The Realm Between Waking and Dreams
By: Oliver Fox
That night at the diner, Maya danced behind the counter. The Staples Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” wafted from the jukebox, and the hash browns fizzled and popped on the griddle. From time to time she stole glances at her mane of frizzy hair, a great auburn globe, reflected in the diner windows.
Dylan sat hunched in his usual corner booth, next to another occupied by the only other customers in the house: a group of teenagers dressed in prom outfits.
Maya smiled at the way Dylan’s swizzle-stick legs jackknifed under the table as he slurped on a cup of black coffee.
He was one of her few regulars. When there was no one else in the diner, she would sit at his booth and tell him about the stories she’d read for school, where she studied classics. He always had a concerned look in his eyes, swallowing heavily and nodding as he listened to her talk about Orpheus and Eurydice. For the last month or so, though, he’d been engrossed with writing in the blue book. The book’s cover, embossed with silver letters and an art-nouveau border, read “Dream Journal.” One night she’d even found him paging through a book on astral projection—whatever that was. Seriously mystical stuff, she’d wager. But it was the blue book that had really grabbed her. She’d grown so curious about it that some nights she dreamt he let her read it. Dreaming about reading about his dreams. But this past week he hadn’t written a thing. In fact, he’d become downright spacey.
He opened the blue book to the last dog-eared page and scrawled one line before slamming it closed.
The prom kids went on talking loudly.
“What are they even playing?” one of them said, laughing.
“My folks listen to this crap,” said another.
Dylan continued to stare straight ahead, his back arched and his neck craned. His legs bounced slightly under the table, vibrating the stained mug and scuffed silverware.
“They need something with a beat in here.”
“I know, right?”
Dylan swiveled in his booth. He took a long draught from his mug.“You know you could just leave.” He smacked his lips and sighed.
The Dylan Maya knew would never have said anything like that.
The prom kids fell silent. They all turned to face Dylan.
Dylan shrugged. “No one’s keeping you here.” He stared into the mug as he rotated it in little circles.
Those nearest him rose to their knees on the booth’s seat and gripped the booth-top as they leaned over to call Dylan names. He just took another sip of coffee and turned back to face the booth opposite him.
Maya left the griddle and strode to the other side of the counter.
“Excuse me,” she said. “ Do we have a problem?”
A kid in a pink tux tilted his head back and narrowed his eyes.
Dylan stood and pivoted on one foot, his white knuckles grasping either corner of the prom kids’ table as he loomed over them. Maya stood behind him. She had one hand in her apron, fingering her mace keychain.
“Apologize.” Dylan’s speech slurred, his breath pungent with the smell of liquor and coffee when he spoke. “Now.” He rocked back on his heels. Maya recalled seeing a flash of metal (a flask?) going back into his coat whenever she had refilled his coffee that night.
The kids exchanged wide-eyed glances.
Pink Tux smirked. “Or what?”
Moments later, Maya was dragging Dylan out of the diner, slamming the door behind her. Inside, the prom kids writhed in their booth from the blast of mace, clambering over one another. The other fry cook on shift burst out of the bathroom, took one look at them and grabbed the phone from the wall. He punched 9-1-1 on the dial-pad.
That was it. She was out of a job.
She wheeled around to face Dylan. He tilted his head back as he held his nose, the blue book tucked under his other arm. Wine-dark streams oozed down his chin and neck.
“Come on, we gotta go,” she said. “You got a car?”
“Friend dropped me off today!”
Dylan pointed to the bike rack a few feet away—a single, sea-foam green cruiser bicycle chained to it. Maya looked at the bicycle and back at Dylan.
Dylan removed his hand from his nose and gave her a blood-stained smile. His face was puffy, though it was difficult to tell whether the swelling was from the punch he’d taken or from residual pepper spray. Her own eyes still stung.
“We’re gonna have to E.T. it out of here,” he said thickly, thumbing over his shoulder.
“Hop on the handle bars!”
“Why didn’t you say that? And are you kidding?” Maya drew circles in the air around her waist. She had what her friends affectionately called ‘Monroe’ hips.
Maya and Dylan barreled across the train tracks, Dylan astride the handlebars. He bellowed directions and pointed out where to turn, lit cigarette in hand. The fog grew thick and the street lamps stained it so it looked as if they were riding into a 1930’s western.
“Since when do you smoke?” Maya panted, pumping her legs as best she could with a grown man on the handle bars.
“I don’t.” He exhaled a thin cloud that streamed behind them like exhaust. “I’ve always wanted to. I told myself I could start whenever I wanted, but I could never commit.” His words still slurred. He made wide, sweeping gestures and turned his head and winked.
As they rode deeper into the neighborhood, the fog obscured the street signs, and Maya felt as if she were navigating the ancient labyrinth she’d read about in her mythology class. She imagined the Minotaur with his arms out-stretched as he stumbled through the fog.
“Shit, are you ok?”
She jumped off the bike and ran over to him.
“I’m alive.” He groaned.
