The Hypothetical Woman

Ghostly Woman - Illustration for The Hypothetical Woman science fiction story

A Science Fiction Story

Three days after Dan moved in, the house began behaving irrationally. The first problem was the driveway. He came home from work one evening to discover that the driveway and the detached garage were now on the left side of the house instead of the right.

He furrowed his brow. “Am… am I in the wrong place?” He climbed out of his blue sedan and examined the building. It was the same green Cape Cod with the same two fir trees in the yard and the same former owner’s name on the mailbox. Everything else was just as he remembered it, except for the driveway and garage. “I must be going nuts,” he thought. “Do crazy people know they’re crazy? Or maybe this is what getting old feels like. Can you get dementia at thirty-six?”

Shaking his head, he pulled out his phone. “I’ll just check the pictures!” He had taken a series of photos when he moved in so he wouldn’t have any of the preexisting damage taken out of his deposit. Unfortunately, he had only taken photos of the inside. He searched for the listing on the rental site, but it had been taken down. He checked satellite photos, but the street didn’t seem to be in any. It was as if it didn’t exist.

It was getting dark and starting to rain. “I’ll worry about it later,” he thought. He went inside, ordered a grocery delivery, and watched TV until bed.

The next morning, he went downstairs for breakfast but couldn’t find the milk and cereal he had bought the day before. Half of his new groceries were missing. Instead, he found a sticky note on the counter.

Danny Boy

I’ll be late tonight. Please pull the chicken from the freezer to thaw before you leave for work.

~ Rachel

Dan furrowed his brow. He lived alone. He hadn’t had a woman spend the night in months. And he certainly wouldn’t let anyone call him “Danny Boy.” As an art appreciation teacher looking to become a professor, he constantly struggled to be taken seriously. A nickname like that would just make his life harder. And he didn’t even know anyone called Rachel.

“I wasn’t out drinking last night,” he thought, “so I didn’t pick someone up and forget about it. So why don’t I know who this Rachel is? Did someone break in? Is this a weird stalker thing? God, I hope I don’t end up on some silly true crime show…” As he wondered where the note had come from, the words began to blur.

He blinked, rubbing his eyes. When his vision cleared, the note had changed to his grocery list. The one he was sure he had thrown away. Milk, cereal, bananas, nothing about chicken or a mysterious woman. “I must have been daydreaming,” he thought. “That’s all it was.”

He continued poking around the kitchen and found some yogurt and strawberries he was sure he hadn’t bought. He also found a jar with blue things that might have been olives, but the label was in a language that neither he nor his phone could read. It was strange, but at least he wouldn’t go hungry.

After breakfast, he stepped outside and found that the driveway and garage had returned to the right side. Or had it always been there? Maybe he had just imagined that, too. When he looked back at the house, he saw it had four windows instead of three. He blinked and shook his head.

Five windows.

No, three. Definitely three, but they were now stained glass. “I’m just forgetful,” he thought. “That’s the only explanation. I haven’t painted in months, so I’m losing my keen observational skills. I’ve been in my head too much to notice little details.” He nodded, trying to reassure himself. “After work, I’ll start a new painting. That’ll fix everything.”

When he arrived at the university, the physics building was surrounded by protesters. They were waving signs and shouting something about the power grid and researchers opening doors to parallel worlds. A dozen people were filming themselves, promising internet viewers a “shocking video sure to reveal the real truth”.

Dan laughed. “Stupid conspiracy theories. Next they’ll say the moon landing had to be faked because of all the space ghosts…”

A portly police officer approached and said for everyone’s safety, staff and faculty needed to stay off campus during the protest. The protesters didn’t seem dangerous, but Dan wasn’t going to argue against a half day off work. He went to get coffee and waited until the university messaged everyone that it was safe to come in.

Once he was back on campus, he asked about the protest, but no one in the arts department seemed to know what it was about. Jennifer, the short brunette woman who taught sculpture, said the physics department wasn’t doing anything worth protesting. “I heard they built a gravitational field… something or other. A gravity generator? Is that a thing? I don’t know what it does. Makes things heavier, I guess.” The others knew even less than her.

After work, he returned home and discovered the house had a larger yard, two more trees, but no driveway or garage at all. The windows were regular glass again, but they were the wrong size and in the wrong places. He pushed the worry from his mind and just went inside. He told himself the burgundy carpet in the front hall had always been that color, even though he knew it had been navy blue that morning.

Later that evening, he was in the kitchen making a stir fry. He heard footsteps cross the tile floor behind him. He turned just in time to catch a shadow moving towards the den. He dropped the spatula and ran after it.

