The rest of Mrs Meade’s face was changing too: the freckled skin of her cheeks whitened, stretched then split around two enormous fangs that came out from the sides of her mouth. Between the big fangs I saw that the rest of her teeth had changed into a sort of nest of hooks.
With a pop of punctured denim four bare white legs pushed out from the sides of her dungarees, taking Mrs Meade’s total number of limbs to eight. She bellyflopped off the staircase onto the web of threads, which bounced as they took her weight. Then she scuttled across the stairwell straight at me.
‘What are you going to do, Mrs Meade?’ I asked. ‘Are you going to bite me?’
Her eight eyes flashed fury. Her fangs unfolded from her mutilated mouth and let out a high, thin scream. She kept coming. She was close now. She was almost on top of me.
I had no choice.
‘Mrs Meade,’ I said, ‘you can’t fight me. You can’t even frighten me. Because the thing is, Mrs Meade, you’re not real.’
She froze, hanging in her web, and frowned at me.
‘Whad?’ Her words were muffled at first; her fangs were making it hard for her to speak. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean,’ I told her, ‘you don’t really exist. You’re like the castle, or the creatures in the aquarium. Your husband imagined you: he made you up, as part of his world.’
‘Ridiculous,’ she said, her mouth becoming human again. ‘That’s a ridiculous thing to say. How can I not be real?’
She sneered at me. She huffed. Still lying on her front with her spider legs spread out around her she smiled contemptuously at me, as though I’d said something so stupid that it should have been funny.
Denial. I’d seen it before.
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Meade,’ I said sadly. ‘But it’s true.’ I decided to take a gamble. ‘I can prove it.’
She stared at me.
‘Go on,’ she said.
‘I have a question for you,’ I told her. ‘Can you remember your life before you met your husband?’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I have an excellent memory. I remember everything.’
‘But can you remember anything that you’ve never told him? Are there things you know that he doesn’t? Because if there aren’t, that proves I’m right – and you’re only here because your husband imagined you.’
She blinked. I waited.
My bet was that there had once been a real Mrs Meade. Mr Meade had imagined a replacement for her based on his memories of his real wife – which would mean that this Mrs Meade, the replacement, would know nothing that he didn’t know.
The other possibility of course was that a real Mrs Meade had never existed. Maybe Mr Meade had imagined a wife for himself from scratch. In that case, what I’d asked her wouldn’t prove anything. Maybe Mr Meade was just really good at pretending: maybe whenever this imaginary wife of his had talked to him about her past or her memories he’d always managed to convince her that he didn’t know them already; that he hadn’t imagined them for her; that he didn’t know everything there was to know about her; that she was real. Either way, if this Mrs Meade didn’t believe me, things were about to get even nastier than they were already.
‘Do you have memories you never told him about?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Meade. ‘Lots of things.’
Her voice didn’t sound so certain.
‘Tell me something your husband doesn’t know,’ I said. ‘Tell me something that proves you didn’t just come out of his head.’
‘Why should I?’ she asked back. ‘Why should I tell you anything?’
‘Because if you don’t,’ I said, ‘you won’t be able to stay here. You can’t keep going if you know you’re not real. You’ll cease to exist.’
I saw it begin. I think Mrs Meade felt it too: she shivered.
‘But I do remember things!’ she said.
She was disappearing. It was happening quickly. She was already transparent. I watched her look down at her hands – and through them.
‘But… this isn’t right!’ she said. ‘How can this be right? I’m real! I must be real: I have a child!’
‘Alice,’ I told her, ‘I’m truly sorry.’
I meant it. Thinking you’re real for what feels like all your life, and then finding out you aren’t and it’s all been a lie? I couldn’t imagine what that was like – and I didn’t want to. It was bad enough just watching Mrs Meade’s face. It was fully human again now but her expression had taken on a dreadful, blank, staring look. She seemed numb, as though everyone and everything she knew and loved had just been taken away from her. They had. In the very last moment she seemed to snap out of the trance she’d been in and find a final, desperate urge to keep existing.
‘Wait!’ she yelled. ‘NO!‘
Then she vanished.
For a moment I stood there alone at the top of the staircase, taking the time to try to get things clear in my mind.
Had a real Mrs Meade ever lived in Mr Meade’s world? There was only one way I was going to find out, but in a sense it didn’t matter: this Mrs Meade had thought she was real. I had not enjoyed telling her the truth about herself. In fact, at that moment, when I tried to remember anything at all that I liked about my job, I found that I couldn’t.
I took another deep imaginary breath then I reached for the wheel on the hatch that led to the aquarium room. It turned. The hatch swung open. I climbed through.
THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.