I had to pause mid-step in consternation as the walls, floors, hell even the air flickered like a TV with bad reception for about half a second. I peered around cautiously, pretty sure this had to be the start of a bad fanfiction novel or the onset of some sort of adventure that I resolutely wanted no part of. Reality didn’t tend to just glitch for no reason, after all.
But nothing happened. I wasn’t spontaneously teleported to another place. Monsters didn’t start pouring out of holes in the fabric of time. No otherworldly voice spoke words of wisdom or warning in my ear.
I was still standing in the bathroom at Walmart, hovering with one foot in the air and probably looking like a special kind of idiot to the two other women currently at the sinks. Generously, neither of them said anything about my sudden stillness or odd position. Of course, neither of them were saying anything so blatantly that they really couldn’t have been more judgmental if they’d turned to me and spat.
I put my foot down, now feeling foolish and more than a little alarmed. Had I… had I hallucinated that whole debacle? Did I just imagine the world shifting three degrees sideways and tilting diagonally backwards? No one else was reacting to what had happened, so I had to conclude with a sort of grim resignation that I was obviously losing my mind.
Or I was delirious with hunger. I hadn’t had a chance to drink my protein shake that morning, so maybe I just had low blood sugar or something.
Resolved to pretend nothing had happened, I took a step towards the door.
Abruptly, I was somewhere else entirely.
“Son of a butternut squash,” I bit out, peeved and more than a little spooked. It was still a Walmart bathroom, that much I could tell. The layout, though, was all wrong. Horizonal instead of vertical. There were two more stalls than there had been a second ago, and the sinks were sinks and not automatic sensor nightmares.
The two women at the sinks turned to stare at me, probably impressed by my amazing grasp of the English language and my creative interpretation of profanity. They, at least, were the same.
Neither of them reacted to suddenly being moved four feet to the left, or that the whole room was abruptly, suddenly different.
I hurried out the door without confronting them. Things were obviously very, very wrong. I stopped outside the bathroom door, a sense of vertigo washing over me. I wasn’t in the back of the store anymore, either. Now I was up front, overlooking the template-like format of the line of registers.
I could recognize some of the cashiers. Others were complete strangers who most definitely had not been there two minutes ago. I quickly looked down at myself. I still had my vest on. My nametag still had my name. I still had the tiny American flag pin on my right side.
Hysterically, my mind started running in circles like a hamster on a wheel.
Was I still on the clock? Was my shift the same? Should I go back to register three? No, wait, there was someone already over there. Who was that?
One of my managers was at the podium (which was in the wrong place), and I knew what I had to do. I was questioning reality. I wasn’t sure what store this was, or if I was in the same city. I was in no condition to be working. Taking the point for leaving early was worth it.
She seemed sympathetic enough to my stammered statement that I was sick and had to leave. Of course, it’s not like she was invested enough in my life to question if I was being truthful or not. It wasn’t any skin off her back if one of her cashiers wanted to bug out for the day.
I wasted no time clocking out at the closest terminal (which was thankfully still in mostly the same place) and hurrying to the back where my stuff was. Used to be. Was hopefully still there.
Navigating the backroom was a nightmare and a half since nothing was the same, but the combination on my locker was so that, at least, hadn’t gone wrong. Someone I didn’t recognize passed by and greeted me by name. A generic, strangled-sounding ‘hey’ was enough to placate them as they walked down the hall.
Was I forgetting entire people now, in addition to losing my mind?
The parking lot presented an entirely new and exciting problem.
Where was my car? Did I still drive a Volvo? Would my keys work?
I dug through my purse. The key fob looked the same, at least. Nothing new had been added since the world had twisted itself like a pretzel, and I didn’t think anything was missing. If I was at least moderately still sane, I would be parked in the back near the—
—gas station that wasn’t there anymore. I stood near the entrance and stared out at the wide, empty expanse where the interstate should be. Where several small restaurants should be. Where the city of Alabaster should be.
