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“In the letters you mention something called a … Pan … loopticon? What can you tell me about that?”

“I didn’t write the letters,” I said. “Emma did.”

“Sure. Let’s switch gears, then. Tell me about Emma.”

“Doctor,” my mother interrupted, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage—”

“Please, Mrs. Portman.” Dr. Spanger held up a hand. “Jake, tell me about Emma. Is she your girlfriend?”

I saw my dad’s eyebrows rise. I’d never had a girlfriend before. Never so much as been on a date.

“She was, I guess. But now we’re sort of … taking a break.”

Dr. Spanger wrote something down, then tapped her pen against her chin. “And when you imagine her, what does she look like?”

I shrank back in my chair. “What do you mean, imagine her?”

“Oh.” Dr. Spanger pursed her lips. She knew she’d messed up. “What I mean is …”

“Okay, this has gone on long enough,” my father said. “We know you wrote those letters, Jake.”

I nearly jumped out of the chair. “You think I what? That’s not even my handwriting!”

My dad took a letter out of his pocket—the one Emma had left for him. “You wrote this, didn’t you? It’s the same writing.”

“That was Emma, too! Look, her name’s right there!” I grabbed for the letter. My dad whipped it out of reach.

“Sometimes we want things so badly, we imagine they’re real,” Dr. Spanger said.

“You think I’m crazy!” I shouted.

“We don’t use that word in this office,” Dr. Spanger said. “Please calm down, Jake.”

“What about the postmark on the envelopes?” I said, pointing at the letters on Spanger’s desk. “They came all the way from London!”

My father sighed. “You took Photoshop last semester at school, Jakey. I might be old, but I know how easy that sort of thing is to fake.”

“And the photos? Did I fake those, too?”

“They’re your grandpa’s. I’m sure I’ve seen them before.”

By now my head was spinning. I felt exposed and betrayed and horribly embarrassed. And then I stopped talking, because everything I said seemed only to further convince them I had lost my mind.

I sat fuming while they talked about me like I wasn’t in the room. Dr. Spanger’s new diagnosis was that I’d suffered a “radical break with reality,” and that these “peculiars” were part of an elaborate universe of delusions I’d constructed for myself, complete with fantasy girlfriend. Because I was very intelligent, for weeks I’d managed to fool everyone into thinking I was sane, but the letters proved I was far from cured, and could even be a danger to myself. She recommended I be sent to an “in-patient clinic” for “rehabilitation and monitoring” with all due haste—which I understood to be psychiatrist talk for “looney-bin.”

They’d had it all planned out. “It’ll just be for a week or two,” my father said. “It’s a really nice place, super expensive. Think of it as a little vacation.”

“I want my letters.”

Dr. Spanger tucked them back into her folder. “Sorry, Jake,” she said. “We think it’s best if I hold on to them.”

“You lied to me!” I said. Leaping at her desk, I swiped at them, but Spanger was quick and jumped back with the folder in her hand. My dad shouted and grabbed me, and a second later two of my uncles burst through the door. They’d been waiting in the hall the whole time. Bodyguards, in case I made a break for it.

They escorted me out to the parking lot and into the car. My uncles would be living with us for a few days, my mom explained nervously, until a room opened up for me at the clinic.

They were scared to be alone with me. My own parents. Then they’d send me off to a place where I’d be someone else’s problem. The clinic. Like I was going in to have a hurt elbow bandaged. Call a spade a spade: it was an asylum, expensive though it may be. Not a place I could fake swallowing my meds and spit them out later. Not somewhere I could dupe doctors into believing my stories about fugue states and memory loss. They would dope me with antipsychotics and truth serums until I told them every last thing about peculiardom, and with that as proof that I was irredeemably insane, they’d have no choice but to lock me in a padded cell and flush the key down a toilet.

I was well and truly screwed.

* * *

For the next several days I was watched like a criminal, a parent or uncle never more than a room-length away. Everyone was waiting for a call from the clinic. It was a popular place, I guess, but the minute there was an open room—any day now—I would be bundled off.

“We’ll visit every day,” my mom assured me. “It’s just for a few weeks, Jakey, promise.”

Just a few weeks. Yeah, right.

I tried reasoning with them. Begging. I implored them to hire a handwriting expert, so I could prove the letters weren’t mine. When that failed, I reversed myself completely. I admitted to writing the letters (when of course I hadn’t), saying I realized now that I’d invented it all—there were no peculiar children, no ymbrynes, no Emma. This pleased them, but it didn’t change their minds. Later I overheard them whispering to each other and learned that in order to secure me a spot on the waiting list, they’d had to pay for the first week of the clinic—the very expensive clinic—in advance. So there was no backing out.

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