Nothing is as it Appears

"You are receiving this broadcast from... gone. Everyone is gone... I repeat... coast, there are no survivors here..." The static shook the taunt fabric of the ancient radio speaker, just as it did each morning at seven sharp. It was always the same voice, the gentleman behind the microphone had the verbal gait of a news anchor, wherever he was.

His exact location never became clear, and as the weeks went by Julian found himself thinking about it less often. Seven meant it was time to pretend. Reluctantly, Julian pulls himself to sit up. Leaving behind the world that only welcomes him in dreams, he nods goodbye to his loved ones against squinted eyelids. Feet now splayed over the side of the bed; he rubs memories away with the back of a shaking hand. "Honey?" Her voice is ever wrong.

She isn't his real wife; Julian does not know what happened to her. This woman was coarse where Cara was tender, her greeting like sandpaper on his yawning mind. Everything from her phrasing, to the lackluster imitation of the beauty Cara had, hammered Julian's ability to continue this charade. As if he had a choice... "The children are leaving for school, dear." Not-Cara says sweetly.



Her hips sway as she walks across the bright green carpet of their bedroom, hair coiffed elegantly. She brings a smile and a cup of coffee with her, pressing the steaming mug into Julian's hands, before turning to pull the curtains open. How brightly lies can shine, he thought bitterly. The way the light hits the imposter's hair, for a moment... if only.

The flavorless water is actually warm, not everything is an illusion. There seems to be no logic in what powers it all though, Julian sighed into the steam. Beyond his fake wife, who stares at him blankly, is the still smoldering ruins of the city he had grown up in. She appears to reboot, and walks from the room briskly. "I'll let them know you're coming to say goodbye, honey." she tuts.

Julian and Cara had tried to have children for 8 painful years, when one day Cara's feelings on the matter abruptly changed. She didn't want to try anymore, and frankly neither did he. When the world ended, there were no brightly decorated bedrooms in this home.

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Photo by chermitove

Now there were three. Expanding the loft that had held their small bedroom, in this lack of reality they had a full two-story house. Inside it lived three kids, the worst part of the simulation. To ache for children for so many years, just to see this lukewarm guess at who they might be... The puppeteer of perspective was as cruel as they were inaccurate.

He kisses the three children goodbye anyhow, a peck on each fake forehead. Ushering them off beyond the spiderweb encrusted doorframe, they skip off in the burning streets. "Have a wonderful day!" The ghost of Cara's voice says from his side. The illusion doesn't bother creating a bus, the kids simply fizzle out several feet away.

It was pointless to fight it, to scream or to weep. Julian had escaped more times than he could count, yet the moment his eyes gave way to sleep, it seemed to reset the ordeal. He'd make it almost a week sometimes, walking along the blazing remnants outside of town, until his legs gave way under him. It was easier to just pass the days, at least they varied.



He kisses the woman he desperately wishes was Cara, his briefcase is in his hand. He has not gotten dressed, but some force supposed he might've, the surprise suit is still buttoned neatly. It has always been there, and it always will be. Right as he finds his feet against the gas pedal suddenly, he knows it through and through.

The day is a blur just like any other. Paperwork slides along his desk, it does not matter that he was a mechanic in life. Here in purgatory, he types nonsense onto a keyboard. He doesn't bother to do anything but smash the keys, like clockwork a faceless boss would congratulate him on his weekly numbers each Friday regardless. It was all a loop.

Tuesday it would be someone's birthday, Thursday a colleague would announce retirement... It was sadly his main form of entertainment. The face, the story would change. As far as he could tell, not a single one of them was real. He didn't think there was anyone out there anymore, so he tried his best to pretend he knew these shells. It was better than nothing.

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Photo by 12019

Julian realizes it is Friday, when his boss makes his rounds throughout the office. However, there is something he does not anticipate. "Great numbers this week Julian!" the man says, his nametag reads John. "Don't forget to stop by the breakroom and sign the card for Wyatt, he's moving on after this week. The words slap Julian to attention.

Grabbing for John's arm before he can vaguely compliment the next employee, Julian is desperate for clarification. "Moving on? What do you mean by that?" His voice shakes, this is unprecedented!

John looks at him as if he's just put it together that Julian may not be all that bright, "Well, he got a new job now, didn't he? Folks tend to leave the former one in these circumstances." he gives Julian a sideways gaze. The build-a-boss seems to shake the question from his head, and moves on without further acknowledgment. A new job? No one ever got a new job.

Rushing towards the breakroom, Julian realizes he needs to figure out who Wyatt is immediately! Within, there is cake and a card to sign. No trace of anyone bearing the name Wyatt however, and the human shells who loiter in there are no help either. Where could Wyatt be?



