“I’m real. I’m real. I’m real. I’m real. I’m real.” Was repeated in quiet breaths.
Emma breathed in as much as she could and held on to the small person in her arms even tighter. Her head was buried in a mess of her child’s red hair as she went on speaking to herself. “I’m real. I won’t disappear. I will keep on. My daughter will keep on. I will not disappear. We will not vanish.”
She repositioned her neck so it was hugging the top of Riley’s head and looked up. Across the room was a hospital bed that a man lay in. Various wires and tubes were coming out of him. An ever unsteadying beep could be heard throughout the room. His chest moved up. A strained hollow hissing came from him. He breathed out and an elongated pained groan accompanied the carbon dioxide.
Riley looked up at her mother “Is daddy going to die?” her voice was higher than its normally almost shrill self.
Emma adjusted her child on her lap so that Riley was closer to her and hugged so Riley was being held like a ball in Emma’s arms. “I’m so sorry little girl.”
The toddler’s eyes began to glisten. “I don’t want to.”
“Me too.” Was all Emma could think to say. As sad as she was to lose her husband and the father of her child her mind was occupied with another fear. It could be called selfish but no one would blame her for it being all she could think about. After all one man’s death could mean the loss of hundreds or just one other.
The events of fifty years back were what concerned her. There had been a disaster. An entire metropolis eaten up by an unexplained gargantuan sink hole. The sky turned green after that. No one knew why. It took almost half a year for anyone to notice that since the sky changed the suicide rate, in almost every country, was cut by at least fifty percent.
The next tangible sign took place three and three quarters of a year later. A census was taken and despite the loss of millions of people the population had almost doubled.
Investigations were began and the census data looked into. Conspiracy theorists stepped forward to show their frequently flawed findings. Rumors that had been spreading for years began to be believed. The unusual number of missing people since the disaster began to make sense.
It could not be hidden. No cover up was attempted. No cover up could have been perpetrated. It was too big. The population was filled with people who were not real. They had bodies and minds of their own. They had free will and thoughts of their own. They even had memories of their lives before the incident, during the incident, and since the incident but they did not exist before it. They were called imaginary friends for a while but that was soon killed by the overwhelming thought that that was disrespectful, not that that stopped some.
They were the people that others wanted to exist. The perfect friends, the ideal or cliché people, the supportive boyfriend or husband or the attentive wife all came out of nowhere. Those who were close to these “imagined” all had memories of them though.
Terms like imaginer and imaginee became common. People began to notice patterns. Those who were sad or alone began to have friends and loved ones. Those who needed competent workers had them. Those who missed old friends who had died returned and the memories of their deaths dispersed. Those that needed something got exactly what they needed. Never what they would ask for but always what they needed. Never perfect but always good.
The real trouble began when people saw that when an imaginer died his imaginee would vanish. They would go away as if they had never been. All that would remain were the memories held by those who met them. People began to doubt not only the existence of those they loved but also their own existence. They worried that they were in fact an imaginee. After all, how would they know? How could you tell if you were real or if you were fake? You could hire someone to follow your paper trail but that was expensive and as time passed that became unreliable. What if you had been imagined at a young age?
Oddly enough it was discovered that imaginees could also be imaginers. They once found three generations of an imagined family in a small town. Real people had married in to it and had children with their pseudo spouses. Their children were, of course, also fake. The Imagined never actually reproduced. When the patriarch of the family died the entire town mourned for weeks.
So as Emma held on to her child she chanted over and over “I’m real” until it devolved in to a firm statement “I am real.” She would repeat it until she knew it. She would live on. She had to. The couple had done a back ground check on each other before marriage but that had proven to only be accurate half of the time.
They could all disappear: her, her husband, and her child. “Oh god” she thought with overwhelming despair. “Riley.”
Her throat dried out. It began to ache. She felt like there was a whole lemon in her esophagus. It hurt so thoroughly she could not bear it. Her nose filled with so much mucus that she felt she would choke to death. The first tear burned and so did all the ones that followed. She slowly began to moan quietly to herself.
Riley looked up at her mother and began to cry harder as well.
Emma held onto Riley as tightly as she could. She held on so tightly it hurt both Riley and Emma. Because all she could think was “We had too much trouble conceiving. All Ben ever wanted was a little girl with red hair.” So she held on as tight as she could. “If I hold on tight enough I will not lose everything.” Her mind demanded.
His chest moaned out its last bit of carbon dioxide. The ever unsteadying beep turned to a constant droning and as Emma looked down her family vanished. Her arms wrapped around herself and she ached.