“This is the first day of your freedom, kid.”
His voice was tender, warm even. The layer of humour softened the blow that this was the end of an era and the start of another. But an icy surface covered the heartfelt, blithe sentiment.
The words were familiar. Not in a homely sense, but rather the unwelcome kind of déjà vu that warps time around your being. And for a split second I was experiencing two events in time simultaneously.
I turned my head to see my sister, Casey; her eyes red with tears. I stared unwillingly, unable to take my focus off her. I was young – ten, but with the mentality of a seven-year-old, if I’m honest – and while I couldn’t understand what was going on, somehow a part of me knew that I would never see her again. My protector.
The two syllables rang violently in my ears as I screamed her name, but there was no use. The words “welcome to your freedom” were uttered, and the man who had said it took me by my frail, young arms and dragged me away from my sister.
I reached out, stretching every fingertip in one last desperate attempt to clutch on to her, but she was too far away already, and I knew it.
There was something raw and visceral in that sudden moment of separation; my eyes still on her, but her hand already out of reach. For a full twelve seconds, at least, she was close enough that I could hear her breath. But the deal was done.
I would never see her again. Never hear her again. Never talk to her again. Never touch her again. Never hold her hand, or cry on her shoulder, or take solace in her embrace. Ever again.
She was right there. She was right there. But she was already gone.
The man handled me like I was a squirming, restless kitten; my scrawny little body no match for his strong arms as he placed me in the backseat of the car. He pulled the seatbelt across with striking force – it was meant to keep me safe, in theory, but in reality, it felt more like a physical restraint, meant to keep me tied down, unable to escape.
I could feel my head swaying as I turned pale; I was using all the energy I had screaming and crying, in my pitiful, futile attempt to reach Casey. But she just stared, her eyes tearful but vacant, like she had had all the emotion drained out of her, like she had felt too much for too long and now there was a crater of emptiness in her being.
Her hands fell at her side and she was motionless, despite the wind blowing her hair across her face; whipping her cheeks with a temper. She was perfectly stoic, but empty, like a shell.
My world began to darken at the corners and I slumped backwards into the car seat, my eyes rolling up in my head. Then, I sank into the darkness of a chemically-induced sleep.
The house stood in front of me like a toy presented to a child.
“Well,” Mr Newton chuckled, “aren’t you going to go in, Ezra?”
I said nothing but simply nodded, before stepping away from him and towards the front door. It was strangely wide, like it was made for an obese middle-aged man, not a small 18-year-old.
I pressed my palm flat against the door. It looked like oak but as I felt it against my fingers, I noticed that it was made of a synthetic material, like pretty much everything in Serenity. I had spent my eight years here wondering if I was synthetic too, whether I was really human or not.
Now I had turned 18, maybe I would start to wonder whether there was any significant distinction between the two.
I lifted my palm off the door, revealing a mark of sweat against the synthetic oak. I wiped my clammy hand on my brown overalls before reaching over to the handle.
The door clicked as I pushed down on the cold, metal lever.
“Exciting!” Mrs Newton exclaimed jubilantly.
“Yeah,” I muttered disinterestedly.
The door had opened into an expansive living room and open-plan kitchen, with cream carpeted floors in the reception, and chequerboard tiles in the kitchen. Bright red sofas with forest green cushions accosted my eyes, as well as the synthetic birch wood panelling on the walls and the eye-wateringly white kitchen set, complete with an island.
The Newtons excitedly walked around the space, almost drooling over the house. They obsessively stared at everything and touched every surface and item, opening every cupboard and door, revealing closets and bathrooms and utility rooms. But I was drawn to one thing only: a massive screen above the red sofa.
“Good morning, Ezra!” It chirped happily. A shiver went down my back. The voice was familiar but I couldn’t place where I had heard it before. I pushed the thought away, choosing to stay in the dark about it. “Welcome to your new home. I am Smart House Interface 2.0, but you may choose a name for me, if you so wish. I am programmed to respond to your voice and follow your commands. I can cook for you, clean the house, and provide information and suggestions whenever requested. Would you like to give me a name?”
I stared at the screen for a full four seconds before answering. It showed a floating transparent ball – almost like a bubble – with a cartoonish face which had big eyes and a ridiculously wide smile. It creeped me out.
“I’ll just stick with Interface for now, thanks.” I mumbled. There had been a Smart House Interface back at the Newton’s house, but it hadn’t seemed so creepy – it had no bubble-face and its voice had been that of some ancient celebrity Mr Newton was obsessed with.
“Thank you for setting your preferences.” Interface chirped. “These can be changed any time. Enjoy your day.” The screen turned off, revealing a blank white slate of a screen.
I turned away from the screen and glanced around at the Newtons. They had been my family for the last eight years, but they had never fully grown into that title – family – by my own decision. The longer I had been in Serenity, the harder it had become to remember Casey, my sister, my protector.
I had feared that making room in my heart for the Newtons would mean taking space away from her, and so I had kept them at arm’s length; a difficult task when Mrs Newton hugged you like you were the most precious thing in the universe, and when Mr Newton gave you moral support and brilliant advice that solved every crisis.
I did love them. But I could only love them so much, or my memories of Casey would continue to fade into obscurity until nothing was left and I couldn’t do that. I had lost her, physically, when I was 10. I couldn’t now lose her completely. It was like I was fighting my own brain on it, having to make a deliberate and conscious effort to remember her.
When the Newtons adopted me, when I first arrived in Serenity, they already had a biological child, Henry Newton. I had no problem avoiding making an emotional bond with him. For some reason I couldn’t quite place, I was terrified of him. He was five years older than me and his grin struck me as cruel, almost psychopathic, but to everyone else, he was charming and intelligent.
