One, Two, and Three live in the perfect world—so why aren’t they happy?
“One!” The Perfection teacher’s shrill voice sliced the silence of the still room like a knife. One jumped, startled. The teacher’s voice sounded flat. “Please pay attention!” One shifted in her chair. She decided to try to concentrate on the teacher’s lecture to the class. The teacher droned on, her toneless voice never changing: “Perfection is part of life. Without it, no one can live. That is why we teach it.” Then, quite suddenly, a bell rang. The sound was like a wake-up call to the sleepy and bored students. One lined up with her classmates in a long line, then followed behind them as the teacher led the class to the cafeteria, a train of children following behind her as she went.
At the cafeteria, One took her assigned seat at the front of the table, next to Two. A multitude of unappetizing white cubes adorned her plate. The food tasted bland like it always did. But even though it tasted like a piece of thin cardboard, as the teachers always said, it was “perfect.”
After lunch, it was time for English. The kids lined up again and trailed behind the teacher like a snake of silence.
In English, One practiced her handwriting on a sheet of milky-white paper, enjoying the perfect shape of her handwriting. She was copying a sentence from The Book of Perfection, a leather-bound tome on how to be perfect, when a sudden abnormality in her handwriting made her hand come to a stop: an a had not turned out the way it should. The curve of the letter was lopsided, like it was leaning out. One frowned. Whenever she practiced her handwriting, her a’s always turned out perfect. But this one hadn’t—was there something wrong?
One shook the thought out of her head. Nonsense, she told herself. It must have been a trick of the light. She looked at it again. A now-perfect a stared back at her as if daring her to believe it had been imperfect a second ago.
After school, One walked home with her friends Two and Three. Two was a shy boy who never said a word. Normally, he preferred to walk alone in silent thought, but today he walked with One and Three. Three was an energetic girl, much like One herself, but since talking to each other was not allowed in school, she expressed herself while walking home with One, when no teachers or parents could hear them.
One told her about the lopsided a. She asked Three, “Could it be that this world is not perfect?”
Three stopped and looked at her. “Of course not! Why would we be learning Perfection if not to help ourselves become perfect?” she said. “However, I always feel like I don’t fit in for some reason.” Saying this, she skipped up the road and, after saying goodbye to One and Two, walked into her house, a sturdy brick structure painted a deep shade of brown. Of course, in this perfect world, all houses are like that, thought One, whose house was identical to Three’s.
After walking with Two a short way down the street, they arrived at his house, which, of course, was completely identical to Three’s in size and color, except for a number painted on the door: 2. Two said his goodbyes and stepped into the house, leaving One to walk to her house, which was adjacent to Two’s. One happily walked down the street, searching for her house.
There it is! The yellow-colored house with a brown 1 on it—wait. Why is it yellow?
One was flabbergasted. She knew that all houses had to be identical in size and color. Was there a logical explanation for the bright-yellow color of her house? One stood in front of the yellow house, pondering how it had turned yellow. She heard her parents inside the house doing chores. They worked at a factory that produced copies of The Book of Perfection. She finally decided to go inside and ask her parents why.
“Mom? Dad? Why is the house yellow?” Her mother turned to look at her while sweeping.
“What do you mean? It’s brown!” she said.
“No, come look at it! You’ll see what I mean!” said One.
Her mother stepped outside and peered at the yellow house. “What do you mean?” she said again. “It’s brown.”
* * *
Selena waited outside her mother’s office door. Ever since she was six, she had been picked up from school by her mother, a private practice psychologist. But today, her mother had told her to take the school bus to her clinic, which was just adjacent to a glistening lake that shimmered in the sunlight.
Suddenly, the door beside her opened. Her mother, Dr. Monica Grayson, stepped out. She looked distracted. Strands of her chocolate-brown hair were escaping her ponytail, which was normally pulled tight. She crossed the room, not noticing Selena as she ducked into another door adjacent to the one she had come from. Selena was bewildered. She had never seen her mother so frazzled and stressed! She decided to investigate and slipped unnoticed into the room her mother had come from.
Inside, Selena found herself in an immaculate computer room. She saw several TV screens on a wide wall, all showing three kids, two girls and a boy, walking home from school. She heard One and Three’s conversation as they passed many identical houses.
“Could it be that this world is not perfect?” asked One.
Three stopped. “Of course not,” she answered. “Why would we be learning Perfection if not to help ourselves become perfect?”
“Why would we be learning Perfection if not to help ourselves become perfect?”
By now, Selena’s head was full of questions. What perfect world are they talking about? What is Perfection? And why haven’t I seen these kids before?
She surveyed the room. There were computers, tablets, a telephone, a navy blue door, and a window where light came in. She touched one of the keys on the computers, and it made a sound. She was about to touch another one when—“Selena!” Her mother was standing in the doorway. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Who are these kids? Why don’t I recognize them?” Selena demanded, but her mother didn’t answer. She herded Selena out the door.
“Let’s go home,” she said. Selena didn’t budge. “I’ll explain,” her mother said.