I scrabbled for my phone. And stared. It wasn’t an iPhone anymore. It was a sleek, black thing, all angles and smooth curves roughly the size and shape it should have been (which might explain why I hadn’t noticed the difference before). At the top, in very conspicuous font, it proclaimed itself to be a Starkphone.
Ignoring that for now, I tried to find some sort of home button. Instead, it lit up at the slightest brush to its screen and acknowledged my name (Welcome back, Elizabeth) and presented me with a row of icons I absolutely did not recognize at all.
I abruptly recalled that I was standing in the middle of a Walmart entrance, and scuttled out into the parking lot—thankfully devoid of a lot of cars—and spotted the silver Volvo which was (hopefully) mine. The key unlocked it, so I locked myself inside and set about figuring out how to open a map of some kind on my… Starkphone?
The icons were pretty self-explanatory. One of them was shaped like a smartphone, another like a text bubble, and a few were what I guessed were games. None of them looked like a map.
“I just need a freaking map,” I complained to the phone, which made the screen flip sideways with absolutely no input from myself and what was obviously a map faded upwards into view. I stared at it. “Are you voice activated?” I demanded of the phone, mostly rhetorically, before pressing at the map without waiting for a response.
I considered what the map was telling me in consternation. That wasn’t Alabaster. It wasn’t even Alabama. Gillette? Wasn’t that a kind of razor?
“Where do I live?” I tentatively asked the apparently voice-activated phone. I’d keep the questions easy, since phone AIs weren’t always that smart. The map moved on its own (down and to the right), and a blue icon popped up in a place called Sleepy Hollow. I most definitely did not live in a place called Sleepy Hollow. I would have avoided a place like that on sheer principle. “And where… where is Sleepy Hollow?”
The phone zoomed outwards (with no buffering time at all). Wyoming? What the holy living hell was I doing in Wyoming? I’d never even been to Wyoming. Why would my psychotic break have put me there?
Then the map dimmed and text started scrolling across the screen.
User Elizabeth, your heartrate has increased by 34%. Do you require medical assistance?
It only just occurred to me that I was hyperventilating and that, indeed, my heartrate had kicked it up a notch. More importantly though, the phone could apparently sense my heartbeat and was smart enough to ask if it should call 911.
“No,” I gasped aloud. “I’m fine, phone. Just give me a sec.”
The text faded away and the map came back into full visibility as the phone apparently accepted that at face value. I wondered half-hysterically if it had simply accepted my ‘no’ or if it had actually understood everything I had just told it.
Eventually I managed to wrestle my breathing back under control, my previous years dealing with anxiety attacks serving me in good stead. I took a shuddering breath and turned my attention back to the device which put the smart in smartphone, trying to figure out how to get back to the main screen when there weren’t any buttons. Swiping around just moved the map, and tapping just brought up information.
“Home screen? Please?” I asked the phone hesitantly, wondering if that was pushing it a little. Not even Siri was that smart. But my faith was rewarded when the map flicked away and the original screen revealed itself. “Contacts?” I asked it. A new screen unrolled (this time from the bottom up).
Half of the names I didn’t recognize. But none of them were important except the one that I couldn’t find.
“Where’s my mom?” I asked the phone desperately, still scrolling rapidly through the surprisingly large number of contacts.
The list dimmed out as the phone responded to my query.
No contact for “mom” is listed. Would you like to perform a search?
I blinked wetly. I would have had her number in the phone if she’d been there. Dad was in there, but this was not the sort of conversation I could afford to have with him. “Yes,” I belatedly told the phone, giving it her name and the place I was pretty sure she still lived, even if I myself apparently jumped states.
I watched raptly as the text didn’t change except for the typical movement of the ellipsis points that most machines used to indicate an active search.
No results found, User Elizabeth. Would you like to widen parameters?
“Yes, please,” I replied with no hesitation, gripping the phone tight enough that if I hadn’t been a scrawny thing with twigs for arms I might have worried about damaging it. “As wide as you can go.”
I refrained from biting my nails. It was a habit I was trying to break, and even if this was a situation that warranted it I tried to stay firm.
