by John Knouse

"Here, Princess!" cheerfully called George's father as he poured plastic pebbles into the dog dish.

The small robot, with her covering of fuzzy carpet, yipped as it glided into the room. George's father patted it atop its head as it came up to the bowl. Then he took the plain white bag marked "dog food" and put it away in the pantry. George watched the robot scoop up the plastic pellets and store them in an interior compartment.

George went outside to play for awhile in the back yard, under the white plastic tree. Everyone admired that tree, exclaiming on its beautiful form and foliage. Why wouldn't they, thought George, it's a perfect plastic tree just like any other plastic tree in the city. White plastic can, after all, be made into everything. George knew this for sure: his life was filled with the stuff.

What George loved most was to take long hikes into the island of forest preserve that lived on amidst the great city. There he could see thousands of real trees and real animals: real life, and no white plastic. He had grown accustomed, as a young child, to being required to change into special hiking clothes, as did his parents, before they went to the preserve.

George didn't mind. It was a nice change to take off the same old white plastic everyday clothing and put on the khaki shorts and colorful shirt. Eventually, he got so that he would only wear his hiking clothes, making other children snicker. "Forest-boy, Forest-boy," they'd taunt him. George didn't care. He was tired of hearing them talk about how neat each other's white clothes were, anyway.

George went back into the kitchen where his mother was putting pasty-white patties into the microwave.

"We're having hamburgers tonight, dear," she said cheerfully. She glanced out the window. "Oh, some blossoms have opened on the tree! Isn't it pretty!"

George eyed her warily. There had never been a flower anywhere on the white plastic tree. But he had become accustomed to other people's odd behavior. His parents had become accustomed to his.

His parents had become concerned, at one time, that something was seriously wrong with him. "He reads well," they said, "But doesn't see the same pictures in the books as the other children. At the art museum, he seems to see some paintings and not others."

The psychologist seemed mildly concerned and talked to George at some length. "He seems quite normal in most regards," he told George's parents. "I think it's just a matter of where his interests lie, and a bit of a tendency towards fantasy."

And that was that with the psychologist. As he was winding down, George was already at the door, opening it into the reception area. He saw the receptionist looking his way with a cold, hard look--a scary look. George noticed that she had a very small thingy in her ear because she stroked it with her fingertip. He had seen these before but had never mentioned them ever since the first time he had said something about them to his parents. They had insisted to him that the people had absolutely nothing in their ears.

George was happy not to have to go back there and pretend that he saw things other people did. It was hard work. He was content just keeping his mouth shut in everyday life.

Late one evening, the power went out all over the city. George had never seen this happen before, though his father had told him that it happened sometimes when he was a child, back when there were still overhead power lines.

It was summer, so there was still plenty of light, and everything looked pretty much the same to George. But he was astonished at the change in other people. He was in the living room with his parents, watching TV, when it happened.

His mother screamed and his father gaped, open-mouthed into the heavily-slanted evening light that still shone through the windows.

"What's wrong?" George asked, fearfully.

"Everything's wrong!" his mother shrieked. "Nothing's right!" His father pulled his mother over to his end of the couch and held her tightly, comfortingly.

"I don't know what's wrong," he moaned to her. "I see it too, baby. But I'm with you."

"See what?" George insisted. Everything still looked normal to him except that the lights and TV were off.

"You don't see it?" his father asked, vaguely waving his hand around. "All this? It's like there's some weird light field changing the look of everything."

George looked around again. "Same old same old," he said. "Just a little dimmer."

He heard people shouting in the street. George's parents looked even more scared. George walked to the window and looked out at several hysterical people--and one very calm but worried person with a thingie in his ear.

Just then the lights came back on. George's father looked relieved until his mother started weeping uncontrollably. "It's like," she sobbed, "like this horrible dream I had as a child. Everything looked just the same. . .pale. . .white. . .all the color gone. . ."

The TV had come back on, too, and the woman was saying, soothingly, "The power is back on, now, folks, there's no need to worry. We are receiving some reports of mass hallucinations, but these all seem to have disappeared. Our meteorologist tells us that it was apparently just a trick of an unusual incident with the evening light."

She was so beautiful on TV. Everything was so nice on TV and looked just the way George thought the world should look. He sighed and ignored the white plastic all around him.

This story was posted on October 15, 2000.