Never go past 23rd and Maple. That’s what her parents had always told her. And, being a good, dutiful child, she didn’t. She was a terribly honest, ordinary little girl. She sometimes wished she could be special or talented or something other than what she was, like that boy across the street who could play the violin, or the girl two doors down who could speak three languages. But she was who she was and could do what she could do, and she was told that this was enough. She had two quite ordinary parents, and one ordinary older sister, and one ordinary older brother, and she was satisfied with that. She was a small, quiet girl, with small, quiet features, and every day she went to school (in which she was of course, quite average) and turned right down the street that took her home where she did her homework, had dinner, and went to bed. Indeed, she was quite content.
Of course, it does go against human nature to be completely and totally satisfied with oneself and one’s own life. The girl soon decided that she would quite like to see what the fuss about 23rd and Maple was.
One day, she set off to school, and after what felt like a dreadfully long day, began the walk home. But as she was about to turn right towards her house, she paused, thought for a minute, turned herself around, and went left. This of course didn’t look like an altogether dramatic thing to do, but she felt downright rebellious, for she had never done anything her parents had told her not to do before. There had been no reason not to, and she really was such a very good girl.
This of course, is what she told herself as she set off down towards 23rd and Maple. She rounded the final corner, looked about, and sighed to herself. There was nothing at all odd about this street, it looked just like every other street. She decided to walk up it for a minute, to be completely sure that there was no reason to ever need to come back here again.
She set off down the sidewalk, looking around for any sign at all of anything odd or different. It looked normal enough, she supposed. But the longer she walked, the stronger the feeling grew that something wasn’t quite right. Yes, it seemed that something must be wrong here. However, she couldn’t see anything that looked different from her street at home. She couldn’t hear anything off, see anything odd, smell anything strange, or feel anything- she couldn’t feel anything at all.
Everything was flat. So dreadfully flat. The road was there, and the houses that lined the street, but they were all the same. They were blurred in the way things are in dreams. But it wasn’t a dream. If only it were a dream.
There was no noise at all. Not the wind, not the birds, not the laughter of children playing, not even the sound of her own footsteps. There should have been some kind of scent, the leaves, the pavement, something, but no. The very air tasted flat. If only it were a dream.
Her hands began to sweat. Her eyes darted around nervously. It was wrong. It was so, dreadfully, awfully, terribly wrong. Her breath came in short gasps. She began to run. Why was she running? Why was she so frightened? She didn’t know.
She was usually terribly rational. She was usually so very normal. But some small part of her had noticed something. Something in her very bones was telling her that this wasn’t right, that she needed to get away. To get out. Because she couldn’t stand it any more. She just needed it to stop.
She screwed up her eyes, took a deep breath, and screamed. She screamed like she’d never screamed before, or like she’d never scream again. She screamed like her legs had been cut off, or her clothes were on fire, or the very world was ending. It was a terrible scream, like a dying person. The kind of scream that hurls itself from the mouth of a person stuck in their worst nightmare. But a nightmare is, after all, only a dream. If only this were a dream.
Finally, when she was quite out of breath, and her voice was hoarse, and she knew she couldn’t scream for one moment longer, she opened her eyes. And she found that, to her surprise, she still had a bit of scream left in her. Because right in front of her, where before there had been nothing but dreadful flatness, was a man.
“Why, good afternoon, young miss,” the man said, looking not in the least put off by her screaming, “What seems to be the matter?”
“I seem to be awfully lost,” she replied, because of course, she had been taught to speak respectfully to her elders, “and everything looks wrong.”
“Well what do you mean?” the man asked, “I don’t see anything wrong.”
The girl was about to explain about the dreadful flatness and wrongness of it all, when she looked around and saw that everything once again appeared right. This was just another street, with differently colored houses with children running up and down the street and trees and birds and all sorts of the sort of things one would expect to see.
“I must have been out of sorts,” she said uncertainly, shaking her head, “I think I’ll go home now.”
So the man led her back home, and she went on with her life as usual, trying to forget about the wrongness of that awful street. She was just sitting down to her homework when she opened up her history textbook and a note fell out. It was written in rushed, messy, foreign-looking writing, but she could read it. She wasn’t sure what she had expected it to be, maybe a note from her teacher or a bookmark some other student before her had left inside.
You must have figured it out now. I do hope you’ve figured it out by now. But you must have. You’ve got to know the truth. You’ve gone past 23rd and Maple. You were going to figure it out eventually. The truth is, unfortunately you are the only real person in the world. Everybody else, your family, your neighbors, the people you meet, they aren’t real. But I had to tell you. I couldn’t let you live in ignorance anymore. Everything after where you’ve been just ends. It’s all made up by them. But you must keep on pretending you don’t know. That you were fooled when they put up the street you were on today. It was even less real than where you are now. The houses were hollow, the children didn’t have personalities. But you can’t let them know. And you must always be pretending. Because believe me, they’ll know. They’ll know because they’re watching. They’re always watching.
Was this somebody’s idea of some sort of joke? She didn’t think it was very funny at all. Then why would somebody send her a note like this? Was it even for her? Who could have sent it?
How did they even get the note into her textbook? Who were they?
Questions whirled around in her head, becoming more and more frantic. Did they want to hurt her? Was the note even true? Why was it her? Why? How? What was even happening? Who could she trust?
As soon as the last question had occurred to her, she stopped. If the note was true, then she couldn’t trust anyone. She was really and truly alone.
Then she looked back at the note, and saw that she had missed one last line. As I have warned you, warn the one they will choose next.
Her eyebrows knit together. What was that supposed to mean? Who had written the note to her in the first place?
Then it dawned on her. It was written by one of their victims. Well, not victims exactly but- she wasn’t alone after all. Somebody else knew what was happening to her. Somebody else knew because they had gone through the same thing. And now it was her turn. She had to warn the next person.
Though the girl wasn’t especially creative, she knew what she had to do. An idea had come to her without her realizing it, forming at the edge of her mind. She knew what she had to do. But she knew she would have to do it in secret. Sliding the note into her pocket, she picked up her pen and began to write, pretending to copy from her textbook. She was ever so careful. Because she knew if she showed the slightest hint that she knew, they would know. She knew they were watching.
Maybe this is just a story. Maybe this is all made up, a product of imagination. Or maybe someone put this story everywhere they possibly could to warn you. Maybe this isn’t quite true because it isn’t just about her. Maybe it’s also about you. But don’t scream. Don’t gasp or cry out in horror. Act like you don’t know. Pass the message on. Continue with your life, living as normally as you possibly can. But you mustn’t slip up. If you give the smallest inclination that you know, they’ll know. Because they’re watching. They’re always watching.