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First Draft: 2/15 — 12/31/13

Second Draft: 2/16 — 2/27/18
Laurie Connelly’s dream journal covers less than one week.

That’s because she wasn’t trying to document all her dreams, just to record a story told over a
specific set. And what it lacks in longevity, it makes up for in detail. Each entry describes a
complete sensory experience that seems to last hours, if not days.

But read alone, it’s impossible to make sense of. To understand it, some context is needed.
PART I

Laurie never cared for reality. She dealt with it, but that was all.

The maze of tract houses she lived in had long since lost her interest, and the endless news of wars
and terrorism from the outside world had gotten old just as fast. Likewise, she couldn’t have cared
less about the fashion trends, boy bands, and singing contests that seemed to define modern
culture.

She was never one to examine her own life either, and when she did, she tried not to talk about it.
She didn’t even find it interesting herself, so why would anyone else? It baffled her how long people
could go on about their daily minutiae, their pets, and their petty arguments with whoever.

And she wasn’t interested in whatever divine abstraction might be up there. Like a lot of her
generation, she believed there wasn’t one, anyway.

Her interest lay in other worlds. To her, fiction writing was the smartest thing humanity ever got
into. She was awestruck by what words alone could do: bring vast universes to life, fill them with
people just as engaging as any she’d met, and create experiences more moving than anything she’d
seen in her eighteen years in meatspace.

Dreams had always fascinated her for similar reasons, but until that week, none of hers were worth
writing down: on the rare occasions she remembered them, they were always nonsense. If they had
any meaning, it was so well-hidden that not even at her most pretentious could she find it.

Except for that one from last year where she was staring at a blinding orange mushroom cloud
erupting into the sky, and in the last few seconds before she was burned alive, she wept tears of joy.

That one was obvious, and she was disappointed her subconscious wasn’t more creative.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON

A few things happened that week to change that.

She and her dad had spent the last month cleaning up in preparation for the move. They didn’t
know when it would come—no one was even interested in the house—but he’d wanted to get an
early start.

The basement was the hardest part: it took two weeks of work to bring it up to the level of “pigsty.”
She couldn’t believe some of the crap her parents had held on to: over those two weeks, they came
across a collection of mid-nineties computer parts, her mom’s Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, two decades
of waterlogged holiday and baby shower cards, tumbleweeds of burnt out Christmas lights, fifteen
rusted paint cans, and most of Journey’s discography on cassette. None of it hers, and none of it
interesting in the least.

Worst of all, the pump had recently gone out. After a day of rain, she came home to find it
ankle-deep in brown water.

Her dad rented a shop vacuum to get it up, then they had to go through the whole thing, tearing
open soggy cardboard boxes and throwing their contents into garbage bags. Faced with the task,
she tried to “suddenly remember” some critical school project due the next morning, but she
couldn’t make it sound convincing enough. The basement smelled like mildew and depression, the
water had left everything slimy, and she didn’t get why she should be punished for her parents’
hoarding in the first place. Every minute was torture.

That is, until she came across a little plastic container. On opening it, she excused herself, rushed
upstairs, and emptied it onto her bed.

Inside were:

One plastic baggie of Sharpies, ballpoints, #2 pencils, and other “art supplies.”
One big, gaudy costume necklace with a broken chain.
Three spiral-bound notebooks, labeled “Yume”, “Characters”, and “Other”.
One sketchbook, labeled “places”.

Relics from a simpler time, when she dotted her i’s with circles and had yet to learn what a Mary
Sue was.

Laurie didn’t remember her childhood that well—most of it was just a blur of boring things with no
dates tied to them—but one summer stood out.

It was…

JUNE 2002

...And she was a pudgy ten-year-old who burst into freckles in the sun and wore the kind of glasses
that were only cool “ironically.”

But with no one to criticize her appearance, she didn’t care. She had a Nintendo 64, a DVD player, a
sketchbook, and several packs of pencils, and she was happy. Even at the rate she lost pencils, those
would be enough to keep her occupied without having to deal with other people.
As she recalled, that was also around the time she started getting into anime. She’d seen a few of
the basics before: mostly those crap ones the local Fox channel showed on Saturday mornings, but
with her newfound free time, she started looking for more online.

She didn’t expect the whole new world she found, bursting with color and optimism. She was too
young to recognize its clichés, so it all seemed new, dazzling, and so much more ​alive​ than any other
medium she knew. Often very weird, too, but in a good way.

It was the beginning of an addiction, but a hard-to-feed one. In those days, her choices were limited
to whatever the local video store could cram onto one dusty shelf at the back. Not that she could
afford it, at thirty dollars per three episodes.

Once, her dad let her use his credit card to order a few DVDs off a questionably-legal website. She
had to take on extra chores for that, but it was worth it. Her haul was three Ghibli movies burned
onto one disc, seven badly-subtitled episodes of​ .hack//SIGN​, and ten more of ​Cardcaptor Sakura​,
the original version with the first seven episodes intact. But they were watched and re-watched ad
nauseam that summer, leaving her wanting more.

The closest she could get to a steady fix was from the early issues of ​Shonen Jump​. Getting three
hundred pages of manga for five dollars was the highlight of her month. But even those were
usually read in a day. She tried fanfic, but without the visual element, it wasn’t as satisfying. Her
parents were starting to complain about how much time she was spending on their computer by
that point, anyway.

So she’d have to make her entertainment herself. About halfway through the summer, she started
drawing—at first, just fanart. She hadn’t gotten the hang of poses yet... Or hands, feet, clothing,
shading, body proportions, vanishing point perspective, how humans emote, how to draw mouths
or noses from the side, how hair falls, how joints bend, or making facial features line up... But with
no one to criticize it, she didn’t care.

But two weeks into her new mania, her dad brought her an English-Japanese dictionary. He only
picked it up because it was on sale, and gave it to her with a mumbled apology for not knowing if
she’d even wanted that. But it wasn’t necessary: she was delighted, and went on to spend hours
poring over the lists of words that all seemed so strange and exotic. That’s where it began.

Most kids have alter-egos, and she was no exception. She came up with one that summer, starting
with the name. Being ten and literal-minded, she went straight to “dream.”

“Yume.“

Short, easy to remember, and feminine. Good enough. Then, being ten, she decided her alter-ego
should be a princess.

“Hime.”
She liked the half-rhyme they formed when put together, and she was satisfied.​ ​Looking back, she
was ashamed of her silly word choice, but at the time, with no one to criticize it, she didn’t care.

Next, she looked in the bathroom mirror and mentally subtracted a third of her weight, doubled her
hair’s length and buffed it to a brassy shine, replaced her nose with a delicate penstroke, removed
her glasses, and gave herself a pair of big ​tareme​ eyes. The result bore little resemblance to her real
self, just how she wanted it.

After settling on Yume’s appearance, her personality came naturally; it was just as idealized, with all
the traits she lacked in real life: grace, refinement, confidence... Yume always knew what she
wanted, how to get it, what to say at all the right times, and where to put her hands. She never
sweat, fidgeted, or hyperventilated in social situations.

Continuing to work outward, Laurie developed a detailed world for her to live in, starting with a
castle. Picture the kind of castle a ten year-old, working mainly from Disney World photos and
half-remembered storybook illustrations, would dream up. Now imagine it’s ten times bigger than
that. Once she started building it in her mind, unconstrained by a budget or the laws of physics, she
just didn’t stop. None of it had measurements, but it was about a thousand feet at its highest point,
with hundreds of rooms and towers, topped by a forest of golden spires. It dominated the
landscape.

It was just as ostentatious on the inside: labyrinths of polished marble hallways ran between
cathedral-like rooms, most with no real purpose. Many of the details were pulled from a PBS
documentary on the Vatican she watched late one night when nothing else was on.

In the middle of the great hall at the front of the building sat Yume’s throne, a giant stone structure,
built into the floor, with velvet cushions. It was engraved with all kinds of elaborate floral patterns
and Latin sayings: she didn’t know any Latin, but no other language seemed formal enough.

Her bedroom sat atop the tallest tower, accessible only by a spiral staircase.

Around the castle, an extremely quaint city sprawled to the horizon. Despite her obsession with
Japan​ (​one that would later be tempered on learning how they saw​ gaijin​ and ​otaku​), ​her fantasy
world wasn’t based on the real country, but its RPGs and the medieval fantasy that inspired them,
with liberal amounts of Miyazaki’s Europe thrown in. She’d spent a lot of time looking up places
like Prague and Florence after watching ​Kiki’s Delivery Service,​ and was mesmerized by their fairy
tale looks, so there were fountains and clock towers all over the place.

A colossal white marble statue of Yume stood in the city square, several hundred feet tall. In its
right hand, it thrust a sword to the sky, and its open left hand swept backwards. It wore a long,
flowing dress, captured mid-billow. It was based on one in Russia she’d seen a picture of online.

Her world was permanently stuck in... The Medieval Period? The Renaissance? The Victorian Era?
Something like that. Everything from 1000 to 1900 seemed mostly the same. Whatever time it was,
all the trappings of the modern world were forbidden. Cars, guns, even phones and computers: she
didn’t want any of it.

Also banned were people. She populated her kingdom with talking cats and dogs, rabbits, foxes,
small dragons, and censored tanuki. As she learned more about fantasy, she got more creative,
adding things like chimera and jackalopes.

Outside her kingdom’s lone city was a vast and pristine naturescape, but one without bears, snakes,
mosquitoes, or anything like that. There were some parts of nature she could live without. There
were plenty of cherry trees, though, which meant plenty of cherry blossoms.

It didn’t make sense, but that was just how she liked it. Keeping the rules fluid ensured everything
was always just how she wanted it, and she could just rearrange it whenever she got bored. And
she purposely avoided inventing a backstory. There was no need to explain anything, even to
herself.

Yume had no origin or past, she just came to exist somehow. And she didn’t have parents, so no one
could order her around. Technically that made her a queen, but she didn’t feel old enough, so she’d
still be a princess.

No one would ever have to teach Yume anything, but she’d know everything. She’d be the picture of
etiquette, and speak in the prim, contraction-free style of fantasy novels. No one was paying for
anything, but she had everything. She surrounded herself with fantastic opulence and dressed in
giant frilly gowns, ermine capes, tiaras, the whole bit.

There weren’t villains or conflict, either. In those first few months of its existence, Yume’s world
was just a happy place where she could live a quiet life of absolute rule over thousands of peasants.
Having to save it would just be a pain.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT

Looking through the sketchbooks of her “work,” her nostalgia quickly turned to embarrassment.
She didn’t expect masterpieces from her preteen self, of course, but she’d have a hard time
forgiving herself for ​this​.

The two-dimensional buildings and characters, the endless chibis, the stock expressions stolen from
shoujo manga, the shovel-faces, the enormous heads… The sparkles. So many sparkles. She was a
better person now, and all this was best put back in the basement, hopefully to be destroyed in the
next flood.

But for some reason, she didn’t. And later that night, after finishing her homework, she even idly
re-drew a few, just to see how far she’d come. Then she put the new drawings in with the old and
kept the container in her bedroom closet. She had no idea why, but she decided she wanted them
close by. Something told her she might want to take another look at them.

THURSDAY AFTERNOON

The next day, she had the strangest dream of her life. There were three reasons:

The first was that, unlike her normal fuzzy ones, it was as clear as if it’d actually happened, and she
remembered it down to the details of the furniture.

The second was that it seemed like the beginning of a story. But, as is often the case with dreams,
she didn’t get to finish it. She was almost at the most interesting part when someone punched her
in the arm, hard, and she woke up.

She was on the bus home, and it was her stop. She looked around, furious, but everyone around her
was snickering equally, so she couldn’t tell who did it. She ignored them, trudged to the front, and
got off. The weather was just sad: a steady rain fell from a low, overcast sky, the dull light tinting
everything gray like someone desaturated the world. And the bus had stopped in a puddle, so her
feet landed right in it, soaking through her cheap canvas shoes. It was just one of those days.

Forgetting to wave goodbye to Ben, the only other person who got off at her stop, she turned and
headed home. It was a long, boring walk down a long, boring street lined with ‘70s houses and
decorated with dead cars on dying lawns.

She came to 5927 and turned down the dirt driveway. It was a little brick house, old and dingy,
with a weathered “For Sale” sign in the front yard. The same place she’d lived all her life.

She’d forgotten her umbrella that morning, so by this point, she was soaked. She sniffled—she
wasn’t sick yet, but she could feel it coming— and forced her key into the rusted lock. The house
was silent: Dad had mentioned he’d be closing the store today. That meant he might have to work
until eleven, so she’d have the evening to herself.

She went straight to her room and locked the door out of habit. Like the rest of the house, it was
small, cluttered, and filled with cheap, mismatched furniture, but she’d made it all distinctly hers:
She covered the ugly metal desk with a mess of pencils, markers, and half-finished drawings, for
that arty look. She filled the peeling faux-wood bookshelf with alphabetized rows of novels, manga,
and DVDs. Anime posters, straightened with reverent care, lined the walls. Her parakeet greeted
her with a flurry of chirps as she entered. It was the only place she felt like she belonged.

Her homework load was light that day, so she decided to look something up before getting to work
on it. Dropping her backpack next to the chair, she sat down at the desk, cleared a space for her
bulky, six year-old laptop, and pulled up Google.
Each search brought up millions of pages on dreams. Meanings, documenting them, common
symbolism... Browsing through them, she took the most interest in the ones about lucid dreaming.
At first, she’d just wanted to know why the one she’d had was so vivid, but now she was thinking
it’d be nice to have more like it. To see where the story would go.

There were hundreds of guides to inducing them, most too involved for her to take seriously.
Following a 61-point relaxation technique? Making a scented pillow? Someone had too much free
time.

But there was one called “Keeping a Dream Journal.” That was doable.

“Step One

“Find a notebook or journal specifically to record your dreams in. Keep it within arm's reach of the
bed.”

Fair enough. She had an empty one in her desk drawer. She glanced back to the article.

“Dreams fade quickly on awakening, so you need to write them down as soon as you wake.”

Well, too late for that, but she could at least work from memory and piece the rest together.

“Note down the date of your dream. Then write down everything you can remember. Write everything
in the present tense. This helps with remembering dreams by putting you in the moment.”

Pushing aside her low-end Wacom tablet, she cleared another space on the desk, set the notebook
down, and opened it to the first page. She wasn’t sure this was the best use of her time, but at least
she’d found something in her life worth documenting.

She adjusted her glasses—by the bridge with two fingers, like Gendo Ikari—and began to write:
3/10/2010

I open my eyes.

Dust gets in them.

My whole face is covered in dust.

I brush it off and sit up, and my body creaks like I haven’t moved in years.

I’m in a huge four-poster bed with velvet curtains, in a dark room filled with antique furniture, all of
it also dusty.

I heave myself out of bed and look around.

There’s a Persian rug on the floor and a chandelier on the rug, and a hole in the ceiling where the
chandelier should be.

One wall is taken up by a huge picture window, also with velvet curtains, and another wall across
from the bed is just one big bookshelf. The bed’s pushed up against the third wall, and the last one
has a fireplace with a sword stand on the mantle. There’s a painting of a young girl hung over it, but
I don’t recognize her.

It dawns on me that I have no idea who I am, either - but in a corner on the other side of the room,
there’s a wardrobe with a big mirror on top of it.

So I look into it. I’m not me.

On one hand, I look better in some ways. I’m thin, perfectly toned actually, and my nose is way
smaller. It’s barely there. I’m not sure how I’m breathing. Am I? I make a note to figure it out later.

My skin’s flawless except for a light dusting of freckles across my face. My eyes are the size of
tennis balls, which will take some getting used to, but besides that, they’re nice. And now I
recognize the girl in the painting, too.

But on the other, I’m a mess. My hair’s a rat’s nest and feels like straw to the touch. I’m barefoot.

I’m wearing a white dress with white opera gloves, a red velvet cape with ermine lining, and a silver
tiara. Normally, this outfit would look majestic, but it’s badly worn out and looks like it was made
for someone half my height. My dress, which would touch the floor on someone it actually fit, ends
at my knees and is coming apart at the seams, the cape is fraying, and the tiara looks like it could
give me tetanus. The gloves are way too small and they’re stuck on too hard to remove. My fingers
have ripped through them, my nails deeply torn and and ingrown.

Carefully stepping around the broken chandelier, I cross the room to the bookshelves. They’re filled
with the kind of books you always see in lawyers’ offices on TV: rows of big, matching hardcovers
that look like old encyclopedia sets. But none of them have titles, and when I try opening some,
they’re all blank.

I take a look at the sword on the mantle next, then take it off and unsheathe it. It’s long and narrow,
with a fancy hilt. It’s also rusty and feels kind of brittle, but it’s still better than nothing. I don’t
know what’s outside this room, so I bring it with me.

Then, in hopes of figuring out where I am, I turn my attention to the huge window across from the
bed. I try to draw back the curtains, but when I pull on them, the rod pops out of the wall and they
fall to the floor.

Good enough. I look out.

I’m at the top of a very tall tower, looking out over a ruined city that stretches to the horizon. It
looks like those black and white photos of Europe in World War II, just buildings destroyed and
gutted as far as I can see. Big parts of it are just debris, jagged piles of stone and bricks.

On top of that, everything’s actually black and white. There’s no color in sight. I can tell nothing’s
alive down there. Not just because I don’t see anything moving, but... I don’t know how to describe
it... There’s this weird sense of emptiness, and of some kind of dread I can’t describe, so thick it
hangs in the air. Something just feels wrong about this place.

The sky’s a deep charcoal gray, like an approaching storm, but the clouds don’t move. It doesn’t
even look “cloudy,” actually. It’s so even in color, it’s like it was painted on. Everything’s dead
silent: there isn’t even wind.

Part of the window is broken, so if I’m careful to avoid sharp edges, I can lean out just a bit, and look
at the building I’m in.

It’s a castle: a really big and complex one. It looks like it’s made of white marble, but decay’s turned
it the same dull gray as everything else. It’s held up way better than the rest of the city, even if my
window’s the only one with glass in it.

Straight ahead of me, dominating my field of view, there’s a giant crumbling statue in the city
square. It looks like it was put there just so someone standing here would have the best view of it. I
recognize its face too, and I’m starting to think whoever built this place must’ve had a really weird
fixation with me. This version of me, I mean.

I decide to go outside and look around a bit. I open the room’s only door and find it leads to a long
spiral staircase. The climb down takes forever, and I spend it wondering what kind of idiot put my
room at the top of a tower in a land with no elevators.

At the bottom is a set of heavy double doors about ten feet tall, in a frame shaped like a pointy arch,
with wrought iron decorations and a crest of a bird set into them.

They creak open as I approach them, then shut themselves behind me. It’s a little weird, but I’m not
complaining.

They lead to a long, winding corridor, that leads to another set of doors just like the last. The doors
lead into a giant hall that looks more like something you’d see in a cathedral than a castle: it’s far
longer than wide, with a high ceiling.

Time has not been kind to it. Glass crunches under my feet, there are holes in the roof big enough
to see the sky through, and cracks are scattered across the floor, some wide enough for me to peer
into them. The furniture’s all rotting and caked in grime.

Gray light streams in from a series of windows set high into the walls. The few that aren’t broken
have stained glass depictions of me doing a variety of heroic-looking things: making some kind of
important proclamation with my hand raised in the air and light coming from around my head.
Dramatically pointing a sword at something outside the frame. Riding some flying creature. I don’t
know what’s so important about me that someone would make all these tributes.

Next to the door, a staircase leads up to a platform in the middle of the room, on which sits a huge
marble throne covered in intricate carvings.

I climb the stairs and take a close look at some of the words inscribed into it. It’s something like:

“LOREM IPSVM, NONSENSIUM NONESUCH. DEUS EX MACHINA AD INFINITVM. HOC SPACIVS
LEFTVM BLANKVS, ET CETERA.”

I wish I’d learned some Latin.

I explore the rest of the room. In total, it has six sets of doors. The one at the back, obviously, leads
back to where I just came from. The one at the front leads outside. Three more open onto hallways
I have no interest in going down.

The last one’s immense: twice the size of all the others. It’s locked.

As I keep looking around the room, something gives me the chills. I don’t know why, it’s just this
weird feeling I get. And despite what I said earlier, something’s starting to tell me I might not be
alone... It’s like there’s some silent presence creeping around, always just out of sight. Something
that can see me even though I can’t see it. I look around and consider calling out.

In the corner of my eye, a shadow darts across the other end of the hall. It’s only for a fraction of a
second, but I swear I see it.

I whirl around and whip out my sword. “Who goes there?!” I yell.

But there’s no answer. After a minute of pointing it at nothing, I start to feel stupid and sheathe it
again. I’m just being paranoid, I tell myself.

But then, from behind me, I hear something creaking. When I turn around, one of the front doors is
just slightly open. It wasn’t before.

And I start to hear something that sounds like a human voice. I can’t tell what she’s saying, but
someone’s definitely whispering to me. I start toward the door...

Then some dick punches me, and I wake up.
She finished up, then looked back to the article.

“Step Three

“Identify dream themes. Think about the location, characters, sensations, sounds, objects and emotions
of the dream. Underline key themes that may help with interpreting dreams.”

On waking up, the meaning of the dream was apparent—she wouldn’t have been moved to write it
down if it wasn’t—but vague.

But now, the meaning of its details was beginning to emerge, and she could tie each one to
something she’d found in the sketchbooks, giving more clarity to what she was so indulgently
describing.

That was the third thing strange about it.

JULY 2003

Catherine Connelly would admit she peaked in high school. Naturally petite, with high cheekbones,
they used to say she could’ve been a movie star. Not these days, of course: a couple decades of
stress and chain smoking had aged her up. And not like she would’ve had the personality, anyway.
She’d never been a touchy-feely person, and years of suppressing her nature had only made it
worse: She worked at a call center, so being nice was her job, and she refused to take it home.

One Saturday morning that July, her husband got up before the alarm and forgot to switch it off, so
it woke her at seven. It was a good thing he’d already left the room: if he’d been within arm’s reach,
she would’ve smothered him with a pillow. She worked evenings, so to her this was an ungodly
hour.

On entering the living room, she was shocked to find her daughter sitting on the floor, a foot from
the TV, watching what looked like the same cartoon she’d seen at least fifteen times. The sun hadn’t
even fully risen yet. Why was she up this early? And why would she get up just to watch ​that
again? This couldn’t be healthy.

Catherine snuck up behind her, grabbed the remote from her hands, and hit the power button. “Go
outside.”

“But—” Laurie began.

“I bet you fell asleep on the couch again.”

“But—” Laurie began again.
“Look, how many times have we had this talk?”

Laurie steeled herself. “But dad said I could stay in ‘cause it’s gonna be hot today!”

Catherine grabbed her by the ear and pulled her to her feet. “Do you think I give a shit?”

“But... But I wanted to...”

“Wanted to what?”

“I don’t know...” Laurie sighed.

“If you don’t know, we don’t have anything to talk about. This is between you and me, anyway: you
know how much ​your father​ knows about what’s good for you.” She spat the words like cherry pits.

“So just go, and if he asks, tell him it’s because you want to.”

That wasn’t really out of concern for her health, Laurie thought. Mom just wanted the room to
herself so she could smoke and watch some news special with a name like “Avenging Freedom.”

She detoured through the kitchen. Dad was in there, making a pot of coffee. Maybe she could
convince him to overturn the decision.

Jim Connelly was in his early forties, over six feet, and built like a potbellied stove. He was
red-faced, as Irish Americans often were that time of year, and clean-shaven, as he’d been for as
long as Laurie could remember.

Height difference aside, they resembled each other. They even had the same dishwater brown hair,
and though hers was longer, both wore it roughly the same way: parted on one side, with a section
swept over the forehead and tucked behind an ear. Not much thought went into it for either of
them: it was a who-cares hairstyle.

Their personalities were different, though. Where she’d always been shy, he was outgoing and good
with people—an expert at small talk and projecting an air of down-home geniality.

They never saw eye-to-eye on politics, either: he went on to put a “W” sticker on the family car the
following year, and as she grew older, the gap between their views only grew bigger. But it wasn’t
an issue for either of them. He was reliable, worked hard to provide, and really cared, if in an
understated way.

“Where are you going?” He’d asked.

“Outside.”

“Why?”

He knew why. He just wanted to see what she’d say.
She looked at her feet and mumbled, “Because I want to, I guess.”

He sighed. “Cathy threw you out, didn’t she?”

She nodded. He sighed again. “Just do it this time.” He said, adding under his breath: “I don’t want
this to be another damn ordeal.”

So she did. She went to her room, gathered a few pencils and a sketchbook, and shuffled out the
back door. She could tell it was going to be a hot, boring day, but at least she could go to the park
and draw there. Just because she had to obey the letter of the law didn’t mean she had to obey the
spirit.

At the end of the next street over, there was a little park: just a pavilion, a modest playground, and a
stone plaque dedicating it to some dead public servant. No one ever seemed to use it, so at least she
could be alone. She sat under the pavilion and drew for an hour before getting bored, after which
she wandered around until she noticed something:

Behind the park, there was a wide strip of forest, left there by the developers to hide the power
lines that ran through it, and a small, fenced-off lake. But someone had cut a hole in the fence, and
behind it was a small dirt path leading into the woods.

It ended in a field of tall grass where the trees had been cleared out to make room for the series of
massive pylons. The clearing went on for what seemed like miles, much further than she cared to
explore. She’d eventually find out it led to another development like hers, but for now, it didn’t
matter. She just liked the atmosphere. The forest surrounded it on all sides, thick enough to block
the view of the houses outside it, so it was easy to pretend she was journeying into some ancient
lost wood. And the area by the lake’s shore was completely obscured by trees, so no one would
even be able to see her from the park.

That became her secret place. She went there regularly over the next month. Whenever her
mother would throw her out or she’d just get sick of her parents’ arguing, she’d fill a backpack with
the few manga she owned, a sketchbook or two, and a handful of pencils, and spend an hour or two
staring out at the lake, thinking up some new addition to Yume’s world.

Although, as she soon found out, it wasn’t a secret. No one bothered her, but it was obvious she
wasn’t the only one who knew about it. The clearing sat right between two neighborhoods, so
people would sometimes use it as a shortcut: every now and then, she’d hear rustling and voices.
Once, a couple teenage boys passed through. She hid behind a bush until they were gone.

Soon, litter started showing up. Usually snack wrappers, cigarette butts, and bottles, but
occasionally, there’d be something interesting. One day, she found a wooden rake handle. She had
no idea why anyone would leave it out there, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was
just long enough to pretend it was a sword.

Though there were still no threats, immediate or planned, to Yume’s little utopia, Laurie wanted her
to know how to fight. It was such a classic image, the refined lady who could handle a blade with
the best of them.

Yume would need a rapier.

Laurie didn’t have any specific affinity for rapiers, but no other type of sword seemed elegant
enough. Longswords were too mannish. Short swords were for peasant boys. Katanas were
always cool, but they wouldn’t fit the setting. And she didn’t know any others at that age.

Of course, anything besides a sword wasn’t acceptable. Archery was for backup characters, spears
were for henchmen, and what kind of princess would use a crossbow?

Yume, she decided, would know fencing. No one would teach it to her, she’d just know it. It seemed
to be just a bunch of dodging and parrying, anyway. You could probably learn it by intuition.

So, after checking every inch of the clearing several times to make sure she was alone, Laurie picked
it up, got a feel for its size and weight, and swung it. She attacked a few invisible targets, then
practiced some awkward stances and strikes before tripping over her own feet, which brought her
back to reality enough that she couldn’t help but laugh at herself.

A couple weeks later, on her way to the park, she noticed a neighbor had set out a box of old
costume jewelry with the trash. One piece caught her eye: a tinny necklace with a big fake ruby on
its charm. She knew it was worthless, but it still shined. She took it home, washed the dirt from
between the links of the chain, and stole a dab of her mom’s jewelry polish when she wasn’t looking.
She could’ve just asked, but then she would’ve had to explain where she’d found the necklace, which
she didn’t feel like going into. She hid it in a drawer by her bed.

The clasp was broken, so she couldn’t wear it, but she didn’t want to. It wouldn’t have looked right
on her. But Yume could. She used it as a drawing reference, and incorporated it into her mythos.
This would be her amulet. The Amulet of...

She’d decide on that later. She wasn’t even sure exactly what an amulet was, but she knew this was
one. It would have magical powers, but she had no idea what they would be. She’d know once she
named it.

Her parents didn’t know what she was up to. They’d occasionally catch a glimpse of her drawing
something, but she’d hide it if they got too close. It was normal for that age, they figured. Let her
have her secrets. So she spent the month in a happy daze.

AUGUST 2003

But soon enough, the summer had to end. She’d be moving on to sixth grade and a new school.

The night before she was set to don the itchy uniform, she huddled under the covers, rocking
herself back and forth, clutching a Kirara doll.

There was a knock at the door, which she didn’t answer, but it creaked open anyway. Her mom
came in and turned on the light. She was greeted by a lump under a blanket. She sighed. Yes, they
kept the air conditioner a little high, but it was still August, so it wasn’t cold. Laurie would never
admit it, but she did this when she was nervous about something.

“Is anyone in there?”

There was a nodding motion towards the top of the lump. “What did I do?” came a timid voice from
inside it.

“Nothing. I just want to talk. In fact, I’m sorry I’ve been so, uh... Abrasive.”

Laurie pulled the blanket down to her nose. “Really?”

“Yeah. I keep wanting you to act like an adult, but you’re not. And I don’t want to ruin your mood.”

“What mood?”

“You’ve seemed different lately,” she said. “Happier. It’s nice to see. It reminds me of how I was
when I was your age.

“...But look at me now,” she mumbled, breaking eye contact. “Anyway, are you excited about
tomorrow?”

Laurie shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Are you nervous?”

She nodded.

“A little scared, even?”

She nodded again.