Just an empty room. He hadn’t bought enough furniture to fill the house yet. There was nothing in the den for anyone to hide behind, and no window to escape from. “I’m really losing it,” he thought. “There’s something wrong with the house. Didn’t I read somewhere that old pipes can make infrasound? Noises can cause paranoia and hallucinations, even if you can’t really hear them. I should look into that…” He asked his phone if plumbers checked old houses for infrasound, but it didn’t understand the question.

The smoke alarm went off. He ran back to the kitchen and put a lid on the burning stir fry. He groaned. “Looks like it’s pizza tonight.”

He turned to dump the burnt food in the trash, but the trash can was gone. He decided to put the wok in the sink, and discovered the sink had moved to the other side of the kitchen. The trash was now in the cabinet underneath.

Night after night, the sounds and the shadows kept returning, and then even during the day while Dan was getting ready for work. Each time, he would follow them through the hallway and into the next room, and each time, there would be nothing there. He started searching the internet for information on antipsychotics.

The next morning, he was rinsing off in the shower and remembered he had left the clean towels in the laundry room. He reached past the shower curtain to grab his shirt and dry off with that instead, but felt a towel being placed in his hand. A woman’s voice said, “Here you go, Danny Boy.”

He screamed. Yanking back the curtain, he slipped, falling out of the shower and onto the tile floor. A tall figure was standing over him. He couldn’t make out any details. It was there but not quite there, just blonde hair and a pale shape, a suggestion of a woman.

She flickered like a dying light bulb. An instant later, he was alone.

He decided to take the day off. It was time to see a doctor. There was a two-month wait to see a neurologist, so he settled on a psychiatrist. He explained everything that had been happening for the last few days, sure he was about to be committed. “What do you think, doc? Is it schizophrenia? Early onset dementia? Something like that?”

The psychiatrist shook her gray head. “No, not at all. It sounds like the stress of moving and starting a new job and trying to advance your career has gotten to you.”

“So no pills? No hospital?”

She smiled. “You just need to relax. Worrying about your symptoms will just make them worse, so… don’t do that.”

“But how do I –”

Her wristwatch beeped. “And that’s the hour. Same time next week?”

Dan returned home. The burgundy carpet had turned into a hardwood floor. He emailed his boss, saying he was taking all of his vacation days, and paternity leave. He didn’t know how to fake having a baby, but he had three weeks to come up with something.

The next night, his couch turned from green to blue while he was out of the room. He sighed and sat back down, continuing to watch nothing on TV. He heard footsteps in the kitchen. A shadow fell on the wall. The floor creaked. A tall, blonde woman stepped into view.

He gasped. “Are you Rachel?”

The woman smiled warmly. She opened her mouth to speak, but the only sound was a loud electrical buzzing. She flickered, faded, and was gone.

He stood slowly, examining his surroundings. The room seemed fuzzy, like a dream sequence in a movie. He searched the house for the woman but found himself alone.

He returned to the living room and collapsed on the couch. His eyes landed on a book on the coffee table, and the business card he was using as a bookmark. Months earlier, he had applied with the company to be a graphic designer but didn’t get the position. It had felt like a door being shut in his face, but also like the door had never really been open. “Is that what Rachel is?” he thought. “A door I never opened? One of the endless paths my life could have taken? A hypothetical woman?”

He rubbed his brow and noticed something on his hand. He stood, moving closer to the floor lamp. There was a gold streak on his finger, a shadow of a wedding ring that was both there and not there. He tried to pull it off, stumbling and bumping into a bookcase he didn’t own. A silver picture frame fell onto the carpet. A wedding photo. Rachel’s smile was a crescent moon. His eyes were full of adoration. When he bent down to pick up the picture frame, it vanished just as his fingers touched the cool surface.

His arms burned. His eyes widened as tattoos appeared, details from paintings he had dreamed of but never made – cherry blossoms, lizard scales, rafts caught in storms, a woman with wings where her eyes should be. The heat spread, his body aching. A battle raged under his skin as possible versions of his life fought to become reality. The graphic designer, the travel writer, the photographer, the soldier, the burglar, all the lives he could have lived were inside him, as real as the blood in his veins, but only one would survive the night. He felt his own hands around his neck. He opened his mouth to scream, but the only sound was a loud, electrical buzzing.

The tattoos swirled and vanished like smoke. His hands dropped to his sides. He took out his phone and stared at his reflection in the black glass. He looked the same as he remembered, but something felt profoundly different. Was he still the teacher, or was he something else?

