I can’t remember when it started. Or where it started. Or how it started. Or even why it started.
To be honest, I can’t remember much at all. My memories are vague, non-descript, fuzzy. But I know they are there, and the longer I concentrate on them, the more they are starting to take shape. Fragments of conversations, bits of blurred faces, images of places I use to frequent, memories of feelings I use to have. Feelings of wonder, of love, of hope, of real contentment.
Not the feelings they give us here. Not the actions they force from us, the words they give us to say, the routines they have us go through.
These are all artificial. Those were real.
I don’t belong in this world.
That much I know. It’s the only thing I know for sure. But for now, it’s enough. It is what keeps me going, keeps me moving forward, keeps me pretending that I’m happy here, that I am content here.
But maybe I should start from the beginning.
My name is Jennifer. Or at least that’s what they call me. I am married to Dan. I have two perfect daughters, Amy and Sara. We live in a perfect house in a perfect neighborhood filled with perfect houses where everything is controlled with the touch of a little screen.
That screen is our link to everything. It tells us where to go, when to get there, what to wear, what to eat, who to call. It controls the temperature and the weather and it makes sure no one ever spills or raises his voice or is anything less than unbelievably happy.
I have been here for as long as I can remember. They want me to think it’s been my whole life, but I know it hasn’t. Because I know there had to be a time before I was this perfect wife and this perfect mother to people I don’t feel a single thing for.
But more than that, I know there was another time because at night when I dream I see what I think used to be my life. My real life. And in those dreams, I am with friends, or people I imagine were friends, and we are laughing. Or I’m holding a baby who won’t stop crying. Sometimes I am on the phone and I am crying and frantic.
Nothing in these dreams is perfect. The house is always messy and my clothes are always wrinkled and there is never enough money in my wallet. It is always noisy, and the air is always a little too hot or a little too cold. There is always something else that needs to be done.
But those dreams, they feel right. Those dreams feel like a world to which I belong. To which I want to return. But the best thing about those dreams is that in that world, there is nothing telling me what to do. Sometimes in the dreams I walk outside and just breathe in the fresh air. Or I run my fingertips over the dented wood surface of an old table. Or smooth back a piece of hair that keeps getting in my eyes. Sometimes I cry in them, or sometimes I laugh. But it’s always because I want to, not because the voice in the mirror tells me I should.
Sometimes, though, the dreams change, become more nightmarish. In them, I meet a man. He is tall, surreal. He has slicked back black hair, bushy eyebrows, a thin mustache. He introduces himself as Corenlius Glass. He says he has a proposition for me that will change my life, that will make all my hardships go away.
In my dreams, I smile, I think about not having to struggle anymore, I say yes. But as soon as I say yes, I feel instant regret, instant terror.
I always wake up after that moment. At first it was just disconcerting, but now I am sure.
He was the man who brought me here. He was the man who changed my life. He is the key to getting home.
The day I began my escape started just like any other day, because every day starts the same when you live in a world controlled by a computer.
I wake up on the right side of Dan. Whoever goes to bed first, always takes the right side. I don’t know why. The tablet tells us it is so, and we always do what the tablet says.
I get up and go into the bathroom, wait for the mirror display to lay out my life. It checks my emails, tells me what I need to know, tells me what time to be at my office job. It selects my outfit, matches my makeup, reminds me to brush my teeth with my ultra-whitening toothpaste.
I go downstairs, kiss my two perfect daughters goodbye, kiss goodbye my perfect husband and get in my sleek, shiny car, which starts itself for me and takes me to my office without me having to do so much as make a single decision.
I spend my day smiling at people on the other side of the Atlantic. If they really are on the other side of the Atlantic. If they really are people at all. Sometimes I can’t tell. Sometimes I think they aren’t. But I keep these thoughts to myself, never let my smile falter. Because if I do, even for a second, they will know. And they will find a way to fix me. Something in my coffee, a scheduled visit to a doctor. Perhaps something else. I don’t know, but I try my best not to ever find out.
At five o’clock exactly, my tablet informs me it is time to head home. There is a gathering at the neighbors’ today.
I smile and point this out to my co-workers, who smile back like it is the most magnificent thing they have ever heard. Then I get back in my sleek little car and it takes me home.
My perfect husband is already there, making dinner for my perfect children who are doing their homework on a glass display on our shiny, sleek, silver kitchen table. They are all smiling and enthralled, and they laugh a laugh no child should ever laugh, a stilted, formal laugh, as a dinosaur comes to life in our kitchen.
I clap my hands together in glee, as I should, and head upstairs to change. My mirror display picks out a black dress, and my closet gives it to me. There is no option to change my mind, but why would I need to change my mind in this perfect world where everything is always the right, most perfect decision?
When I am ready, Dan and I head to our neighbor’s house, a perfect identical match to ours. Our perfect children are still doing their homework, but there is no need to get them a babysitter. Children here never do anything other than what they are supposed to.
The party is in full swing when we get there. People float around, smiling, while windows display fake backgrounds and a tablet tells the home owners when to put the next dish of appetizers in the oven and when to take it out. People show off their tablets and ooh and aah over other people’s photos.
My perfect husband blends into the crowd, to ooh and aah with people we have crossed paths with before. I start to follow him, when a hand on my arm stops me. It is our neighbor, Mark.
Mark has been our neighbor for as long as I can remember. We exchange pleasantries and invite each other to Christmas parties and summer barbecues. It is as meaningful a relationship as any in this world.
But today Mark looks different. There is something in his eyes, a look I can only remember seeing in one place — in my dreams of the other world. It isn’t a look of glee, but a look of hope, of promise.
I start to smile at him, give him the usual greeting, but his fingers tighten on my arm, and the motion stops me.
“Haven’t you ever wondered,” he says to me softly, “what would happen if the computers break?”
I don’t answer, but my heart leaps into my throat.
“Don’t you think it is time to find out?”
I look at him, contemplating if he is serious, decide he is. I nod and smile softly. A real smile.
I see his eyes twinkle at me. And for the first time in a long time, I feel a real emotion: hope.
Maybe there is a way to escape. Maybe there is a way out.