“Don’t worry about it. That’s what growing up feels like.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Get used to it.” She sat down on the bed. “It’s weird. When you’re a kid, you want to grow
up. When you’re grown, you want to be a kid again. Grass’s always greener on the other side. But
in a way, it’s not really that different. You just do more.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s the big secret about adults: we have to cook and clean and go to work, but most of us are
just tired kids. We don’t know what we’re doing any more than you do. It’s all just an act.
“So we put on this big show, but it’s because we’re all kind of afraid. We’ve made a lot of mistakes
and we’re afraid of making more. We’re afraid of letting our families down and not being able to
pay the bills. We’ve been hurt, and we’re afraid of letting anything else get to us. That’s why we’re
so... Cold, sometimes.”

Laurie didn’t know where she was going, and wasn’t sure this monologue was even meant for her.
Her mother looked so worried. “Am I making any sense?”

“I guess,” Laurie said, lying a bit.

“Well, there’s no point in me talking your ear off about it. You’ll see for yourself soon enough. For
now, just enjoy this part while it lasts.”

She didn’t know what to say, so she just nodded. She hoped that wasn’t supposed to comfort her.

“Good night.” Said her mom, leaning in and kissing her on the forehead. She winced and squirmed
a little, but still smiled.

With that, her mom flicked off the light switch and closed the door. The last light disappeared from
the room.

She pulled the covers back over her head, but didn’t feel warm.

THURSDAY NIGHT

Physically, Laurie hadn’t changed much since then.

She was still freckled—she didn’t tan so much as spontaneously combust—and she’d never lost her
baby fat. Quite the opposite: she was five foot four now, so according to a chart she found online,
she’d be her ideal weight if she sawed herself vertically in half.

She’d grown her her hair out, but besides that, the only noticeable difference was her glasses. A few
years ago, she’d traded the coke bottles for a pair of thin wire-frames, hoping they’d make her feel
less dorky. They didn’t.

She was the same girl mentally, too, but she’d grown more cynical. She liked to see it as “more
aware,” but if anything, it’d just made her retreat further into herself. She was never a big talker,
but now she rarely did it at all.

And she never thought about Yume anymore. She’d moved on from that part of her life and never
looked back. Even now, she suspected the dream was just the last kick of a dying animal, and now
that it was written down, she should just forget about it and move on. What was the point of
wasting her time puzzling over it, anyway? Not like dreams had any continuity. Even if there was a
story in it, it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t be able to see it through.

But she couldn’t resist trying. It was in her nature: when she got interested in something, she had
to learn as much about it as possible. So after finishing her homework, she spent another hour
reading up on lucid dreaming.

Rereading “Keeping a Dream Journal,” she took note of another passage.

“Find a lucid anchor.

“Just before you go to sleep, choose an object that you can see clearly from your bed. When you look at
it, think: ‘I will remember my dreams.’”

Simple enough. No harm in trying. And there was something perfectly suited to the purpose,
something that also tied her to her childhood and her old fantasies, sleeping in a cage on the
dresser.

When she was twelve, her parents had brought her a budgie. A dog or a cat was out of the
question—they made sure it was something that could be contained to her room and her
responsibility—and goldfish were too fragile.

Being at the height of her weeb years, she named him Tomodachi. He wasn’t what she’d wanted,
but she loved him anyway, and he was included in her fantasy world. In her dreams, he became a
magnificent creature: something like a Chocobo crossed with a phoenix: fifteen feet tall, with the
wingspan of a small plane. She kept him in a giant glass aviary in the castle gardens.

She gave him the ability to talk, and he’d listen to her worries and give advice. He never led her
astray: he was an animal familiar, and they were always right, somehow. Occasionally, she’d let him
out, jump on his back, and let him fly her across the kingdom. It didn’t matter where they were
going.

In real life, he spent most of his time flapping from one end of the cage to the other, biting the bars
and twittering occasionally. But she still talked to him. She’d bid him good morning and good
night, and occasionally confess to him some deep secret or hidden anxiety in a low whisper, just for
the satisfaction of having told it to ​someone.​ And to her surprise, it did help. Often, just putting her
fears into words could help her work through them. He never learned to say anything back, but it
was fine.

Almost six years had passed since then. She didn’t talk to him anymore, even entertaining the idea
of it these days was embarrassing, and though she still took dutiful care of him, the novelty had long
since worn off. She never changed his name and saw no need to, but she never called him by it
either. And although she still loved him in a silent way, she saw him as a living memento of her
past—all the times she wanted to distance herself from.

But tonight, some of her old fascination with him was starting to return. It was nice. Even if
nothing else came of all this navel-gazing, it was giving her a renewed interest in her own life.

As always, she fed him and changed his water before getting into bed, but this time, instead of
turning out all the lights and rolling over as usual, she left her desk lamp on and watched him until
she fell asleep.

Though it felt a little silly, as she drifted off, she repeated to herself: “I will remember my dreams. I
will remember my dreams. I will remember my dreams.”
3/11/2010

I’m in a dead garden, surrounded by rotting topiaries, wilted flowers, and fallen trees.

Making my way through it, I come across a lot of dry fountains and broken statues. Time has
eroded most of their faces off, but all of them seem to be of me.

At the center of the garden, there’s this building that looks like the Crystal Palace: a huge lattice of
metal and glass, most of it rusted or broken, respectively.

It has a strange air of familiarity, and something tells me to go inside. So I open the door and go in.

It looks like it used to be a giant greenhouse of some kind. It’s full of trees, all bare now, but still
very big and stately, and smaller plants, which appear to have been... Eaten.

I make my way to the back of the structure, where I find something I never expected: a sign of life.

It’s Tomodachi. He’s even bigger than I imagined him.

He’s asleep, head tucked under a wing, but he’s definitely moving. I approach him noiselessly, but
he still opens his eyes as I get close.

I run to him, and he wraps his wings around me. We hug for a while. “Welcome back”, he says,
without moving his beak. “You’ve grown.”

I always imagined that he could talk, but I never knew how he’d sound. His voice is deep, like the
voice of God in a movie, and it sounds incredibly wise. It’s the kind of voice you instantly trust.

“I have?” I respond.

I clearly remember my own voice, too. It only vaguely resembles my real one. It’s slightly higher in
pitch and much more melodious, which is nice, but on the other hand, my speech is kind of stilted
and artificial, like I’m reading it from a script and over-enunciating every word. Basically, I sound
like a bad voice actress.

He nods. “Do you remember anything?”

“Hmm... Not at first, but it is starting to come back now. I remember who I am, and I have a vague
sense of where I am. But beyond that, my memories are conspicuously absent. In addition,
although I can tell that I have slumbered for an exceedingly long time, it seems to have been no
longer than an ordinary night.”

I don’t know why my speech is so flowery. I just open my mouth and whatever I was thinking
comes out that way.

He nods. “Also, I don’t believe you know what’s going on here. But that’s to be expected, given the
circumstances.”

“Where is everyone?” I ask, thinking of all the things I’d dreamed up to keep myself company.

“You abandoned them. They died.”

I feel so utterly alone and confused. But looking back on it now, it makes some sense. Tomodachi’s
the counterpart of a real bird I see every day, and Yume is, of course, an avatar for myself. So the
two of us, unforgotten, were the only survivors of... Whatever happened.

“Whatever happened, anyway?” I ask him.

“One day, you went to sleep and didn’t wake up”, he says.

“And for how long was I comatose?”

“In your time, five years. In ours... Decades, centuries... It’s impossible to tell.”

Looking back on it, I wonder how he knew how much time had passed in real life, but like
everything weird about these dreams, I don’t notice it at the time.

“What catastrophe befell my kingdom during my slumber?”

“Nothing so dramatic. The land just ceased to function as its population slowly died off.”

There’s a long and dismal silence.

“So... What happens now?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“Am I to spend the remainder of my life trapped in a wasteland?”

“Actually, no. The world’s going to end pretty soon.”

“That’s a rel...” It takes a second to hit me. “Wait... What?! I mean... Are you saying... ‘Soon, relative
to cosmic time,’ or ‘soon’ meaning...”

“Sometime this week.”

“Oh.”

Another long silence.

He smiles. “Although you may be able to save it.”
“All right... I... Um... How?” I stammer, still struggling to process what I’m hearing.

“Your eloquence fits your nobility”, he says. “I suppose you could say it involves a quest. Of sorts.”

My head's still spinning from that part about the world ending. “I... I see.” So... Uh... Where do we
start?”

“Not ‘we.’ Just you. I can take you a few places, and I can give you advice. But I can’t fight your
battles for you, and I certainly can’t go with you into that dark world. In this, you are alone.”

“What dark world?”

“The one behind the wall.”

“This city has not a wall.” I say flatly, growing frustrated.

“Dreams and nightmares are twin realms,” he says, “separated by an invisible wall.”

With a sweep of a wing, he gestures toward the world outside his cage.

“Look what we’ve made”, he says. “A great cocoon, built on sand. Have you ever wondered what
lies beneath it? Or behind it? Or in fact, what surrounds it on all sides? You will soon see, for the
wall is breaking down. As we speak, the holes grow.”

“You speak no sense”, I pout. But he keeps going.

“You will slay three: one in a memory, one in a mirror, and one in a fog. When these beasts are
vanquished, you will be rewarded with an artifact that will grant you power beyond your wildest
dreams. Finally, the door to The Inside will open, and there, you will come face to face with The One
Behind the World.

“At that point, you will decide your own fate.”

OK, that part I do get. Fight three monsters, get three keys, find some legendary weapon or
something like that, then fight the final boss.

I sigh a long, theatrical sigh. We could’ve saved a lot of breath if he’d just gotten to that first.

Then he says something that throws me for a loop: “...But make sure you truly want to do this.”

“What are you on about?” I ask indignantly. Who wouldn’t want to save the world?

“Have you ever stopped to consider that this may not be as easy as you think? What if you-”

“Die?” I spit back.

“Well...” He trails off.

“No. Stop. Just stop right there. There is no chance of that, and the mere mention of the word
offends me. How could you even suggest such a thing?”

“If I may be completely frank, you may not be as up to this task as you believe. “You’ve been asleep
for... An extremely long time. And you seem to have acquired a curious case of amnesia.
Furthermore, your previous life here was one of leisure: certainly nothing that would prepare you
for combat.”

I can feel the blood rushing to my face.

“I never gave you my permission to be ‘completely frank!’ I do not know who you think you are, but
it matters not, for you are merely my mount, and I do not see you serving that purpose at the
moment. And I repeat, there is not even the ​slightest​ possibility that I will die here.”

“How do you know?”

“Do you not know who I am!?”

Tomodachi seems to smile again. “Well, your assumption’s basically correct. You won’t die here. In
fact, during your quest, no permanent harm will come to you at all. This will merely be... I suppose
you could call it a journey of self-discovery.”

But then, his tone noticeably sobers. “However, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. Should you fail, your
immortality within this world will simply mean those creatures of the dark will be able to torture
you infinitely. And trust me: though they can’t kill you, they’d love nothing more than to make you
wish they could.”

“Enough!” I shout. “Just tell me where to find them!”

“Don’t ask me: ask yourself. Only your intuition can guide you.”

I’m beginning to give up on the hopes of ever getting a straight answer out of him, but I keep going.
“And what do I have to fight them with?” I ask.

He gestures toward the sword at my hip. “That.”

“What about magic?”

“Honestly, even I don’t know. This world’s magic is chaotic.” He said. “At no point has a set of rules
been defined for it.

“​Whoever created it​,” he emphasizes that part, then pauses, “must’ve kept putting it off because it
was too complicated, then going back to dreaming of tea ceremonies.”

“Hmph”, I reply.

“So, are you starting to understand why this might be a bit harder than you’d anticipated?”

“Nonsense. I am still more than prepared to handle anything this world, or any other one, cares to
throw at me.”

But then, I stop for a second as the question finally occurs to me: “How do you know all of this?”

He smiles. “I know much more than you would imagine.”

And I wake up.
FRIDAY MORNING

Sunlight peeked in through the blinds, casting orange stripes across the room.

Laurie woke from a sleep that did nothing to refresh her, shut off her phone’s chirping alarm, and
fumbled around the nightstand for her glasses.

On finding them, she began her daily routine. First, she stared into the middle distance for a
minute. The morning stare was her favorite stare of the day. Next, she got up, showered, brushed
her teeth, and tried to force a comb through her hair. She’d let it grow to chest level with no
maintenance, so trying was the best she could do.

She returned to her room to get dressed. Her closet was filled with baggy jeans, men’s T-shirts, and
tent-like hoodies, most in muted colors; the only splashes of brighter ones came from the occasional
game or band logo, usually ironed on. She dressed to avoid attention. She ended up going with a
shapeless pair of black jeans, a plain white shirt, and a muted blue hoodie she’d decorated with
three emoticon buttons over the left chest: “O_O”, “DX”, and “T_T”.

Finally, she took the notebook with her and headed out to the kitchen. As she passed by her dad’s
room, she nudged the door open a bit and stared at the wardrobe against the far wall, as she did
most days.

For breakfast, she stuck two frozen waffles in the toaster and poured herself a bowl of stale cereal
with almost-expired milk. Her dad joined her after several minutes and scrambled a few eggs for
them to share. He was different than before—quieter, less emotional. They’d both changed in
many of the same ways.

They ate in silence. She spooned cereal into her mouth with one hand and scrawled into the
notebook with the other. He avoided commenting until she spilled some on her pants.

“What’re you working on?” he asked as she mopped at it with a wad of paper towels. There was
the same gentle friendliness to his tone as always, but for the last year, it’d seemed kind of forced.

“Homework.” She answered.

She’d resolved to keep the diary a secret. If anyone read she’d spent last night arguing with a giant
budgie about how an immortal princess could save the world, they’d have too many questions.

Five minutes passed before her dad turned around to look at the microwave. The clock read “0:00.”
There must have been a power outage last night.

“What time is it?” He asked.
She checked her phone. “7:48.”

“So you’re going to miss your bus, aren’t you?” He sighed. “And you’ll need a ride.”

She didn’t answer, but he remarked to no one in particular, “I wonder what your mom would’ve
said about that.”

He still talked about what mom would’ve done. She tried not to think about it, but she knew exactly
what mom would’ve done. Mom would’ve spent the morning lecturing her with obvious
disappointment in her voice. Mom would’ve asked a lot of questions:

Why didn’t she have a social life? Why were her grades just average when she was so much smarter
than that? Why was she wasting her life on cartoons, computer games, and drawing pictures that
weren’t that good anyway? If she was going to be so antisocial and stuck in her own head, why
wasn’t she at least studying something practical, like math or the piano? Never mind they couldn’t
afford tutoring or a piano, it was the principle of the thing. And why’d she let her diet go? She was
doing so well.

If Laurie tried to object to anything, mom would’ve cut her off and informed her that she didn’t care
about her opinion, and if she was tired of this, maybe she should think about what she’d done to
deserve it. So she’d just nod and give some monosyllabic answer at the end of each sentence, her
brain screaming the whole time.

Mom would’ve pointed out that other parents had kids they could brag about. Mom would’ve used
the word “pathetic” a few times. Mom would’ve quietly said, “I don’t know how much longer I can
take this.” Dad would’ve pretended not to know what she meant.

And so on.

Laurie started to snap back, “You could’ve—” but shut herself up before she could make it to
“—reminded me.” She didn’t want to go there.

“I’m doing the best I can.” He mumbled, mostly to himself.

“I know,” she said, and meant it.

TEN MINUTES LATER

The rain started again at just before eight, and Ben went out into it shortly afterwards.

The bus came a little early that day, and he’d missed it, so he had to walk. The school was two miles
away, but dad would kill him if he found out he’d skipped. Dad always found out, somehow.

Benjamin Fischer was eighteen, tall, and lanky. Yes, his name was Benjamin, as he’d grown sick of
explaining. No, he didn’t think it was an unusual name for a black kid. It was after his grandfather.

Ben was from New York. No, not the city, as he’d grown sick of explaining. Near a military base
outside Albany. When he was ten, his dad transferred, and he ended up here. It took some getting
used to. Things were different down south.

But overall, they’d built nice lives for themselves. He was popular; landed a girlfriend by thirteen,
and had them consistently since then; and he’d always done pretty well in sports: he joined the
track team in eighth grade and found a comfortable niche in it that lasted him through his teenage
years. And his home life was nice. It was cheaper here, so his parents didn’t have to work too
much, and the family spent a lot of time together. It wasn’t where he wanted to live, but overall, he
liked it.

It rained a lot though, which he didn’t care for. He pulled up his jacket, which kept it out of his face
for a couple of minutes before getting saturated and dumping the excess into his eyes. He tilted his
head down and trudged on.

As he neared the end of the block, a car pulled up next to him. The window rolled down just a bit,
and a big white guy poked his nose over the top. “Need a ride?”

Ben never saw most of his neighbors, so it took a second to recognize him as one of them.

“Uh... Sure.” He responded. He got in the back. “Sorry about gettin’ your seats wet.”

Laurie sat in the passenger’s seat, staring out the window.

He looked up at her reflection in the rearview mirror. “Oh, hey. Morning.” She looked up at his,
nodded, and said something below his range of hearing.

Enigmatic as always. He lived just around the corner and saw her twice a day, but each time it was
like they’d never been introduced. He’d learned not to take it personally, though.

AUGUST 2003

It was the first day of middle school. Ben had a little stage fright, but he was confident he’d fit in
soon enough. He considered himself a normal kid at the time. He got decent grades and didn’t give
his parents any trouble. He fantasized about fighting—followed wrestling religiously, watched old
Kung Fu movies on cable, and hid burned Wu-Tang CDs in his closet—but never did it in real life.

At the bus stop was a girl he’d never seen before, sitting on the ground playing a Game Boy. He
waved, she nervously waved back. He walked up to her and they exchanged quiet introductions.
“You a sixth-grader?” He asked.

She nodded.

“Me too.”

There was a long, awkward silence. He tried to make a little more conversation, asking her where
she was from and what she liked to do, but she seemed to be trying to worm her way out of it. He
thought she was weird, she thought he was nosy, and they agreed not to like each other much.

Most of the bus-stop conversations they’d have over the next few months were similar, and they
rarely saw each other at school. Every now and then, they’d pass each other in the hallways and
greet each other with an unenthusiastic nod.

But her aloofness didn’t bother him. He had plenty of other things to worry about, and his own
circle to run in. Around that period, Ben started hanging out with an odd group of kids after school.
The group that wasn’t quite uncool, but wasn’t quite cool either.

In those days, before Ben got to know anyone else, it was just him and three others.

First was Jerrell. He was really into football, and kind of hard-edged. Ben hadn’t seen him since
moving on to high school, and didn’t remember much about him besides that.

Next was a kid everyone had nicknamed B.T., unusually tall and unusually fat for his age. Would do
anything for attention, and was occasionally funny. A clown, but overall, all right. That’s why they
kept him around.

And then there was Eric. The white kid.

Eric was short, skinny, and wide-eyed. His voice was high even for his age, and he looked about
nine instead of twelve. He hated that, and tried to cover it with a machismo that just looked
ridiculous coming from someone like him.

He gelled and spiked his hair in what he thought was the tough guy style, but his face was too soft to
strike fear into a kitten. He’d tried to get into sports, but he wasn’t any good at them. He tried to
get with every girl who crossed his path, but they weren’t having it. He told everyone he could fight,
but no one cared.

FRIDAY MORNING

Ben, like Laurie, wasn’t that different from his old self. But his life had changed around him. He’d
joined a more popular circle after sixth grade, but didn’t seem to let let it go to his head.

Any problems he’d had with her were in the past, but it was still awkward between them. They had
nothing in common: they grew up on the same street and went to the same school, but they might
as well have lived in different dimensions.

And there was the silent-treatment thing. Like now. She’d taken out a spiral-bound notebook,
started scribbling in it with great urgency, and tuned out the world.

No one talked. Ben, glancing around the car, considered trying to start a conversation, but he had
no idea what to talk about. He considered last night’s football game, but didn’t think either of them
would want to hear it.

Laurie’s dad scanned the radio dial, trying to find something to listen to. To his daughter’s dismay,
he settled on a country station, but at least he knew Ben probably wouldn’t like it and turned it
down to a tolerable level.

Bought back to reality, Laurie stopped writing for a minute to look out the window at the
boarded-up stores and deteriorating prefab houses blurring by. Each street they passed looked just
like the last. Occasionally, a gas station or a small church would pop up, but that was as exciting as
it got.

This was her world: a small, run-down suburb of a small, run-down city on the Deep South’s
nebulous border.

Both the town and the city were built around an army base, so much of the culture revolved around
machismo. There were a lot of vets raising future vets. Hunting camo was standard wear, and gun
collections a popular discussion topic. Confederate flags flew everywhere.

Besides the normal suburban assortment of big box stores, gas stations, and fast food joints, almost
everything was built with the soldiers in mind. Lots of strip clubs, dive bars, and tattoo parlors.

And it seemed that whatever wasn’t for them just existed to take advantage of the poverty the
whole city was mired in. Tons of churches, fast food joints, Chinese take-out shacks, liquor stores,
check cashing places, used car lots, sweepstakes cafés, gun-and-pawns. A few museums, but almost
all war-themed.

There wasn’t much for someone her age to do there but go bowling. She hated bowling. She looked
stupid enough without Day-Glo shoes.

Naota Nandaba’s words crossed her mind. ​“Nothing amazing happens here. Everything is ordinary.”

She checked the clock on the dashboard. She had to get back to the journal. There wasn’t much
time left. If she let herself get absorbed in her classes without writing more of it down, she’d forget
the details. Giving up after a bit, though, she scribbled a few notes in the margins and resolved to
finish it later.

Five minutes later, they pulled up in front of their school, a squat brick rectangle. She tucked the
notebook in her backpack, waved goodbye to Ben, and got out of the car. Then she disappeared into
the packed halls, made her way to homeroom, and began another average day.

She was nearing the end of her senior year now, and high school had been nothing like TV had told
her it would. The popular girls didn’t torment her with catty put-downs: to do that, they’d have to
notice her. There were enough bad boys, but she mainly knew about them second hand: some were
rumored to be gang members, and she was afraid to be caught even looking at them. Plus, for them
to talk to her, they’d have to notice her. She also heard rumors of parties, but she never went to
them. For anyone to invite her, they’d have to notice her.

Which they didn’t. Few people did. But she was fine with that. She saw how they treated each
other and didn’t want any of their drama. As far as she cared, they could all piss right off. She knew
whatever interest her life was to offer, it wouldn’t be found there. In fact, she purposely avoided
clubs, musical programs, anything that would keep her in the building a minute too long. But she
still wished she had someone to talk to.

As the bell rang, she arrived at her first class, took her seat, and began her routine. Within her
weekly and daily routines, each class had its own.

First up was homeroom. Sit in the corner and don’t look at anyone, recite the pledge, write in
dream journal.

First period, English IV. Read from boring 19th century novel, finish early, write in dream journal.

Next up, World History Honors. Read from textbook, copy onto paper, worry about upcoming
project. She would’ve done the journal thing again, but she enjoyed this class much more than she
thought she would. It was giving her a grudging respect for the real world, or at least, the more
interesting world of the past.

Third period was by far her favorite: Chemistry with Mr. Barker, who always managed to make it
fascinating, if only just to her.

The period began with a dramatic introduction to the topic of particle reactions. He’d turned the
lights off and moved a small metal table to the front of the room, atop which sat a Bunsen burner, a
spoon, and a funnel with a long plastic tube over the narrow end.

After all the students were seated in the darkened room, he lit the burner, casting a flickering
orange light across the room.

“Today, we’re going to learn about dust explosions.” He announced.

She’d recently watched the episode of ​Toaru Majutsu no Index​ where Accelerator blew up Tomasu
with one, so for the rest of the class, that was all she could think about.

Mr. Barker held the funnel up so the whole class could see it. “This is a regular funnel.” He bent
down, reached under the counter, and came back up with a ten-pound bag of flour. He set it on the
table. “And as you can see, this is an ordinary bag of flour.”
“Looks like it was wheat flour inside.”

He pulled on a pair of goggles and stepped back. “Those of you in the front, get up and move back a
little. This experiment can be hazardous, and I recommend you don’t try it at home. Hair can catch
fire, hands can be burnt.”

“This might be a rather dangerous circumstance, eh?”

He scooped a spoonful of flour into the wide end of the funnel, held it close to the flame, then
stopped to explain: “When air pressure is applied to fine powders, it becomes airborne dust. The
particles spread out, exposing their entire surface area to the oxygen.”

“Because there’s powdery stuff floating in the air…”

“When combined with a source of ignition, each particle will ignite almost simultaneously.”

“And if it caught fire, I bet the speed at which oxygen burns would be crazy fast.”

“And when that happens, I think the result needs no explanation.”

“You’ve heard of dust explosions at least, right?”

“Now, I’m going to hold the funnel close to the flame, and when I blow into the hose... Watch what
happens.”

“Muahahahaha!”

She couldn’t help but smile as he raised the hose to his mouth, the flour hit the flame, and a
miniature fireball shot into the air. The whole class gasped and jumped back.

Fourth period was Visual Arts III. That was the other class where she broke out of her routine. It
was relaxing, and she was good at the assignments, so she usually finished ahead of time. Third and
fourth periods were always the best part of the day.

But the crash always came with the next period’s lunch break. Kristyn Gillis’s table was next to the
lunch line, so they always had to see each other. They didn’t speak, and Kristyn whispered
something in her boyfriend’s ear as Laurie passed, knowing she could see her. Just like every day.

And just like every day, Laurie ignored her, snuck out through the cafeteria’s side exit, made her
way to the library, and ate alone.

AUGUST 2006

It was the third day of her freshman year, and she’d yet to meet anyone she liked enough to sit with.
So after picking up her free cardboard pizza, handful of rubbery tater tots, and box of milk, she
wandered the cafeteria for a while before spotting the table she wanted to take a chance on:

It was in a corner, separate from the rest. It had the highest concentration of kids with glasses;
some of them looked almost as gawky as her. They wore black band tees as a uniform. Laurie
didn’t have one, but she could always make iron-ons: she’d been thinking about doing some Visual
Kei ones anyway.

It was a circular table, but one girl—blonde ponytail, smattering of acne, Linkin Park shirt—was
obviously at the head of it. Laurie was the last to take her seat, by which time the girl was already
ranting about some fight with a friend in a voice like a dentist’s drill. Everyone else was leaning in
close, paying rapt attention.

Laurie listened and tried to extract sense from it. The girl was livid at... Something. “Something
something ‘Myspace,’ something something ‘fucking annoying’” was all she could catch. She was
talking very fast, and most of the intelligible words were some variant of “fuck.”

Laurie didn’t bother saying anything. She wouldn’t have been able to get a word in. Besides, she
wanted to see if she could catch any of this.

“...So I don’t even know how to fucking answer that shit, and... The fuck are you staring at?”

Five heads turned to face Laurie, and she could feel her every flaw being magnified. She tried to
answer, but realized mid-sentence that all that was coming out were various combinations of “I,”
“uh,” and “nothing.”

“What?” Said the girl.

Laurie came up with several comebacks at once then lost them in transit to her mouth, so all that
came out was a mumbled half-word best transcribed as “Weh.”

A stick-thin boy, Disturbed shirt, looked at her, then to the blonde girl, then back at her with a
can-you-believe-this smirk. “Hey,” he said. “You retarded or something?”

She wished she could’ve come up with something bolder than “...No?”

Laurie was afraid of a lot of things. Rats, needles, being startled—but most of those she rarely came
across.

Other people, though: no avoiding that one. Everything she did around them was wrong. A
mispronunciation, or the wrong tone of voice, could shatter her self-image for days. A joke no one
laughed at made her wish she could erase herself from this timeline.

Everyone was watching, everyone was judging, and deep down, she knew everyone hated her. If
they didn’t yet, they would soon enough. It was only a matter of time before they figured her out
and ran away screaming, especially if she got too attached. And here, she could see it playing out in
real time. “Run,” her instincts screamed. “Just get out now.”

But when she got up to move to another table, the girl stopped her. “Hey, look...” She began. “We’re
just fucking with you. Don’t go.”

There was a minute of awkward silence before she added: “...And by the way, I’m Kristyn.”

The rest of the lunch was spent in relative peace. And much to her surprise, Kristyn called after her
from across the parking lot as she was heading towards her bus after school. She came up to her
and laid a hand on her shoulder. Laurie recoiled slightly at the physical contact.

“You seemed kinda pissed. Were you?”

“No.” A half-truth.

“Will you be back tomorrow?”

“I dunno,” she mumbled.

“You ​are​ pissed, aren’t you? Kristyn spat, more of an accusation than a question.

Laurie wasn’t particularly angry, but she’d decided she didn’t like that group very much and would
rather remain alone. So she just shrugged. Hopefully she could frustrate this girl into going away.
Worked with everyone else.

Kristyn hesitated, taken aback by her disinterest. “You didn’t take that too seriously, did you? I
mean, we were just making fun of you because you’re new. And honestly, you’re kinda weird.”

“If you think that, why are you talking to me?” That made her feel a little bit better.

“You seem nice enough. Look... You can come back”

“You look like you’ve got enough friends.”

“Yeah, but they’re a bunch of dicks. Honestly, I don’t even like them that much.” Kristyn’s tone was
much softer now.

“You don’t like your own friends?”

“I hate everyone.” She responded with a smile.​ ​“But I don’t know… I feel like I can trust you. In
fact, maybe we can hang out sometime.”

“Uh, OK,” Laurie replied, trying to smile back.

They exchanged phone numbers, and Laurie went home proud of herself but not quite comfortable.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON

To this day, she still had the occasional anxiety attack. The pain was literal and burning, and her
breath came in little rasps.