Unlike everyone else, however, I didn’t buy into these lies of his. I saw through his disguise and saw his soul for what it was: manipulative, self-absorbed and violent. But I doubted my perception of him and often, I wondered if I was the insane one, the anomaly. I had no evidence that he was this villain I perceived him to be. Rather than a reasoned belief, it was purely instinctual.
I walked over to them and tentatively opened my mouth, unsure of what to say. I sunk my hands into my overall’s pockets and played around with the pebbles in them, which I had collected from the beach when I was younger.
The beach wasn’t real, though, and I doubted whether the pebbles were either. They were a constant reminder that everything here was, on some level, a lie. Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was theoretically perfect. Yes, it was peaceful. But for a reason I couldn’t quite place, I was still wary of it, even after nearly a decade living here.
As I pressed a small shell between my index finger and my thumb, I told myself, it’s synthetic, like everything else here. It’s not real. It’s not real. But I could never fully believe myself. The clearest memories I had of the outside world were of Casey, but those were faint, blurred, and brief. I had no real memories of the outside world; there was nothing, only the knowledge that I had once been there, that I had spent the first ten years of my life on the outside, and that, despite the dreamlike nature of my memories of it, it was real.
That moment in front of the house, when I had remembered being taken away from Casey and to Serenity, had been the first time I had ever remembered anything – properly – at all. The reality was that my own life felt like a mystery to me, hidden from myself.
And it should’ve terrified me, not feeling like I knew my own life. But I was numb to it. It didn’t even strike me as all that strange.
“So, I guess this is it.” I said quietly. Mr Newton wrapped an arm around his wife, who had her hands clasped together, as if in prayer.
“You’ll be alright on your own?” Mrs Newton asked.
“We’ll visit. Regularly,” Mr Newton said with a smile. The statement seemed more directed at Mrs Newton than at me.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay for dinner? Or help you unpack?” Mrs Newton asked, her voice jumpy and panicky.
“They’ll be fine, darling,” Mr Newton reassured her. I stared awkwardly off into the distance. Henry, who was resting against the kitchen island, smirked at me. I glared at him bitterly, but he just continued to grin in that cruel, cunning way that he did.
“Yeah, Mom,” Henry piped up, pushing himself up and away from the island, and quipped sarcastically, “Ezra’s not a kid anymore, they’re an adult.”
“Aw, aren’t you a sweet big brother to them.” She cooed, apparently oblivious to the sarcasm in Henry’s tone. She then turned to me and reached out with her arms. “You’ll let us know if you want us to come visit, okay?” I nodded and she embraced me.
I stood there like a tree as she hugged me, staring aimlessly at the wall ahead, refusing to let myself fully feel the warmth of the hug.
“Come on, dear.” Mr Newton said warmly.
She let me go and gave me a grand wave goodbye as she joined Mr Newton and Henry by the front door. I felt a wave of something pure, just for a second, as I let my eyes dwell on her own and I saw a woman who I could call Mum, if I wanted to.
But like the briefest of moments, it flickered and disappeared and I was left with the hollowness that had accompanied me, seemingly for my entire life.
She and Henry both went through the doorway and out onto the front yard, but Mr Newton stood in the doorway for a second more, his eyes proud and sincere.
“Take care, Ezra.” He told me. “And enjoy yourself; this is your own little corner of paradise.”
He closed the door behind himself and there was finally silence in my life. I lifted the shell I had been holding between my fingers for a good few minutes now and stared at it blankly.
It feels real, I thought to myself. Why can’t I just believe that it is and accept this as my life? But then I thought of Casey, and tried to focus on the faint memory of her. She had been a good eight or so years older than me… and she had shortish, light-brown hair, I think… and blue eyes, bright and distinct, but not cold, not cold at all…
I put the shell back in my pocket and shuffled over to the screen.
“Interface?” I whispered, self-conscious in my new home.
“Greetings, Ezra!” Interface chirped. “How may I help?”
I hesitated for a moment, nervously biting down on my lips together, before parting them to speak.
“I’d like to change your name, please.” I stammered.
“Of course! What would you like to change my name to?”
I blinked three times before answering:
“Fantastic choice.” The bubble-face exclaimed. “The database informs me that this is the name of your biological sister, Casey Wakefell. My presentation is currently in default-bubble-ball-mode. Would you like me to present as Casey Wakefell?”
I furrowed my brow and took a timid step towards the screen.
“What… what would that… mean?” I muttered, feeling my heart thudding under my chest.
“Good question!” The bubble-face chirped. “Instead of presenting as a bubble-ball, I would present as a digital recreation of your sister, Casey Wakefell. In addition to looking like her, I would also sound like her.”
Suddenly, I felt the memory of the separation crash over me again.
The sound of my ten-year-old voice crying out for my sister to help me rang in my ears. It was so loud it was drowning out everything else, including the Interface as it continued to explain.
No, I instantly thought, it strong and powerful and overwhelming. No, this is not real, this whole world is fake!
“No!” I shouted at the screen. I panted and placed my hands on my knees, exhausted from the wave of the memory. My purple curls had fallen over my eyes and as I glanced up, I stared at the screen through my hair and through the blurry mess of tears that had formed in my eyes. “No, thanks. I… I don’t… I don’t want that.”
I sank down to the carpet and a couple of shells and pebbles tumbled out of my overalls’ pockets and out onto the floor. I stared at them briefly before looking back up at the screen.
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ve got a new name for you, Interface.” I muttered bitterly.
“Wonderful!” Interface exclaimed. “What name have you chosen for me?” I glared fervently at the screen and the irritating bubble-face, before parting my lips again: