Substitutes are the worst obviously, but this one wasn’t so bad. She was pretty, for one thing, with a snub nose and eyes sort of permanently smiling at you. And she was pretty nice, without being goopy. She just seemed regular. We liked her.
Especially I liked her. Our regular teacher doesn’t really like me very much, but the substitute did.
She was there the week we presented science projects.
My friend Mariela went before me. Her project was on lobotomies, where they stick a needle in your eye to kill a bad part of your brain. Or it turns out now they do it in surgery, but in the past they used to stick a needle through your eye into your brain. And this is not like a hundred years ago, but even in the 1960s and 1970s! Gross.
My project was “Extraterrestrial Life—ALIENS AMONG US.” The title was kind of corny because obviously there aren’t real aliens. But some people think there are alien microbes around. In fact some people think that’s actually how life on earth got started even, maybe—some alien microbes landed here and life started growing from them.
“So maybe life just came raining down on us from outer space,” I said at the end of my presentation. “And maybe that’s even still happening now.”
Then I curtsied, which is ridiculous, but whatever, I just did it to show I was done. The class clapped for me, and when I passed her desk to sit down, the substitute leaned toward me.
“I think you’re righter than you know,” she said, and smiled.
The final bell rang, so we packed up to go home. I was kind of glowing. But the substitute stopped me at the door.
“Got a second, Aisha?” she said. “I loved your project. Lovely work. Let’s talk a bit more. Maybe we should consider this project for the district science fair.”
I have always wanted to be in that big fair, and I had worked so hard on this project. I know it sounds stupid, but just, I was excited. I pulled a chair up to her desk and sat down.
“Why do you think alien microbes might still be visiting?” she asked. Her long red nail was sort of drawing along her grade book, like she didn’t notice it. Her eyes were on me, warm and brown. “What do you think they want?”
“Oh, well,” I said. I was stumbling a little because I wasn’t sure what she meant. “They’re just microbes so . . . I don’t think they want or don’t want things.”
When she smiled, her eyes crinkled in such a nice way. “What about Noah’s presentation, though?”
Noah had done his on toxoplasmosis, which is where cats spread this microbe around, and when mice eat the microbe, they start liking cats and being super friendly to them. It’s like this bug whispers in their brains that Cats are the best! No reason to be afraid of cats!
And once they stop being afraid of cats, well, they’re a lot easier for the cats to catch. Which is convenient for the cats. But it’s bad for the mice they kill and eat.
The substitute was leaning over me now, looking at my presentation on my school iPad. Her hair was touching my hair. She put one long pretty finger on my iPad, like she was about to make a point about something there.
I felt weird, like she was too close. Her arms were making a cage around me. And she had pushed in so that my chair was scootched all the way to the desk, so I couldn’t even slip down. My heart started beating a little hard, like it was scared for no good reason. She’s nice, though, I told myself. She’s really, really nice.
She put her lips close to my ear, so close I could feel that the lips were smiling. Then long and slow, with a long, raspy breath, she whispered: “I’m not really nice.”
I didn’t feel anything going in my ear except breath.
I didn’t feel a worm or a bug or anything.
But something must have gone in. Something did go in. What went in me? I don’t know. Maybe it was a microbe.
All I know is now there’s something that’s not me inside my head.
At first I hardly noticed. Our regular teacher came back the next day, and she wasn’t as nice, and she said my science project was Nonsense and not only would I not be going to the district science fair, I would have to start all over with a new idea just to get a passing grade. I couldn’t believe it.
And that same day, this thing in my head started doing things. But it wasn’t me.
I had to go to the library to find a new topic. They let me on the computer for twenty minutes to google around about it. I didn’t really have any ideas.
But then all of a sudden, I did. Or this thing in my head did, this thing that wasn’t me. It made my hands type out “Dr. Cynthia Weinstein new vaccine” in the google box. Which, I have never even heard that name before. And something came up! I was so freaked out from my hands typing on their own I almost got out of the chair, but my body stayed where it was and made me read the first article. Which was hard because it was pretty sciencey, but apparently this Dr. Weinstein had invented a flu vaccine that she said would prevent not just this year’s flu, like most vaccines, but all flu, ever. You take this vaccine once when you’re a kid, and never get the flu!
At first other scientists had said it couldn’t be. But I guess now some were coming around. It was a Debate in the Scientific Community.
Yeah, that would be good for a science project. But: I didn’t want to do a science project on something my hands typed out without my permission. So I tried to get up. But my body stayed sitting. It turned to the librarian, all straight and proper, and this thing in my head said to the librarian, “Miss? I wonder if may I print this article, please?”
Who talks like that? Not me. Not me.
When the librarian gave it to me I rushed out words in my own voice, saying I felt sick, really sick, I had to go home. She called my mom, and when Mom came and saw me, the madness fell off her face.
All the way home I tried not to talk, in case the other voice came out.
For the next week, I fought with the thing in my head. It wanted me to do my science project, but I wouldn’t. I stayed in my room playing Minecraft instead. I stopped looking in the mirror, because when I looked in the mirror I saw my eyes were half scared and half hard and angry. The scared part was me.
But even though I tried, that thing got better and better at using me. It made me hold the back of my neck stiff and hard, so it ached at night. It wouldn’t let me just do things, he had to be mean about it. It talked with my mouth, it sounded fake. It answered in class in its stupid prissy voice and made everyone hate me, even my friends.
One night I before I went to bed, I saw the article. I didn’t want to see it, it was scary, so I flipped it over. But when I did I saw something, and I picked it up after all. The microbe this doctor wanted to use in the vaccine—the name of it, a long scientific name, sounded familiar. I went to get my old science project on the aliens. The thing in my head didn’t WANT me to, it made my fingers so stiff I had to pushed on the iPad with flat fingers.
It’s getting stronger.
But I found the presentation. I saw where that name came from.
It’s one of the microbes this one scientist thinks is alien.
I looked again at that article the librarian printed out. It had a picture of Dr Cynthia Weinstein. And her face had that same look I see in the mirror. Her eyes were scared, with something hard and angry standing behind them.
The microbes want me to do my science project on this new vaccine, I thought. Because they want everyone to take the new vaccine.
Because then everyone will be like me.
I am hardly myself any longer. The words I say are almost never mine. How can’t everyone tell it’s so fake?
But they can’t, even my mom can’t. I think they think I’m the fake—but it’s not me! It’s these imposter microbes or aliens or whatever!
HaHA laughs the imposter. When something wasn’t funny.
While I’m writing this, the imposter in my head says SHUT UP, SHUT UP, STOP. It’s angry.
I have an idea how to kill him, while I can still control my body a little. But will it kill me, too?
My idea is that maybe I could I find the exact spot in my head where the imposter is, and stick a needle in there and kill it. Like in a lobotomy, only I’m not killing MY brain, I’m killing this bad thing inside me.
Supposedly you can do it through the eye. I imagine a long knitting needle sliding in, and part of me is afraid, and part of me is furious and happy.
And I don’t know which part is the me part.
I’m going to kill that lying thing before it destroys me, before it destroys the whole world. While I’m still here to know I’m not that thing, I’m going to kill it. I’m going to kill it. I won’t be a mouse in love with a cat.
And I’ll tell the world, I’ll tell Dr Cynthia Weinstein, I’ll tell everyone how to stop the aliens microbes, and I’ll make them believe me.
I hope it works