There’d been a miniature one as she passed Kristyn. Just a pang, and a few breaths skipped, when
the memories hit her. But that happened every day. And she suppressed it, like always, and the
rest of the day proceeded as normal. In the hallways between classes, she got lost in picking up
snatches of conversations and wondering what their context was.

“I don’t think Josh loves me anymore.”
“So I said, don’t even try to talk that shit in my house.”
“I don’t care, as long as he doesn’t win.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t, but I’ll do what I want.”
“Oh my God, Stephanie, did you hear that? Oh my God...”
“...She didn’t wanna, but I made her take it off.”

Everyone was so loud. It gave her a headache.

Normally, she would’ve finished the day with Precalculus, but it was a Friday in spring, so seventh
period was cancelled for a pep rally. The whole student body crowded into the gym to sit through
an hour of hype for the sports teams. She couldn’t have cared less, but it was better than getting
math homework. She spent it listening to the Pillows and finishing her journal entry.

About halfway through, a wad of paper bounced off the back of her head.

The boy sitting next to her looked over his shoulder and hissed, “You missed, fag!” She turned
around to find another one trying to suppress a giggle fit. “Sorry! He snickered.

For a moment, it took her back.

OCTOBER 2003

There was a boy in math class who threw paper balls at her.

It didn’t hurt much, but it quickly began to drive her crazy. Especially since she could always hear
him rip a sheet out of his notebook and crumple it up, so she knew it was coming well beforehand.
There’d be a pause—anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes— until the teacher turned
away, then it’d smack into the side of her head.

She couldn’t dodge it. Not only was it coming from her blind spot, but her chair was attached to her
desk. The few times she tried it made it even worse: her size didn’t leave her any room between the
two to move, which only made her more embarrassed. It soon became a defining fixture of her day:
Fifth period was when she got hit in the face.

Days turned into weeks. She didn’t know why he chose her alone as a target, or what was so fun
about watching her wince and glare at him over and over, but by that dumb look on his face, he was
loving it.

Sometimes she’d tell the teacher, and he’d lecture him or send him out of class for a little while, but
he was always back doing it again the next day. And she eventually caught wind that her telling was
making her even less popular, so that recourse was given up soon enough.

Even worse, the kids around her started to laugh with him. Just a little at first, which eventually
faded after a week. But after a couple more, the length of the gag became the gag, and it apparently
circled back around to funny. By that point, every time she reacted, it would trigger a chorus of
giggles across around the room.

Then the teacher would turn around: “Eric! Stop or you’re going to the office!” That just made
everyone giggle harder, and drew more attention to how little Laurie could do to stop it on her own.

He started to throw them harder and harder, and eventually to lick each one so each impact stung
and made her feel a little more unclean. That was enough. Two weeks into the Chinese Paper
Torture, she tracked down his locker and found him there after class.

“What’s wrong with you!?” she meant to say but ended up yelling.

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yeah you do.”

“Maybe,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter. What you gonna do about it?”

“I… I don’t know. Just stop.”

“Oh, don’t be a little bitch. Get over it.”

“Stop!”

He slammed his locker an inch from her face. “Make me. You could tell Mr. Davies again, but we
know how good that works, right?”

She opened her mouth to issue some kind of threat, but she had nothing.

He smiled. “You got nothin’, right?”

She looked away from him and down towards the floor.
He laughed. “I’ll give you a chance to get back at me. Hit me.”

She clenched a fist, raised it, then stopped herself. This was a setup. Her mind, as it always did,
worked itself up into a frenzy of “what does it mean?” and “what could happen?”

She wanted to. She’d been fantasizing about it the whole time. But that would just give him a
chance to hit hit her back and get away with it. And she could tell he’d hit back harder. He didn’t
seem like the type with any qualms.

“What are you waiting for!?” he said, loud enough to attract the attention of everyone around them.

She turned around to notice they’d attracted a small but enthusiastic audience.

What if you mess it up and don’t throw it very hard and it just kind of bounces off him and he laughs?
Or even worse, what if you miss?

It’d just be better to not do it. At least she could still keep some kind of quiet dignity that way. So
she backed down. There was a chorus of “aww”s from the onlookers.

She left in defeat. That kid knew his power games. He’d won, she thought, the bombardment
would continue the next day, and there was nothing else she could do about it.

But it didn’t. She got her wish, and the class passed without incident. Although that did nothing to
ease her suspicions. The opposite, in fact. Every five minutes, at roughly the interval she would
have been hit in the face, she would turn around and look over at him, just to see what he was
doing.

Whenever he saw her, which he usually did, he’d simply smile until she turned back around. ​What​,
he wondered, ​would it take to make this girl snap?

The next day after school, she left her backpack sitting on the ground at the bus ramp while she
went to the water fountain. She’d only be gone for a minute or so, and it was too heavy for it to be
worth the bother of taking it with her.

As soon as she was out of sight, he unzipped it, dumped the textbooks on the ground, and ransacked
it for anything interesting, pocketing all the pencils and pens inside. Then he threw the empty bag
into a puddle. She always brought a sketchbook with her: finding it, he tore off the spine and tossed
the rest into the wind. She came back to find her drawings scattered across the pavement, covered
in footprints.

Decent start, but he could do better. He left her alone in fifth period from then on, but whenever he
saw her outside of class, fair game. “She sucked me off once, you know that?” he’d whisper to
anyone who knew her, just to see the looks on their faces. He told other girls to start shoving her in
the halls, and they usually obliged. “Lardie” didn’t come from him, but he ran with it, pushing his
nose up and snorting when she yelled at him to stop.

Ben and the others were often nearby. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes they ignored it,
sometimes they just watched. Ben wasn’t feeling it, but he never objected.

After a while, she stopped reacting. Eric hated it, but not as much as he loved a challenge. After
two weeks, he cornered her in a hallway after school, grabbing her by the arm hard enough to leave
fingernail-shaped bruises and yanking her around to face him. “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

She refused to make eye contact with him. “What?” she mumbled.

“You deaf or just stupid?”

“Leave me alone.” She told the floor.

He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. “Look at me when I talk to you.”

“Don’t touch me.” She spat.

“What you gonna do?”

“I’ll, uh... I’ll tell an AP”, she said, more weakly than she’d expected.

“Go on, I ain’t stopping you. But wait up.”

She obliged, but only to keep him from chasing her.

“You ever heard of a Bushmaster?”

“A what?”

“My dad owns one, so just hope you don’t.”

FRIDAY AFTERNOON

The rest of the afternoon was lost in reminiscence. Ever since she’d found the box, she’d been
reliving the past seven years in brief snatches. She didn’t know why, though: something just told
her they were all connected somehow, and she was right on the verge of figuring it out. Maybe, if
she could mentally arrange them in a way that made sense…

She stopped herself. She was being stupid. Reliving all the times she’d been made fun of—surely
that wasn’t the best use of her time. And what mystery was she even trying to solve? She knew it
had something to do with the dream, but thinking about that, too, seemed like a waste. All day,
she’d been getting lost in thought, then stopping to remind herself that dreams were just mental
abstract art and she was really just overthinking this.

The rain started up again at around two, alternating between drizzles and showers for the rest of
the day. She’d forgotten her umbrella again, just like the day before. And just like the day before,
the bus stopped over a puddle, she stepped in it, and she was soaked by the time she got home. The
cold rain stung her skin; strange, since it was a warm day for that time of year.

Her routine repeated itself again when she got home. She took off her wet clothes, tossed them in
the laundry, and changed into a sweater big enough to be a housedress and an equally baggy pair of
gym shorts from her freshman year.

Then she started her homework, although she couldn’t focus on it: she couldn’t stop her mind from
wandering back to the dreams. After an hour, she put it away and told herself she’d finish it later.

She finished writing the entry at 4:30, then most of her homework at 7, so she still had a couple
hours to kill. She drew a little. She didn’t quite understand why, but it filled some kind of hole. She
opened the freeware paint program that came with her tablet and sketched out a few rough faces,
first some half-remembered ones from school, then a few from the posters on the walls.

But she found herself getting tired much sooner than she’d expected. Tired, congested, and a little
nauseous. She’d been coughing and occasionally sneezing throughout most of the evening, but she
hadn’t paid attention to it until now.

She wanted to take a nap, but she wouldn’t be able to get to sleep like that. So she took a capful of
Ny-Quil. Then another one, for good measure. She’d heard about the kind of dreams it caused, and
although she’d never admit it even to herself, she wanted to see them more than she wanted to cure
the sniffles.

She was a bit nervous about it, but as she fell asleep, a quote from ​52 Ways to Have Lucid Dreams
ran through her head.

“35. Don't be afraid of lucid dreaming; there is nothing to fear inside your own mind.”
PART II

3/12/2010

Every time I have one of these dreams, I start out in a different place. The first time, I was in my
bedroom, the second, I was in the castle gardens, and this time, I’m somewhere in the halls. No idea
where, but I don’t think it matters.

I wander aimlessly through them, trying to figure out how to get to wherever I’m supposed to go to
fight this whatever-it-is and complete the first third of my quest. For some reason, I can tell it’s
somewhere around here. I have no idea how I know that, but I’m confident and that’s what matters.

There are tens of hallways, maybe hundreds. They’re long and twisting, some in ways I don’t
believe are possible. E.g. I’ll turn left, then left again, then left again, but instead of ending up where
I started, the hall continues straight. And the building seems to be altering itself as I go along. I’ll
turn towards a hallway, look away for a second, and when I turn back, it’s a dead end.

But at one intersection, there’s long, dark stone stairwell, very out of place in such an opulent castle.
I take it because there’s no way I can’t investigate.

At the end of it, there’s a dungeon. It’s deep underground, but lit by a dim light that doesn’t seem to
be coming from anywhere in particular.

Besides that, it’s everything you picture when you think of a dungeon: dark, dank, and cold, with
stone walls and heavy doors. It’s long, narrow, and lined with rows of cells.

On one wall, there’s an open door to what’s obviously a torture room. There’s a rack in there, as
well as a breaking wheel, one of those tall wooden frames they tie people’s hands to when they beat
them, and all kinds of spiked metal things that look like they were made to fit over body parts.

Inside, there’s another metal door. It opens onto a room that’s empty except for a big hole that’s
opened up in the floor and the words “HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE” carved in messy handwriting into
the wall above it. I stare at them, trying to make sense of what the phrase means in this context and
why it would be here, but I can’t.

Until I hear the voices. They’re very quiet, indecipherable at first. There are a lot of them, all talking
over each other. But after a minute, I notice they’re all saying the same thing:

“We’re waiting.”

Where are they coming from? It can’t be from in here, and all the jail cells were empty. There’s only
one place left to check: Under me. I suspected I had to go in there, but I’d rather have avoided it. I
peer inside. It seems to be bottomless.

The whispers change: “Come in.”

Right now, writing this entry, I’m reminded of a quote. “In dreams, you have no choices: either
there are no decisions, or they were made before the dream began.”

I don’t remember where I read that, and I’m not sure if it’s true, but if it is, it’s the only way I can
explain why I just jump my dumb ass in there. I land on a hard, rough surface. The light from the
hole goes out, and it’s pitch black until another orange light flickers on in the distance.

It’s a streetlight. I’m on a street. I went underground, fell through a hole in the floor, and ended up
outside. I guess this checks out by dream logic, though.

I can’t make out much of my surroundings. It’s a moonless night with no stars out, and one
flickering streetlight in the distance is all I can see. But as I walk down the street, a few more come
on, letting me take in the scenery.

It’s a strange place. It looks like a normal town if you squint hard enough, but all the houses are
two-dimensional. The “trees” lining the road are just brown sticks with green blobs stuck on them.
The lawns are just some flat surface colored green. There are “cars” parked on the street and in
some of the driveways, but they’re all featureless car-shaped polygons, like something out of an N64
game.

All except one. There’s this dingy little brick house that’s... You know, an actual house. The trees on
its lawn are real, if blurry.

Naturally, I walk up to it and try the door. It opens into a fully-rendered living room with real
carpet, solid furniture, and for some reason, a TV that’s blaring static. There’s a rhythmic chopping
sound coming from somewhere inside.

I turn a corner into the kitchen, where I find… A person. The first other one I’ve ever seen. It’s a
short, middle-aged woman who smells like cigarettes. I don’t even recognize her, I guess because
my thoughts and memories are completely replaced with Yume’s, but I feel like I must know her
from somewhere, and something seems wrong.

She’s wearing the A-shirt she wore the last time I saw her in reality, and holding her favorite
kitchen knife. That big one she always used when she cooked, even when a smaller one would’ve
been more practical.

She’s stands motionless facing me as I walk into the room. We stare at each other for a few seconds.
She has these weird dead mannequin eyes. I try to figure out what to say to her, but I can’t think of
anything. I’ve never quite found myself in a situation like this before.

Keeping my eyes locked on her, I reach for the sword at my hip. I grip the handle, ready for her to
make her move. But she doesn’t, yet. She just glares at me, so long and hard that I can feel
something inside me shrivel up.

Finally, she speaks. “Why were you born?”

I take note of her voice. It’s a flat, dead monotone, but there’s a supernatural echo that sounds like
tens of other people are talking along with her.

I blink twice. “What?”

“I never wanted you. I never loved you. You ruined my life.”

She swings the knife at me, much faster than I can unsheathe my sword. I jump back, almost losing
my balance, but she still grazes my neck, drawing blood. It seems so wrong that Yume can bleed.

She follows it up stabbing wildly at me. I move faster than I thought I was able to, so I’m able to get
out of the way of her flailing knife, and when I see an opening, I dive straight for her face. She
topples backwards and hits the ground headfirst, with my full weight on top of her, and she drops
the knife, and I go straight for her throat and start choking the life out of her. Her eyes are still just
as blank as if nothing’s happening, but after a while, she stops jerking around and goes limp.

I stand up, turn around and head for the door. As soon as I lay a hand on the knob, there’s a sharp
crack, my face jerks forward, and my nose hits the kitchen door. Blood spurts from the back of my
head, staining my dress crimson. I don’t even realize what’s happened until I turn around and see a
coffee mug, split in half, lying on the floor.

When I look up, she’s charging straight at me. I weave out of the way just in time, and she stabs the
door, her knife sticking in it. In the split second before she can pull it out, I reach it first, kick her in
the stomach, and throw it across the room. In a second, she’s back on me, and I throw a wild,
flailing punch that somehow hits her. She staggers back.

She reaches into a drawer and grabs another identical knife. I draw my sword... And that’s when it
occurs to me that I have no idea how to use the thing. It’s weird: I vaguely remember knowing, or at
least knowing that I knew, but I can’t remember anything more advanced than “pointy end goes
into someone else.” It might as well be a stick for all the good it’ll do me in a fight. And, even now, I
don’t think I could bring myself to take someone’s life.

So I try another approach.

“Wait!” I shout. “Put it down! Please! We can talk about this. Right? Can we? I... I don’t know
who you are... But I feel like I know you.”

I don’t realize it at the time, but my prim demeanor’s slipped and I’m talking normally. “Who are
you?” I ask just to buy time if nothing else.

“Everyone.” She responds.
“And what do you want?”

“You, dead.”

“But I...”

She lunges toward me. I get out of the way, but l hit the wall in the process, and notice she’s backed
me into a corner. So I forget about mercy, thrust my sword forward, and stab her in the stomach.

It doesn’t slow her down at all. She doesn’t react, or even seem to notice. With the blade still stuck
between her ribs, she turns, takes advantage of the opening I’ve left and swings the knife wildly in
my direction again.

I evade her blows, managing to dodge them until she lands one in my left forearm. I scream. I jerk
away from her, but she pins me against the wall, grips the knife, and twists it. Very, very slowly.

“Why?” I wail.

“Everybody. Hates. You.” She growls through clenched teeth.

With one hand, she grabs me by the throat, and with the other, she pulls the knife out of my arm,
draws it back, and prepares to go in for what I think will be her last stab.

But just as she gets ready to swing it downwards, I slam my head into her nose, sending her reeling
back, and giving me enough time to grab the handle of my sword and pull it out of her. She screams
and swings at me again. The tip swishes by an inch from my face. This time, she’s the one who’s left
an opening. I spring towards her and swing my sword in a wide arc that cuts right across her neck
and opens her throat up.

She falls to her knees, bleeding a black liquid, and making guttural noises and gasping for air. Then
she stares straight into my eyes with this look of accusation, like I’ve done something truly
horrible... Betrayed her in some way. At that moment, I get a feeling of déjà vu that’s impossible to
describe.

I’m shaking all over. I slowly back away from her as she takes her last breaths with a wet gurgling
sound. Just writing about it’s making me nauseous. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, oh God I’m so sorry”, I
babble.

I turn away from her for a second, but when I turn back around, she’s gone. All evidence that she
was ever there has just disappeared.

I have no idea what to make of that, so I just get out of here as quickly as possible.

I try the kitchen door again. It’s unlocked now. I open it slowly, careful not to make a sound in case
there’s something else waiting for me. It’s the back door of our house IRL, but instead of leading to
the backyard, it opens directly into the living room of a different house. Still shaken from my last
“encounter,” I clutch the sword close as I enter. My whole body feels like a tightly wound spring.

The room is spotless and really brightly lit. The walls, carpet, and most of the furniture are white.
It’s too perfect. It’s a little unnerving, actually. The door slams itself behind me.

At the other side of the room, there’s a blonde girl sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching me like
she knew I was coming. She’s a bit younger than me: maybe a few years. Just like that last woman,
her eyes are glazed and lifeless.

She’s not attacking me, so I don’t attack her. I reach for my sword but wait to see what she’ll do.

And in a flat monotone, she begins to speak.
“Religions … Elementary … Hollywood. Fifteen thousand. Radio.” she says.

“What is this non-” I begin, but don’t get to finish, because I’m doubled over in pain - literal pain,
like my insides are trying to tear themselves free.

Before I’ve even caught my breath, she continues.

“Humanity… Hopeless...”

The pain is unbelievable. It feels like all my heart valves just burst. I drop the sword, double over,
grabbing at everything inside me at once, and flop to the floor.

Tomodachi was right. I know I can’t die in a dream, but at this moment, I wish so much that I could.

There’s a pause, during which I forget completely about my sword and run for the door, just
desperate to escape any more of that pain. But it’s locked. I see a pattern emerging here. I look
back to her. She’s smiling pleasantly. I wonder if she knew this was going to happen, and only let
me get that far to instill a false sense of hope.

“That’s right.” She says, answering the question I did not voice out loud.

“How did you...”

She raises a finger to her lips. “Shh.” Then she begins again.

“California … Father … Disappeared …”

In addition to the physical pain, it feels like my head splits open and a chaos of voices fills it,
screaming disgusting and hateful things directly into my brain.

“What are you doing?!” I shriek.

But I don’t try to fight her. The idea of fighting back doesn’t even occur to me. The pain is so bad
that I can’t even stand up. All I can think of is how to make it stop.

She continues, cold and emotionless, until I’m in a fetal position on the floor, frantically saying
something along the lines of “Oh God oh God oh God stop, stop it, please make it stop, stop hurting
me.”

And, for a moment, she does. She stops and smiles, with a tranquil expression on her face. I lay
there gasping for breath.

But as soon as I start to climb to my knees, she begins again.

“Boy … Friends … Roger ….”

I jam my fingers into my ears, but it does nothing to decrease the pain. Even worse, I can still hear
her voice, perfectly clear, from inside my own head.

I try to crawl closer to her. She anticipates this, of course, and continues talking, secure in the
knowledge that each word completely cripples me with pain.

“Thirty-eight.” She says. And it’s like someone reached into my chest cavity with their bare hands.
I’ve never felt anything like this before.

“Thirty-eight.” She repeats. It sends a fresh wave of agony through me, which makes her smile.
The louder I scream, the more contented she seems.

“Thirty-eight.” She says a third time, and I’m on the floor in a fetal position again , doing that kind
of crying where your mouth hangs open and your body shakes and you have to gasp for air.

Finally, I give out as if it was all just too much effort, and I roll over on to my back, my vision
blurring with tears.

She stands up, walks toward me, and smiles. “Understand?”

“No... No...” I sob.

“Reality is pain.” She says.

I just stare blankly upwards, still in enormous agony, and with no idea why, or what’s happening to
me.

“Why?” I gasp.

And she whispers the first coherent sentence I’ve heard from her: “This is what happens when you
feel.”

“Do you want to die?” She asks me, but I can’t answer because I’m busy just trying to breathe again.

“All right, then,” she says. “It’s time.”

“Time for what?” I gasp between deep and desperate breaths.
I hear her voice from much closer. “Time for me to take what’s mine..”

By the time I catch my breath, wipe the tears from my eyes, and look up at her, she’s standing in the
middle of the room where I dropped my sword. She picks it up, unsheathes it, and inspects it.

I sit up and begin to back away from her. “What are you going to do?”

“Cut out your heart.”

I back into the corner.​ ​She holds the sword to my throat.

“Why do you need one? It only gives you grief.”

“Please… No.”

She presses it in a little, drawing blood, like a hostage-taker in a movie. “No one cares. No one
listens to you. No one wants to talk to you, they just pretend. No one would be sad if you died.”

I reflexively start to shake my head a little, but the sword pierces deeper into my flesh. I freeze
before it has a chance to cut through something important.

She releases the pressure as she starts to move it down towards my chest… And I reach up and
grab the flat end of the blade in both hands.

“Got you.”

She leans in and tries to push it past my hands and into my neck, and I push back. The blade is
pretty dull, and being a rapier, it’s not very heavy. It cuts me, but not that deep. I don’t really feel it.

But there’s a worse pain. As the muscles in my arm tense, it shoots from the wound in my left
forearm, tears stream down my face, my mouth opens, reflexively, as if to scream, but I silence it. I
fight through it and keep pushing. With great effort, I manage to push the point of the blade about
three inches away from my neck. Then, I jerk my head to the right and bend the sword. She
stumbles forward, dropping it, then completely loses her balance and falls right on top of me.
Before she can react, I reach up and clamp my hand over her mouth so she can’t speak. She lets go
of the sword’s hilt and leaps to her feet, back away from me, which frees her mouth, but gives me
the opportunity I need to get up and strike at her.

She takes a deep breath and begins to form a sentence…

I take a deep breath too and let out a scream that blocks the next of her words. Maybe, at least, I
can make myself not hear her. I grab the sword from the floor, then jump forward and smash her
nose with the hilt. I can hear it break.

“How does that feel?” I scream so loud my throat goes raw. I want this to hurt.

She looks up at me, and for a minute, she seems so human. She doesn’t say anything, but she has a
look of profound pain in her eyes, and she mouths the words “I can’t help it,” just below my level of
hearing.

I don’t care. I spin the sword around and thrust it at her chest... It connects, and I drive it into her
to the hilt and through her back. She opens her mouth, her eyes roll back into her head, and she
freezes that way. She drops to her knees, and instantly, the pain in my chest is gone and I can
breathe again. I collapse on the floor and gasp for air.

Lying on the ground, her body melts into a black liquid, then evaporates. I hear the door’s lock click
back open. Once I’ve rested for a minute, I get up, cross the room, and open it.

This time it leads to a forest. A hideous, dark forest filled with gnarled trees that seem to move out
of the corner of my eyes.​ ​They’re impossibly tall. They loom overhead, curving downward. They’re
also very dense and close together, so much that you can’t move through them except via a series of
paths that have been conveniently left between them.

It’s day—even though it was night when I first fell through the hole—but it barely makes a
difference, because the “light” is a dark gray, and the trees’ thick branches block out almost all of it,
letting through only a thin trickle by which I can barely see.

The paths between the dense rows of trees seem to wind and twist at random, like a giant hedge
maze. I aimlessly wander, an activity I’m getting very tired of, around the forest. Like most places
in my dreams it’s silent, but I can hear a faint remnant of the whispers I’ve been hearing throughout
this dream.

I turn down one long, wide pathway that leads straight. I squint and stare down it. A shape moves
in the distance.

I dart behind a nearby tree, hold my breath, and hide. I hear something sniff the air, followed by a
series of heavy footsteps coming in my direction. It’s looking for me. It seems to detect my scent.

I quickly dart out from behind the tree I was hiding behind, and run down the pathway to another
tree. The thing pursuing me, which I still can’t get a good view of, sniffs the tree where I was, then
emits a low, wolf-like growl.

It lumbers toward me again, and I panic, shriek, and take off running down the passageway.

I look back for just a second, and next thing I know, a giant rock is flying at me. It misses by inches
and smashes into the tree closest to me. The tree shatters, sending a spray of splinters in my
direction that I have to duck, and the top half crashes to the ground in front of me.

The beast, still shrouded in darkness, starts bounding after me, any low-hanging branches over the
path of any size snapping against its body. I leap the fallen tree and keep running down the path.

Ahead of me there’s a dense cluster of trees at the end of the path. I flatten myself and just barely
manage to squeeze between them, then lie down prone on the forest floor. The gap is too small for
the monster to get through. He peeks one eye through it looking for me, then stops, goes back to the
middle of the clearing, and sniffs the air again.

Light is streaming through the trees into the clearing, so when I pull myself to my knees, I can
finally get a clear view of it.

It has the head of a preteen boy on the body of The Hulk, except he’s flesh colored and wearing the
shredded remains of a middle school uniform. His eyes, too, are vacant and corpsey. He’s at least
ten feet tall, and I can see a massive bulge through his pants, which makes me involuntarily wince.
Definitely the weirdest thing I’ve seen to this point.

I slowly, silently pull myself up to my feet, but when I try to back away from him, dead leaves
crunch under my feet and a twig snaps.

His head swirls back around to meet me and his pupils shrink, like an animal honing in on its prey,
then he lets out one of the most disturbing noises I’ve ever heard: something like a combination of a
charging bull, a grown man’s scream, and a little girl’s.

Screaming gibberish at me in a weird dual voice - it’s high-pitched, but with a second, deep,
booming voice speaking at the same time - spit flying from his mouth, he barrels forward and clears
his own path through the forest, furiously thrashing his arms in all directions ripping trees out of
the ground and smashing them in half to get to me.

There’s no way I can take him on, of course, so I just run. I weave through the tightly-packed trees,
leaping fallen branches and turning myself sideways through narrow gaps, until “light” streaming
through the trees ahead lets me know I’m nearing the end of the forest. He keeps tearing them
down behind me, but the sound’s getting a little further away.

I squeeze through one last gap to find myself in a field. Unlike the yards I saw right after I fell
through the hole, this one has grass, which I clearly remember because it’s neat and freshly cut, the
smell filling my nostrils.

In the center of the field, there’s a building of some sort. This isn’t any kind of building I recognize,
and it certainly isn’t any kind of architectural style I know. It’s a plain box of bricks, totally free of
the decorations and curlicues I’m used to. A very boring building, but it’s shelter, and its doors are
made of steel, so I take my chances that the beast won’t be able to get through them.

It’s still in the forest, and all the trees in its way are slowing it down enough that I think I have a
shot at making it to shelter before it can catch me. As I’m halfway through the clearing, it uproots
two last trees with a wide swing of its arms and bounds towards me on all fours like a gorilla. He’s
just feet away by the time my hand touches the door.

I fling it open, then slam it behind me, and run further into the building. Once I’m a decent distance
inside, I turn around and watch. The doors have tiny windows in them, and through them, I can see
the creature’s shadow darken the windows.

It pounds furiously on the doors. They begin to bend and buckle in their frames, but they don’t give.
It seems like the monster doesn’t know how to work a door handle. It keeps pounding until,
eventually, it stops.

And then, it’s silent. As if the thing just disappeared. It doesn’t make any sense.

It seems I’ve ended up in some ever-shifting alternate world populated entirely by half-human
monsters who want to kill me. I’d rather not go on any longer, because the farther I go, the enemies
I’m fighting seem to get worse.​ ​So I just sit down against a wall and close my eyes for a while.

Once my breathing’s returned to kind of normal, I take a nervous look around at the room I’m in.
The building I’m in is cold, sterile. Again, it doesn’t seem quite real. Everything about it is kind of
half-formed and lacking in details. The walls are too flat. Everything’s in perfect geometric shapes
with sharp corners. The room is lit by a series of glowing white panels in the ceiling. There’s a
trophy case of some sort against the nearest wall. I walk around the empty hallways for a while.
They’re lined with some kind of metal cabinets with numbered dials in their facades.

Looking into the rooms off the hallways, they’re all the same. They’re filled with identical desks, but
are completely free of decoration or any other furniture. The building is immaculate. It doesn’t
seem like anyone’s ever used it. But at least that would mean it’s empty, which is a relief. I can
breathe again.

That is, until I turn down another hallway.

People.

Hundreds of them.

Staring at me.

They’re standing dead still, arms at their sides, with empty smiles like mannequins. I stare back,
trying to figure out who I’m looking at. There’s no pattern among them. All ages, races, and sizes
are present. But I can’t put names to them.

I take a few cautious steps away from them. Their eyes follow me in unison.

Then comes a chaos of strange, garbled voices. Not from their mouths - not a single one of which is
moving - but from their minds.

“I hate you... No one likes you... You make me sick... Shut up... I don’t love you… Kill yourself…
Don’t touch me… Fuck you… No one cares... “

“Who are you?” I whisper, in shock.

They reply in unison, “Everyone you love.”

There has to be something to do. This is where I should use some kind of magic, right? I remember
Tomodachi telling me something about magic... That it exists, I think, but that not even he knows
how it works. So, of course, I don’t either. I struggle to think of something. Some spell or
incantation or dance... If he couldn’t tell me, and there’s no reference, maybe I’ll just instinctively
know how to do it. So I try to ad-lib it.

“I... I...” I stutter. Nothing else comes out. That’s all l’ve got.

And the crowd charges me in unison, their feet hitting the ground in perfect sync.

No matter who you are or how confident, there’s nothing that can prepare you for that many people
coming at you at once. Before I even realize what I’m doing, I’m tearing down the halls.

I beat them around a corner by a good few seconds, dive into an open broom closet door, and slam
it shut. Hopefully, with the tens of classroom doors in this hallway, this will be the last one they
check.

It’s a stupid plan, but I don’t know, maybe if they all pass me, I can escape behind them.

The wait is hell.

Holding my breath in the dark, smelly closet, face tucked to my knees, it dawns on me that I don’t
feel like a senshi. I just feel small, scared, and powerless.

In this moment of silence, I really start to take everything Tomodachi said more seriously.

If I can’t die here, what does that mean for when they catch me? What kinds of torture was he
talking about?

Would I have to just watch them tear me apart with their bare hands until I wake up? But at the
time, I have no idea that I am going to wake up, so the idea of an eternity of being mutilated is racing
through my mind.

And... Nothing.

Something’s wrong here, by which I mean something new is wrong on top of all the other stuff
that’s already wrong. It shouldn’t be this quiet. I should hear ​something.

“Where are they?” I think to myself.

“Everywhere.” Comes the response to the question I again didn’t ask out loud.

And from the other side, they begin to pound on the door. I draw my sword and wait. It takes about
a minute for the first person’s hand to burst through the wood and grasp out toward me. I stick the
sword in it, but it doesn’t flinch. In fact, it closes around the blade and begins trying to pull it
toward itself.

Soon, another hand joins it, then another, then another. Even if stabbing at them affected them,
there are too many of them for it to make a difference.
They tear the door down piece by piece, tens of hands at once ripping away pieces of it, then
reaching toward me, like zombies. I squeeze my eyes shut and poke ineffectually at the advancing
wall of hands, at a loss for anything else to do.

Everyone’s trying to get into the closet at once, and they end up piling on top of each other and
getting stuck in the door frame, trapping me in here behind a massive wall of them. Then it gets
even weirder.

They begin to melt into each other, as if their flesh had become a liquid. Their clothes split open
and flutter to the floor as they combine on a molecular level, their bodies sinking into each other.

They become a giant shapeless pile of flesh with arms, legs, eyes, and faces sticking out of it at
random, and as more people join the pile, it begins to grow these tumor-like lumps that eventually
become the whole thing’s arms and legs.

When they’re done, it looks like someone’s taken all the people from before, disassembled them,
then stuck the parts together at random over a fifteen-foot tall skeleton. It’s humanoid, but in
outline only. Its “face” is tens melted together.

Two eyes the size of dinner plates emerge out of the squirming flesh pile that forms its head.
Countless more faces and body parts sprout from where they should not be: eyes on its arms,
mouths on its back, hands reaching out of its legs... Various leftover parts stuck wherever they’ll fit:
Thirty eyes here, fourteen mouths there... There are a lot of eyes and mouths, all staring at me or
spewing curses and insults, respectively. I remember the eyes in particular: every shape and color,
but all locked on me the entire time I’m in the presence of this thing.

Its fingers end in hands that are all clawing and grasping.

The thing - or hundreds of things pretending to be one - babbles, screams, laughs, and shouts at me
in hundreds of voices at once, but I remember being able to pick out a few distinct sentences,
probably the ones said by the faces on its arms. “I hate you.” They sometimes scream at random
intervals.

The monstrosity fills the frame of the door, blocking my escape. I press myself against the wall,
agape, just watching it with no idea what to do.

“What are you?” I scream.

“I am many. We are one.” It answers.

It trundles toward me, each step shaking the ground.

An enormous hand made of smaller hands snatches me from the corner I’m cowering in, jerks me to
my feet, and wraps around my face, cutting off a yelp of surprise.

It picks me up by the neck, and it feels like my head is trying to let go of everything attached to it.
My jaw is being squeezed out of place and my neck is stretching. My body flails wildly, trying to
escape, but that just makes it worse. I try to scream again, but it just comes out as a gurgle.

Instead of snapping my neck like I’m expecting, it just squeezes. Very slowly. But as it does it, I can
feel my life slipping away. It’s like it’s draining it straight from me.

“Look at you.” It whispers. “Nothing. No one cares. No one will save you.”

“Please... Stop... It hurts...” I gasp through the cracks in its fingers.”

Its mouths spread into unearthly wide grins. It laughs tens of laughs.

“Yes...” It moans. “That’s good...”

The more I struggle and thrash, the tighter it grips me... So I decide to try the opposite approach: I
go slack, and the pain decreases enough for me to calm myself and come up with an idea. Then, in
one swift motion​, ​I snap my sword out of its holster and bury it into one of the eyeballs sprouting
out of its fingertip.

It reflexively drops me, hisses, and shakes the finger like it was bitten by an insect. One of the heads
detaches and drops limply to the floor, staring at me through its one remaining eye.

It immediately turns its attention back to me, and in the second I have left, I weigh my options.
Using the sword would be like trying to kill a grown man with a sewing needle.

So I guess I’ll try running again, since it’s got me this far. But before I can turn around, an enormous
face-covered fist comes swinging at me. When it connects, I’m suddenly airborne, and everything
turns into a blur.

I land on my back on the floor and skid across it, for a second, everything goes black. When I come
to, it feels like the world’s gone underwater. I can’t feel my face.

The thing’s standing across the room now. It punched me that far.

I stagger to my feet and I run.

It chases me.
It takes bigger steps.

Its hundreds of component people laugh at me.

I keep running until I come to a T-intersection, the thing bounding after me. It extends its hand to
reach me, and at the last second, I veer to the left. It digs its heels into the ground but can’t stop in
time, and skids into the wall with an enormous, shuddering crash that shakes the building.

When I turn the corner, the next hallway’s color scheme is different: it’s gone from white, purple
and gold to orange and black. I don’t realize it at the time, but the dream’s setting is shifting around
me, my old middle school turning into my current high school. I don’t take note of it.
I keep running, only briefly looking back at the monster for a second, just to see how close to me it
is.

It seems to be in pain, and I notice a few of the people who make up its component parts drop to the
floor and stop moving. It picks itself up, shaking off crushed bits of stone, and takes off after me
again, but this time, dazed and leaving a trail of blood behind it.

But by the time it recovers, I’m halfway down the hall.

Turning a corner that puts me out of its sight, I’m running down yet another hallway when I notice a
single open door. I run in, slam it behind me, and lock it even though I know that won’t do anything.

Instead of desks, the room I’ve entered has big heavy worktables built into the floor, and there are
sinks, with faucets that dispense both water and gas built into them. I know what this room is,
obviously, but it’s hard to describe what Yume sees it as: it’s utterly alien to her, although the glass
tubes and strangely-shaped cups scattered about make her think it must be used for some kind of
alchemy.

There’s some kind of weird metal candle-like object connected to a hose (again, how she sees it, not
me) on a table at the head of the room. Next to the candle are a bag of flour, a funnel, a spoon, and a
pack of matches. There is a row of cabinets on one side of the room.

Outside, I can hear the thing trundling down the hall, stopping, I presume, to check each door.

It's at this point in writing down the dream that I realized that I must have access to my real life
memories on some level, because there’s no other reason I should have done what I do next. I don’t
even know why I’m doing it at the time. It’s like I’m on autopilot:

I turn on all the gas faucets and methane hisses out. Within seconds, I’m throwing open the
cabinets, revealing containers of chemicals and household items like drain cleaner, hand sanitizer,
and insecticides. I smash them on the floor, covering it in a colorful but foul-smelling muck. In
another cabinet, I find a few one-pound containers of potassium nitrate and bags of table sugar,
which I remember the teacher saying makes fuel for the rockets we’re supposed to set off closer to
summer break. I empty them on top of each other on the floor, then grab bottles and containers of
the chemicals I recognize from real life—Isopropyl alcohol, sodium, magnesium powder, and a
collection of acrid liquids, and empty them at random on the floor.

Outside, I hear the thing stomp back in my direction. Something with that many ears must have
been able to hear me pretty easily. The monster enters the room by splintering the door with one
punch. I toss the bag of flour into the air above me, and as it snows down around us, I stand in the
middle of the room, trembling and wide-eyed.

I whisper, “Tomodachi said I can’t die.” And I light a match.

Everything goes white. Everything goes silent.
I must be stunned, I think. In a minute, the world will fade back into view. I wait, and wait, and
wait. Nothing happens. I’m clearly conscious, or at least I can think, but I can’t feel my body. I try
to look down, but there’s just white in every direction, like I’m staring at a blank markerboard, and I
don’t feel my head move. I try to touch my hands to my face. Still nothing. I don’t know if I even
have those things anymore.

Then comes a voice I’ve never heard before. It comes from everywhere around me and from inside
my own head at once, like I’m listening to it on headphones and speakers at the same time. And
whenever it speaks, I think exactly what it’s saying as it’s saying it.

“That was stupid, that you did that.”

I try to object, but no sound comes out.

“Yeah, you were right: I suppose you can’t die. But only because we
haven’t reached that part of the story yet, so don’t get used to it.

“And I ​do​ have to piece you back together. Right now - it’s a bad
situation. You’re, like… Just imagine if someone tried to microwave
a can of Spaghetti-O’s.”

A little spinning loading icon, just like on a video, pops up in front of me.

“It’ll take a while, is what I’m saying.

“So let’s talk.

“This must be hard on you.

“...And I can tell you’re wondering… What’s the point?

“I don’t know either.

“I mean I probably know more than you, but that’s not a high
standard. No offense.

“I can tell you one thing… You’re not really an anime princess.

“But I wouldn’t go as far as to say you’re not real.

“There’s a name for what you are, I just-

“Hmm… Oh.

“So that’s what a spleen looks like.

“You know, you always read about them - I think people like to make
jokes about it because it’s such a goofy word. Like… ‘Ow, my
spleen!’ But most people have no idea what it is or does.

“Wow, that was random… Anyway, this won’t work. I can’t find all
your bits, and they’re burnt pretty bad. Guess I’ll have to remake
you from scratch.

“I feel a little guilty about this - it’s kinda cheating - but it’s
way faster.

I pop into existence once again. I look at my hands to make sure they’re real. They are, and they fit
perfectly into their gloves now. My clothes seem to have grown to fit me, and there are no traces of
blood or dirt on them, and I’m not barefoot anymore: I have a pair of long leather boots like the
ones the Sailor Scouts wore. I run my hands through my hair. They pass through easily, and it’s
silky to the touch.

“There we go. Good as new.

“Time for you to go back now. See you.”

I regain my consciousness in a cloud of toxic smoke. A deafening alarm is ringing. Wafting among
the chemical smell, there’s the odor of burnt pork.

I bolt out the door, forgetting to close it behind me, but instead of leading out into the hall, it leads
into a giant, spacious room. It has wooden floors, a high ceiling covered in exposed beams, cement
block walls, and some kind of benches stacked up on the sides. (For some reason, the minute I leave
the lab, I lose my IRL memories.)

From behind me comes a low, guttural growl.

A few seconds later, the creature drags itself out of the smoke cloud on its belly It’s horribly burnt,
its skin is covered in black char and peeling off, and some of the faces on the outside its body,
especially the ones on its limbs that weren’t shielded, have died. Others have their eyes burned out
or jaws missing. But it drags itself to its knees, opens its tens of mouths, and in unison, they say,
“Violate.”

It pulls itself to its knees, then its feet, taking a few shaky steps forward. It stops to cough up a black
liquid that splatters on the floor,

I draw my sword and point it at the creature. I’m terrified, and my arm visibly shakes. Not only is it
several times bigger than me, but if it could survive the explosion that tore me to shreds, what
chance to I have of killing it with this narrow little thing? But I try my best to hide it. I swallow and
draw a deep breath.

“I am Yume-Hime, monarch of this realm and all! A sole beacon in the darkness, an undying warrior
of light! L—Look to the reflection in my blade: it’s the last time you shall see yourself alive! For in
the name of—“ I falter, “everything still good in this world… I will strike you down!”
When I put it like that, I almost believe it.

Its faces and mouths laugh in unison. “Stupid girl.”

OK… I can handle this. I evaluate the situation. It’s good I got out of the hallways, because I have a
better chance of killing it in the open where I have more room to move and it can’t corner me. It
approaches me slowly, deliberately, like a horror movie slasher who knews you won’t escape.

“I’m not afraid of you.” I whisper, trying to reassure myself again.

“Liar.”

“I’m. Not. Afraid. Of. You.” I repeat, a bit louder.

Its mouths smirk. “Yes you are.”

“​I’m not afraid of you!​” I repeat, at the top of my lungs, so loud and frantic that the words blur
together and my throat burns.

It swings one of its massive arms at me, but I duck just in time. It passes over my head by mere
inches.

Newly energized, I weave around its other arm and take a flying leap that propels me upwards. Not
that far upwards - maybe just a few feet - but extending my arms over my head, that’s enough.

I shove my sword into what I believe is its chest.

It jumps back, yanking the sword out of my hands, and swats me across the room. I land hard on
my back and feel something inside me crack, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the last time. When I
get up, I can see it struggling to pull the sword out of its chest. When it finally does it, the wound
gushes black liquid like I severed an artery, and it cries out in terror. In that moment, it seems so
weak and dazed.

It keeps issuing threats, but they seem so weak and ineffectual now. “No... This isn’t over... I’ll take
you with me...” Then it collapses to its knees, its gaze spinning unfocused around the room.

I walk up to it and retrieve my sword from where it dropped it next to its dying body.

One face speaks to me. “Are you proud of yourself? Does this make you happy?” It asks me. I
ignore it. I don’t see why the question matters, anyway. “Meaningless...” It gurgles.

Its other faces are still gibbering nonsense. They seem to be trying to collectively form a coherent
sentence, but it’s all such a chaos of noise that it becomes meaningless itself, and all I catch are
vaguely related bits of sentences.

“...Know what you really are.” “...Denial won’t save you.” “We’ll be back...”

Staring coldly down at it, I reach for my sword. It continues on, lost in its fractured monologue.
“Are you done?” I sigh, still creeped out but trying not to show it.

“Stupid, stupid girl...” It rasps.

“Shut up.” I growl, and stick my sword right into one of its foreheads, then pull it out and stick it in
another, then another, over and over until it stops moving. But its faces are frozen in delighted
grins.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

Laurie woke up feeling different.

The sun seemed dimmer than usual. The morning quiet, normally comforting, was unbearable. Her
heart raced, her stomach writhed, and she didn’t want to leave the safety of her bed.

It took several minutes for her to sit upright and check the time. It was just after noon, later than
she’d anticipated. Her dad had already left for work, leaving her alone.

She took the notebook and a pen from where she’d dropped them by the side of the bed, and
frantically scribbled down the basics so she could fill in the details when she was ready. After
briefly describing the plot, she wrote down a few unformed ideas about the connections it could
have to her memories.

That wasn’t how the website said to do it, but she wasn’t ready to relive that yet. Not to mention
she had other things to get to, and a dream that long would take hours to describe. Better to devote
her full attention on it later than to half-ass it now.

So for now, she figured she’d pretend everything was normal. Because it was, right? “Nightmares
happen sometimes.” She told herself. “Don’t think too much about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t
think about it. ​Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about it.​”

First order of the day: her World History teacher had assigned a long essay on the French
Revolution, due Thursday, and she wanted to get it out of the way early. She sat down at her laptop,
pawed through Wikipedia, and half-wrote a few unconnected paragraphs before catching herself
staring at the blinking cursor. She had just one thing on her mind.

She closed her eyes. “You can do this. Force yourself.”

The article, a slab of dry political analysis, wasn’t getting her anywhere. She had a hard time
parsing it, especially in this mood. She hit the back arrow and browsed the other search results at
random. The recurring names throughout them—the Grievance Books, the Great Fear, the White
Terror— didn’t cheer her up any.
One one history blog, she came across an excerpt of a letter from a count: “‘The Princesse de
Lamballe was most fearfully tortured for four hours. My pen jibs at giving details. They tore off her
flesh with their teeth and then did all possible, for two whole hours, to force her back to
consciousness, to make her death the more agonising...”

There was more, but that was enough. She was hyperventilating again. Something was trying to
claw its way out of her stomach. “Breathe. Just breathe,” she said out loud.

She was done for now: maybe she’d just take the zero.

She headed to the kitchen for “breakfast.” The refrigerator was all but empty, so it’d have to be two
cups of ramen and black tea with milk, a drink she’d come to enjoy over the years, but was getting
tired of.

Weekends never meant much. She didn’t have to go to school, but she still didn’t get to do anything
more interesting. She usually just spent them camped out in her room with the blinds drawn,
doodling, reading, or staying up all night on a Crunchyroll binge. Anything to pass the time. Dad
had the car, which didn’t matter because she didn’t drive anyway, and there was nothing for miles
around but more of the same.

She went back, got the notebook, and wrote until her hand started to cramp. Then she pretended to
do some more homework, but she wasn’t fooling herself. She checked Pidgin. No messages and no
friends online. Another sharp pang of anxiety.

She turned on the TV in the corner of her room and flipped through the channels. Rerun of a
football game, rerun of a baseball game, rerun of an eighties sitcom that probably wasn’t even funny
the first time, news of a local homicide, pretty people solving crimes, rap video, Hitler documentary,
congressional hearing, middle-aged woman boiling pasta, and a reality show about rich kids yelling
at each other. She turned it off.

With nothing to distract her, her mind always found its way back to the dreams. She didn’t want to
think about this one, but she couldn’t help herself. Even after their turn for the worse, they were
still the most interesting thing going on at the moment. She almost wanted to go to bed early so she
could get to the next one sooner.

“But that doesn’t make sense,” she thought. She could drink a full bottle of cough syrup and stare at
all the parakeets she wanted, but logically, she knew that wouldn’t be enough to guarantee she
would have consistent dreams. There had to be something else she could do. Something more
active.

A thought occurred. She remembered a quote from the website.

“Create your own art inspired by dreams to bring dreaming to the forefront of your imagination and
boost your dream recall.”

She went back to the basement. Her sophomore year art class had required her to buy a giant pad
of Bristol board and fill a small part of it with incompetent drawings of shapes and fruit. She’d
never used it again after that. It was too big to carry without an art case or fit into any scanner. At
least it now could be put to some kind of use.

She tore out a page, lay it on the desk, and with a blunt pencil, quickly sketched out the dark
silhouette of the castle looming over the jagged remains of the city. It was rough—drawing
buildings was her bane—but it captured the spirit of the place.

She hung it on her door, facing the bed. After taking that night’s hit of Ny-Quil, she’d stare at it so it
would be the last thing she’d see before she fell asleep. Hopefully, that would bring her back to that
world, so she could continue whatever story those dreams were telling. Begrudgingly, she had to
admit that she still wanted to see where the story would go.

But that wouldn’t be for several more hours, so soon enough, she was bored again. She stared at the
clock app on her desktop and imagined every passing second being subtracted from her life’s
remaining span.

She glanced over at her bookshelf, scanned the rows of manga, and stopped on ​Hikaru no Go​. She
loved that series in part because it was so unlike her own life at twelve.

The beginning of her adolescence was the most anti-climactic time of her life. It’d started, at that
age, with a ruined pair of underwear. She’d hoped there’d be more to it, but that was all. No
fanfare, no congratulations from friends or family members, no pride or excitement. If this was
“the first day of the rest of her life,” as mom told her it’d be, it wouldn’t be an exciting life.

And it wasn’t. Her physical changes started to show up soon afterwards, but they were more of an
annoyance than anything else. Most of them came in smaller or flatter than she’d wanted: enough
to force her to buy new clothes several times, but not enough to make much of a difference in her
looks. It took a long time for her voice to change, and it grew deeper than she’d expected. But not
in a sexy way, more like she always had a cold.

The worst part was when started to take an interest in boys. There were some she found attractive,
but none she thought she’d have anything in common with, and even if there were, she wouldn’t
know what to say to them. She didn’t fantasize about being with them, either: none of her romantic
fantasies involved herself. And even if they had, she would never have been able to act on them.
Even if she asked someone out, she was sure it’d just set her up for humiliation. It was a long, slow
slog.

Until Kristyn.

NOVEMBER 2006
“Look, I hate this place, and you’ve told me you do too,” Kristyn sighed. “Everyone knows it’s a
shithole.”

Laurie just listened, like always.

“But I’m not complaining, I’m just saying... What else is there, anyway? I remember you telling me
about that stuff that Eric kid did to you back in middle school and it was awful, but that’s just what
guys are like everywhere.”

“Hm,” Laurie responded.

“Like, we have all our different religions and politics and shit, but everyone’s the same deep down.
They used to tell us that in elementary school like it was a good thing, but it’s really not. When you
get down to it, it just means the whole world’s full of fucking sheep.”

She waited for a reaction, quickly got tired of waiting, and went on.

“And that’s just how they want it. They want everyone to be the same and they want everyone to be
dumb and shallow and obsessed with Hollywood and shit, so we won’t care about anything but
buying their shit and we won’t notice them stealing everything and fucking up the world.”

There was an awkward silence, which Kristyn avoided by pulling out her MP3 player and messing
around with the settings.

“Is that a new one?” Laurie asked.

Kristyn lit up. “Yeah. It’s a Creative Zen Vision,” she gushed. “I just bought it last week and it’s ​so
much better than my old iPod. It’s a little thicker, but it doesn’t scratch as easily. Plus, it’s got sixty
gigs. That’s ​fifteen thousand​ songs. It can hold over a hundred hours of video, but I don’t usually
use it for that ‘cause the screen’s only two and a half inches across. But I heard you can still connect
it to a TV, so I guess I’ll do that way more often. You can set your own wallpaper and customize the
equalizer. It can play audiobook files too, but I don’t listen to those. I mean, it’s not perfect: the
touchpad interface is kinda weird, and it comes with a bunch of features no one needs, like a built in
FM radio.”

“Oh.” Laurie said.

They were sitting in the living room on an overstuffed couch, under a landscape painting of the kind
sold on street corners.

Most of their conversations were like that. Whenever Laurie had tried to bring up a topic that
interested her, it was met with a dull expression of annoyance or a prompt subject change back to
something more Kristyn-focused. So she’d stopped trying.

Kristyn lived in the development on the other side of the forest and the power lines, one a little
nicer and more expensive than Laurie’s. She visited at least once a week, but always left feeling
very strange. Their house was ​too​ clean, for one. Every room was spotless, every dish was washed
the instant it was used, and her mom could often be seen scrubbing things.

And Kristyn’s mom, herself, was off. She had distant eyes and a nervous tic. She wore makeup at all
times, often so much she looked like a wig display. She rarely spoke to Laurie beyond what it took
to acknowledge her existence.

Her dad was never around, and seemed to be a forbidden subject in conversations. To make it up to
Kristyn, her mom brought her whatever she wanted. Anytime she acted out, her mom refused to do
anything about it, apparently because her daughter was “lost” and “confused” after… Whatever
happened, even if she didn’t show it, and her mom didn’t want to “ruin her” any more.

Once, Laurie came over right after they’d had a fight, and Kristyn was in an unusually bad mood. Or
was she? It was hard to tell. Either way, when Laurie asked what was wrong, she just sighed,
“nothing,” then turned to her mom, washing dishes several feet away, and yelled, “someone’s just
being a​ stupid bitch.​” Sometimes, she called her by her first name.

She was never punished for any of it. It seemed nicer than the overbearing scrutiny Laurie’s own
mother subjected her to, but she couldn’t say she was jealous.

For some reason, Kristyn hated her mom, and once she got started on the subject, she’d usually
continue to how she didn’t believe in anything; how society, authority, and religion were just a load
of bullshit; and how no one understood her. Eventually, Laurie got tired of the fighting, which
would usually start her ranting, so she just showed her how to find the lake.

From then on, they usually hung out there. They’d arrive in the early evening, and stay out until
eight or nine. A ritual, carried out in darkness, between just the two of them.

On the third night, Kristyn asked Laurie to bring her some of her parents’ cigarettes. Fine. They
had so many packs lying around they’d never miss one. In exchange, Kristyn stole a bottle of cheap
vodka from her mom’s liquor cabinet, for the same reason, and offered her half. Laurie took a swig,
but it tasted like something you’d use for pest control, so she declined any more. Kristyn sipped
from it over the course of the night, wincing with every taste, but still managing to get some of it
down.

Laurie listened while Kristyn told her about her current boyfriend. She went through at least six
over the course of high school. This one was the one that started with an R: Roger or Robert or
something like that.

“I’m fucking leaving. I’m breaking up with that asshole,” she slurred. “Why’d it take me so long to
realize he’s got all the personality of a fuckin’ cardboard cutout? I mean, he likes Nickelback. Jesus.”

“I don’t know...”

“And all I get is shit from him.”

“What kind of shit?”
“It’s a long story. Like, I can’t even describe what he does, but it’s fucking annoying.”

“Don’t you think you should talk to him about it?”

Kristyn looked into her eyes. “You can’t fix people. They don’t listen. Better to just find someone
without problems in the first place, right?”

“I don’t know Don’t you care about him?”

“She hesitated, and her voice saddened. “Sometimes, it’s just hard for me to care about anyone.”

Laurie looked a bit hurt, which Kristyn picked up on. “No offense.” She said. “In fact, you’re
different.”

“But why do you think that? What’s wrong with caring about people?”

“If you care about people, you’re just giving them a chance to let you down.”

“Don’t you think that’s too paranoid?”

Their eyes met again, Kristyn’s with a look of intense remorse that Laurie didn’t get at the time.
“Oh. Sad. I thought you were smarter than that.”

She couldn’t tell if that was a joke. Kristyn teased her a lot. Maybe. It was always hard to tell,
because she didn’t smile when it seemed like she should have. Her expressions seemed
disconnected from what she was saying.

Laurie checked her cell phone. “Eight-thirty.” She mumbled. “I’ll get yelled at if I stay out much
later.”

Kristyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Who gives a fuck?”

“What about your mom? Doesn’t she care?” Laurie asked, even though she knew the answer.

“She’s always passed out by this time.”

“Sorry... But I’ve got to go.”

“You’re just going to leave me?” Kristyn spat.

“What do you mean?”

“I hate walking back home alone. It’s creepy.”

Laurie nodded. “Yeah... It’s a way shorter walk back to my house than yours. I guess I should’ve
thought of that.”

Kristyn giggled. “Then maybe I should spend the night at your place.”
Before leaving, she leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Laurie’s nose filled with cheap perfume
and alcohol breath covered with chewing gum. And against her will, she started to feel something.

MARCH 2007

The faces at the lunch table changed sometimes. People drifted in and out, friends brought friends,
and friends of friends brought other friends, a rotating guard in Converse.

Kristyn mostly talked to other people. Laurie was a bit jealous when she saw them telling in-jokes
and stories she’d never understand. None of them seemed to care much about her, and they rarely
engaged her in conversation. She didn’t care much about them either, but it would’ve been nice if
they’d tried.

But she still sat with Kristyn by the lake, almost every day now.

It became a routine. She’d warmed to Kristyn more, and they were able to put aside some of their
differences.

Kristyn shared a few of her interests. One night, they sat in the clearing and shared a pair of
earbuds while she played an Alkaline Trio album. Laurie never listened to them again, but she liked
it too.

Kristyn wasn’t into J-rock or electronic music, so she didn’t have much to contribute there, but
Laurie still got the chance to share a bit of her world. She still came over sometimes—just tried to
steer Kristyn away from her mom—and once, they’d shut themselves in Kristyn’s room and
watched Death Note. Kristyn loved it, which earned her forgiveness her for that time she said
Laurie looked like a potato. Over the course of the evening, they scooched closer to each other until
they found themselves cuddling.

But something about her still made Laurie uncomfortable. First of all, she was starting to notice that
Kristyn only hung out with her alone, never inviting any other friends, and only at home, by the
lake, or somewhere else no one could see them.

Secondly, Kristyn was always talking about her other friends. This wouldn’t have bothered her, but
it was the way she did it. There was always a formula. First, she’d build a pedestal for them, then
she’d start talking about how awful they actually were, then when they were down and trashed and
she couldn’t think of any other complaints, she’d move on to the next one.

Whenever Kristyn would go through an unusually bad breakup, she’d tell Laurie about it in the
forest. It was usually something small, like the guy who complained about her hairstyle and was
gone the next day. Laurie had no idea how she could find so many boyfriends on such short notice.
She had acne scars she could never quite conceal, a bigger-than-average nose, and even though she
made fun of other people’s weight, she didn’t have the perfect body herself.

But Laurie was beginning to figure it out. There was just something about her, in her manner. No
matter how hostile she got sometimes, she could flip a switch and become a different person: warm,
inviting, playfully flirty, and it was like she’d never meant any harm before. The longer she spent
around people, the more she drew them in, and if Laurie herself was any indication, they grew to
love the unpredictability.

She’d first noticed it one Friday night late that month, when they were heading to the lake. Kristyn
was sober this time, but no more inhibited. “Come on!” she said, taking Laurie’s hand and pulling
her deeper in. It was a special feeling, one she’d never known before. The world shrunk around
them until it ended at the edges of the forest, and nothing mattered except the two of them.

They sat on the shore and threw stones as they talked. Over time, their conversations had grown,
their interests merging. Among the standard rumors, teacher complaints, diets, makeup, and
you-won’t-believe-what-Hailey-said’s; they’d talked about their families, about the places they’d
visit someday, about their biggest embarrassments, cats, kids, movie tropes, life on other planets,
and whether AI would ever become sentient. But that evening, Kristyn said, “Let’s talk about you.”

“Let’s just say I’m not used to that,” Laurie murmured.

“I know, right?! You always let me go on forever, but you never say anything about your own life.
You need to be more confident. So, tell me about yourself. What makes Laurie Donnelly tick?”

“Connelly.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Whatever. Just tell me everything.”

So Laurie did. About Eric and Ben and her persistent self-image problems. About her parents’
constant fighting and her frustration with life and how she wondered if there really was anything
better out there. And about how she never wanted to face reality, always just to run away, because
what if there wasn’t? Everyone always told her she lived in the clouds, but what was the point of
devoting any more attention to a life she wasn’t even enjoying?

And in return, Kristyn did too. She told her about her fear that she’d never be able to hold down a
relationship, her dreams of running away and starting a new life somewhere like California, and
how her dad ghosted after her mom threw him out for his constant affairs.

Laurie realized this was the first person who’d really opened up to her, on that level, for that long:
the better part of a year now? Her childhood friends had moved away before they became
permanent, military towns were transient like that, and middle school friendships came with the
unspoken agreement that they were confined to school and wouldn’t last beyond it.
“Is this intimacy?” she wondered. She knew it was to her, at least. Part of her still hated herself for
it, but whenever they sat close, she tingled all over and her face flushed.

She first knew it when Kristyn paused one of her rants to say, “I really trust you,” and followed it
with another kiss on the cheek. She recoiled from it, but she secretly wanted it to happen.

Whenever they talked from then on, no matter how trivial the actual subject, it was like something
profound beyond words lurked just beneath the surface. But it never went beyond that. They
seemed always on the edge of genuine affection, but never crossed it. One day, Kristyn pet her and
cuddled with her, and when she tried to move in to reciprocate, Kristyn just giggled and pushed her
away.

Laurie knew the word for what she felt, and she hated it.

JUNE 2008

Looking into the mirror, Laurie couldn’t help but laugh.

Her hair was a matted cloud over her head. She ran her fingers through it. When they caught
somewhere, she just yanked the tangled strands separate. That would suffice to keep parts of it
from obviously sticking up. Why bother beyond that?

Most women’s clothes weren’t concealing enough, so she’d started wearing men’s. At the moment,
she was dressed in an oversized, fraying, beige t-shirt that hung so low it concealed half her thighs.
Between that and the hair, she looked like a fat scarecrow. “Is this even a person?” she thought.

She hadn’t gone outside in a couple weeks. The benefits were twofold: One, no one would have to
see her this way, and two, if she didn’t work up a sweat, she wouldn’t get hungry.

She first became acutely aware of her size around eleven. Sure, she’d fantasized about being thin
before, hence Yume, but that was when it really started getting to her. There wasn’t one cause, but
a hundred little ones, like the nicknames at school, how her mom looked at her like she was
unclean, and how her dad worried she was taking after him a bit too much. Not to mention she
started using the internet.

After that, over and over for the next five years: juice fast, master cleanse, detox plan, four-day diet,
chicken soup diet, five bites diet, and a handful more from dodgy websites, all given up when she
found herself tired, cold, and stricken with migraines. She went outside to exercise when she was
young, but less and less as she got older because, you know… ​ Outside​. The number on the scale
swung wildly up and down, but never to the point where she could be called an average weight.

She only tried throwing up once, at fourteen. Thanksgiving night at her aunt’s, just after the last of
her family members had slipped into a food coma, she snuck off to the bathroom. She washed her
hands and bent over the toilet; there was no heating vent in there, and she gasped as her bare knees
hit the November-chilly floor. She inserted her middle finger deep into her mouth and pressed it
against the soft entrance to her throat.

With a dry retch, her stomach heaved and she doubled over in a coughing fit. The feeling was
unbearable, and she didn’t know how anyone could do that to completion. She tried it again twice,
but couldn’t make it past the gagging point.

“Is something wrong?” came her uncle’s voice through the door. “You’re hacking up a lung in there.”

“Oh, no, I uh—this is fine,” she stammered.

But even by those standards, the summer of 2008 was a low point. She was sixteen now, and by
this point, both Kristyn and her mom were gone, twin wounds still open, and Dad had started to
work insane hours to cover all the bills.

That was the first time she’d had that long alone with her thoughts. It was an unusually hot
summer, and she didn’t want to go back to the lake: it’d been tainted. So she spent two months
indoors, collapsing in on herself.

By July, she was locking herself in her room for days, blinds drawn, leaving only to go to use the
bathroom and eat the bare minimum necessary. She preferred to do both in the dark.

She’d leave the bathroom light off and find her way to the toilet from memory, and only brush her
teeth once she began to taste her breath and the slime of old meals on them. She needed the light to
shower, so at her lowest point, she went a week without it, just so she didn’t have to see herself
naked. Her room grew a smell even opening windows couldn’t get rid of.

She ate once a night on average. Some nights, she’d put on a thick pair of socks and tiptoe to the
kitchen as quietly as possible—hiding the sound from herself more than her dad—and grab an
apple, a small container of leftovers, or on occasion, a bag of marshmallows she ate sobbing in bed.
Other nights, she opened the fridge, slapped herself in the face, and closed it.

She still watched some anime, and that summer she made it through ​Narutaru​, ​Evangelion​ with all
three movies, and ​Grave of the Fireflies​, during which she felt an involuntary pang of envy. But
mostly, she read. She’d grown averse to noise and flashing lights, and books helped her work
through her feelings at her own pace. She tore through escapist fantasies and dystopian YA alike,
Doctor Who​ novelizations and Gaiman, campy paranormal romances and ​The Handmaid’s Tale​. She
made it partway through ​The Bell Jar, ​but it was too hard a gut punch. On the nights loneliness
struck, she stayed up in front of the computer, reading stories about boys in love.

Despite everything she’d seen of relationships, she still loved the idea of love. Real, fictional, gay,
straight, whatever, reading about it was one of the few things that made her think humanity wasn’t
that bad. But it was always bittersweet: she knew she wouldn’t find it, and every bite she took
made her deserve it less.
Sometimes, during moments of clarity, she wondered if she was being too hard on herself. A
thought would pierce through the fog: “Hey, things aren’t great for you right now, but that doesn’t
mean they’ll be this way forever.

“Come on, get up. Take a shower and change. You could even go outside for some fresh air. And I
know it sounds counterintuitive, but maybe, if you let yourself eat just one actual meal, you won’t
feel so— ”

“No.” said the rest of her.

SATURDAY NIGHT

She was off her diet for now—maybe soon she’d be on again, 20 goto 10—but she still didn’t eat
that night.

She’d written for hours, played video games until she drifted off, then woke up with a start around
eight. It turned out she’d only been asleep for a minute, slumped over in her desk chair, but her
katamari​ was stuck in a lake. “Forget everything. Forget about everything. And just go away,” the
game over screen demanded. Whatever, King of All Assholes. She wouldn’t be up much longer
anyway.

She rolled her chair to the desk and wrote the last of the entry. Her dad got home just after she
finished. He’d eaten at work that day and forgotten to get groceries: weird for someone who
managed the grocery store, but she didn’t hold it against him. “It’s fine,” she assured him, “I’ll find
something to make later.”

She waited for him to go to bed, then peeked into the pantry. EZ-Mac, cup ramen, white bread,
canned beans, and an array of condiments that would be useless on any of them. The thought of
having any of that crap again made her the other kind of sick.

She tiptoed to the bathroom. Eighteen now, she’d gotten used to her reflection. She didn’t have to
like it, but she could bear it. She opened the medicine cabinet and looked over the assortment of
pills and liquids inside. Both her parents hated being sick and had amassed quite the collection.
“Don’t even ​think about it,​” said the voice of reason, which worked as well as last time.

Ten minutes of Googling found her what she was looking for. ​“​Substances known to cause
unusual dreams.

“Active ingredient in cough syrup… Active ingredient in sleeping pills… Active ingredient in pain
relievers…”

Back in the bathroom, she laid one of each type she could find on the counter, four in total, and lined
them up next to a capful of cough syrup, which she took first. She broke the bigger two pills in
half—if she was going to poison herself, it wouldn’t be like ​this​—and after a moment of hesitation,
dropped them into a plastic cup of water and downed it in one gulp.

3/13/2010

I’m in bed again. The same one I woke from in the first dream.

No, I’m not sure why I’m back here. In fact, it’s still weird to me that these dreams are this
consistent.

Anyway, lying here, I decide that today, I’m not getting up. And I’m definitely not leaving this room.

Partly because I have a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach... But mostly because something
behind the walls is breathing.

The noise is deafening. It shakes the room. Whatever that thing is, it must be huge.

And it’s obviously having a hard time. It fights for each breath, wheezing and making these low,
choked raspy noises. Sometimes, I’ll also hear what sounds like liquids splattering on a floor.

I curl into a ball and pull the covers over my head. I’m staying right here. I don’t care what’s
outside. It it leaves me alone, I’ll stay here all day. I want nothing to do with it.

But something stinks in here.

It’s not me, in the dream or in real life. In fact, no human being could even smell that disgusting.
This is worse than body odor, worse than anything rotting or dead, even worse than sewage. It
smells ​wrong​.​ That’s the only way I can describe it.

The stench is unbelievable. It pierces right through the sheets. When I try breathing through my
mouth, I can taste it.

But I’ll still just stay here. It’s not going to get me here.

But the noise is getting closer. And I didn’t think it was possible, but the smell’s getting even more
intense.

There’s a deep grunt and a loud, wet... Sliding sound, of some sort. The room shakes like someone’s
dropped a very heavy weight on the floor.

I pull the covers up enough just to peek out, but I can’t see any evidence of where all the noise and
the smell are coming from. But I see my sword sitting by the side of the bed, so I grab it and pull it
under the covers with me.
Another grunt, another sliding sound. The noise is even closer, and the stink is so intense I can’t
breathe. Holding my breath, I wrap a bedsheet around my face like a bandana. The smell is still
there, but it’s not so bad I can’t breathe anymore.

This is getting too close for comfort. I don’t think staying in bed will protect me after all, because
this thing seems to be coming for me.

I nervously creep out of bed. The room is just as I last saw it, nothing looks like it’s changed.

I look around.

First, I head to the window and cautiously peek out. Nothing.

That’s good, in a way, because it means whatever it is, it’s waiting outside the door, which means
that at least it’s small enough to fit in the stairwell, so I ​should​ be able to take it on.

With the hand on my holstered sword’s hilt, I tiptoe toward the door. But then, I catch a glimpse in
the mirror on the armoire.

The face that looks back at me is nowhere near human. There are a few similar things, but the only
way I can describe it is a horrific, bloated and swollen mutation of a person.

I instinctively jump back in shock. It doesn’t.

In fact, it lurches closer, shaking the room once again. And the closer it gets, the more I realize that
it’s not the same size as me, nowhere near it. If it seemed that way before, it must’ve been really far
away.

There is no way I can fight this thing.

I dive for the door, attempting to flee the room as fast as possible. Within a second, I’m at the door,
jerking the knob, trying to shake it open, but it’s locked from the other side. I should’ve guessed.

I look back at the mirror. One of the creature’s massive hands is reaching out toward me.

I start shoving the full weight of my body into the door, trying to get it open, but it doesn’t budge.
Predictable.

When I look back at the mirror, all I can see in it is some pink lines. It takes me a second to realize
that’s a single one of its fingerprints.

And its fingertip hits the wall like a truck, a great, shuddering crash that shatters the mirror and
tears its frame apart, revealing the shape of the hole behind it, one that I guess leads to the “world
of nightmares.”

Something’s gross about it. Besides that it’s a portal to some hell-dimension, of course. The hole
itself just isn’t right. The wall’s made of stone, but the hole looks like some kind of orifice: soft, wet
and elastic.

The monster sticks one finger through it, then another, and spreads it open, trying to make enough
room to force its entire hand through.

As the hole widens, it swallows all the furnishings placed against the wall, and they drop into the
void. I dive behind the four-poster bed just as the entire wall gives way, taking half the floor with it.

The creature’s blubbery, outstretched hand bursts through the hole and instantly fills the room.
Furniture flies everywhere. The bed upends and lands on top of me, pinning me to the floor.
Luckily, it’s the soft mattress that hits me. The chandelier lands next to it and shatters.

The hole widens, getting bigger than the wall it used to sit in, as the demon forces its other hand
through the rift, then starts to push its whole arm through.

That’s when I hear the cracking. The floor is loudly splintering and breaking apart under the
demon’s bulk. Peering out from under the giant bed, I can see it bend toward the blob emerging
from the hole. This thing is going to try to come all the way out, and this whole tower will collapse
under its weight.

But over that sound, I hear a familiar voice, calling out to me. But it’s barely audible through the
chaos, and I can’t get a hold of it. It’s just my mind playing tricks on me, I assume.

I thrash around violently, trying to wiggle myself free from under the mattress.

“If I could just open the door,” is the only thing I remember thinking at that point. I have no idea
where I’d go - maybe I could get to the stairs before the thing could grab me, but at this rate, there’s
no way I’d be able to get down them before I’m crushed under its countless tons of flesh. But I’m
not thinking, just blindly panicking, looking for any way out.

Cracks race across the walls and the window blows out of its frame, glass raining to the floor.

That’s when I see Tomodachi. He’s hovering just outside the window, flapping furiously to stay
airborne.

With one final push, I shove the mattress off of me, scramble over the glass-strewn carpet, cutting
my feet up but not caring, and leap out the window just as the rest of the floor gives way.

I try to land on his back, but I end up just short and start sliding down his side. I grab at handfuls of
feathers, tearing them out. He squawks in pain and begins to descend in anticipation of my falling
off.

He twists as he dives, and the world becomes a blur, spinning around and around.

I lose my grip and begin to slip off him, frantically clawing at the air around me for something to
hold on to. I don’t find it, but as he dives downwards, he catches my cape in one of his talons.
The section of cloth by that holds it around my neck yanks me upwards, strangling me. In a blind
panic, I grab at it, trying to pull myself up. He flips upside-down in midair and I fall onto his belly. I
grab one of his talons and cling to it for dear life as he rights himself. I try to scramble up it to reach
his body, but it just throws him off balance. He’s visibly straining to hold on to me as we again go
spinning toward the ground.

Meanwhile, the demon gets enough of its body out of the hole to overwhelm the room, and as both
its arms and the beginnings of its head emerge from the hole, the walls buckle outward. Then they
split and the roof collapses, sliding off the tower and dropping to the ground hundreds of feet
below. Pieces of dismembered furniture rain from what’s left of my room, and dozens of blank
books flutter to the ground like feathers from a bird meeting its violent end.

There’s now an ever-widening black hole in the sky, out of which the demon’s slippery pile of a
body is slowly pouring. The tower pancakes under its weight, and I watch from above as they both
go crashing down.

They hit the ground together with a tremendous echoey boom, and the force of the impact causes a
chain reaction that takes out about a third of the castle. That’s the last thing I see before a plume of
dust erupts from the site and blocks my view.

Tomodachi circles around it as he descends, me still clinging to his talon for dear life. He dips into a
steep dive, and I close my eyes as we plummet earthward.

We both land hard in the garden outside the castle, and I’m thrown off of him. He digs his talons
into the ground and comes to a rough stop, but at least manages to land upright. I, on the other
hand, go flying in a separate direction as he bounces off the ground, tumble head-over-heels a few
times, then land-face-first in the dirt.

For the first time in a while, there’s a moment of quiet.

Finally, he asks me: “Are you all right?”

Face still buried in a clod of dirt, I just let out a tiny whimper.

There’s an earsplitting roar. The monster survived the impact, and it’s obviously not too happy. It’s
immediately followed by an enormous crash that I assume is more of my castle collapsing.

He grabs my cape in his beak and yanks me to my feet. “We don’t have time for this! Get up!”

Wiping a cake of mud off my face, I look to Tomodachi, then back to the source of the noise, then
back to Tomodachi.

I have no idea what to do at this point. How do we kill something that big?

I get an idea. I scramble around, looking for something to attach myself to him with.
I run into the aviary, where I find just what I was looking for. A long coil of rope.

“Get me closer to it! I shall think of something!” I declare.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Do you have a better one?”

I leap onto his back, grab both ends of the rope, and toss them over his head, then pull the rope tight
around his neck. (It seems like a good idea at the time.) I tie the rope around my waist and grip one
of the ends in each hand. My improvised reins aren’t very sturdy, but they should work in a pinch.

“All right! Let’s go!”

We take off, pull around in front of the monster, and begin circling around it, close enough to attract
its attention, but making sure to stay out of its biting range. That’s still the first thing it tries,
though. It lunges toward us with surprising speed, gnashing the air around us as we swoop around
it.

When we pull back to an even safer distance, or so I think, it starts trying to swat us out of the air
like a fly. One of its massive hands comes blasting by, so close that the wind pushes Tomodachi
downward, with me gripping the rope so tight it begins to choke him. But he recovers at the last
minute, and we pull back up.

“Where are we going?!” I shout to him.
“I thought you knew!” He shouts back.

And at that crucial moment, we disagree on which way to go. I yank his improvised reins one way
just as he starts to go in the other of his own accord, and that moment of hesitation is enough to
give the monster the opening it needs to lurch forward and hit us with its other hand.

Tomodachi absorbs most of the impact, but the rope gets ripped out of my hands so I get thrown off
of him. We go plummeting toward the earth in different directions. I tumble head over heels in
midair, the world becoming a blur, until I hit the ground and black out.

When I come to, I’m alone. I’m lying on my back on a cold, hard cobblestone street. I very slowly
open my eyes. My vision is blurred from the shock of the fall.

Some kind of goo splashes onto my head.

And as my vision slowly clears, I realize with horror that I’m looking at something very big. I pray
that it’s not what I think it is, but it is. The demon is right above me, staring directly down at me.

It’s lying prone on the ground facing me, so I’m only seeing it from the chest up. But even just the
part I can see is the size of a stadium, so I have no idea how massive it would be if it stood up. But
I’m guessing it can’t, because it’s massive in more than one way - “morbidly obese” can’t even begin
to describe it. Its body is a shapeless blob of meat with a head attached.

It swings a giant hand at me. Still paralyzed from the shock of the fall from the sky, I’m unable to
even try to get out of the way. Next thing I know, it’s squeezing the life out of me as it brings me up
to its face. In inspects me, looking me over as if it’s just as confused by me as I am by it.

This is far closer to it than I’d ever like to be, and I get a much better look at it than I ever wanted.
Its hair is a greasy mop the color of sewer water. Its nose is huge and asymmetrical. Some kind of
thick milky liquid oozes from its nose and mouth, a mouth full of rotting, dull teeth caked with the
remains of something, I have no idea what. Its sausage lips end in two bulldog-like jowls, flopping
over too many chins to count. It’s naked, and lying on its stomach, its sweaty breasts hang limply to
the floor. I try very hard not to look at that anymore.

But when I look up at its eyes... It pauses, and I pause, and we just stare at each other. And for a
second, it’s almost like I understand it. Its eyes seem more sad than anything, almost like it’s trying
to say “I’m sorry, but I have to do this.”

It opens its mouth, and I hope that I’ll never, in a dream or not, smell anything worse than its
breath. Rotting meat seems to be the most pervasive smell, but it’s mixed with a bunch of others I
can’t even wrap my mind around.

But I’m not trying to classify smells at the moment. I’m busy frantically struggling, thrashing, and
biting to escape it. But nothing works.

I know where this is going, and sure enough, it eats me. It tosses me into its mouth and then closes
it, leaving me in total darkness.

I pass through its mouth faster than I expected, and I’m pulled into what must be its esophagus. If
there’s any silver lining here, it’s that the thing was lying down, so at least I don’t fall directly into its
stomach. Its throat is at a gentle incline, which, although slippery, I can get a grip on.

The “walls” are warm, wet, and pulsating. They slowly close in on me, and a sucking motion begins
to draw me deeper in.

But an idea strikes me.

I grip my sword in both hands, bury it to the hilt in the “floor,” and close my eyes.

A pig-like squeal comes from somewhere around me, and the “hallway” begins to shake and heave.
In seconds, the floor goes from horizontal to vertical, and I hold on to the sword for dear life.
Something very large hits the “walls,” causing them to distort and compress. I guess it’s raising its
head and clutching its hands to its neck. Black blood flows out of the puncture wound and drips
onto my face. I don’t open my eyes.

Then, everything turns upside-down - the monster must be doubling over - and a blast of hot air
sends me flying.

Coughed up, I fall out its mouth and land wetly on the ground, clothes squishing with blood, saliva,
and bits of partially chewed God-knows-what. My sword clatters to the ground next to me.

That was disgusting. And painful. The drop from its bowed head to the ground was at least twenty
feet, and my entire body feels broken and twisted. Lying on my back, I stare upwards at the mouth
dripping more of the same liquids down onto me. It’s opening again, and I panic regains me the
ability to get up and run.

I get out of its immediate reach, hide behind the blind corner of a building, then peek my head
around just enough to get a glimpse of the demon oozing toward me in the middle distance. I catch
a glimpse of one of its beady eyes scanning the city for me.

It must have been a bit too long of a glimpse, because it immediately locks eyes with me. Its eyes
narrow into a death glare. I return the look.

I have a plan. But I’m not expecting what it does next:

First, it opens its mouth and lets out what I assume is some kind of roar, or maybe a scream. Either
way, it’s the loudest noise I’ve ever heard - a sound nothing on Earth could duplicate. Covering my
ears is useless. Were this real life, at least my eardrums would have burst, giving me a little relief.
But this isn’t, and the sound tears my skull open and penetrates right into my brain.

Then it raises its hands - so overinflated with fat they look like balloons with a skin disease - to its
face, rips its jaw off its hinges with a sick “crack,” letting it drop to the ground, and grabs the sides of
its mouth and spreads it open until it looks like the entrance to a cave.

Finally, it swallows the entire city block in front of it at once. It extends its arms and scoops up
everything in its path, sweeping buildings off their foundations and crushing them into piles of
rubble in its embrace, then shoves it all into its mouth, which is now three times the width of its face
and drops down past its chest.

I feel sick. And it’s coming right toward me. I figure I have less than a minute before I go into that
black hole along with the rest of my city.

But in a way, I’m lucky. We’re not that far from the place where I’d initially intended to lead it to in
the first place. (<- Blech.)

I’m just a few blocks from my statue.

By now, I’ve figured out that this little world is built on top of a great empty space, with not much
holding it up, structurally. And this thing is, quite obviously, heavy. Very heavy. I’ve noticed that
the ground buckles towards it. If it sits too long in one place, I can hear the stone streets around it
cracking.
But my statue’s a few times taller.

I‘d noticed for a while that the way it holds its sword - leaning forward, and thrusting it forward
with a fully extended arm - weights the entire thing toward the front. And the first thing I’d noticed
the first time I saw it, even from as far away as my bedroom in the castle, was that it’s in dire
condition. From this close up, it’s even more apparent. Massive cracks, big enough to fit my hand
into, are scattered throughout it. Not to mention the face is worn almost totally off, so if I were to
lose it, I wouldn’t take it too personally.

I take off running as fast as I can, down the wide main street that runs through the city, toward the
statue.

It sits on a big, wide stone pedestal with stairs on all four sides leading up to its feet. I scramble up
the steep steps. The pedestal isn’t that high, it’s at about the roof level of most of the buildings
around it, but now I’m right in front of the statue’s feet and closer to eye-level with the monster.

I draw my sword and thrust it out, imitating my stone version’s pose perfectly. “​Come get me!​” I
scream as loud as I can. It echoes through the empty streets. The monster stops gorging itself and
looks up towards me, with its jaw still resting in a puddle of flesh on the ground.

I stand as still as the statue as the demon oozes toward me. In that moment, we’re both calm. Me
because I think I’ve discovered a way to kill it, and it because it must think my overconfidence has
guaranteed it an easy meal.

I’m a little under chin level with it, and at that moment, I get a close look at the beast’s eyes. They’re
filled with pain and directionless hate, well past the point of boiling over into madness. But at the
same time - I don’t know, it’s like they tell a story, maybe one of a sentient creature that knows how
disgusting it is, and even though it’s fully aware, it can’t change what it is. I almost feel sorry for it.

I begin to shake, but I still myself and look it right in the eyes.

“I’m not afraid of you.” I mouth to myself.

It forms one of its gigantic hands into a fist, raises it into the air, and brings it down on me like
someone pounding a table. I dive out of the way just in time. Its fist smashes into the pedestal,
shattering a big part of it in a plume of dust and a hail of stones.

It shifts, then just like before when I was riding Tomodachi, it swings at me with its other hand. But
this time I’m expecting it, and I can get out of the way again. It hits the ground so close that the
impact shock knocks me off my feet, and when it pulls it back up, it’s left a crater twice as deep as I
am tall. The whole structure vibrates and stone dust rains down on me from above.

Noticing it didn’t get me, it lets out another deafening roar and a blast of rancid breath that almost
kills me from shock. But I stay on my feet and watch it carefully for any clues about what it’s going
to do next.
Finally, it lifts itself slightly off the ground and throws all of its weight into one massive punch. I
dive out of the way just in time, and instead of the real me, its fist collides with the statue.

My plan works. Cracks race through the statue and the sound of stone splitting echoes through the
air.

I take off sprinting away from what’s about to happen. I trip and fall down the stairs, tumbling over,
but I barely even notice in my adrenaline rush.

And the demon looks up, lower jaw still flapping limply on the ground, just in time to see what’s
coming.

The statue tilts forward, its legs snap off its feet, and the entire thing comes crashing down on the
demon. Its sword lands blade-first on the monster’s head.

The stone recreation of the sword isn’t sharp, of course, and it’s been worn away with time, but the
force of the impact is enough to drive it in.

There is a moment of silence, as if the realization of what’s just happened to it is making its way
through the thing’s body, then the rest of the statue lands on it, crushing it like an insect under
countless tons of marble, narrowly missing squishing me too.

I feel like I should be used to the smell by now, but I’m not. As the adrenaline rush wears down and
my breathing returns to normal, it hits me again, choking me. But soon, the combined weight of it
and the statue cause the ground to sag, then completely give way, sending both tumbling into the
bottomless pit.

There’s a flapping sound.

Tomodachi lands next to me, apparently not bothered by it. He seems to be perfectly unharmed, in
fact.

I look to him, trying to see if there’s anything he can say that will make this make sense, but there
isn’t.

SUNDAY MORNING

Laurie woke up drenched in sweat, mind racing with memories of the abomination and its smell.
She ran to the bathroom without her glasses, hugged the toilet, and waited. Another false alarm;
she hadn’t eaten anyway. She got up, drank a Dixie cup of water, Then, not having her glasses in
her way, she got a few inches from the mirror and stared into her own eyes. They were narrow and
deep-set, with a hint of the same dark circles under them as she’d seen under her dad’s. She
groaned a bit.

She thought about getting something to eat now, but it was all she could do to drag herself back to
her room and start writing.

She thought back to the last time she’d had a fever. She vaguely remembered seeing things, but she
had no recollection of what. She wondered if that would happen again this time, and if so, what it
would be.

Her pen slipped from her hands, and without turning the light off, she fell back into a deep,
dreamless sleep.

JANUARY 2004

Laurie was sitting in an oversized armchair in an undersized room crowded with things that gave it
the look of importance: a Master’s diploma, framed certificates, a shelf full of books on didactics. A
mug reading “I work in a middle school, what’s your excuse?” sat on the desk, as if trying to take the
edge off of things.

She was trying to figure out what she needed an excuse for when the assistant principal, a short,
rapidly graying black woman in business attire, entered the room. She sat down in the big
executive chair behind the desk, took a minute to look over the notes the front office had given her,
and sighed.

“Lauren...” she began, before and after a long quiet, “...I’m not saying I don’t believe you. It’s just
that, besides your word, we don’t have any proof this is even happening. I’ll talk to him and his dad
about it, but that might be all I can do. Do you have any more questions?”

Laurie shook her head.

“All right then. I’ve got five other students waiting in the hall.”

She called Eric in the next day. He said he didn’t know that girl, and that he had no reason to even
be talking to her. She was probably just looking for attention.

She’d been doing this long enough for her bullshit detector to go off, but she still had no proof he
was lying: when she finally got a hold of his parents, his dad told her with exaggerated affect that
his son would never go threatening girls and he was offended by the accusation. So, she reached
the conclusion that he was probably just being stupid, but the rules required she do something.

“You know we have a zero-tolerance policy about this kind of thing...” She said. “But since it’s your
first time, I’ll let you off easy: two days out of school suspension.” And that was that.
The next day was oppressively gray, like a lot of days that time of year. Laurie and Ben didn’t say hi
to each other at the bus stop. They just stood in silence until, after several minutes, Ben spoke.

“Man, hate when it get like this.” He sighed.

Laurie didn’t know who he was talking to, because she was obviously not in any mood to engage
him. But he tried anyway. “About all that stuff at school, you ain’t offended, right? I mean, I think
you taking this too seriously. He don’t mean nothing by it.”

He quickly realized she was ignoring him. He kept talking, trying to get some kind of
acknowledgement, but the air was being let out of him. “He just playing with you, OK? All the rest
of us, even me, we play around with everyone like that.”

She didn’t turn to him, and spoke just above a whisper, but still clearly enough to be heard.

“Fuck you.”

THAT EVENING

A work boot slammed into Eric’s gut. “You little shit! You ain’t even a good liar, you know that?”

Eric stumbled back and fell against the wall.

“Threatenin’ a girl… Lord knows I ain’t great, but I ain’t raised you like ​that​.”

Eric’s dad was 160 pounds of lean muscle. He was shirtless, with a “Desert Storm, ‘90-’91” tattoo
covering his left pec. He looked down at Eric like a carpet stain. “Now get outta my face.”

Eric turned, concealing tears, and ran out, slamming the door as hard as he could behind him.

A sad-eyed, graying woman emerged from the bedroom in her underwear. “Mike, please....”

Eric’s dad looked over his shoulder. “If he can run like that, he’s fine. He’s tougher than you give ‘im
credit for.”

On the way past his dad’s Dodge pickup, he kicked the door as hard as he could, damaging his foot
instead. He limped to the woods behind their house and lay on the ground.

A squirrel crossed a branch above. He sat up, picked up a rock and hurled it at it. It scurried off.
“It’s not fair,” he sniffled.

APRIL 2007
The longer Laurie spent around Kristyn, the more she tried to make herself attractive. She still
didn’t think she had much to work with, but she tried. She combed her hair, ironed her clothes, and
tried to dress less like a tent. When Kristyn was near, she unconsciously sat up straight and sucked
in her stomach. Kristyn never noticed. Which was good, because she probably would’ve just been
embarrassed if she had.

She even tried wearing makeup, just once. As she stared into the mirror applying it, she was
reminded of the time she watched her dad polish a bowling ball: he poured rubbing alcohol on a
cloth and wiped it until the light danced on its marbled pearlescent surface, but in the end, it was
still a fucking bowling ball.

She sighed, then left for Kristyn’s house. Kristyn’s mom answered the door, took an expressionless
look at her, then called for her daughter, who took her time coming.

“How’ve you been?” asked Laurie.

Kristyn groaned. “Shitty.”

They both sat down on the front stoop.

“Why?”

“It’s mom... You complain about us fighting, but I wouldn’t call it that: she never does anything back.
I guess... I don’t hate her. I just wonder if she even cares about me at all.”

They sat down and stared off.

“You always say no one cares, everyone just thinks about themselves all the time. I’ve been thinking
about that a lot,” Laurie said.

“Oh shut the fuck up,” Kristyn teased. “I know what you’re gonna say: ‘But I do! I think about you
aaaaall the time!’ Get a fucking life.”

Despite herself, Laurie had to laugh. “No, I was gonna say sometimes I think that too.”

“Well, yeah, I can see why no one cares about ​you​. Just look at you.”

Laurie winced.

“Sorry,” Kristyn said quietly. “You know, on the inside, I kinda envy you.”

“What.” Laurie said.

“If I’m telling the truth… You’re fascinating. It’s like you’re an island. Whenever people hurt you or
make fun of you or whatever, I’ve never seen you cry. You’re like… Self-sustaining.“
“Just ‘cause you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean I don’t do it,” Laurie said.

“Well yeah, everyone does. What I’m saying is, I’ve never seen getting hurt fucking wreck you like it
does me.”

“Really? Laurie said. “I always thought ​you​ were the one who never showed it.”

“Yeah right. Fucking ray of sunshine, aren’t I?”

Laurie stared at her feet.

Kristyn’s tone softened. “I don’t want to be like this. Might not seem like it, but it’s not like I get up
in the morning thinking, ‘How can I be my bitchiest self today?’” She closed her eyes. “I wish I was
happier.”

“It seems like all that stuff with your mom—both parents—is the biggest problem. It seems pretty
crushing to live like that, with them not caring about you,” Laurie offered.

“No shit. Sometimes I just want to run away from it all, you know?” Kristyn asked no one in
particular.

“What’s stopping you?

“I don’t know... I’m scared. Where would I go? I don’t think I could survive out there. I’d probably
end up a hobo or something.”

Laurie had no idea how to respond. “Uh... If you want to find a way, I guess you will.”

Kristyn groaned. “Don’t give me that shit. You’re the smart one. You can go get a PhD or some shit
and do whatever the fuck you want.”

Laurie didn’t know why Kristyn was so complimentary today. She’d always hoped it would happen,
but now that it was, it just made her nervous.

“Maybe I can go stay with my friends or whatever, at least for a while,” Kristyn sighed. “If I don’t
push them all away before then, I mean.”

“I’d offer you my place, but you wouldn’t like my parents any more.”

“Fuck, you’re too nice for me,” Kristyn said. “But you’re right. I guess I should start saving up to
leave or something.”

“You should probably wait until after your senior year, though. You at least need a high school
diploma to make it out there. And I don’t know: You say you’re not as smart as me, and I don’t think
that’s true anyway, but you might like college?”

“Oh, look at you!” Kristyn spat. “You’ve got your shit together. Not me.”
Laurie was taken aback. She always thought Kristyn, with her effortless confidence, was the one
who knew what she was doing here.

“Not really, actually. I mean... I’m still trying to decide what I’d want to do, and nothing seems right.
I could imagine being a scientist or something like that—that’d be cool—but not going into business
or finance or anything,” she stammered. “But right now, the only thing I’m really interested in is art,
and... You know, there’s no money in that.”

Kristyn nodded.

“I don’t know where I want to go either…” Laurie continued. “I know I want to get out of here, but I
have no idea where I’d go.”

She swallowed and took a deep breath. “But I remember you saying you wanted to go to California.
And... That seems nice. I want to see it someday, too. So If you do ever run away, let me know!”
And she smiled as if she was joking.

MONDAY MORNING

Laurie woke up before dawn, but she couldn’t get back to sleep, so she started writing.

Usually, she hated how much sleep she seemed to need, but now that it kept getting interrupted by
nightmares and coughing fits, she’d started to miss it. Her head felt like it’d been lit on fire, and
every motion sent pain radiating from its respective body part. But with a concerted effort, she
managed to get up, heave herself over to the dresser for some more NyQuil, then to the kitchen to
rinse it down with two big mugs of ice water. That relieved her enough to be able to choke down
some food. Today was definitely a sick day.

For breakfast, she’d have to settle for ham on white bread with mayonnaise and a slice of “cheese
product.” She held her breath while chewing so she wouldn’t have to taste it as much. Every
swallow was followed by waves of pain and nausea, which she did her best to fight back.

Afterwards, she dragged herself back to her room, lay back down, and was able to pass back into a
fitful sleep. When her dad came in to check on her, she was barely able to speak above a whisper.
Her entire body ached, her mind was beginning to go fuzzy, and her clothes were soaking through
with sweat.

“Are you OK?’

“Not only if the walls sound more yellow than usual,” she mumbled, then fell back asleep. He left
the room and shut the door gently behind him. He wished he still had help dealing with these kinds
of things.
Maybe Cathy would’ve known what to do.

MARCH 2008

March 20th was an ordinary day until it wasn’t. Laurie had lain in bed the previous night listening
to her parents yelling through the wall. They were arguing about the color of the towels. It’d ended
with mom screaming “Don’t touch me” several times. That was normal. The next day none of them
mentioned it over breakfast. ...Or spoke at all. She went to school and come home as usual.

Getting home, Dad was there, but only him. He was sitting on the couch, still in his button-down
and khakis from work. Before he even spoke, she could tell he wasn't his normal self. He was
staring out the window in silence.

She began to ask, Where’s...” but didn’t finish, because she knew.

She gave him a hug—it was all she could think to do—and he squeezed her for a long time before
saying, “I love you.” Something neither of her parents said that often when they were together. “I
love you too,” she replied, and had never meant it more.

Dinner was quiet too. She didn’t know what to tell him, because he obviously cared way more than
she did: the constant nagging and disappointment hadn’t done much for Laurie’s affection towards
her mother. But despite his refusal to talk about it, she had a feeling that what her dad was going
through was horribly painful for him, maybe worse than anything she’d endured. There’d been no
note, no advance warning, nothing. For weeks he called, texted, left voicemails. Nothing.

When he finally did get a response, it was by email. Somehow, she managed to fit all twenty years
of repressed hostility into just four paragraphs. Dad read it out loud, and Laurie listened in silence:
the gist of it was that her mother felt “trapped.”

“No shit,” Laurie came to the verge of responding.

She did a lot of listening over the next few weeks. She didn’t know what else to do. He opened up
over time, talking more about his feelings and the prior state of their marriage than ever—things
she never have thought he’d say, or have even been thinking. Despite their fighting, he said, he’d
believed they were meant for each other. He never expected to have to find someone else at this
age. He was afraid of dying alone.

“Better than another marriage like that one,” she did not say.

But throughout it all, every day, he got up and went to work like nothing happened, even managing
a smile and a wave on his way out. “This’s just something I’ll have to sack up and deal with,” he’d
say. He was never one to cry.
There were court appearances, but to her credit, mom didn’t want the house or too much in
alimony. She just wanted out. Both parents also agreed Laurie was fine staying with her dad. The
court didn’t give her a say, but if they had, she would’ve too. But she would’ve added that, though
living alone with Mom was her personal idea of hell, it was a blow to the self-esteem that she didn’t
even try to get custody.

After a few weeks, her mom began to talk again, but only with Laurie, who she’d call on her cell
phone and tell to pass messages on to her dad.

“You’ll be an adult in a couple years,” she’d say. “I know you and your father can handle things for
yourselves,” she’d say, as if she were doing them a favor. She said she loved them both “in a way,”
but couldn’t deal with “that situation” anymore. The terms were always vague, but Laurie knew
exactly what she meant.

“In a way,” meant “not like she loved disposable income and having nice things. Not like she loved
the idea that there was always someone better out there.”

“That situation” was her bitter marriage to a disappointing man, her bitter relationship with a
disappointing daughter, and her inability to keep pretending both were fine. And how she’d never
adjusted to their life on the edge of poverty, or the responsibilities of raising a child in that
environment, and how she sure as hell wasn’t willing to learn now. She felt her soon-to-be ex,
however, already had, and it was his problem from now on.

Soon enough, Laurie had a hard time caring anymore. As far as she was concerned, leaving was the
smartest thing her mom could’ve done, although she never told anyone that. When friends and
family invariably started going on about how upset she must’ve been, she just nodded and put on
her most realistic sadface. But she wondered if something was wrong with her: Shouldn’t she miss
the woman who raised her? Shouldn’t she be upset that her family was coming apart? Or at least
feel something besides the same dull resignation as always?

Mom still called every now and then. Laurie acted as a messenger between them, just like she did
when they were together.

Dad would’ve taken her back in a heartbeat at any time, and put off signing the papers as long as he
could, much to both Laurie and her mom’s frustration. He’d always just wanted them to be a real
family. But Laurie felt deeply for him, and tried not to judge, despite the inanity of the idea that
they could’ve become a “real family.”

Within a month, Mom was in another relationship. She loved talking about it, about how happy he
made her and how she wished she’d met him years ago. Wayne was a construction foreman who
lived an hour away; a few years older than Dad, but in better shape and made more money. Laurie
knew why Mom emphasized those things, but not why she didn’t realize she was talking to the last
person who wanted to hear it.

They’d only seen each other in person once since the divorce. The next Mother's Day, they’d met at
a diner in town.

“Just a water, please,” her mom told the server as they sat down.

“I’ll have a Dr. Pep—”

“She’ll have a water too.” Mom looked up over her menu and shook her head. “I can tell you need to
eat healthier. In fact, you should come over sometime. We’ll cook for you. And you can meet
Wayne while you’re there.

“Sorry, but I’d… Rather not,” Laurie said.

“Guess everyone heals at their own speed.”

She talked for a long time, but didn’t say she loved or missed her daughter, or wonder what it’d
been like after she left; just asked some politeness-questions about school, then got started on her
new life: She’d been smoking less, exercising more, getting out more, making new friends, she was
up for a promotion, and she felt she’d been growing as a person. Wayne was so wonderful, perfect,
the best. There was a laundry list of the gifts she’d been bought.

She pulled out her phone. “Do you want to know what he looks like?”

“No.”

“I don’t know why you’re still not taking an interest in my life.”

“It’s not that,” Laurie lied. “I’m just going through some stuff right now.”

“Did you tell your father, at least?” Mom asked moonily.

Laurie squeezed her eyes shut and clenched a fist under the table. ​Count to ten.​ “I don’t know why
you’re asking me that,” she finally said, poker-faced.

“Because you’re going to tell me.”

“Please stop.”

Mom smiled her you’re-being-ridiculous smile. “I don’t see what harm there is in it.”

“Please, stop.”

“Does he regret any of what he did?”

Laurie stared at her over her glasses, eyes narrowed to slits, breathing deep and labored. “Please.
Stop.”

“That’s real ugly, what you’re doing.” Her mom said.

Tears welled up. The waiter came back with their water, and Laurie covered her eyes and turned
away from him, mortified.

Her mom’s voice grew soft, maternal. “I’m not angry, just worried. You’ve always been antisocial,
and if you go around losing your temper in public—you won’t make any friends like that.

“I just want to you be happy, OK? I want to see you grow into a well-adjusted young woman, and I
don’t understand this hostility I’m getting back.”

“Did I do something to you?” Laurie asked, anger turning inwards as always.

“No one on your father’s side of the family treated me very well..”

“I tried.”

“You didn’t want to, though.”

Laurie wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Her mom put down her menu and looked into her eyes. “But
you should know: Despite all that, I still miss you.”

“If that was true, you’d be home.”

Her mother glared at her. “If you’re going to be that way, I can just go.”

“Fine.”

MAY 2008

“I don’t know if it’s them or me,” Kristyn said one night, in apropos of nothing.

“I always go for the same fucking type. Or, maybe, the same type’s just drawn to me. The
‘beautifully tragic’ ones. At first, I want to help them out, but then, they start expecting it all the
time, like they’re relying on me for support. It gets so fucking annoying. After that, I don’t know, I
start wanting to hurt them.

“But shit, maybe that’s just how relationships work. You like them at first, but the thing you initially
liked turns into the thing that drives you away, and you just start hurting them to get them away
from you. Know what I’m talking about?”

“Uh... Not really.”

Kristyn smirked. “Not surprised. I shouldn’t have expected ​you​ to get it.” But she paused for a
minute, then said quietly, “I don’t either, though.” She stared at the moon. “That might just be my
thing.”
It was late, much later than they normally stayed out, on a Friday. It’d begun to drizzle, but Laurie
would stay by the lake as long as Kristyn did. With some hesitation, she spoke: “I… Have noticed,
though. Sometimes… You don’t seem to care about other people’s feelings.”

Kristyn sighed. “Was that about you?”

“What do you mean?”

Kristyn buried her face in her palm. “Look… I can tell.”

Laurie’s breath stopped. Part of her wanted to just apologize, drop everything, and run. “You can
tell what?”

‘You know.”

“That I—”

Kristyn cut her off. “Yeah. And sorry, but—no. I really hope you didn’t think anything would
happen.”

“No... Not really. I mean... Maybe. But I wanted to be realistic, so I didn’t get my hopes up.”

“Good. ‘Cause I didn’t want you to get the idea I could like you back.”

That stung. “But you—you flirted with me, right? It seemed like you might’ve felt something...” She
paused, then tried staunch the oncoming flow of self-hate by toning it back. “A little bit, at least, I
mean.” She paused, then added. “Or maybe it just seemed that way.”

“I do that with everyone. I didn’t think it would ​mean​ anything.”

“I wasn’t expecting you to...” she dropped her voice to a murmur, “...Like me back,” then returned it
to normal volume, “but I didn’t think it would be a problem. And I guess, maybe we haven’t known
each other long enough, or—”

Kristyn raised a hand, cutting her off. “I was trying to figure out how to say this, but I’ll just come
out with it. Even if I was gay, it wouldn’t be for you.” And she broke eye contact with Laurie for the
last time.

“You’re really nice. And honest. And that’s cute, but I don’t think you know what you are.” She
thought for a moment, then just let it slip: “You’re the friend who makes me look better.”

“How could you say that?” Laurie whispered. She would’ve rather screamed it, but that’s how it
came out.

“It’s true.” Kristyn said, deadpan, adding a muttered, “This always happens.”

“But, can’t we talk about—”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”

There was the beginning of what would’ve been another long silence, but Kristyn quickly killed it.
“I… Don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

Laurie couldn’t think anything coherent to counter that. As soon as she’d managed another “How
could you—” Kristyn cut her off.

“I said there’s nothing to talk about.”

Laurie tried to look into her eyes, but she turned away.

“I’m going home now,” Kristyn said, then did it.

Laurie stayed by the lake for another hour, crying on the ground.

JANUARY 2009

Laure had taken to staring at walls.

When the sun set, she wouldn’t turn the lights on. Light hurt. Once her eyes adjusted, the dark was
more comfortable.

Some days, she’d come home, do her two or three hours of homework immediately, then go straight
to bed. Covered in night sweats, she’d wake up with the alarm thirteen hours later.

Sometimes she couldn’t walk. She’d try to pull herself up, but her body was lead. She wasn’t eating
much, so she might have lost weight, but she didn’t care. Whenever someone talked to her, all she’d
think was “piss off.” On the rare occasions she got a phone call, she’d let it ring out.

Rewatching her favorite anime, she couldn’t bring herself to care about any of those idiots or their
contrived problems, and the last thing she wanted to hear about was the power of friendship.
Games would sometimes distract her, but just in a Pavlovian way.

The most comforting fantasy she had in those days was of a world of complete isolation. The sun
had gone out, everyone else had vanished, and she walked the earth in blissful silence. When she’d
had enough, she’d simply lay down and close her eyes.

After years of thinking about death as often as she did, it’d stopped being sad. It was just a part of
her daily routine... Come home, get biology homework out of the way, make dinner, contemplate
throwing herself under a semi-truck, finish algebra paper... The fantasies were comforting, actually.
If life ever got to be too much, she could always just end it with one quick splat.

Every time she passed by dad’s room when he wasn’t home, she’d open the bottom right drawer of
his big wooden wardrobe and peer inside.

He’d never told her it was there, or even that he owned one, but once, when he’d left the door
cracked, she’d peered in and caught him cleaning it. She flattened herself against the wall outside,
peeking her face around the corner just enough, occasionally, to catch a glimpse. When he was
done, that was where he hid it.

She put it in her mouth one day.

He was at work, and she’d just gotten home from another sleepwalking day at school. Opening the
drawer as quiet as she could, she dug through a pile of dress shirts until she found a little gray .38
Special.

It was heavier than she’d expected, but also simpler. Looking it over, there was no safety, nothing
to cock, no point in leaving a note, nothing to say.

Drawing a deep, jagged breath and letting it out, she closed her eyes and slid it in. The iron sight
scraped the back of her teeth. She wouldn’t actually do it, she told herself. She just wanted to know
what it felt like to get that close. Just one finger twitch away. She mouthed a silent “wow.”

And she sat for a minute, feeling something she’d never felt before: the relief of knowing that if she
wanted to, she could. And what a dramatic way to go: with thunder, lightning, and a great red
starburst across the walls. It was a little exhilarating, if she was being honest.

“She shot herself,” she pictured everyone saying. Such direct and unmistakable words. She
wondered if it’d make the news, and if they’d announce it over the PA at school. She wondered if
they’d light candles around a picture of her and all the kids who never knew her name would cry
and pretend to be her best friends.

If she didn’t black out instantly, she thought, would she feel in her last second the hole being burned
through her head? What if the bullet missed the part of her brain that registered pain signals?
What if her last thought was just “ow ow ow ow ow?”

She realized she was smiling. Well, she couldn’t do it ​now​.

And she thought of dad. He’d been through so much already. How would it feel, pulling through the
loss of his wife, only to come home to find his daughter— And with his own— She couldn’t bring
herself to even finish the thought.

She sighed. She didn’t really want to.

Lowering it from her head, she noticed she could see light shining through the chambers. She
looked it over again. It wasn’t loaded. She hadn’t seen any bullets in the same drawer, so he must
have hidden them somewhere else in the room. And against all logic, that pissed her off. She sat
there fuming for a minute.
Now that she couldn’t, she kind of wanted to.

She opened the other drawers, carefully pawing through them. Nothing. She checked under the
bed. She cracked the closet door and looked into and behind the rows of old shows. Still nothing.

She laid the gun back in the drawer and piled the shirts over it as neatly as she could. With that, she
was tired again.

She closed her eyes, let herself go limp across the bed, and let out her breath. She didn’t take
another one for thirty seconds. She lay there and thought about how nice it would be to stop being.

She went through his room several more times over the next few months, but to no avail. It was
mostly out of curiosity by this point, anyway. She just didn’t like the idea of her dad outsmarting
her.

MONDAY AFTERNOON

She faded in and out of consciousness for the rest of the day. Just after 2:30, she found herself on
the couch with her notebook, but she didn’t remember how she got there. She’d written a bit, but
she didn’t remember doing it. Her head felt like it’d been lit on fire—a constant pain that Aspirin
had long since ceased to help.

Her head felt like it’d been lit on fire: a constant pain Aspirin had long since ceased to help. She let
the pencil slip from her hands and slumped back over the cushion.

Dad passed through not long afterwards. He knew she was still sick, but she seemed to be
managing it herself.

He was busy trying to decide whether to write up the senior floral assistant after overhearing her
pick a fight with the new hire, wondering how to make the produce department rotate their stock
frequently enough, figuring out whether he should follow up on his suspicion that the dry goods
employees were pocketing expired products, and so on. Work was to him what fantasy was to her.

She slipped into a twenty-minute unconsciousness, where she dreamed about searching through a
badly-drawn field of grass for an eggplant. This wouldn’t work, of course. If she was going to pass
out for the night, it had to be in her room, with Tomodachi and the drawing and all those little
rituals she’d developed to take her back to Yume’s world. So she got up and dragged herself down
the hall.
3/14/2010

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any drearier, a heavy fog’s settled over what’s left of the city.
It’s so dense I can only see a few feet in front of my face, as if I’ve fallen into a gray sea. Only the
faint outlines of ruined buildings are visible through it, jagged dark shapes sticking randomly into
the air.

Once again, I have no idea where I am. I’m on some random street, trying to find my way to some
identifiable landmark so I can get my bearings, and hopefully figure out where I actually need to go.
But I can’t.

Making it even harder, the city’s rearranged itself again, this time into a total Escher mess. Random
structures are jammed next to and piled on top of each other. Half the roads I turn down end up
growing narrower and narrower until the gap between the buildings around them is only inches
wide. At one point, I try to climb a stairwell that’s been placed in the middle of a street, only to find
it turns into a giant vertical loop.

(It’s just as well that I didn’t see Tomodachi in this dream, because I don’t think he’d be able to
navigate it either.)

I stumble blindly through the ruined streets, often tripping over uneven ground, until I find myself
at the edge of the city. At one point, the buildings just stop, like the city’s surrounded by an invisible
wall, and I’m in the forest now.

...Although it’d be a stretch to call it a “forest.” What’s left of one, maybe. All the trees are dead and
there’s no sign of animals or grass anywhere, just brown leaves and dry dirt.

“There can’t be anything in here,” I think to myself. But my curiosity gets the best of me, and I
proceed in.

After wandering a ways into it, I lose sight of the city entirely, and forget which direction I came
from.

I try to pick one, but since every direction just leads to more dead trees, the best I can do is
“straight.”

This goes on for a long time, maybe hours, maybe days, maybe weeks, but it feels like years. Day
doesn’t turn into night, so I have no way of actually keeping track of time.

After a while, my walking slows to a crawl. I’m thirsty and tired, and everything aches. It starts to
feel like I’m trying to wade through drying cement.

I’m beginning to have a change of heart, and I wish I could turn back, but the odds of finding my way
back to the city look just as bad as the odds of finding something out here, and it’s not like there’s
water there either.

I can’t hold out much longer, and this world being what it is, I’ve long ago realized there’s no point
in calling out.

But I keep going.

The fog gets subtly darker the longer I go on, like I’ve passed over some invisible border between
my world and that other one. Or perhaps they’ve merged, and are blurring together.

Eventually, the forest ends. The trees grow further and further apart until they vanish entirely, and
I find myself in a field of dead tall grass.

This seems like a sign that something might be ahead, until I realize that this, too, is completely
empty, and goes on for... A really long time.

Eventually, I collapse to my knees and decide that maybe this trip will be easier crawling.

After what feels like about a day of that, I decide that maybe dragging myself on my belly would be
more manageable. After maybe another day, I lose the strength to even do that, and my fingernails
are gone.

Then, I finally give up. The only course of action left is to roll over, stare up at the not-a-sky, and
decide to wait for starvation to take its course.

But that’s when I smell wet dirt.

I listen carefully. I can hear gently lapping waves.

I pull myself to my knees, and in the distance, at the edge of where everything fades into the fog, I
can see the edge of a lake.

It takes an agonizing crawl to get there, but when I do, I drink deeply from it. It tastes muddy and
gray - yes, it tastes gray - but it’s good enough.

That’s when I hear a soft, breathy weeping.

My curiosity overriding my exhaustion, I manage to gather enough strength to sit up and look
around. In the distance, I see the faint outline of a single large, dead tree.

After a short break to catch my breath, I can roll over, heave myself back to my knees, and crawl a
little closer to it.

Under it is a person. A girl, in fact. I can’t tell her age, but she seems to be a few years younger than
me. She’s chubby, with long, dark hair, and she seems vaguely familiar: it’s the same kind of déjà vu
I’ve been getting all throughout these dreams, but yet again, I can’t put my finger on why.
But there’s something very strange about her. She’s wearing white - and a style of clothing I don’t
recognize - and her head is tilted down, causing a curtain of dark, messy hair to cover her face like
Sadako. I continue to crawl closer to her.

She’s crying. Crying in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s that kind toddlers do when they’re really
upset about something. The kind where your whole body shakes and you have to gasp for air, but
you still can’t get enough of it. It’s really hard to listen to.

But she doesn’t seem to notice me.

I move a little bit closer. Every instinct tells me to turn around and run, but I know I can’t.

The girl looks up, and I immediately regret having tried that. Her hair’s still covering her eyes, but I
can feel her staring at me. There’s something inhuman about her, like some kind of monster
possessing the body of what was once a girl, or maybe disguising itself as one. But she also seems
familiar. Something tells me I’ve seen her before. I’m unable to put a name to the face, but I know
this must be the third demon Tomodachi told me about.

She stands up and starts to shuffle forward in this weird, jerky, shaky way. What I can see of her
face is deathly pale and expressionless, like a white mask.

Then, I look down at the ground. Her shadow begins to grow, and to move on its own. It grows
until it looks like it belongs to a giant many times larger than the “girl” casting it. One of its hands
splits into tentacles that snake across the ground toward me. As I back away from it and the slowly
advancing girl-thing, I wrack my brain trying to find something to do.

I’m still thinking it over when one of the shadow’s tentacles breaks free of the ground. I try to make
sense of what’s coming at me - an arm-sized tendril of a living absence of light - but I the part of my
brain that makes sense of things walked out on me a while ago. The tendril divides itself into a few
smaller ones that attack me from several sides at once.

I draw my sword, but one of the shadows shoots forward, snatches it from me so hard and fast it
makes my hands burn, and throws it into the fog. I hear it land with a distant clatter. Another one
grabs my hand. It’s cold to the touch.

Freed from the ground, the shadow moves much faster than I can, and soon it’s got me by the foot
too and is wrapping itself around it, then expanding over the rest of my body like I’m slowly being
painted black.

It coldly slithers up my legs and continues to push upwards under my clothes. When it reaches my
chest, it splits into two equal-sized halves that grab my arms and force me backwards. I fall off my
feet and land hard on the back of my head. Within a minute, I’m wrapped in a dark cocoon.

I try to scream, but another arm forms itself into the rough shape of a human fist, then shoves itself
deep into my throat. It’s as real and painful as if an actual hand was stuck in there. That makes me
try even harder, but all that comes out is a choked gurgling. My body seizes with what would be a
violent cough, if I could breathe.

The girl-thing shuffles closer, so slowly the wait is unbearable. Between the strands of her hair, I
can see tears running down her paper-white cheeks. The shadow wraps around my head and
pushes it forward, and she stops, bends over, and stares straight into my face.

I squeeze my eyes shut, but two of the shadow’s “fingers” pry my eyelids up and hold them there.

The last thing I notice is that instead of eyes, she has two ragged black holes punched in her face,
like a piece of paper someone poked their fingers through.

Then it’s like I’m sucked out of my own body, and all my thoughts are just wiped away. I have no
idea who I am, where I am, or what I’m doing here.

For a moment, everything’s black.

Then, I’m somewhere else. And I’m nine. I don’t know how I know this, but I know I’m nine, and
that I’m a few blocks from where I apparently live. I’ve just found a cat that’s been run over by a car
and left there and I’m trying to understand how anyone could do that. I can’t do it, and it’s a
nauseating feeling that I’ve never felt before and don’t know how to process.

Next, I’m thirteen, lying bleeding on the floor of a forest. I’m fourteen with my face stuck in a toilet
and I hate myself for not trying harder. I’m fifteen, listening to dad fight back tears and wondering
if I ever really knew mom. I’m sixteen and there’s something cold and hard scraping my teeth. I’m
crying myself to sleep hundreds of times.

I relive, slowly, many times, every time I can remember feeling guilt, regret, or pain. First one after
another, then in an avalanche, and it’s all my own fault, and I deserve it, all of it.

At the time, it’s all very confusing - none of these memories could’ve come from the fantasy world
that to this point was all I’ve known in my dreams - but something about them seems all too
familiar.

I find myself thinking that whatever world these images came from must be an awful place, and at
that moment, everything I know that confirms that thought comes bursting out, like my memory’s
vomiting.

My focus turns away from my personal life, and I see flashes of every news story I’ve ever watched,
images coming at an unbelievable speed, like people lined up against walls, human experiments,
medieval tortures, and emaciated kids eating handfuls of dirt. I find myself looking through time
and through history. I see people being burned at stakes and in ovens, mountains of bones, dogs
tearing people apart.

Then, my focus turns away from human atrocities​. ​I’m reminded of all the animals that eat their
own young. ​ ​I think of earthquakes and tsunamis. I realize that millions of lives end every time I
wash my hands, and that must say something about how much life is worth.
The soundtrack to this just as bad, just a deafening cacophony of dissonant sounds. And screams.
Some are intelligible, begging for mercy or death. Some aren’t - just meaningless pain noises. The
whole time, random phrases, some in languages I don’t believe exist, are babbling, slowly increasing
to a fever pitch.

Next come not images, but a little whisper of a voice.

It tells me life is an accident and philosophy is denial. We’re all just monkeys throwing our shit,
people never change, empathy is a lie, innocence never existed, everyone’s the same, no one cares
about anything but themselves, and life feeds on pain, always consuming and giving back only
waste. Death is the only release.

After a while, I truly come to believe this is just the way the universe works.

When you’re dreaming, alone with all your worst thoughts in an endless black void, your mind
determines for itself the speed at which time passes. Decades of nightmares that turn into
centuries. Until everything disappears, and I’m alone and deprived of all my senses. It lasts for an
amount of time beyond any measurements I know.

I go limp, and the shadow drops me to the forest floor.

It doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m not afraid. I give up. I slowly open my eyes to see the girl-thing
staring down at me. Her tentacles of shadow slither and snake around her.

Whatever she’s going to do to me, I want it. Get it over with. I feel older than time.

The tentacles rise up above me, and they all combine into one big worm-like shape. It draws close
to my face, then the end of it opens up to reveal a giant yawning pit of a mouth filled with circular
rows of teeth like a lamprey. I close my eyes. It slides over my head.

And then, white. For a long time, just silence and a blank field of white.

Until...

“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”

The circular loading icon returns.

“Ha ha ha no. Stop dying. That’s two out of three battles you’ve
bit it. Can’t you do anything right? You had literally one job:
don’t look into its eyes. And you couldn’t even-

“No, I’m sorry. I’m being too hard on you. It’s not your fault.

“It’s just that I’m upset too.

“When you did that, and you saw all that… I had to watch it with
you. Again. And I hate it, I hate it so much and I never get used
to it.

“And I want you to know I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you’ve been through
this. All of it.

“And I know what it’s like.

“Whatever you want to call that place, deep down where the nightmares
live - I’ve been there tens, hundreds of times. Or maybe I just
never left and spent years there on end.

“I know all the monsters so well I could name them off if you’d like.
This one, I call Despair.

“I’ve sat and stared into her eyes. Then I did it again. And again
and again until I didn’t feel anything at all.

“Or that’s what I told myself.

“It’s not really true. It always hurts and it doesn’t go away.

“But maybe that just means my emotions still work.

“Well… Enough pity-partying. Let’s pop your head back on.”

My eyes shoot open, and I suck in a gasp. I’m in the gray forest again, and it seems like I’ve been
pushed back in time a little bit.

Despair is still under the tree, in the beginning stage of getting up to walk toward me. She tilts her
head up to look at me, and I squeeze my eyes shut and blindly run ahead. Her shadows begin to rise
from the ground, but I’m faster than them. I feel them grasping at me, but all I need to do is press
on.

I throw myself into her headfirst and pin her against the tree. Soon, I feel cold tendrils wrap around
me and start to wrench me off, but if she’s going to throw me, I’m taking her face with me. Keeping
my eyes shut, I plunge two of my left fingers into her eyeholes up to the knuckles, plugging them. It
feels like holding my hand under ice water. Then, at a loss for what else to do, I start punching her
as hard as possible.

Her shadow, formerly slow-moving and deliberate, seems to go into some kind of hysteria. It
abandons its humanoid shape and bursts into one giant mass of tendrils that all rear up and get
ready to strike at once. Panic takes a hold of me, and I drop the girl-thing and dive out of the way. I
drop to the dirt, then turn around and sprint for cover behind the tree.

A shadowy shape shoots upwards from the ground and slices neatly through the tree inches above
my head, sending it crashing to the ground. Clutching her face, down which a black inky liquid is
streaming, the girl-thing withdraws her shadow blade and looks around for me. Thankfully, that
was just the distraction I needed, and I’m already off in another direction.

I don’t know how long it’ll be until she can see again, I just hope that the dense cover of fog makes it
just as hard for her as it is for me. Once I reach what I think is a safe distance, I turn around and
start to tiptoe closer, until I catch the slightest glimpse of her silhouette through the fog. “Please,” I
think to myself, and I charge at her from what I hope is behind.

Success. I squeeze my eyes tightly shut and crash into her with a flying tackle, and before she has
time to react, we both tumble into the lake together. As her feet leave the ground, her shadow
dissipates.

Keeping my eyes squeezed shut, I wrap both arms around her head and shove it underwater,
putting all my weight on top of her, and she jerks, convulses, and thrashes under me.

This is taking forever, and it’s not like I’m enjoying it. The thing still kind of looks like a little girl,
and one that’s kind of familiar for reasons I’m not sure of at the moment, and drowning her isn’t
exactly fun.

OK, maybe a little. But it’s still taking too long. It never takes this long in the movies.

After about three minutes, she/it goes limp, floats to the surface, and gently drifts toward the shore.
I stand up, wade back to the shore, and collapse on the sand.

Shortly after, the girl-thing’s limp body drifts to the shore next to me. I watch it for a long while to
see if it moves. And for a long while, it doesn’t.

Then, one of her fingers twitches.

Something inside me goes berserk. I let out an animalistic cry, pick her up by the forehead, and
start slamming her head repeatedly into the ground. I’m not very strong, so it takes about a minute
for it to split open. Finally, I’m fairly sure my work here is done. A river of black liquid spills out
from what’s left of it, then seems to take on a sort of life of its own and slithers off into the distance,
way too fast for me to chase it.

I finally just shut down. I feel utterly defeated.

I collapse to the ground and stare up at the infinite gray, trying to make sense of what I just saw. I
can’t. This makes less and less sense the longer it goes on.

But if Tomodachi was right, that was the last demon.
PART III

MARCH 2005

When Laurie turned thirteen, officially a teenager now, she wondered if it was time to put away her
childish things. She had this creeping suspicion that if she consumed the wrong media or even
thought the wrong thoughts, one day she’d slip up, tell someone she still watched kids’ shows, and
would be summarily excluded from all social situations for the rest of her life.

She took stock of what she was going to keep and what she was going to throw away. First, stuffed
animals: The ones from shows could stay on the bed, but the generic ones her parents had gotten
her were going in the closet. Anything hot pink in her room was going in the basement.

Magical girl anime could stay, she just wouldn’t tell anyone she was still watching it. ​Inuyasha​ could
stay because it took itself just seriously enough. And she could start watching some more grown up
ones: She’d give ​Kenshin​ a try to start with. And romance anime seemed worth getting into, if only
because beautiful boys. Fanfic could also stay, but it’d be a cold day in hell before she opened her
mouth about it.

Sci-fi seemed respectable, so she tried ​Stand Alone Complex​ but didn’t get a lot of it, settling instead
on ​Gundam Wing, ​in no small part because beautiful boys. She’d also try dystopian young adult
novels, cyberpunk, and anything that used the f-word.

She was conflicted about fantasy: She’d keep reading ​Harry Potter​ because everyone was doing it.
The Magicians Guild ​seemed dark enough to try to like. ​Earthsea​ was super old, but that meant it
was mature, right? Any book that was part of a trilogy could also be given a pass.

But Yume would have to go.

She felt stupid even thinking about her now. Part of her would miss her happy place, but she was
increasingly starting to see how goofy it was. She’d stopped drawing it a while ago: She’d finally
learned what a Mary Sue was, and all those fantasy cliches and and talking animals... What would
people think? Even though she knew no one would see it, just like the rest of her drawings, the very
idea of doing it made her ill.

She was never able to draw it in a way that didn’t look like garbage, anyway. She tried until the
wastebasket was overflowing, but it looked nothing like it did in her head: perfectly rendered and
animated, the world around her a series of intricate matte paintings.

She still drew, and resolved to keep doing it; maybe she could get somewhere with it. But now she
was back to random characters from other shows and vague heroic archetypes.
One Saturday afternoon late in the month, she gathered up her sketchbooks of Yume drawings and
notebooks of half-formed stories. It was time. But as she stood over the trashcan, something
stopped her. Instead, she went down to the basement and found a plastic container, stacked
everything neatly in them, and marked the lid with a “Y” in Sharpie.

She got halfway down the basement stairs before she realized she’d forgotten something. Back in
her bedroom, she took the necklace from the wardrobe. She turned it over in her hands, judging it
from every angle. It looked and felt like the cheap trinket it was. She dropped it in.

Taking the container down to the basement, she hauled out a ladder and sat it atop the tallest stack
of boxes she could reach in the darkest corner.

Nine days later, she had a dream. It was vague, fuzzy, and had been tossed in the back of her mind
within a few hours, where it would stay until five years later.

She was at the top of a colossal building, looking out the window over a vast European city
strangely devoid of life in the streets. She turned her focus to the sky: an endless stormcloud was
creeping over the horizon, casting the city in shadow. Just watching it, for some reason, made her
exhausted. She turned around to look at the room, all plush furniture and ornate carvings, but they
just struck her as mismatched and tacky.

She lay down in the big, soft, but somehow uncomfortable bed and stared up at the ceiling.

Soon enough, the cloud blotted out the sun over her tower, the light receding from one end of the
room to the other until it was gone. She stared at the ceiling until she began to drift off, and as her
eyes closed, the last thing she saw was a silhouette looming over her. A voice inside her head spoke.

“I’m sorry.”

TUESDAY MORNING

Laurie shuffled into the living room. Her dad was watching a daytime talk show where some
saccharine lady was talking about coping mechanisms.

“Talking to yourself in the second person can reduce social anxiety. In fact, it can give you the
courage to express yourself, your deepest thoughts and resentments. If you talk to yourself as if
you were another person, you might find the courage to say things you always wished you could
say.”

She stared at it for a minute, not absorbing much of it. Then her knees buckled and she collapsed to
the floor. He jumped from his seat and pulled her up, against a wall, then got a bottle of water from
the fridge and forced it into her mouth.
He took her by the shoulders and guided her back to her room. She didn’t quite pass out, so she just
lay there for a while in a warm darkness. He got a thermometer. 103.

He stared out the window. An emergency room visit would bankrupt them. He’d give it one more
day.

In her last moment of half-lucidity, she pulled the necklace from the box and held it in her hand.

She gave up on writing for two days afterward, but the following two dreams stuck in her mind so
well that she was able to transcribe them almost a week later. She filled in the gaps by embellishing
some parts, but only to clarify it in her own mind.
3/15/2010

I’m lying in the fetal position in a giant pile of rubble.

Broken furniture and shredded books are scattered all around me. This must be where my
bedroom fell. Behind me the remaining half of the castle looms ominously above, the giant main
building turned into a cross section.

But before me, from somewhere in the distance, a beam of light is shining into the sky, all the way
up to the gray clouds where it pierces a circular hole.

I climb, very carefully, to the top of a jagged heap of fallen stone to see where it’s coming from. It’s
coming from another pile, the light shining right through the debris covering it.

I run over and begin to dig through it with my bare hands. Whatever the source is, it’s trapped
under several large rocks, which it takes all my energy to move, but I eventually reach it.

I step into the light and kneel down. Lying among the splintered remnants of an armoire I find a
thin metal chain. It’s rusty, and would probably snap if I pulled on it, but lifting a chunk of wood, I
uncover the rest of it. On its charm is a giant red ruby.

The instant I pick it up, a surge runs through my body. You know how sometimes, you’re drifting
off to sleep when you feel like you just fell off of something and wake up? It’s not like that at all.
The feeling can’t be put into words. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.​ ​My eyes widen. The
wind is knocked out of me. I gasp for breath and squeeze the amulet tight, soft light radiating from
my palm.

One thought fills my mind: I need to go see Tomodachi. I make my way around back to the remains
of his aviary in the garden. He’s not sleeping this time.

“I’ve been waiting for you.” he says.

“I thought so,” I say dejected.

“This will be our final meeting.”

I sniffle a little bit. “I know.”

“Are you ready for what happens next?

I break eye contact with him. “No.” I whisper.

“And why not?”
“I’m scared. And I don’t know why.” I notice my diction slipping, and remind myself not to let it
happen again.

“That’s only natural. You’re on the precipice of something huge. If you weren’t scared, I’d be
worried for you.”

I clear my throat. “But it seems not rational! For if I have done everything I need to do, and if I am
truly prepared to take on that final creature, then what is there to be scared of?”

“You'll soon see. It’s time for me to stop beating around the bush and just tell you what you’ve
needed to hear from the beginning.”

“What would that be?”

“You have a choice to make. If you let your ego decide for you, you’ll live to regret it. But if you let
go and accept what you’ll soon learn, I can guarantee you the process will go much easier..”

“‘If I let my ego decide for me…’” I mumble to myself. “What are you talking about?”

“Patience, young lady.” he says.

He looks down at the softly glowing red light beneath my shirt. “I see you’ve found the Amulet of
Truth.”

“Is that what I named it?” I reply.

“No, you never did. But that’s what it is. That’s what it’s become.”

“I have felt different since donning it. What does it do?”

“Lucidity,” he says.

I gasp a little. I’m starting to think I get it now.

“With it will come a power beyond all imaginings. ...And perhaps I shouldn’t spoil this, but the
ability to decide your own fate. Soon, you’ll no longer be tied to this world. So, in light of that…
Reconsider whether saving it is what you really want to do.”

“Oh pish-posh. Wasn’t that the whole point of this quest? Why would I want to abandon it now,
after all I’ve done?”

“Did you ever ask yourself why it needed to be saved in the first place? Look around. What here is
worth clinging to?”

I struggle to think of the answer until it hits me on its own.

“I… I know.” I say quietly. “I know it’s not even real. But it’s mine, and it’s all I have.”
My mood switches to indignance. “And I killed my three demons! Wasn’t that all of them?”

He shakes his head sadly. “You must not have seen much of the world below.”

“How many more are there down there?”

“More than you could possibly imagine. And it seems you’re caught in quite the conundrum. The
harder you fight those things, the more your fear and anger fuel them. It’s quite the vicious cycle.”

“Wh... Why did you not inform me of that?!”

“Before you had that amulet, you would not have understood.”

“So, what ​can ​I do to defeat them?”

“When you meet yourself, ask yourself,” he explains, but I don’t get it.

“I’m not going to lie,” he says, worriedly. “No matter what your choice, it’s going to get bad for you.
But I believe in you. It may take years, decades even, but hold on to hope. Things won’t always be
this way.

“And trust me, there’s so much more than this. Don’t be afraid to go see it.

“The outside isn’t as scary as you think.”

“How do you know these things?” I ask him. In that moment, it occurs to me that I know them too.
I’ve always known them. It takes a second to realize I need to ask a bigger question.

“What are you?”

“Your conscience,” he says.

And he begins to grow fuzzy. His image shakes and flickers like an old TV losing its signal. Then he
fades away, leaving me alone.

TUESDAY NIGHT

Laurie woke with a start. Her dad was laying a cold cloth on her forehead.

He tried to give her some more cold water, but she could barely swallow. Her throat was swollen
almost shut and numb from coughing.

He took her temperature again. “104.4,” he said, brow furrowing. Although she couldn’t figure out
how bad that was, because trying to think physically hurt at this point.
“How do you feel?” He asked her.

“I’m dying.” She mumbled.

“No you’re not.” He reassured her.

He tried to say some other things after that, none of which she retained in the slightest, before
eventually giving up and leaving her alone.

Soon, she forgot where she was. Eventually, as she lay in bed, soaking her sheets with sweat, she
lost track of whether she was still awake or not. She spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of
dreams. As their frequency increased, they ran together with reality, and by mid-afternoon, she
couldn’t tell which was which. It didn’t matter, and she didn’t care.
3/15/2010
(Part 2)

I open my eyes.

I’m lying in a fetal position on the floor of what used to be my castle’s great hall, before that thing
out of the mirror destroyed it. The walls, ceiling, and pillars have collapsed, leaving it a pile of
rubble in the open air, but the throne is still there, mostly intact, on a platform on one side of the
room.

On the other side of the room, the only thing standing is a massive set of ornate double doors,
maybe twenty feet high. I remember them from the first dream. They’re not attached to a wall or a
frame or anything: just standing on their own, with nothing on the other side.

I’ve learned to take that kind of thing for granted, though. What I’m focused on, at the moment, is a
feeling I’ve had a lot over the course of these dreams: I know someone’s watching me. And where it
was faint before, now it’s really strong, like the way you feel when someone’s staring at you from
across a room.

I’ve had enough. I leap to my feet and cry out to the wasteland, “I know you’re there!” Show
yourself!”

There’s a dramatic pause, and then:

“Hello again.”

I just realized: I’ve never described what the voice actually sounds like, because I can’t. It’s my own
voice, but at the same time, nobody’s.

“I’ve come a long way to find you.” I say.

“But you didn’t have to. I’m everywhere.”

“Yet, all this time you dribbled your vapid little speeches at me, not once have I had the chance to
retort.”

“Then stop dying.”

“Silence!” I bellow. “Now tell me, are you what Tomodachi called ‘The One Behind the World?’”

“I guess,”​ it replies matter-of-factly.

I pace in a circle around the floor. “Strange moniker. What are you?”

I can’t tell if it’s thinking it over or pausing for dramatic effect.
“You know.”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking!” I cry out. But I know it’s a lie.

“Turn around.”

I exhale and stare at the floor. “No.”

“You can’t run away forever.”

“I—I shall if I have to.”

I turn back to look at the throne, and there I am.

Not me-as-Yume. Me.

My mind splits in half. I’m simultaneously myself and Yume, two consciousnesses at once, arguing
with myself and believing both sides. So from here on, to avoid getting it confused, I’ll call Yume by
her name.

Yume’s eyes narrow and her teeth clench. A wave of rage, disgust, and contempt washes over her.

“You…”

Staring into her eyes, I cut her off before she can say whatever she was going to. When I talk, my
mouth doesn’t move.

​ Who else could it be? When you think about it: all this time, what

were you really fighting?”

“Get. Off. My. Throne.” She growls, hyperventilating.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Get off it!”

“Don’t you have bigger things to worry about? For example… Are you
ready for the end?”

“You mean the end I prevented?”

“Well… No. The thing is… It was going to happen anyway. No matter
what.”

“Liar!” she screams.

I smile down at Yume and the pale light glints off its glasses. Yume glares back up at me.
“This was a beautiful place, once. In a way, it still is.”

“Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up ​shut up!​” Yume screams her throat raw.

I stand up and walk, slowly, deliberately, towards her.

“Get away from me!” She shrieks.

“But we can’t hold on to it forever. You knew that all along.”

“Shut up! Get out of my head!”

“Sorry it has to happen this way, but… We have to grow up sometime.”

“I said...”

She lunges forward, supernaturally fast, and in a flash she’s right in front of me. Screaming, she
throws all her weight into one punch that shatters my glasses.

“Shut the fuck up!”

I don’t move. It doesn’t affect me. I don’t even feel it. I smile and open my eyes.

“Did that make you feel better?”

She swings again, but doesn’t hit anything. When she turns around, I’m on the other side of the
room.

She hasn’t seen her sword since Despair threw it away, but she holds her hands out and an identical
one materializes in them. She lunges at me in a blur. She’s lucid now, her memories are back, she
has as many powers as she wants. Unlike before, she’s unbelievably fast and efficient, but no matter
how much she strikes or how many times she comes at me, she doesn’t hit anything. I don’t move,
teleport, or even visibly disappear, it’s just like I’m not even there.

“I already said I’m everywhere.”

She charges me again, but this time, stops in midair. I’m tired of this. Frozen in place, she can only
watch as one of the giant fallen pillars lifts itself off the ground, as if by its own will, and swings
straight into her like a baseball bat, knocking her across the room. She lands hard and tumbles
head over heels.

Seated back on the throne, I rest my head in a hand, and sigh.

“Are you really doing this now? There’s not much time left.”

“So what if the world ends,” she mumbles under her breath. “So what if I die too? I don’t care
anymore. I only want one thing.”
“Oh?”

Her expression goes creepily blank and her eyes widen.

“To gut you like the pig you are.”

Mine doesn’t change.

“Whatever.”

The rest of the fallen pillars pick themselves up and fling themselves at her like spears. She ducks
and weaves around them, each one crashing into the ground and raising a plume of dust that
obscures her from view. A second later, she comes rocketing out it. She’s glowing red for some
reason. She raises her sword above her head and it bursts into flame, then swings it down on my
head so hard there’s a shrieking noise like a missile. But she only hits the empty throne, blowing it
apart.

When the dust clears, I’m on another pile of rubble in the distance.

She turns toward me and fires some kind of energy beam at me - well, this is new - but a wall of
rubble rises up and blocks it. Predictably, she starts coming again, but this time, a rock spike erupts
from the ground, and she gets out of the way just in time to keep from getting impaled. Before she
recovers, a few more, from various directions. She manages to regain her footing, but every time
she gets to her feet, she has to dodge another one. She flies into a rage and starts smashing them
with her bare hands.

Massive chunks of broken marble rise from the ground and fling themselves at her, some making an
impact, but she tanks it, slowly advancing towards me. I stand there dead still, bored almost, like
I’m watching a movie.

She finally works her way up to the hill of broken marble where I am, but when she gets there, it
explodes, sending her flying back to the ground. She lands on her head and blacks out for a second.
When she comes to, I’m standing above her.

“I should’ve known you wouldn’t listen.”

I turn around towards the doors. They swing open, and on the other side appears to be the white
void.

“This time, I won’t revive you. Goodbye.”

The doors close behind me and disappear. Yume’s alone, and it’s silent. She stands up, looks
around, and takes a minute to catch her breath. That’s when the rumbling starts.

She slumps down to the floor to cry. She buries her head in her hands, sobbing, as it grows to a roar
that vibrates the ground. She didn’t want to die, she just wished she could’ve been anything but me.
But, she supposes, this is it.

The earth shakes. She can hear the ground splitting apart with a sound like thunder in the sky. One
of the castle’s remaining towers leans over and crashes to the ground, followed by the rest of it.
One by one the towers fall, toppling over or collapsing down into themselves. One of its wings, a
wide, tall building connected to the main one, buckles in the middle and plummets to the ground.
Soon, the colossal main building breaks into several parts that collapse separately. One of them
leans over and topples towards what’s left of the throne room. Towards her.

The sounds of the giant structure giving way are deafening now, but a voice pierces through it.

“Run.”

And against her own will, she does. Rock and metal crash to the ground behind her, and around
her, and the world is enveloped in a cloud of dust.

For a few seconds, nothing happens.

Then, the ground tears itself apart. Giant fissures open up, so deep she can only see darkness
below. Then a cacophony of shouts, screams, roars, and inhuman noises I can’t even begin to
describe, fills the air.

Out of the abyss emerges every type of hand, claw, tentacle, and tendril imaginable. All reaching out
in her direction. A twisted army of unearthly beasts climbs out of the chasms all around her - all
types of squirming, bizarre creatures furiously shoving and clamoring over each other. To get to
her.

She takes off running, in no direction, just wherever she can see a clear path, but the world starts to
rearrange itself right at that moment, the ground she’s on comes separate from the ground around
her and tilts upward. She turns around to look at the hundreds of demons coming towards her.
Too many to describe, or even remember clearly, but there are a few that stand out:

There’s a ravenous half-human monster, a lot like what I saw Eric as, but this time, it vaguely
resembles a giant, distorted version of me. It doesn’t have glasses, there’s a bruise on its face, and
blood is dripping from its teeth and claws, but I recognize it. It it bounds forward, and it’s like 50
feet tall, and Each earth-shaking step it takes crushes smaller creatures.

There’s another thing, more human-sized, wrapped entirely in a tight blanket of human skin. It
jerks and thrashes in a manner of seizure too fast to be human, as if it’s vainly trying to fight its way
out.

In the distance, the massive silhouette of the thing from the mirror rises up again. In addition to
the familiar guttural noises, again come its ear-splitting screams.

There are all kinds of monsters with tentacles, gushing orifices, and phallus-shaped horns and
limbs, but at the time, she’s not thinking of the meaning of that. (And I still don’t want to.)
A hole opens to the side of her, and a swarm of thousands, no, millions of roaches comes pouring
out of it.

She turns back back and scrambles up the tilted chunk of earth she’s been clinging to, the things
gaining on her the whole time. When she reaches the top and leaps off it, she finds herself high
above the city. She doesn’t get much time to look at it, but whole slabs of Earth the size of multiple
city blocks are upend and slide into enormous holes, the buildings on them shattering and
crumbling like they were made of gingerbread on the way down.

Above her, the sky is burning away like a piece of paper, ragged black holes appearing in it and
growing, consuming the whole thing. In the streets below, she can see thousands of creatures of no
shape I’ve ever seen swarming through the many openings through which they can now escape.

She’d rather not go down there, but she has no choice. She jumps off the cliff formed by the ground
fracturing and lands hard, but doesn’t feel it. She pulls herself up off the ground and weaves
through a maze of narrow streets, buildings coming down around her.

A particularly big one behind her collapses into the street, blocking the path and, presumably, the
monsters’ view of her. She runs until she can no longer hear them behind her, then stops to catch
her breath.

But a section of the ground in front of her crumbles into yet another hole. Out of it climbs a young
girl similar to the one she saw in the forest... A younger version of me, in essence. But this is a
different one. She’s maybe a few years older and she doesn’t have a living shadow, or any shadow
at all, actually. And she has eyes, but they’re vacant and glazed. She’s also deathly pale, even more
than I am in real life. Paper-white. There’s a gun in her hand, but she just lets it hang limply by her
side. Yume grips the handle of her sword and takes a few steps back

“Set yourself free.” the girl whispers.

Yume’s expecting her to do something, but she doesn’t. She just looks up, presumably at Yume,
though her milky white eyes don’t focus on anything.

“Look what I did.” She whispers.

She tilts her head forward, and a rivulet of blood gushes from her nose. She opens her mouth, and
more flows from between her lips, splattering her shirt and pooling at her feet.

She mouths the words “I’m free,” then drops to her knees. Her half-liquefied brain runs out a big
hole in the back of her head and splashes to the ground.

Yume’s sick in her mouth, but swallows it and sprints off in another direction. Soon, the last of the
buildings that were sheltering her gives way, leaving her in… It’s hard to tell where this was, but
now most of the ground has fallen into the void, leaving something like a collection of floating
islands. She’s on the biggest one, and the smaller ones are crumbling and dropping away around
her.

She looks down. Pure, black nothingness. She looks up. the sky is completely burnt away.

Slowly, her “island” begins to crumble, starting at the edges. She drops to her knees. She doesn’t
cry this time, she just stares, straight forward at nothing. Her lips part.

“You were right. It’s all gone.

“I—I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”

Deep cracks race through the ground.

“But I’m sorry.”

The double doors appear before her and swing open. She dives for them just as the island shatters.

She finds herself in the white void.

She stands up. She’s surrounded by nothing. Infinite white in all directions. She doesn’t even cast a
shadow. She takes a few cautious footsteps. They’re silent.

And what happens next... Ooof. This part’s hard to describe.

“Hello?” She calls out.

“Hi.”

Yume turns around. I’m far in the distance, looking back at her.

“How do you feel?”

“Bah. It—It—It... Matters not,” she stammers. “Where am I?”

“I don’t know how to answer that.”

“Do not play coy with me, villain!”

“Oh, drop the act.”

All the malice drains from her voice. Instead, it’s kind of sad. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Doing what?”

“Messing around with me like this, and after all I’ve just been through! What else do you want?!”

“What makes you think I want anything? If I did, you’d know too.
After all…”
Tears streaming down her face, she screams: “I! Am not! ​YOU!​”

I narrow my eyes and glare at her over my glasses. The temperature plummets, the ground all
freezes at once, and we’re standing on an infinite ice sheet under a pale blue sky. Yume drops to her
knees, clutching herself and shivering.

“I never said you are.”

I roll my eyes. The ice all melts and we’re standing knee deep in water, which then turns to steam
and blows away.

“But go on. let it all out, if it makes you feel better.”

The whiteness splits into ground and sky, and it turns to night. Paper cutouts of stars tied to strings
descend from above.

Yume doesn’t pick herself up. “I hate this,” she weeps.

“I know.”

“I hate you.”

“I know.”

“I-”

“-Wish I’d just hurry up and die. I know.”

The strings snap and the paper stars flutter to the ground.

“And all that’s fine. You don’t have to forgive me. You don’t even
have to like me.”

“Then why’d you make me?”

“Mmm. Good question.

“I never really thought about it. It’s just what ten-year-olds do, I
guess.”

Night turns to day, and the two of us are standing in a field of sunflowers swaying in the breeze. It’s
a perfect day outside and fluffy clouds are drifting by. I smile sweetly.

“Maybe I just wanted to feel pretty.”

“And once you’d had your fill of reflected vanity, you left me to undergo those endless torments.
Are you happy?”
The skies turn gray and a steady rain is suddenly falling.

“If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t mean to.”

“It doesn’t.”

The rain stops, the sky turns white again, and the sunflowers turn to ash and blow away, leaving us
in total whiteness again.

“Anyway, since you asked what this place is: It’s whatever I want it
to be.”

“Any requests?”

She ignores me, so I just shrug, and the sky goes black, and a skyscraper sized platform shoots out
of the ground, spiral staircases spontaneously curling up around it as it rises. Climbing vines race
up it, then sprout flowers. Yume gasps and looks around as she finds herself on an identical one
across from me.

The sky around us reshapes itself into a dome, which then turns into a screen like a planetarium.
The screen shows a rapidly-changing montage of the things she’s been through. Getting choked and
punched and eaten by monsters, watching her castle collapse, watching Tomodachi crackle and
disappear… The images are so fast they’re almost a blur.

“I get why you’re angry.”

“I get why you blame me for everything too.”

“But I didn’t want any of that to happen either.”

“I mean… That’s why I kept bringing you back.”

“Why’d you put me to sleep in the first place? Why didn’t you just ​kill me​?!” She yells. The screen
goes off.

“It’s not as simple as that.”

“And actually… You weren’t asleep that whole time. Nowhere near it.
Guess you could say you went away, then came back.”

It comes back on, and we’re watching a montage of Yume cycling through tens of bodies, in tens of
different locations, but her face is always the same.

“Oh yeah, and you changed a lot.”

Yume’s dumbfounded. “I… I uh… What?”
“You star in all my daydreams.”

I sigh, and the screen goes black again.

“But… It’s sad, but one thing always happens.”

And the pillars and the sky all go away. White again. (I’m running out of ways to say that.)

Then, one of the “walls” of the white room turn to black, and it takes her a second to realize it’s
glass. She realizes that when the monster from the mirror, that giant, disgustingly obese and
distorted version of me, rises out of the inky blackness, roars, and pounds on it. The glass vibrates
with each impact, then cracks.