When they got home, Selena demanded an explanation. Her mother began.
“Ten years ago, when you were born, a group of scientists contacted me. They asked me to take part in a scientific experiment studying how humans would react to a perfect world.” Those kids, thought Selena— they were living in it! Her mother continued. “I joined, of course, and we had three test subjects. Two girls and a boy who were kidnapped from their parents. They were put in the virtual reality of a perfect world. Over time, they grew up, and although there has been some debate over whether to release them or not, we have decided to keep them there for the rest of their lives, or until they break out by themselves. However, I am starting to feel doubtful. I think that they should be set free. I am planning to set them free.”
“I’ll help you!” Selena enthusiastically said. Because, she thought, everyone deserves to know the truth.
Her mother smiled. “Let’s get to work.”
Over the weeks that followed, Selena and her mother studied and researched the software so as not to hurt the kids in any way while they were liberating them. Selena found a notebook filled with notes about the machine written by one of her mother’s colleagues. By reading the notebook, she figured out how to free the kids from their perfect prison. She learned from her mother that inside the navy blue door, there was a whole town that was imperfect, but in the kids’ eyes, it was absolutely perfect. She and her mother planned the kids’ escape step by step. But first, she thought, a letter to inform them.
* * *
The next day, a couple hours after One got home from school, her mother told her that her friends were at the door. “One! Your friends Two and Three are here!” she called. One climbed out of her bed and went to talk to them.
“Hi!” said Three. She looked nervous and distracted. “Let’s go to your room.”
When they got there, Three closed the door. “We received identical letters in our mailboxes. Do you think that this is true?”
She slid a pale white envelope toward One. One opened it. The letter said:
Have you noticed any abnormalities in your perfect world? If so, then you should pay attention to what I have to say.
My mother, a doctor, participated in an experiment involving three children. The scientists who designed the experiment placed them in a perfect world to study how humans would react to it. They made a computer program that I have recently become familiar with and placed the children in virtual-reality headsets. Those children, called One, Two, and Three, were kidnapped from their real parents.
Although in the first place my mother went along with them, she is starting to feel that this experiment is wrong. We will both help you escape. Recently, the software is beginning to fail. This is your chance to escape! I will help you.
As you read this, you might feel a sense of shock and surprise. You may not believe me, but I tell you this: what I say is true. If you want to break out of this fake world, then at four o’clock in the afternoon tomorrow, lie down on your bed and keep perfectly still for about 15 minutes.
One almost dropped the paper. “Should we listen to her and follow her advice?”
“I think we should because if what she says is false, then all we will lose is a few minutes. If it is true, then we will be liberated,” Three responded.
Two spoke up: “Let’s do it.”
The next day, Selena and her mother walked into the computer room. She opened the navy blue door and silently crept into One’s house, where One was lying on her bed. She undid the latches on the virtual reality headset and took it off. One opened her eyes. She gasped. The world around her was shabby; it was the complete opposite of the world she had known her whole life. She saw a girl standing in front of her. “Hello,” the girl said. “I’m Selena.”
One, Selena, and Selena’s mother freed Two and Three. Then, Selena opened the navy blue door and stepped out into the computer room. Suddenly, an alarm went off. One, Two, Three, and Selena heard footsteps running toward the computer room. A red-haired scientist flung open the door, letting in a whole group of other scientists who stopped in shock. Before any of them could react, Selena dashed toward the telephone, grabbed it, and called 911. A woman with a nasal-sounding voice answered the phone. When asked what was wrong, Selena answered in one breath, “A group of scientists have kidnapped some children and kept them inside a virtual reality world!” As keeping people in virtual reality without their consent was against the law, the woman assured her that someone would be there shortly.
A police car with a wailing siren answered the call. When the police arrived, they subdued everyone. After they were tried in court, all the scientists except for Selena’s mother (since she aided Selena in helping the children break out) were sent to jail. One, Two, and Three’s real parents were contacted and reunited with their children. Finally, the young test subjects were in the real world at last.
* * *
Six Months Later
“Penelope!” Ms. Mendel’s voice, which was very similar to the Perfection teacher’s, called out. Penelope (One) jumped. “Please pay more attention!” Penelope concentrated. Selena was sitting across from her, writing in her notebook. Laura (Three) and Paul (Two) were in the neighboring room, studying chemistry. Penelope focused on her handwriting. Her now-imperfect a’s were vastly different from the precise handwriting she had practiced when in the fake, perfect world.
Sometime later, Penelope went to art class. Art was a new experience because, in the perfect world, they had never had any creative classes. Art was Penelope’s favorite class. She loved to let her imagination run wild and do whatever it liked.
After school, she walked home with Laura, Paul, and Selena. They were talking about the upcoming math test, their new art classes, and other school projects. They all felt very excited and happy to take these new classes in subjects they had never experienced.
“Is this world perfect now?” Laura suddenly asked.
Penelope smiled. “I hope so,” she said. “I really hope so.”