The grass glows green. It’s too bright, but no one else seems to notice. I lay back on the picnic blanket and little blonde ringlets block the saturated blue sky. Lacey’s giggling face fills my view. She’s all sunshine and daisies. A line from We Bought A Zoo comes to mind, her ‘happy is too loud.’
Does no one else sense something off about this too perfect, too bright world?
I force a smile and tickle her until she falls back on the blanket. Her happy getting louder.
Reaching for a too red apple, Jacob catches my eye. He and the other young men of our farming community are tossing a pigskin back and forth. Their bare feet seem to bounce too high off the ground like gravity has lost a bit of its power here.
Something is definitely wrong.
I bite the apple. Juice and flesh set my taste buds dancing. Even my worry doesn’t turn the food bitter on my tongue. If life is this idyllic, should I fill it with so many dark thoughts?
Jacob lands on the blanket next to me, brushing a strand of hair from my face. “Why the face?”
My muscles relax and I realize I’ve been scowling. “I don’t know. It’s too bright.”
He glances around at Lacey, who’s busied her small fingers with plaiting a flower crown. “It’s always like this.” He takes the apple from my hand and bites into it.
I nod, but his words don’t have their desired effect. Something is wrong.
Mother sits on the porch of our cream-colored farmhouse with its white picket fence and blue door, the red barn rising next to it echoes with Father’s hammer. Long grass waves in the gentle, perfect temperature.
Nothing is amiss, but I can’t shake that something is off. It’s all too bright, the edges of everything glow an unnatural hot color. My mind scrambles for words to describe it. It’s like someone has taken a photo of the place because nothing moves forward and they’ve cranked up the saturation until everything is wrong.
Jacob’s heavy breathe distracts me for a moment. The muscles of his face are slack with sleep. I resist the urge to kiss his lips and instead rise.
My bare feet carrying me away from the farm, away from the field, and toward the forest hedging the edge of our property.
All of a sudden, the grass turns to ash under my feet. My white dress turns to rags, hanging off dirty limbs and revealing many cuts and bruises. I turn around, taking the world in.
The sky is grey and muted. The farmhouse is gone, only a few timbers of the barn stand to mark its place. Gone are the boys playing football. My heart seizes. Lacey is gone. And so is Jacob.
On impulse, I move back toward the field and as I blink the world transforms to the too bright again. My breath shallows, forcing my mind to stay alert and clear.
Step back. The world mutes again. I run wet hands down the torn cotton. Step forward. The world saturates.
Half a step and my eyes play tricks on me. I feel like I’m in a sci-fi movie. Something shimmers like a giant half bubble enclosing the too bright inside. Keeping it safe. While the rest of the world outside it seems to rot.
Movement pulls my eye off it and I step fully into the muted world, eyes fixed on the man hurrying toward me.
He looks up and his steps falter for a moment. Some look passes his face, it seems he’s shocked to find me there.
“Who are you?” I force my limbs to stay still.
He raises a hand, “It’s ok, everything is going to be ok.”
“I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions.” He breathes deep, trying to catch his breath. “And I want to answer them, but I need you to come with me first.”
I shake my head and step back. Blinking.
The man and his muted world disappear and now all I can see is the deep green forest hedging the too bright world.
Is it a trick of the breeze in those distant woods, or do I actually hear a muted voice asking me to come back? I can’t decide.
Behind me, the game has resumed and I hear Jacob calling to one of the other young men to toss the ball his way. I catch snippets of Lacey singing.
Is my world a lie? And if it is, do I want to go back to the other, the one that seems almost devoid of color?
Another step back, towards Lacey, Mother, and Father. And Jacob.
Then I know my ears aren’t being tricked. More muted voices have joined the first. The sound of concern distorting them further.
Deep breathe. And two steps forward. The world dims again and I see a small gathering of men and women. All dressed in white lab coats. They’ve surrounded the first man, but all stop talking as they see me.
“What is this?” I ask.
The first man, the one from earlier, pushes his way to the front. “Don’t be afraid.” He says my name. How does he know me?
“I’m not afraid.”
He steps closer. His hand stretched to me. “My name is Dr. Roads.” He shakes my hand and inhales, the sound is sharp. He turns to the others. “And these are my colleagues.”
Eyes wide, mouths open in shock. What are they so surprised by?