Yume screams. At that moment, it all disappears. I’m somewhat unnerved too, for the first time in
this dream.

“Oh. I didn’t mean for it to be that close of a call. Sorry.”

“But yeah. Those are the only constant. No matter how much we try
to escape, those things always find us. So we keep building and
destroying all these different fantasy worlds, just doing it over and
over again.”

“Why don’t I remember any of that?”

This cute little Harvest Moon style town sprouts up around us. The sun’s shining and anime-style
villagers are chatting in the streets.

“​Because you’re usually not ‘Yume,’ and I’m usually not asleep, and
it’s not that literal.

“It’s just like… Once I get tired of a recurring daydream, it’ll
start to seem tainted somehow, and I can’t run away into it anymore
without my problems following me.”

The sky turns to a night with no stars. Black rot spreads over the ground, then the walls. The trees
drop their leaves, and one by one, the people fall over and stop moving.

“So I get rid of it.”

The whole town shatters like glass and falls through the ground as if the ground wasn’t there, but
the night remains.

“Your… Our demons… Are they sealed away for good this time?”

“Of course not.”
“All I can do is pretend they’re not there for a while.”

“How cowardly of you!”

I sigh.

“If you’ve got a better solution, let me know. Oh, that’s right, you
don’t.”

“And in a way… Part of the fun is always being able to make
something new, always changing it up.”

“So let’s not think about it too long.”

The void turns brom black back to white, and a white cube rises up out of the “floor” and I sit down
on it, then grab a notebook just like this journal from behind my back. I open it up, pull a pen
from… I don’t know, actually… And begin to write.

“Let’s try something new. This time, why don’t you decide what you
want to be?

“You don’t have to stay ‘Yume-Hime.’ That’s a pretty silly name
anyway. The grammar’s all wrong.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” she says.

“We can make a new world right now.”

“Do you want to do another fantasy?”

“We could make one with airships this time!”

A world explodes like the Big Bang out of nothingness, and Yume’s standing on the deck of a huge
boat in the sky, looking down at a beautiful archipelago of emerald-colored islands in a shining
sapphire sea. Her face is the same again, but now she’s dressed in a ton of belts, mismatched armor
pieces, and weird trinkets.

“And a talking cat companion! And dragons!”

As I say them, those things appear, the first one in my arms and the second flying alongside the ship.

“What the-” Yume says, before everything around her sweeps off to the side like someone just
pushed it away.

“Or we could crush this stupid town under the boot of a mech as we do
battle with fearsome kaiju!”

Suddenly, she’s in the cockpit of a Gundam-like robot, wearing a skintight pilot suit. It stomps
across downtown, flattening every building in its path, then raises its arm, which flips open, and
missiles shoot out and blow a head off a giant hydra.

“I don’t-” She says.

Before she can finish the sentence, she’s riding atop a big truck with metal plates fastened to it on
all sides, speeding through the desert. Her hair is spiked, she has face piercings, and she’s wearing a
beat up leather jacket and holding a machine gun.

“Or if you’re not sick of end-of-the-world stuff, you could be the
queen of the post-apocalypse, mowing down bandits by the dozens!”

Then gravity reverses itself and Yume claws futilely at the roof to keep from falling up. But it
doesn’t work, and she falls through a clear blue sky until up becomes down again and she lands on a
park bench, albeit without hurting herself. She’s wearing a sailor fuku and sitting in a field of
sakura trees, and blossoms fall lazily through the air.

“What are you doing?!” she exclaims.

“We could try to recreate the Japanese countryside…​”

The world collapses back to nothing with an enormous “PHOOMP,” and we’re standing back in the
white void.

“Or you could just fuck Heechul. There’s always that.”

I’m standing in front of her again, with my back to her. A wall of TVs appears before me, stretching
to infinity on all sides, each one showing a scene from all the worlds I just made, as well as countless
more from movies and shows.

“Hmm… Now that I think about it, why just one? This is the rest of
our lives we’re talking about.”

“Stop!” she yells. She clenches her fists and grits her teeth. I’m looking at us both from the third
person, so I can see that. “Are you saying I’m just your plaything?”

“Not at all.”

“Then what am I?”

“You were right when you said you’re not… ​100%​ me. You’ve got your
own identity.

“I guess, for lack of a better way to put it, you’ll always be what I
wish I could.

“Like I said a long time ago, there’s a word for it. But I don’t
remember it.”

“You stupid… Get out of my sight!” she demands.

“How well’s ordering me around worked this far?

“But fine.”

The TVs collapse to the ground, falling over each other and breaking apart, then disappear. I start
to walk away.

“Just sit here until you’ve had enough.”

But she calls after me. “Wait! Before you go, tell me something! You said the reason I couldn’t die
is that I’m not at that part of the story yet. But when will I be?”

“I don’t know. You’ll be around until I don’t need you anymore. But
trust me, it’ll be a while.”

Then I disappear.

She sits there for a day or two. Then paces around for another day until her legs get too sore. She
lies on her back for several more hours, staring up. She might be used to long waits by now, but the
silence and blankness is like a sensory deprivation tank driving her crazy.

“Aaaaaaaaugh!” she screams, silently pounding the “floor” and rolling around like a toddler.

A door appears in front of her. A normal size one, this time. A perfectly ordinary white door.

She sighs then gets up, and opens it.

She enters my room. I’m sitting at my desk, painting a picture of her.

She sits down on the bed and stares down at the floor. I don’t look up at her, but this time, I actually
speak.

“One last thing. You know - this is totally woo, so I don’t think I ​believe​ it or anything, but...

I wipe off my brush and turn to face her.

“We experience everything with our minds, right? The five senses... They’re just signals in our
brains. Dreams are signals too, and they’re just as strong as the ones we get from the outside world,
so some people say that even if no one else can see them, to us, they’re real.

“I think that’s pretty interesting. Don’t you?”

There’s another long pause before Yume speaks.
“Shut up.”
WEDNESDAY MORNING

When Laurie woke the next morning, the delirium had subsided enough to know where she was, at
least. and the flaming headaches were down to a tolerable level. She was still sniffling and
coughing, but not at a level where it was a problem. She was tired of taking medications, so maybe
that was the end of that dream sequence. Or maybe not. She didn’t care. Whatever her
subconscious would do from here on was its own decision. She obviously didn’t have much of a say
in it.

While she was awake, she’d spent hours straight holed up in her room, writing furiously, scribbling
out page after page like a madwoman. When it was done, she’d practically filled the whole
notebook. And she began to wonder... What was the point? She still wouldn’t show anyone the
journal. A week spent writing, and all it got her was so many sheets of wasted paper.

She threw it across the room: it bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. Tomodachi went
crazy at the sudden noise. Then she got up, tore the drawing of the ruined city off the wall in
frustration, ripped it in half, then in quarters, and let it flutter to the floor. She didn’t want to deal
with this anymore.

She went downstairs for breakfast. They had pancake mix, so she made herself a few. They were
dry, and the syrup was past date, but she could eat them. She was glad to be able to get something
down, and despite the guilt eating still caused, sometimes it was nice to just taste things.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON

Memories and interpretations of the dreams were racing through her mind, but she wanted them
out. She had to do something to clear her head. She was still exhausted from the remnants of the
fever, but she needed some fresh air.

So she put on one of her last clean pair of jeans—a little more form-fitting than the rest, which is
why she hadn’t worn them—and a black Triforce t-shirt, and went outside.

The sun wasn’t out and the sky was still a monotone gray, but the rain had stopped. She plodded
aimlessly around the neighborhood, taking in details she’d never paid attention to before. Moving
was difficult, every joint ached, and her head was still pounding, but she pushed through it.

The occasional car passed, and she fought back the urge to hide from it, but aside from that, no one
else was out. She’d begun to wonder if her neighbors even existed until she spotted one: A little girl
sitting on the front porch of Ben’s house, playing with a phone.

She assumed this was his sister. He’d mentioned her once in the years since they’d started talking
again. She had the same build as him, skinny and tall for her age. Her hair was tied into two fluffy
pigtails.

Curious, she looked up at Laurie. They’d spent their whole lives a few houses apart but never seen
each other. Their eyes met. They waved at each other. They both felt they should say something,
but neither of them knew what.

Ben came out from the backyard.

“Oh! Hey.” She said.

He nodded once.

She’d grown to respect him since middle school. That day it was pouring last week, she’d even
asked her dad to give him a ride. She still froze up around him, and she’d been kicking herself for it
since, but at least she didn’t just sit there and watch him walk in the rain.

“What’re ​you​ doing out?” He asked.

“Nothing, really.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Not like you to go talking to me out of nowhere either. You sure
you feeling alright?”

“Sorry I’ve been so... Cold. I guess. I just never know what to talk about around you.”

“Don’t need to apologize—” Cautiously, he went on, “—But why you like that?”

“It wasn’t one thing,” she began. “I’ve just been… Having problems for a while. I don’t really like to
talk about it. And I don’t want to sound whiny or anything, so I guess I’m doing better now.”

“Really?”

“I guess… Maybe...” She scrambled for a subject change. “But I’m not important! How are you?
Like… What’cha been up to?”

Next thing she knew, she was sitting on the porch, realizing how little she’d gotten to know him
over five whole years. It was an awkward conversation, but she was able to pull out some
information about his life. She was surprised that he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his
after high school either. He was considering the army, which made her uneasy. Half the boys from
around there ended up at Bragg. She had nothing against it, but she thought he could’ve done more.

“At least you have an idea,” she said. “No one else around here does.”
“Yeah. It ain’t a high IQ place, I’ll tell you that.”

She sighed. “I guess I’m no better, though.”

A thought occurred to Ben. “Remember Eric?”

“How could I forget? …I wish I could, though.”

“Don’t blame you.”

“Why do you ask? Did something happen to him?”

“Did he die?”​ she thought. ​“Tell me he died.”

“Nah. Just saw him working at the gas station out by I-95. He live on the other side of town now.”

“Oh.”

“Told me his dad tried to get him to join the Marines, but he ain’t got no discipline. He was talking
about how he want to go to some trade school to be a mechanic.”

Laurie couldn’t hide the contempt in her voice. “So in other words, he’s fine.”

“Yeah,” Ben sighed.

JUNE 2004

Eric Duvall was always a bit off.

It’d be easy to blame his dad, but not quite accurate. That didn’t make him what he was, just
reinforced that it was right. His fascination with violence wasn’t any stronger than most boys. But
where they learned to control it, he learned he didn’t have to.

When Dad screamed an inch from his face; hit him with his belt, buckle first; or slapped him so hard
he tasted blood, face stinging red, it didn’t hurt him for long. He’d run out behind the house and
throw rocks at trees, or lock himself in his room and stab the air with a hunting knife. But when he
looked back on it a week later, he didn’t feel much about it one way or another.

Over time, his fuse shrunk to nonexistent. At school, he’d explode at so much as catching wind of a
rumor, spit flying from his mouth, fists swinging towards whoever. “Fight me, bitch! I’ll kill you!”
He usually lost, and the suspensions racked up. But no matter the outcome, when he looked back at
it a week later, there was no emotion attached. It might as well have been someone else.

He lost friends, but didn’t care: people were interchangeable parts in his life. He forgot their names,
he had no patience for their problems, and the minute he met them, he assigned them a role and
made sure they stayed there.

He cried maybe once a year. He took some solace in the fact that it was never for any specific
reason, it‘d just randomly hit him in bed at night. But any pride he took in its rarity was wiped out
by its intensity: Blubbering. Little kid crying. The kind where his whole body shook and he had to
bury his face in his pillow to keep from being heard. But the next morning, he was as fine as if it’d
never happened. Emotions were weird, he didn’t understand them.

The afternoon of the last day of school, he and Ben were shooting the shit at the bus dropoff. They
did that whenever Eric’s bus was late or Ben’s hadn’t come yet. Their conversations were pretty
normal. Usually they stuck to football, cars, video games, girls: just boy stuff. Eric was always
cracking jokes, good ones, and Ben had to admit: as annoying as he could be, he’d grown on him.

Laurie, waiting for the same bus, would sit as far down the sidewalk as possible, avoiding eye
contact and making sure to bring a book. But that afternoon, on finishing a chapter of
1984​—English I’s required reading—she noticed Eric staring at her. He whispered something to
Ben, who she overheard say, “Bro. Don’t.”

Ben looked at her and made some kind of hand gesture she’d never seen, but thought she
understood. And she ​wanted​ to get away, but less than she wanted to miss the bus. Both parents
were at work, so she didn’t have a ride.

Meanwhile, Bus 1266 was at the side of a road a mile away, the driver mumbling “Sweet Jesus; told
me they’d fixed the goddamn,” as steam billowed from under the hood. A replacement was called,
but it still had most of its first route to get through.

So they sat in the summer heat for half an hour. The fifteen-odd other kids who rode the bus called
their families and trickled out. Eventually, the last one hitched a ride with a friend. The bus ramp
was deserted now, except for her, Ben, and this... Creature.

Eric got up and began to walk towards her. For the record, he didn’t have anything personal against
her—or any strong opinion one way or the other—but this was her role. “You’re coming with me.”

“Wait, what?! I didn’t do anything!” She almost turned to run, but didn’t want to give him the
satisfaction.

Eric yawned. “Yeah, I know. I’m just bored.”

He grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her towards him. The temperature doubled, an invisible
fist gripped her heart, and the world spun around her.

She drew in a deep breath, opened her mouth... And Eric clamped his hand over it. She struggled
and writhed until she ran out of breath and lost her will to stand. Maybe he’d be rational. Maybe, if
she didn’t try to fight him, he wouldn’t hurt her.
“Get her legs,” he said. “Nah,” Ben replied, but followed them anyway.

He led her, in a loose but threatening headlock, to the football field by the bus drop-off. Beyond it
was a small forest, like the one she used to play in and with the same purpose: a leafy barrier
between the school and the houses behind it. Most of it was surrounded by a chain link fence, but
inexplicably, right where the football field ended, whoever was building it had just stopped.

Like her forest, there was a little path beaten through this one too, strewn with snack wrappers and
soda cans. He led her in, hand still clamped over her mouth.

Ben followed behind; even he was scared by this point. “This’s getting weird.”

Eric scowled. “Chill out. What do you care?”

He let go of her neck, by which point she was beyond screaming. “What do you want?” She gasped
through tears.

He grabbed her by the shoulders, spun her around, and shoved his face into hers, so close he
breathed into her mouth. “Why’s it matter?”

A hand slipped into her pants. She screamed.

He scrambled to cover her mouth again, but she caught one of his fingers between her teeth and bit
down as hard as she could. She felt the skin part between her teeth. A hot, metallic taste hit her
tongue.

Next thing she new, she wasn’t breathing. Then her mind exploded. All panic vanished like she was
watching herself on a screen miles away.

“Well, this is happening,” ​she thought. ​“I wish someone would do something about it.”

Ben pried Eric’s hands off her neck, jerking her back to reality. She curled into a ball on the forest
floor, coughing so hard she almost vomited.

Without a word, Eric turned around and punched Ben in the face. With a flash of light, Ben’s vision
blurred and his ears screeched, but it didn’t hurt, and he wasn’t down. While Eric cradled his hand,
Ben threw a solid one back, connecting with his face. Eric thrust a knee into his crotch, not too
accurate, but close enough. Ben doubled over, holding it, mouth gaping, and Eric kicked him in the
ribs. He let a high-pitched yelp escape. Ben was more athletic, but Eric was in his element. Ben
tightened his abdomen, took a breath, and tackled Eric to the ground, where they tumbled over
each other, flailing their fists and yanking each others’ shirts.

Laurie watched dumbfounded. It’d been so fast—maybe twenty seconds since “why’s it matter”—
and she was still trying to process what was happening and what to do. She could try to escape
through the forest now… Or she could just watch this happen to Ben, like he’d watched everything
Eric did for months.
A tangerine-sized rock, half-buried in the ground, caught her eye. Brain still foggy, she was
captivated by its bumps and crags, and tried to guess its weight. If nothing else, to get her mind off
of what was going on.

When she looked back, Ben was limp on the ground. Eric grabbed the back of his head and shoved
it into the dirt. And she decided not to throw it, because she might miss.

“Hate…” The word alone made her uncomfortable. She knew her place too well: just a little nobody
who wanted a quiet life. Sure, she’d gotten angry—at Mom, at Eric, at Ben until now—but an
impotent and toothless anger. But watching someone else get hurt...

Something blocked out the sun behind Eric. He turned around just as she swung it down over her
head.

It caught him right in the cheekbone and tore open a gash, blood streaming down his face and
forming an inkblot on his shirt. She couldn’t hit very hard, but the weight of the rock made up for
that.

He screamed out in pain, “Ah! Jesus fuck!” and went reeling backwards.

It took him a much shorter time than she’d hoped for him to regain his footing. She raised it again,
but he caught her hand. Hyperventilating through his teeth, he stared at her. She could’ve sworn
his pupils shrunk, she watched it in slow motion.

She didn’t know what had happened until he was pulling his fist back and her teeth were moving in
her gums. The second and third she saw coming, but that didn’t help. The kick just seemed
unnecessary.

When Ben came to, Eric was gone. Laurie lay on her back, weeping softly into her hands. He tapped
her on the shoulder, and she looked up at him. Her glasses were skewed and split in half. Blood
streamed from her nose and mouth. Her teeth had caught the inside of her lip, tearing it open.

Her eyes burned as she opened them. She was looking straight at the sun, shining bright in a clear
blue sky like nothing had just happened.

He lifted her to her feet, brushed her off, straightened her collar, and gave her a hug. He could tell
she’d needed one since he first met her, and especially since Eric entered the picture.

“I’m sorry. Jesus, I’m sorry. Should’ve done something sooner, I’m sorry...”

Ben called his mom, who picked them both up and wouldn’t stop hugging them. She appreciated
the sentiment, but being touched made her physically ill. When she got home, she saw her dad cry
for the first time.

By next year, Eric was gone. Maybe he was transferred to another school, maybe he was expelled, it
didn’t matter. Neither of them saw him again until Ben did.
She’d felt a little different since then. It faded into the background until it was just a little itch, but it
was always still there.

So for the next five years, she screamed into pillows, she cried in bathrooms, she ate, she listened to
Dir-En-Grey so loud her ears rang as she splattered red paint across her drawings until they
devolved into abstraction; then she threw them away, put on her best smile and she told everyone
she was fine, just fine.

But not like Eric. He really was.

WEDNESDAY EVENING

“Can’t actually fight. Always thought I could ‘til then.” Ben said.

“Used to think if I got in one, I’d kick ass, you know. I been into Bruce Lee and karate movies and all
that since I was a kid, so I thought I’d learned a bunch of moves I could just bust out if anyone
fucked with me. Shows how much I knew.

“Jerrell and B.T... They didn’t even talk to me after that. I came up to them in the hall the day after
and they were like... ‘You got your ass kicked by the white kid? You sorry.’”

“I don’t think I ever knew them?” Laurie said. “But I guess they were the ones I sometimes saw
hanging around you?”

“Yeah.”

“Question: What’s B.T. stand for?”

“Bitch Tits. Cause he fat.” He looked her over before adding a “No offe—”

“Anyway!” she interrupted, “There’s nothing wrong with being bad at fighting? I guess it just means
you don’t piss people off.” She leered at him. “​Too​ often.”

Ben chuckled, oblivious. “Yeah. Guess that’s true. Try not to.” He touched the tip of his nose.
“Wish I ain’t lost so bad, though. My nose got fucked up for a minute. Not broke, but it sat out of
place. Dad had to take me to a doctor about it.”

“He knocked a bunch of my teeth loose,” said Laurie. “I tasted blood for days after that.”

“Jesus,” Ben said, “life’s fucked up sometimes.”

Laurie nodded. “Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”
“What?”

“Never mind.”

She tried to bury that one as quickly as possible. ”So where were you going with that, anyway?”

Ben smiled. “Hey. If a asshole like that can do something with his life, you’ll be alright.”

But his face soured as he directed a thumb towards his sister, sitting on the opposite side of the
porch with earbuds on. “I’m worried about her, though.

“I got to go to the bathroom.” He said. “Be right back.”

Laurie gave the girl another little wave. She gave one back and pulled out one bud.

“Hi! Uh… What’s your name?” Laurie asked.

“Clara.”

“How old are you?”

“Nine, but I’ll be ten in two weeks.”

“Happy birthday! Uh... In advance.”

“Thanks!” She said, grinning. “I’m having a party and I’m inviting everyone in class! Except Gary.”

“What’s wrong with Gary?”

“No one likes Gary. He picks his nose and he smells weird. He’s creepy.”

Laurie shuddered on the inside. She couldn’t hold it against her: she didn’t know better at that age.
But ​ich bin Gary.

Clara lowered her voice to a whisper. “And Makayla told me he might be gay.”

“Do you even know what that means?”

“No.”

“Where’d you learn it?”

“They say it all the time at school. I thought you could tell me.”

Ben was right to worry. At a loss for words, Laurie went for another subject change. “So, uh... What
do you want for your birthday?”

“An iPhone.”
Laurie sighed. “That’s it?”

“Mom said she’s not getting me that, though.”

“There has to be something else. Don’t you want any toys or anything? I mean... What else do you
like to do?”

“I dunno… I like music, that’s why I wanted one. And dancing! And I’m thinking about trying
gymnastics.” She wiggled on her seat. “ But… I also draw sometimes.”

“Really? What kinds of things?”

“Like… Mostly just things I see around. I’ve been drawing our dog a lot. And I’m trying to learn
how to draw a unicorn. I want to draw people too, but it’s too hard.”

Ben came back. It was just as well, because Laurie had heard enough. “I just thought of something.”
she announced, to both his and Clara’s bafflement. “I—I’ll be back soon!”

She rushed home and emptied the container onto the bed, then cleaned it off and scrubbed off the
“Y.” She threw in a disused sketchbook, tearing out the few drawings inside and tossing them on
the bed. She went through her drawers and gathered a handful of mechanical pencils; she mostly
used a lead holder now. She packed some of her old Prismacolor markers into a baggie and in they
went, too.

The necklace, she threw in the trash.

She was able to find a roll of wrapping paper in the basement that had only gotten a little soggy. If
she stripped away the outer layer, you could only feel the water damage, not see it. Best she could
do on such short notice.

She practically ran back to Ben’s house just before sunset and asked for Clara. She pressed the box
into her hands. “Don’t tell anyone, but I want you to open it now.”

Clara nodded and unwrapped it with barely a sound, only tearing the paper where she needed to
get the tape off it. For the minute it took, Laurie wondered if it was insulting to give Ben’s family
her old crap. A bit racist, even? But she put it out of her mind. They might have been doing better
than her’s, but if you lived in that neighborhood, you could only be doing so well.

“Oh wow!” Clara said. “There’s a lot of stuff here!” She rifled through the art supplies. “I’ve never
seen these kinds of markers before. How do you draw with ones that thin?”

“It just takes practice.” Laurie smiled, with the same relief Dad must’ve felt when he gave her that
dictionary.

“Show me!”

As Ben and his dad watched TV on the couch, they sat on the living room floor and spread papers
and pencils out over the coffee table. Laurie wasn’t expecting to be put on the spot like that, but she
tried to summon all the art tutorials she could remember. “First, you draw a circle...” and so on.

Night fell as Laurie showed Clara how to draw basic trees, animals, and faces, and after each one,
she kept insisting, “Tell me more!” She admired the girl’s diligence, but keeping up with her was
exhausting, and eventually, she ran out of subjects to cover. “That’s enough for one night,” she said,
exasperated.

“How long does it take to learn, though?” Clara asked. “I’ve been doing it for months and I’m still
not good at it.”

“Months is nothing, really. Years, decades… It’s kinda something you just work on for the rest of
your life.”

Clara deflated. “Oh… I don’t want to show anyone until I’m better, though.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone sucks when they start.”

“But you’re really good. Do you ever still get that way about your drawings?”

“Well yeah, all the time!” Laurie frowned. “I feel like I still haven’t done anything, really.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean... I’m a lot like you in that way. I sit in my room alone, just drawing things and then hiding
them. Besides, so many artists I see are so much better than me.”

Defiance burned in Clara’s eyes. “And​ you’re​ telling ​me​ to share my stuff more? Take your own
advice!”

I guess you’re right.” Laurie said.

She left that evening more satisfied than she’d been in years. Maybe, she hoped, she’d helped set
the girl on a path away from mere normalcy. ​“I gave something back,” ​she thought.

She came home to find her dad already making dinner. “I was wondering where you’d gone.” He
almost couldn’t believe she’d left the house of her own accord, much less visited one of the
neighbors.

“Are you feeling OK?” he asked.

“Uh... Yeah. Why?”

“Nothing. I guess we’ll give it another day, then back to school.”

“Sure, why not?”
His eyes lit up. “Why are you smiling?” he asked.

ONE MONTH LATER

It was May now. One month until summer break, and three months until college.

It was a Saturday when her dad drove her up to Asheville to see her first choice: she’d have to stay
in-state for the tuition. She hadn’t left North Carolina since a childhood vacation, and she longed for
somewhere more interesting, but at least she’d be out of fucking Fayetteville.

It was a miserable, claustrophobic four-hour drive neither of them was into. He dictated the music
again, of course, and she’d forgotten headphones. Good start already. As gorgeous as the
mountains were, she grew tired of staring at them, so to distract herself, she fretted all the way
there:

She’d probably major in either chemistry or art, on one hand chemicals and their effects were still
fascinating, but she’d only passed Precalc with a B and she’d still have to take Calculus over the
summer, and even though it might be a nice change to have something to do over break, there was a
good chance she still wouldn’t be good enough because organic chemistry equations alone seemed
like they’d destroy her entire being, but on the other hand, she was fairly confident she could
handle the arts program, but she didn’t know what was a sensible choice because history and fine
arts were out because there was no money in them, and sure there were more practical ones like
illustration or design, but in the end, if she went for art, her parents would be disappointed, but it
was her life not theirs, and she could take an equal amount of both, but did she want to split her
focus like that?

And so on. But this kind of racing thoughts, she was OK with.

Brown buildings, white block walls, not that different in looks from her high school—the university
was far from the Hallowed Halls of Ivy she’d wanted, but there was nothing wrong with it either.
She talked to admissions officers, took a group tour, all that business. With some free time left, she
took a look at the library. They always calmed her down.

It was styled like a public library: modernist, nondescript, but pleasantly so. Light streamed in
through picture windows into little reading areas. It was silent, as they are, the small groups of
students absorbed in their laptops.

Reference books were on the second floor. She liked feeling smart, and she wanted to know what
she was dealing with, so she pawed through the most difficult ones in her two chosen subjects.
They might as well have been Mandarin. “Derp,” said her brain.

She came to the psych section; she was thinking of taking at least one class of that. A title caught
her eyes: ​“Components of Self”​ by Morrison and Paul. Sure, why not.
She flipped at random through walls of tiny print crammed with prose as dry as burnt toast.

A chapter heading caught her eye: “Our Many Faces.”

“ ...Horney further divides the self-image into real self, despised self, and ideal (or idealized)
self.”

She scanned down the page.

“ ...This idealized self emerges during the mirror stage of human development, when the child
first learns to recognize their own image. [2] A discord is established between the remembered
image in the mirror and the reality of an ever-changing body, causing the child to cling to an
idealized conception of themselves in order to maintain a sense of stability and control. Lacan
refers to the same concept as the “Ideal Ego.”
The ideal self is the shining illusion of impossible, glorious, wish fulfillment on every level.
It gives the patient a “feeling of power and significance” that compensates for their self-alienation
and inner turmoil. ‘With the help of the imagination they endow themselves with exalted
attributes,’ becoming ‘a hero, a genius, or a god.’” [Rubin, 1975]
The adolescent identifies him or herself anew with the ideal self, reshaping it to fit the new
role models they acquire and societal demands placed on them during a time of great personal
turbulence.

She flipped it.

“ The goal of this model of therapy is to help patients gradually grow in the direction of
self-realization, relinquishing the search for a glory perpetually beyond their reach and cultivating
acceptance of the real self. [3]”

“Oh,” she said.

TWO MONTHS LATER

They found a buyer for the house a few months later. A young couple, not unlike her parents when
they first moved in. But it couldn’t have come at a worse time. In addition to her schoolwork and
the dreaded basement, she now had to start packing.

Her mind was busy with the avalanche of changes coming up, which kept her out of her normal
malaise. The T-shirts could stay, the hoodies and bulky old jackets went. Tomodachi, and all her
books and movies were coming with her. She wouldn’t part with them for the world. The posters...
Maybe. She didn’t know how a roommate would react to them.
Carrying a box out, she passed by her dad’s room. She set it down and came in.

It was disheveled, the bed and the bulky chest of drawers the only things left in their place. The rest
of the room had been disassembled and packed into suitcases and boxes, or arranged into piles on
the floor.

She looked in an open suitcase. That’s when she saw it. A little yellow and green box, labeled
“Remington Target, .38 special.”

She picked it up. A familiar feeling came rushing over her. It all came back.

Every instinct screamed for her not to do what she did next. To just drop it, leave the room, and
forget she ever saw it. But she did it anyway. It was in her nature. She had to know.

She dug through the chest of drawers, gently moving aside shirts and checking under piles of socks.
It’d been moved to another drawer, but it was still there.

She pulled it out and held it in one hand. She removed one bullet from the box, then held it in the
other. It was smaller than she’d have thought. About the length of the top segment of her thumb.

She shrugged, put the box back, making sure to get it in the exact same spot, with the exact same
shirt covering it, then she did the same with the gun.

But the bullet, she clenched in the palm of her hand.

It was just one of a hundred identical ones. He’d never notice it was gone. She heard footsteps
coming up the hall, and she slipped it in her pocket.

Then she exited the room and went on with her life.

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