"So..." Claudia picked at her seat belt, lazily scratching a nail back and forth on the polyester. The sound produced a nagging, needling sound, as if her nail were instead scraping along the insides of their ears. Artie's arm twitched the slightest degree. They had, after beginning the drive, slipped into a state of odd silence. It's the silence that comes about naturally when several people share a small space, yet they are forcibly oriented such that they do not make eye contact with one another, and therefore do not feel obliged to fill the space between their eyes with words. Perhaps it is specific only to car rides.
The conversation was not picked up by Artie nor Steve, neither turned their gaze from the empty midwest road ahead, and Claudia slid down, the leather seat making a strained sound against her descent, slouching until her knees dug into the back of the passenger side seat.
"I have to get back to class by Monday, in case anyone's wondering," she blurted out.
"By Monday, we'll have everything sorted out, the real Claudia will be back, and she likely will not recall any strange, educational obligations that have been planted in her head." Artie replied curtly, eyes still pinned on the road.
Claudia's face slowly twisted into something like indignation, a gradual welling up of protestation that brought her upright in her seat. She leaned toward the space between Steve and Artie, her mouth dangerously close to Steve's ear.
"You know," her voice twittered, mockingly lyrical, "It's more than a little upsetting when someone suggests that your life is a farce."
"The thing we're dealing with," Artie began, absent-mindedly, "Can be one of two types of artifiacts - either you believe wholeheartedly in a very elaborate ruse," he cricked his neck, side-eying Claudia with caution, "Or your consciousness has been switched into the wrong body...in which case, it would be best if you knew as little as possible."
Steve seemed to tense, uncomfortably, and shifted in his seat away from Claudia's rising voice. "Did you see the point back there?" Claudia motioned with a thumb toward the rear window of the car, "I think you missed it. Does no one care that the lady in the video phone said that my school doesn't exist?"
Artie brought a hand to his face, and rubbed a palm vigorously across his nose and mouth. "Which is why I am of the opinion that your memories have been replaced with false memories. So I don't exactly have the patience to entertain this, nor to re-tell your life history prior to this point. It is my earnest hope that it will become unnecessary once we resolve this."
Claudia snorted her amusement. "And if your theory falls flat and lo and behold, I turn out to be a different Claudia?"
"With an identical appearance and with knowledge of two other identical people that exist in both lives?" It was Artie's turn to let out a short bark of laughter, which trailed off into a patronizing sigh.
Claudia's voice shook, words jumping and rattling against each other, her restraint draining out through a sieve.
"For someone as out of the loop as I am, I've been extremely trusting of all of you. I could've run. Bolted out that house the second I realized I was lost, and hitch-hiked back home. But it had to be Leena who came to wake me up. Bubbly and borderline creepy Leena, who tells people to open their doors, get out of their rooms, and socialize. If I hadn't, hippie Steve wouldn't have come in, and-"
She froze. Realization washed across her features, her mouth parted in incredulity, and she clapped her hands together with a crack that startled the other two. The car swerved as Artie frantically corrected for his surprise, and Steve's head knocked against the window. Low curses were let out by the two, as Artie's goatee quivered in annoyance, Steve massaged the tender section of his skull, yet Claudia was entirely absorbed in the gravity of her own epiphany.
"This is a trip," she whispered.
"Yeah, it definitely has been," Steve muttered, more irritated than he intended.
"No, the kid drugged me. I mean, maybe not maliciously, it's probably just a hallucinogen of some sort. That explains why everything's so vivid, it explains how some people I know are here, he came into my room and I didn't notice at first, he could have done something before..." she stopped short of elaboration, in part because of the details of the encounter and the subsequent reprimands were still fresh in her memory, and a considerable source of embarrassment, but also in part because of the futility of explaining one's thoughts to constructions of one's own mind. She sank back in her seat, her head spinning in wonder. Incredible. Adrenaline coursed through her system and she became acutely aware of the sound of her heart, its furious pumping now resonating in her ears, and slowly the light in the car separated from the shadows, laying a stark contrast across this world in her mind's eye. Claudia felt, in the very realest sense, as a physical object in space. Revelling in the manner with which her body existed in this plane, how it held itself together within the three dimensions, and how her form could not pass itself through the contrary forms of the car, the seats, and the window. She pressed her hand down into the leather, the material creasing under each finger, such strange fingers, and she was nearly overwhelmed by the actuality of force, pressure, and response. A smile began to spread across her lips. A muscular system and breathing being as a thing persisting through space-
Fingers snapped in the air in front of her face, and Claudia startled. Steve had turned around completely, his chin cradled in the space next to his headrest. He had reached an arm out and around to snap just inches from her nose.
"Keep it together, Claude," he said, "If you're on something, I-we really don't care, you're a young adult, you do things. We get it. We've all been there."
Artie neither nodded, nor remarked on this statement, though his lips twitched almost imperceptibly. He cleared his throat, and narrowed his eyes with intense unnecessity at the empty gravel road.
The feeling had passed in Claudia, and she felt herself coiling back into mental sobriety. It was embarrassing how quickly it fled.
"Don't worry about us, just keep calm back there until we get to the Warehouse, and we'll get you whatever you need," Steve paused.
"I'm fine," Claudia mumbled, part relieved, part disappointed that this was not in fact her first transcendental experience.
"No, anything. If you need...food, or a place to lie down, you can do that there," Steve glanced at Artie, who again maintained a distinct lack of judgment regarding the circumstances.
"Really, I'm okay," Claudia said, "I mean, this multiple Claudia thing is still batty but apart from that, I've got it together."
Steve considered her carefully, eyes scanning her features, as she returned it with a blank expression. He settled back, exchanging a silent "What do you think?" glance with Artie, the result of which was either a resolution to trust Steve's instincts, or the assignment of him to the role of unwilling sober sitter. It seemed from his resigned sigh that the latter had been elected.
Claudia allowed a few moments to pass, the sound of tire crunching gravel filling the space. She leaned forward, cautiously, bringing her head once again between the driver and the passenger.
"But that 747 in the field over there isn't just me, right?"