The workday is coming to a close, and Julian has all but gone mad in his pursuit, when he hears it. "Wyatt! It's a shame to lose you..." The words fade out in Julian's excitement. Not 10 feet away stands a man in an unusually colored suit. The emerald fabric contrasts his orange-red hair.

"Wyatt, sorry to meet you on your very last day." Julian hears his voice call out. The man turns to him, and a stricken look devours his pleasant smile. He takes two steps backward, before seeming to accept he was in this exchange. "Wait, you're real!" Julian blurts out, turning a few nearby heads.

Wyatt seems to choose several ways to respond to this all at once. He shakes his head as he shushes Julian, which becomes the word "safe" in the same moment the man begins to fake a coughing fit. It is quite disorienting, and in the midst of this outburst, Wyatt waves off on his way towards the bathroom. That sure was smooth...

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Photo by Pexels

It was probably unwise to follow him, but Julian really didn't care. There was nothing to lose anymore. Hope shoves him forward through the doorway of the restroom, in pursuit of answers. Wyatt is scrubbing his hands vigorously, and his whisper is almost imperceptible in the act, as Julian closes the space between them. "Wash your hands too." Wyatt breathes.

Shoulder by shoulder, the running water of the two sinks drown their conversation out for curious ears. "Yes, I'm real. I thought you knew, I'm sorry..." Julian hangs onto Wyatt's soft voice for dear life. "I have no idea where I'm going, but I'm certain it is better than here." Wyatt continues, "The way out is in the paper." he shakes the excess water from his fingertips and turns to dry his hands.

Julian follows his example, and they meet at adjacent electric hand driers. The loud whoosh of their motors kicking the hot air out is even better than the sink ambience. Wyatt braves a more direct statement, almost hidden from Julian in the roar.

"You cannot let them know you are aware, it will take some time for you to slip off the radar now, one reason I never spoke to you directly." Wyatt continues. His eyes are remorseful. "When you have gone back to being unnoticed, look for an ad from B. Peacock in the paper."

With that he sweeps away from Julian, quickly trotting from the restroom, lest he ruin his chances by association. Mystified, Julian sits with his hands under the warm stream of air for several minutes. Blinking away any relief that might creep into his expression, he steadies himself before exiting as well. Somewhere, there was an escape. Faith lightens his heart, as he passes by to sign the farewell card, before returning to his desk. He would be next.



This story was inspired by last week's fiction prompt "Appearance", unfortunately I was quite sick for the last week, so I did not edit it in time. Oh well, I hope the community enjoys it anyhow 😁

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OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

This is a great story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You had me from the beginning to the end!!!!

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(Edited)

This is a nightmare with ambient details that transform it into a panoramic horror movie. Damn, my breath was in my throat the entire time, I was almost afraid to discover the next word in this terror drama. The thought of living in a simulation over which you have no control is awful, but having to play along is the genius you, so effortlessly, insert that makes us understand the living hell the protagonist is going through.

I enjoyed the way you created the scene so perfectly, offering us all the tiny details that transport us into the fictional reality so readily. I admire the repertoire of your boundlessly fertile imagination. My guess is that one day I’m going to be able to say “HELL MAN I KNEW HER WHEN SHE WAS JUST GROWING UP”.

This is remarkable @grindan. I absolutely loved it 😍

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You make me smile larger than I knew I was capable of, thank you so much for this amazing comment! I do believe I am blushing now 😊🤗😍😁 !LUV

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You capture the readers’ imagination, firmly, but then you cultivate an atmosphere of fear, so brilliantly, that the poor readers can hardly read another word without expiring on the spot.

You layer the strata of helplessness so vividly that we want to dive in and explain that there must be a way for Julian to “wake up” and escape the simulation nightmare he’s in. You have us so invested that we want to shout out instructions so that the man can extricate himself. However, your ultimate coup is that you give Julian a plan and it’s not a plan anyone other than you could have given him - you offer him hope. Spectacularly done!

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Shucks, thank you so much Ink Well team!! ❤️

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WOW, this is an amazing one. Super intriguing. I njoyex it all through.

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WOW, this is an amazing one. Super intriguing. I njoyex it all through.

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A bit sad, a bit scary, and very nicely written. Thanks for sharing your writing!

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Hehe I appreciate you reading along with me !PIZZA

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What an incredible story, @grindan. You are so imaginative. This is truly wonderful. I love that hopeful ending, and the notion that Julian may not be stuck in the horrible day grind of the AI reality forever.

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Super well written as always...

You really could write a novel, my darling.

he rubs memories away with the back of a shaking hand

❤️🖕

Quite brilliant! 👏

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