“The school!” he thought. “If the protesters were right, then that’s the epicenter of a… a… leak? A hole? Some kind of problem with reality. Other worlds are intruding on this one. If there’s a way to stop this, it must be at the physics building.”

Dan went outside and barely noticed that his driveway had returned. He climbed in his black sedan and headed for the university. After a few blocks, the roads were wrong. Street names were changed. When he turned the corner, the road led into a brick wall. “The reality distortion is getting stronger the closer I get to the university!” He pulled out his phone, which was now purple with a holographic screen, and had it direct him the rest of the way.

He headed across the empty campus towards the physics building, and discovered it had swapped places with the gym. This late, everything would be locked up, but he could still shut down whatever was causing the leak in reality. He found the outside electrical box. The padlock holding it shut was fading in and out of existence. Waiting for it to disappear, he pulled open the panel.

Before he could shut off the power, the switches vanished. He grabbed a large landscaping rock from a nearby flower bed. Lifting it over his head, he smashed the power box. Sparks flew, but the building’s lights stayed on.

He ran back to his red truck and grabbed his tire iron. The physics building’s back door was solid metal and looked quite secure. He checked over his shoulder. No one was around. He swung the tire iron – no, it was a golf club – and shattered the glass door.

Dan climbed into the broken window and ran to the laboratory. He used the tire iron to pry open the locked door. He braced himself, expecting an ear-splitting alarm, but there was nothing.

Inside the lab, the lights were flickering. Apparently smashing the power box had caused a short circuit. There were several whiteboards with equations he couldn’t even begin to comprehend. The dancing numbers seemed to be half calculus and half Cuneiform. A huge, blue ring stood at the far end of the room. It was around eight feet across and attached to a long row of computers, dials, and gauges. The computer(s) kept changing from one model to another, while the screen(s) gradually shifted sizes.

The air waved like heat coming off a highway and several figures suddenly appeared. They rushed about, adjusting the machine’s settings and struggling to deal with the sudden power issues. One of them bumped into a blackboard, nearly knocking it over. It was difficult to tell how many of the scientists were in the room. As they flickered in and out of view, there seemed to be four, then six, then five or possibly seven. None of them seemed to notice Dan standing in the middle of the room.

The ring both was and wasn’t glowing. Another world was/wasn’t visible through the center. As Dan stepped closer to examine this strange phenomenon, he felt his feet shifting. His shoes turned to boots, then high heels, then sandals, and back again. His clothes transformed. Dan/Danny/Daniel/Danielle stared down as his/her jeans and sweater became a business suit, a cocktail dress, a flowing robe, and swirling, shapeless, smoky things.

“The ring looks like a miniature particle accelerator on its side,” he/she thought. “I’ve heard conspiracies about particle accelerators opening portals to other worlds. Looks like they were right. That must be where this… this… reality distortion is coming from. It’s strong enough to affect me at my house two miles away. What must it be doing to everyone closer?”

He/she looked down at the tire iron/golf club/machete/shotgun/laser in his/her hand. His/her/their hands were flickering, fading, insubstantial as a ghost. “I have to stop this. I can feel reality coming apart. Everything true and certain is becoming just a possibility…” He/she/they/you lifted the laser pistol and fired twice. The ring snapped in half/exploded/fell to the floor with a thud.

The scientists were suddenly solid, a definite six figures in blue lab coats. They screamed, scrambling. “Who the hell is that? Where did she come from? She’s got a gun!” Their faces didn’t move when they spoke. They were like plastic, imitations of humanity from some other reality.

Danielle gasped. “The portal… Are they trying to get home, or bring more of them here?”

The scientist-things pointed, shouting. “Don’t let her leave!”

She fired her laser. Their faces melted like dripping candles, but they kept coming. She threw the heavy pistol at the nearest one ran. She pushed open the fire door and rushed out to the parking lot. She jumped on her skimmer board, but it was too late. If she had been ten seconds faster, she could have gotten her board in the air and flown back home. But instead, sirens sounded as the campus security drones descended from the sky. The silver spheres extended their zap rods and fired, sending electric beams crackling towards her.

Danielle woke up in a holding cell. She gazed through the force shield and saw a tall, blond police officer standing nearby. She sat up, her muscles stiff and aching. “I haven’t seen a human cop in a while,” she said. “Didn’t know they still let people do that.”

The man smiled warmly. “A human still has to fix the drones when they break down.” He tapped a controller on his wrist, opening the force shield. He reached through and took her hand. “Now come with me, Dani. They’re opening more gates, and we’re the only ones who can stop them.”

“But who are you?”

“I’m Lieutenant Shell. You can call me Ray.”

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