“You must forgive us.” A lady with chocolate brown hair pulled into a bun steps forward. “We weren’t expecting you to — that is, we didn’t know anyone had — this is a delicate situation.” She turned to Dr. Roads. “James?”
Dr. Roads — James — nodded.
A murmur broke out and if I’d thought they were shocked or surprised before, the air tingled with their emotions.
Prickling my skin. “Will someone please explain what’s going on?”
Dr. Roads places a hand on my shoulder. His eyes lingering on this contact, it doesn’t unsettle me, but I still don’t understand. “What I’m about to say will sound confusing. But I promise everything I say will be true.” Tears fill his brown eyes. “Six months ago your family’s farm and the farms of ten other families were destroyed in a fire.” He stops and I think he might be waiting for me to react. When I don’t, he continues. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Burned hotter and longer than any wildfire on record. The color was strange too. It was devastating to our community, especially because of the number of people we lost to it. Until today, when you … there were no survivors. Of the ten farms every single man, woman, and child was lost. Or so we thought.”
“But we’re not. I’m right here and everyone else is …” Is where? How can I describe where I’ve just come from. “We’re all here, I’ll show you.”
He shakes his head and I see others look away or at their feet. Are they trying to avoid eye contact with me? “What you see is only a memorial.”
“I don’t understand.” I step out of his reach.
“We built a memorial.” He motions to the others standing there. “The entire country was affected by this loss, so we came up with a way to preserve your memory. This,” he says, pointing at the giant soap like bubble, “is a fiction. A memorial, a memory. People drive from far and wide to pay tribute to those whose lives were lost.”
“Are you saying I’m not real?” I cross my arms, trying to still the beating of my heart.
“No, no you’re very much real. I know that.” He takes a breathe, “We just don’t understand how.”
My mind fights to make sense of this world. I pinch the inside of my arm, this is real. “There must be some mistake, we’re all real. Let me get the others.”
“They’re not real.” The woman with the bun says.
“Clara,” Dr. Roads shakes his head, “She’s not ready yet.”
The woman, Cara, continues, “They’re computer-generated images. It’s advanced CGI. Nothing more. You can’t stay there anymore,” she says my name. “The food, the water, none of it’s real, you won’t survive if you go back.”
I shake my head. Stepping back. Stepping away from these lies. The dark, lifeless world. Even if they’re the truth I don’t want to hear it. To believe it. I’ll show them. I’ll find Lacey. Or Jacob. I’ll bring them back with me.
The world shimmers and the too bright is back. I’m surprised by the relief that wraps around me like a blanket. I run back to the picnic blanket where Lacey is still making crowns of flowers.
She smiles at me.
“Lacey, I need you to come with me.”
She holds a flower up to me. “Make crowns with me.”
“No, sweetie, I need you to come–” I choke on the words.
The flower she holds out to me is wrong. Like a faulty computer screen, pixels are missing from the too bright white petals. Distorting it with blacks and grays.
I reach toward her and my hand goes right through her as if she were a ghost. My head shakes. No, this can’t be possible. Stumbling backward, I tumble out of the too bright and into the muted world again. Landing hard on the unrelenting ground. It takes my breath away.
Dr. Roads kneels down to me. “I’m sorry, Clara is right, you can’t go back. The memorial will continue to shatter around you now that you know the truth.”
My cheeks burn with the anger rising in me.
“I told you, Clara.” Dr. Roads stares at the ground and he shakes his head. My name whispers from his lips. “I’m so sorry.”
My insides plummet. It feels like the worlds heaviest paperweight has pinned me to the ground. This can’t be real life.
Clara moves to help me to my feet and I have to stop myself from hitting her. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
I go numb. My mind can’t process. The next thing I know, I’m clean, wearing white and being led to an old gray station wagon. Someone’s talking to me.
“… Mary and John are good people. They’ll help you process everything.” Dr. Roads helps me into the car, even belts me in, “I’m … so sorry about all this. I … I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
As if on cue, tears prick the corners of my eyes, making me blink.
Dr. Roads closes the door and an older man, I guess to be in his late 60’s climbs into the driver seat. His face is kind, his blue eyes soft under bushy eyebrows. He smiles at me. “Let’s get you home.”
Home? The only home I’ve known is gone.
And a lie is left in its place …
Part 2 coming in August