2,351 results found, the phone informed me briskly.
“Blond hair, around fifty years old,” I informed the phone, hoping it was smart enough to narrow down search options from my disjointed stammering.
Narrowing parameters. 872 results found.
“Born in Alabama.”
Narrowing parameters. 34 results found.
“Two sisters,” I told it desperately, groping for things to use that could narrow a search engine.
Narrowing parameters. 3 results found.
“One daughter, two nephews,” I whispered hoarsely.
Narrowing parameters. No results found. Refining search. 1 result found.
“Show me. Please,” I gasped at the phone.
The text flicked away and what looked like a google search engine opened up to a particular page. I prayed to God that it wouldn’t be a mortuary.
It wasn’t, but it wasn’t exactly good news either.
A woman who looked exactly like a younger version of my mother, with her maiden name and the names of her sisters, had apparently gone missing twenty-four years ago. There was no evidence of foul play, as she’d apparently vanished while walking between rooms in the house she’d shared with her husband (who did not share the name of my father). It was very, very suspicious that the day she’d disappeared was the day of my birth, to the year.
My mind whirled with conspiracy theories. Maybe my mother was originally from this world, and she’d been teleported to my world on the day of my birth? But that was ridiculous. There were pictures, videos, evidence that she’d been born in my world and grown up there. Gotten married there. Given birth there.
So… she didn’t exist here, but she existed there? Had my presence here retroactively moved her backwards in time to another world? Thinking about it made my head hurt. I decided to accept that she was alive, but she wasn’t in a place I could feasibly contact her. I’d think of it like I was in a foreign country without access to the internet or phone service, despite holding evidence to the contrary in my hand.
Speaking of evidence.
“…thanks, phone,” I rasped to it. “For looking that up for me.”
You are welcome, User Elizabeth. Do you require further assistance?
“Yes actually. Call me Elizabeth, please. You don’t have to call me User all the time.”
As I was wondering if this was what would stretch the phone’s AI to the limit, the text responded without missing a beat.
Very well, Elizabeth. Do you require further assistance?
Whoever made these phones was a genius, I decided. “I… I’ll need help getting home. I don’t know the way.”
Without replying, the phone shifted back to the map screen and a route highlighted itself. When it started displaying directions in text, I realized a slight problem.
“I can’t read and drive at the same time,” I told the phone slightly confused. Was there a fix for that? Did it have a speech function like Siri?
“My apologies, Elizabeth,” came a smooth, British voice from the speakers on my phone. I squeaked in slight alarm. “Will this simplify matters?”
No it bloody well does not. My phone sounded like a human, not like a synthesized voice cobbled together by an actor reading a series of lines. If I didn’t know better, I’d think my phone had an actual person on the other end fielding all my questions.
“Thanks,” I squeaked out, putting the phone down in the cupholder as if it were a live grenade as I turned the car on. It groaned and snarled like it usually did, so at least the me in this reality had the same trouble with their brakes and engine as myself.
As I listened to my phone give very detailed directions (down to the foot of distance on turns) to where I apparently lived, I couldn’t help but be incredibly nervous about what I’d find there.
Dietrich Court was not what I had envisioned, at all. At least three houses had RVs out front, and the buildings looked simultaneously like somewhere my grandparents would live as well as being drastically out of my price range.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” I asked my phone nervously. The house it had led me to had little in the way of personality out front, as well as a strange pale-yellow paint job that made me slightly nauseous just looking at it.
“This is the address registered under your contact information,” the phone ruthlessly confirmed. “Do you require further assistance?”
“That’s… that’s all for now. Thanks,” I told it.
“Signing you off, Elizabeth.”
And with that, the phone faded to black. I stared at it for a long, slow moment before I began shuffling through the car for an opener to the garage on the front of my house holy Christ.
I had a house. How had I afforded a house? On a cashier’s salary, no less?
The inside offered me no answers.
