Oh. Right. Amy froze when she realized there was absolutely no reason to continue sorting through her Aunt Georgina's packed belongings. No, she was not helping her mother's sister move into a huge castle out in the old country. It was a dream, and likewise, she was never sent to look for a 'pair of batteries' to power up some 'flash light' contraption. She had never heard of either such thing, though intuitively she knew a flash light was something similar to the torch function on her Apex smartwatch. She turned that on instead and navigated back up from the grim basement in search of a way out, briefly shining it onto her other wrist, just to make sure. Yes, Garner's little paw print tattoo was missing--this was definitely a dream. "Oh right, I should look for Clay," she said, reaching the top of the stairs and half expecting him to be there when the heavy door creaked open, but the kitchen was empty and strange. It looked nothing like Aunt Georgina's kitchen at all. Hers was a cheerful sunshine yellow with little DisFlix figurines everywhere; this kitchen was smaller, mostly white, and frankly boring. She walked around and checked it out anyway, letting her smartwatch scan for items of interest; it found none. This was the first time she had dreamed of wearing her Apex smartwatch after getting one a few months ago in real life- just the cheapest model, of course, with a simple ruby jewel atop a white silicone band. The jewel lit up from within after a quick tap and projected a holographic screen inches above her wrist, depicting CogniCorp's logo (a spinning cog inside a flat blue head.) "Hey Apex," she said to the screen, "where am I?" With a little jingle, it responded in a warm, motherly tone- [Hello Amy. Ok, searching....] Past the kitchen was a sprawling, bi-level den-- white and empty as it was spacious-- styled like she was in some classical 70's sci-fi space thriller: two yin/yang colored half-moon sofas faced each other, encircling a spherical fire-ring already set ablaze, lulling her in as she suddenly noticed the stark ambient chill. To the left, a full entertainment bar stretched around the lower level, lit up in neon and gold. No, this was definitely not her Aunt Georgina's house, who had strictly found all manner of recreational vices to be crude and primitive, especially drinking. Plus, her conservative aunt would never live in what was basically a Bond villain lair (fun fact: the 007 films quietly pioneered the multiverse fad in classical cinema, something she wrote an essay about in media class.) The Apex chimed and said, [I'm sorry, Amy, this location does not appear in CogniCorp's database. Shall I bring up the connection settings for troubleshooting?] "No, it's fine." She didn't expect it to know much anyway, not like it was the real Apex. "Hey, instead, can you tell me how to find my friend Clay?" [Sure, searching... A web result from www.lucidhive3.33.flix suggests that to summon a dream character, stand still and ask for them to come up behind you and tap your shoulder. Would you like me to search again? ] Oh. Right, she thought, I remember reading this a few weeks ago... "No, I'll try that," she said aloud, or whatever aloud means in a dream. The screen shrunk back into the jewel with a little tap, and Amy stepped up to the roaring fire and faced its warm glow, twirling a crimson ringlet of hair (a simple tactile method to keep from waking up.) "Ok, can Clay come and tap me on the shoulder?" she announced, eyes closed, wincing when she realized a creepy monster could answer her call instead. Not that she was scared, exactly, but in all her years of vivid dreaming, she'd seen some freaky -- Ssshhhh!!!! Don't freak yourself out... don't freak yourself out ... ...Three quick taps on her left shoulder, and she nearly jumped into the fire. Heart lurching, Amy turned around, whispering, "please be Clay... please be Clay..."
Not Clay, not Clay! Frozen again, at first sight it was a monster! Though not so terrifying...kind of like Bobidunk actually, her imaginary friend she had as a kid, who had recently come back to her as an irritably handsome tall guy, Clay. 'Bobi' always reminded her of a Barney-meets-Kermit sort of creature, for those interested in obscure classical television (for which Amy was a proud nut.) The fire behind roared, and in a blinding flash Clay now stood there in a silky black robe down to his knobby ankles; she hugged him faster than either could say hello. "Clay, what are you wearing?" "Oh, hello to you too." Stepping back, he snapped shut the robe's top-end. "I was just getting my first zero-gravity massage in space paradise when you pulled me here, but glad to see you, and all." He smoothed down his dark hair, half wet and slicked back, and nervously retied the robe's sash. "Question is, what are you wearing?" Oh. Right. Come to think of it, she hadn't considered that yet, but half expected it to be the pajamas she went to bed in. These pants were kinda like that, but with little galaxies printed all over instead of Dorothy, Toto, and smiley rainbows. And though she didn't remember going to bed in slippers, big fluffy cartoon clouds now adorned her feet, an obvious reference to her last lucid dream, which made her smile. Strangely, she couldn't see her own torso, but felt a huge sequined bow attached to her chest. With a shrug, she thought clearly--yeah, I own it, knowing Clay would read her mind, to which he promptly reminded her it's not mind-reading, but that she literally shouts her thoughts out (and that the bow is red, by the way.) "So, where are we?" he said with a welcome change of subject. "Oooh is that a recreational bar?" Hopping the few steps down to the backlit counter in the lower level, Clay went straight for the fancy espresso machine at the end. "Coffee?" Amy stepped down too, noticing the delightful sensation of walking on real clouds, a luxurious comfort after a long day working out there in the real. "Come on," he said, "I bet it'll taste just like you remember it, and none of those nasty side effects." "I think this is Evelyn's house," was Amy's delayed answer after a gulping sip. He was right, the coffee was delicious and piping hot, but didn't burn. "I remember coming here on high school weekends to escape the noise of the inner city... Her parents were always down here at the bar." "You sure? So it's not your dear Aunt Georgina's house? That's what you said earlier in the little opening bit of narration... hang on, I've got the transcript right here-" he tapped his wrist and Amy saw he had an Apex of his own, except his little stone was sapphire blue. The projected screen covered the bottom half of a sharp face that was likely smirking as wide as he could hide. "I mean, the whole thing's on the creator's website, for chrissakes." "Ok fine, I'll play. What the heck are you talking about now? You keep mentioning 'narration', did so the last time I saw you too. So come on, oh mighty Bobidunk of Dreamland, what incredibly insightful thing have you got to tell us now?" "Well, not if you're going to be rude..." He tapped off the Apex screen and crossed his arms, in exaggerated theatrics nearly as dramatic as Amy's. And since she now refused to look at him, there was plenty of time to focus on the coffee: such a thing had gotten so expensive out there in the real world, that it was hard to tell if this was truly the best cuppa joe she'd ever had, or if she just sorely missed it that much. With another sip, the rich nutty bitterness coated her tongue in dreamy bliss, bringing with it a taste of sharp clarity. "Oh right, I don't even have an Aunt Georgina," she verbally realized, and fell over giggling. It was suddenly easy to look at Clay again and they laughed at it together- "my mom was an only child... Oh my God, how crazy is that? No, this is definitely Evilyn's country house... Yeah, Evelyn's." "Ok then, Evelyn's it is. This should be fun. Shall we go look for her?" Amy agreed, and on the opposite side of the den they found a long hallway with too many doors to count at quick glance; even more stretched further on, increasingly lost within growing darkness, no end in sight. She said, "If you think I'm opening any of those doors, well, you might as well put a CogniChip in me..."
"Aw come on, it'll be fun. It's like a Tibetan yogi's wet dream. Come on..." His onyx robes fluttered behind as he ran to the nearest one. "What are you so afraid of?"
"I'm telling you, I've seen some freaky--"
"Ssshhhh!" He listened at the door and waved her over. It sounded like someone was crying on the other side, which didn't particularly help his case. She insisted that they try another one, but, "Really? There's someone very upset in there! And it's a dream, so that's you. Or maybe it's Evelyn. Would you really walk away from someone in pain?"
"Well I--" she started, but the increasing sounds of wailing interrupted. Amy twirled her hair and thought about it, and Clay asked,
"What's that you're doing now? Twirling your hair? What happened to stroking it?"
Oh, right. She stroked it instead, in long pensive pulls as she'd always done. How silly that she thought her favorite stabilization technique was twirling... but come to think about it, it reads better, whatever that means, so she immediately stopped stroking it and went back to twirling, and said,
"Are we going in or not?"
"Lead the way. But remember, put your attention on the crying when you open the door... Your expectations can change what's on the other side. Wouldn't want to end up in a classical rom-com about evil dancing house-elves. At least not currently. Just focus on who's crying?"
"Not a problem, I can barely hear myself think." The old rusted knob was just as creepy-looking as she expected, and whined like a dying banshee when turned, nearly as loud as the incessant wailing on the other side. Please be Evelyn... please be Evelyn...
Thankfully it was, and Amy let out such a sigh of relief the curtains on the far wall quivered, revealing a grim-gray morning outside. Evelyn (always prettier, skinner, and blonder than Amy ever since the boys were old enough to notice) lay on the bed sobbing; tears streamed down from her perfect little hands covering her perfect little face, the little collar on her white nightgown nearly soaked. She looked odd though, sort of see-through; like a ghastly shadow laid over her, piercing her delicate form laying corpse-like on the bed. "... Evelyn?" As if the whole thing wasn't weird enough, it was maybe the first time she'd ever seen her friend cry like this, and they'd been besties since kindergarten. Evelyn was always so perfect, and little, and happy--who wouldn't be with a huge mansion like this? The wailing stopped abruptly, though Evelyn remained perfectly still. "Hey, you ok?" Amy squeaked, "oh good, so... we'll just be on our--" --Interrupted by a growling, gutteral moan, Amy thought Oh hell no, spun around, and nearly made it back to the door if Clay hadn't caught her, spun her back around, and insisted she stay. "Ask her what she represents," he said, with an irritating sense of encouragement. "It's a shade, you should try and integrate." "I recall," she said instead, "asking for a fun dream this time." "Hey, you called me here. Did I mention I was in literal space paradise?" Though she couldn't see him while fixating on Evelyn (who, by the way, would have been perfect for a modern Grudge remake,) the irritable retying of a luxurious robe's sash assaulted her from behind. She rolled her eyes and said, "Fine. Evelyn, what do you represent?" The moans stopped just long enough for Evelyn to respond with- "I am that which you love and hate, a confliction of the friendly spirit." Oh. Right. The words didn't make any literal sense, really, but Amy was struck with a psychic download of its true meaning, about her relationship with Evelyn. She twirled her hair and did her best to piece it all together into something coherent. It took until high school to realize she'd been jealous of her best friend since forever. Even in kindergarten, Evelyn was smarter and more popular, always able to get her way with the teachers, coaches, even the lunch ladies. And she could eat whatever she wanted, not like she'd gain an inch, anyway. In eighth grade when she dressed as Galadriel (from the recent DisFlix version,) Amy secretly wanted to rip off her dumb holo-projected pointy ears and punch the nearest swooning boy. Why weren't they swooning for her? Even in tenth grade when Amy's face cleared up and she finally took Evelyn's advice on clothes and digital makeup, she was still only playing in her best friend's shadow. A gentle hand on her shoulder, which she knew to be Clay's, was enough to tell her he'd been listening in. "Ask her how you can help," he said in warm guidance, and she did. The low moaning growl paused again for a reply-- "Forgive me, for I am not to blame for your insecurities. And forgive yourself, for believing you are in my shadow. I love you Amy, stop torturing me so." Clay said-- "and in a dream, she's you. So you're torturing yourself. You should hug her." "I'm not hugging her! I got this." She tapped her smartwatch's jewel, and when the screen popped up, said, "Hey Apex, repeat what I say at full volume." She spoke and the Apex repeated in Amy's booming voice-- [EVELYN, I SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN SO RESENTFUL TO YOU ALL THESE YEARS. I LOVE YOU TOO, AND I'M SORRY. VERY, VERY SORRY. I'M TIRED OF IT TORTURING OUR FRIENDSHIP!] Like magic, Evelyn stopped crying, put her hands down, and smiled; again Amy blew the curtains open with relief, revealing a new dawn rising from the desperate clutch of dark, moody clouds. That felt good actually, a surprise since she'd wanted to say the opposite for years, or so she thought. Of course this is all stuff you hide away when also supporting your longest friend through the thrills and horrors that is public virtual school. In fact, after Bobidunk left, Amy would have never made it through without Evelyn's help. Oh. Right. Wait, come to think of it, she only met Evelyn in sixth grade after her mom died and dad moved them up north. A new kid in a new school, Amy went right under Evelyn's wing and the two were best friends ever since. What the heck, why did I think we were friends since kindergarten? The rest of it was all true, but, Is this even her house? Now Amy felt so crazy she wanted to crawl into bed and cry instead. "Sounds like you dream-woke a bit groggy," said Clay, comforting her as they walked back into the dark hallway. "Everyone's more open to suggestion when they're groggy, of course. Just need to stabilize and clear up. Don't you have a token for that?" "Bynx! Oh yeah, where is that little stinker?" Bynx was her pet black cat out in 'the real' but appeared as a stuffed animal in her dreams. Petting him always brought greater clarity, that is, if Amy could remember to look for him. "Look, you don't need him," Clay assured her, "you spend so much precious time forgetting to look for him, and then actually looking for him... no wonder we don't have a chance to do more fun stuff! You have everything you need right here, your two hands! Just rub them together, think of something that makes you really happy, and say 'clarity now' three times." "Sounds like casting a spell." "More like dispelling. Just try it, we've got more doors to open." He stepped away as Amy began rubbing her hands together. The friction alone made her feel much more stable and grounded, and she tried to think of something that made her happy, trying not to be distracted as Clay opened a door and slammed it shut again, then retied his robe's sash in anxious haste. Oh, right. The way my mom sang the Professor Zero theme song, the way she held me when I was anxious... Still rubbing her hands, she repeated "clarity now" three times and memories started to flood in: about her day, that jerk Brian from work, what she had for breakfast, what she dreamed about the night before which would not be repeated here in front of Clay, everything. She felt the closest to her awake self than ever before, even more than when Clay pushed that stability button in his big moon spaceship during her last lucid dream. "Oh, those buttons are mostly for cheap thrills," he chimed in, then sighed, "I miss my ship, still got it parked at Star City." "I didn't say anything about your ship, but yeah, it was sort of cool, I guess. So, which door is next? By the way, this is totally not Evelyn's house. Have no idea why I thought that." "Who's is it?" "It's mine," she said, stepping up to another door at random. "I mean, a dream house, one that I visit a lot. But I'm always scared to open the doors, because the few times I did, there were always ghosts or monsters inside." "Well, they kind of are. But you can learn a lot from your shades. Just ask Evelyn."
Amy listened at this door but it was silent. With a deep breath, she turned the knob and-
-walked straight into a rom-com on fast forward about evil house-elves having a dance off to win the ugly prince's black heart --Literally, the winner ended up eating it. Amy yawned, she'd seen crazier. Clay vigorously said,
"Told ya so."
"Clay, if I can be so different in a dream, just based on what I misremember, then who am I really, out there? What all do I remember wrong, and who does that make me, out there?"
"Out where?" he replied and shook off a little female house-elf swatting a crooked dagger at his silky black robe.
"You know, out there, where I'm sleeping."
"Where is that exactly?"
"You know, out there. You know..."
"No, you tell me."
"Well," she took a moment and felt what it was like to be dreaming, then tried to feel for 'out there' where her body was, "I guess I don't really know how to put it. It feels like this is all there is, and there is nothing out there, although I know there is, because there I am. I mean, right?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. I've been literally fighting off the women since we came in."
"Oh never mind." She huffed, not because he didn't hear her acute rambling, but that he had managed to turn it into something so egotistical. "You know what? Why don't you go back to your luxurious massage at 'Star Land', and come back when you've thought of something fun to do."
"It's Star City" was hidden somewhere in Clay's cough, then he said clearly, "you sure? I don't mind staying but, you know, these women can't keep their daggers off me..."
"Just go then!" she barked, but grabbed his closest fingers and mouthed 'bye' before he opened the door. Instead of the hallway on the other side, Clay stepped into a serene looking spa and floated up and away.
Oh right. An anti-gravity massage, he said. Dang, I want to go to Star City! But for her, the door opened back into dark hallway. Disappointed, she left and went back to the recreational bar, rubbing her hands a few times along the way as the dream threatened to fade. The first thing to do after waking up would be to text Evelyn in VR, and tell her she's loved.
The second, she decided, as the bar came alive and poured her a margarita, was to ask her dad if he knows a 'Georgina'. As lucid as she was, she couldn't shake the fact that she knew that name somehow. Oh well, now there was nothing left to do but sip her delicious lime cocktail and hold on to this moment, to have in contrast to when she'd wake up, out there. There's got to be a fundamental feeling in the difference, right? Ok, it's fading now, I'll wake up in my bed. I am out there, aren't I? She clutched the big red sequined bow attached to her chest, and laughed.
Pastel works by Shaun Power
Crystal abstracts and music by Justin Phillips