, hands held up in defense, trying to ward off this life I did not want to know about, this life I would never have chosen. “No, I couldn’t. I’m running late. I just wanted to stop by to see… Rosemary, you know? But I have to get moving.” I was starting to babble; my panic was digging sharp claws into my lungs, making it hard to breathe, and it was made worse by that flash of her life. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t even give her a decent excuse. I just wanted out of there.
I turned and fled, breaking into a sprint by the time I was at the curb. I jumped in my car and I thought I heard her call after me, but no way was I going to stop and see. I needed to get away from her. And away from Mike. Mike. I knew too much about things like this to think it was a coincidence. I’d taken too many notes and worked out too many riddles. Mike. The chances that some version of him had managed to marry a version of me was just too coincidental. I am so certain he recognized me. He has something to do with what’s happening. I just can’t figure out what.
I got away from there. I drove to a gas station off the interstate. I was pushing it; I was very close to losing all grip on reality. I just didn’t want to park near their house, where Mike might be able to track me down. I curled up in the backseat and had my panic attack, trembling and crying until I was exhausted. Finally, the panic ebbed. I could tell it wasn’t over, though. This is one of those big episodes, the sort that can rise and fall for days before I get back to normal. Which meant I had to hurry and get to a safer place.
I went to the ATM inside the station. Thank god, my card still worked. It shouldn’t have, so I couldn’t decide if I should be relieved or unsettled. I am still swinging back and forth.
I pulled as much cash as I could out of my emergency account. The other bag, the just in case bag of cash, was still in the duffel I keep packed and in the trunk of my car. I repack the duffel every spring and fall with fresh clothes and add another five hundred dollars or so. Cash isn’t traceable. Cash will not betray the person using it. It was one of the first things I learned about hiding in plain sight. After three years, I have over ten grand; sometimes, adding money to it helps me get through the episodes where I feel like an animal with it’s leg caught in a trap; it reminds me that I can get away, that I’ve been as smart as I can be. Considering I made the worst mistakes possible before I decided to run away.
I got the duffel up in the front seat and added the new money to it. I had the title to my car signed and ready in my lap. I drove to a shopping district where I knew there would be plenty of night life. I turned my phone back on. There were more texts. I didn’t look at them right away, but tried calling Mom’s cell phone again. Nothing. Then I looked at the text messages. There were several, but I only cared about the last one. It was from about a half hour before. “I am really worried about you,” it said. “Please answer your phone.” I tapped the icon to call the texting number. But, just like before, it went straight to voice mail.
I sat back, took a deep breath, then wrote a text. “Where are you?” I sent the message. There was no answer. But, suddenly, I was looking at my own face on the display. The camera clicked. I turned the phone off and got out of the car. I tossed the phone into the nearby trashcan. I hung the duffel over one shoulder and held the title and keys to my car tightly while I searched the surrounding area. I didn’t have to look far. I spotted a homeless man moving down an alley. I walked past him, dropping the keys and title into his dirty hands. I pointed to my car. “It’s yours. If you’re smart, you’ll take off quick, before I change my mind.”
I didn’t wait for an answer or to make sure he believed me. I counted my steps to the bus stop; counting makes it easier to keep calm. I got on the bus when it came and counted my breaths until it pulled up to the last stop on it’s route. I stepped down and walked through the trailer park by the bus stop to the storage facility behind it. There is a bit of fence there that looks solid. But it isn’t. I made sure of that.
I slid through and ran to the space I always pay for with a disposable credit card. I unlocked the door and lifted it just enough to get inside before slamming it shut behind me. Finally, I could take a small breath and relax a little.
I am posting this from a burner phone – one of many – I stored in the trunk of the car I keep here. I don’t know when I’ll be able to update again. Maybe never, if I’m caught. So it’s important I tell you this now. There are so many things you don’t know about. Things you don’t want to know about, mostly. Because, if everyone had to think about these things, it would be almost impossible to function. There is such a thing as knowing too much. We found that out with Johnson.