I had furniture, but only the bare bones of it. A couch, a desk, a few chairs here and there. The bed, at least, was the one I was familiar with from my apartment. There was a microwave in the kitchen, and a stovetop covered in dust. Some of my paintings and drawings from school were on the walls, like a sad attempt to give the rooms some personality. Some of them I didn’t recognize, but could see my handiwork in the way the lines curved, in the way I’d painted in blocks of color like a pop art impressionist. They were things I could have conceivably drawn or made, even though I had no memory of drawing or making them.
An investigation of the computer revealed that Windows was apparently still my OS of choice, even though the icons on my desktop were different. Photoshop was still there, so I might still be a graphic designer, but a lot of my games weren’t which was slightly more alarming. What kind of life did I lead with no Blizzard games? With no Sims?
My bank account information was apparently still the same, since I could log in with no problems, but the balance had to be a mistake. I’d never even seen a number that high, not in relation to myself. As the only one with all the answers, I pulled out my hyper-intelligent phone without pause and touched the screen to wake it back up.
“Do you have access to my bank account?” I asked it without preamble, somehow feeling confident that it would both comprehend my question and have a suitable answer.
“Yes, Elizabeth,” it replied aloud, apparently still on the speech setting from the drive over. “Do you require help managing your portfolio?”
It was adorable how the phone thought I had a portfolio, or knew what a portfolio even was. “I don’t think this balance is right,” I admitted frankly. “It’s… well it’s way too high.”
I chewed my lip as I stared at the screen and its admittedly intimidating balance. I would have had to scrimp and save for decades, with no excess spending at all, to get even a fraction of the amount listed there.
“I can find no irregularities in your accounts, Elizabeth. What seems to be the issue?”
“Accounts? As in plural?” I sighed. “Wait, never mind. So you’re saying this number is accurate?”
“As of seven minutes ago, this information was accurate, yes.”
“Well, fudge.” I put my chin in my hand and considered this. I could live off the number listed there. For lifetimes. Without working, even. “How’d it get that high?” I was mostly just asking myself aloud, but my phone apparently had an answer even to my rhetorical questions.
“There is a large lump sum registered as a bequeathal entered into the account on the day of your birth. The bank associated with the bequeathal deposits a modest sum into your primary account on the first of each month.”
What. What. “A bequeathal? Whose?” I asked somewhat desperately. Who did I know that could have died and left a big enough fortune behind to be giving me monthly deposits over twenty years later? Also, apparently, this bank account had existed since I was born, and yet the log-in information remained the same?
“The deposits are anonymous,” the phone admitted, sounding apologetic. I’d worry about my phone having emotions later. “I’m sorry to say I lack the processing power to determine their origin.”
“That’s all right,” I replied absently, still only half-present mentally as I tried to wrap my mind around the funds apparently available to me. I had that in my bank and I was living in a house in Wyoming with IKEA furniture? I guess it wasn’t too far out of my expectations of myself that I’d live simple like this, but… but to not spend seemingly any of it? Not even on a paint job to cover up that awful yellow siding?
Why was I even working at Walmart if I had this available to me? Why not go freelance with my design work? Why not go back to college and finish my minor? Why stay in Wyoming, of all places?
Not that there’s anything wrong with Wyoming, I’m sure it’s a beautiful place, but… but whenever I thought about moving, Wyoming just never came up.
I was obviously dreaming. Or delirious. My mind was coming up with some sort of perfect fantasy world in which I worked for the sake of working, and where my bank account had more zeroes than I knew what to do with. But. But why would my delirium dream up a world without my mom in it?
I took a bracing breath and put the computer back to sleep, not wanting to stare at that ridiculous number anymore. If I had really, truly lost my mind… which reality was the real one?
My old reality, where I made exactly enough to make ends meet but had a best friend in the greatest mom in the universe? Or this one, where I apparently moonlight as a billionaire and spend my spare time working for the hell of it, but where my mom does not even exist?
I trudged into the bedroom (not my bedroom, not yet) and collapsed on the familiar bed with its unfamiliar surroundings. I let the phone stay on and set it on the nightstand, too mentally exhausted to worry about how to turn it off.
Maybe everything would make sense in the morning.