It started as a silly experiment. It was nothing, really. Just a few physicists playing around in their spare time. We didn’t even think it was possible. We didn’t think it was more than a little bit of hocus pocus to disprove. But we didn’t disprove anything. We found out there was nothing silly about it. But still. I thought that was it. We’d proven our point and, really, gained nothing but a little more knowledge about the nature of our universe. But no. That wasn’t all there was.
The men in the red lab coats had come and nobody seemed to know what they were doing. Only that they were our bosses and, if we wanted to keep our jobs, we’d do what they wanted. I don’t know whose idea it was to start testing on people. To start taking them. I suspect Clipboard Man. But, then, he was the one that always seemed in charge. They called it the Reality Program. We didn’t even realize what was happening before it was too late. By then, we were in it up to our necks. Even then, I just kept telling myself it was okay.
But it wasn’t.
They didn’t take just anyone. Some people are almost exactly alike in every Parallel. And some have so many possibilities that you could populate a fair sized town with their Possibles. That became their code name. I would hear the men in the red lab coats talking about Possibles and I didn’t get it. Then I found out what they were doing. When Gonzalez died, I dug deeper and I found out it wasn’t always people they were bringing back. That’s when I had my meltdown. I left. But not before I undid a few things. They couldn’t fix it without me or Johnson and Johnson won’t be doing quantum physics for anyone ever again.
I only caught a glimpse of one of the dark worlds. The wrong worlds. That’s what Becker called them. We never did figure out why they are what they are; we pulled back as fast as we could after that and refused to go that far again. It was generally accepted we’d just gone too far. We discussed it for weeks afterward. Were they the result of nuclear war? Alien invasion? Just the wrong side of evolution? We didn’t know and we didn’t agree on any one theory. And I don’t think any of us really wanted to know for sure.
What I do know is that the things which populated those nightmare realities were so far removed from humans that I refuse to believe we share DNA. And what we didn’t know Clipboard Man was bringing them back to our reality. Him and those working under him were keeping them in those rooms with the thick glass for walls, behind the heavy, steel doors that lock when they shut. Like animals at a zoo. And I cannot come up with a single good reason why.
I destroyed the generator with two turns of a wrench and a hair pin. I erased integral parts of Johnson’s equations. Things no ordinary person would understand and no red lab coat would be able to pinpoint. They were things I barely understood. Johnson always made the rest of us look like imbeciles. Then I claimed to be suffering from psychiatric issues, the sort that Becker had fallen victim to after Gonzalez died. I didn’t have to do much pretending. I was having the panic attacks already and they were getting steadily worse. I did all I could do; trying to expose them would just land me back there, behind the doors that lock, in one of the rooms with glass walls, where they keep the dark, evil things that I couldn’t un-see. The things that made me aware of just how horribly wrong evolution can go.
I came back home and got a job selling clothes. I collect the checks they send me and take small comfort knowing that I stopped them. Whatever progress they might have made, it will never take them where it took us; they are men in search of something beyond science and knowledge and they could never hope to understand Johnson’s genius.
Except here I am. Meeting myself at the door in a world where my mother has been dead for years less than twenty four hours after hearing her screaming hysterically for me and watching her walk out of my apartment, whole and alive. I have no jump watch. I have no RED generator. I’m not in a clean room and I’m not stepping through walls. Which means something is happening that should not be possible, something I thought I’d cut off at the pass.
I feel so stupid. Only now do I pause to consider the people they were bringing back. I never saw anyone I recognized. But that doesn’t mean anything. What if they found another Johnson? No one in this reality could have fixed the damage I’d done. But there were so many other versions of us. And I suspect they found a replacement. Which means my part in this is not yet done. I’ll likely end up dead, but I’ve got to try to stop this. So I’m telling the world now, before I go hunting monsters, that nothing is what you think it is. Be ready. If they have fixed the things I took so much care to destroy, you and everything you love is facing annihilation.