She helped Dylan up the steps of the bungalow-style duplex, its screened porch a dense jungle of potted and hanging plants, wicker furniture crouching in the corners.
Through the porch screen she saw they were in one of those strange, feudalistic neighborhoods you sometimes come across in the Southern United States—the ones with mansions on one side of the street and shacks on the other. True to form, a monstrous Georgian mansion directly opposite Dylan’s duplex glowered at them through its many-windowed eyes.
She dug his keys out of his jeans, and they jingled loudly as she fumbled to find the right one. He winced at the sound. She found the key and briefly let go of him so she could use both hands to turn it. The bolt withdrew from the doorpost with a loud crack, and the two of them nearly fell over the threshold.
Maya surveyed the dimly-lit room; multi-colored Japanese lanterns hanging from the ceiling cast nets of light that created the effect of being underwater. Stacks upon stacks of enormous hardback and leather-bound books with yellowed, frayed pages filled the room, some of them piled as high as her waist.
“You move in recently?”
“No, no. Just an avid reader.” He smiled and added, “A member of the literati.” He stretched the word ‘literati,’ and wobbled his head as he spoke. Maya rolled her eyes, but her lips twitched at the corners.
“You couldn’t fit them all in a bookshelf or something?”
“Well, I’m sure I could, but this way it’s all so much more accessible. See?” He set the blue book on top of a pile near the sofa. She noted which one. Perhaps she’d take a gander after he’d gone to sleep. “I know right where it is and I don’t have to break out my climbing harness to snag it.”
Maya adjusted her shoulder under his armpit to get more leverage and half-dragged him through the middle of the front room, weaving him through the piles of books. The room on her right was a kitchenette. Directly before her was a short hallway.
“I’m the door on the left,” he said.
She steered him down the hallway and through the open bedroom door into the dark. Maya felt along the wall for a switch and when she found one, flicked it.
“Whoa.” She loosened her grip, nearly dropping him.
On a dresser along the back wall were animal skeletons of all kinds: an enormous fish leaping into the air, held there by a wire attached to a broad polished wood-base, rodents sitting up on their hind legs; and in the dead center, a single tiny bird with its wings spread, head up and beak open. Maya heaved Dylan into the room and set him down on the bed, not too gently, before approaching the dresser to have a closer look.
“You like ‘em?” he said.
“Yeah, actually,” she said, “What’s the fish?”
“And the bird?”
“A blue jay.”
“It’s so little.”
“That was the first one I did myself. I was six. A dead baby blue jay.”
“What got you into that?” She ran her finger-tips gingerly over the fish’s long narrow snout. “Seems like an odd hobby for a kid.”
“It made me sad to see them disappear—the dead animals. I’d find them in the woods behind my house. Not the gar, obviously. My father gave me that one after a fishing trip. Anyway, I wanted them to live on somehow. Live and do the things they most loved. Or what I imagined they liked to do. All baby birds do is chirp and eat, so that’s why he’s posed like that.”
This boy was talking a blue streak. She stifled a laugh.
“So, how’d you do it?” She turned to face him. “Jeez, look at you!”
She’d been so fascinated by the skeletons she hadn’t noticed how much blood had spilled down his front and onto his jeans.
He followed her gaze to the dark blood staining his clothes. “Hmm? Oh, yeah. Bit of a mess, huh?” He looked up brightly. “Anyway– wanna know how I made them?”
Maya marched toward him with her brow knit. She needed to stay focused. Put this adorable little weirdo to bed so she could see what that journal was all about. She managed to get his shirt over his head, muttering “skin the cat” to herself the way her parents used to when undressing her as a little girl.
“All right,” he continued, casually, “first you soak the carcass in ammonia for two weeks, rinse it off and then soak it in hydrogen peroxide— whoa, hold on. At least let me make us drinks first.”
Without thinking, she had pushed him back onto the bed and unbuttoned his jeans, going for the zipper, when he piped up about the drinks.
“Easy there, Casanova.” Maya gave him a look, and continued to pull at the zipper.
“I mean, I understand that you’re eager, but seriously, slow down—”
“Ok, ok. I’m just messing around.” He raised his hands in surrender.
“Honestly though, what’s the holdup down there.”
“Blood crusted all over the zipper—“
“Yeah—And now it’s stuck.”
Maya tugged and tugged at the zipper. No dice. So she grabbed the cuffs of his pants at the ankles and yanked until the jeans slid off, nearly toppling her.
Their eyes met and neither of them said anything for a moment as she crouched in front of him clutching his bloodied jeans. She stared at his slight, pale body–naked except for his socks and underwear. She cleared her throat, tucked a ringlet of hair behind her ear and headed for the bathroom while Dylan swung his legs onto the bed. She searched the cabinets for a small towel, wetted it in the sink and grabbed the trash can by the toilet. When she returned Dylan was already under the covers.
“I know you’re not asleep,” she said.
Dylan didn’t open his eyes.
“You don’t wanna talk about what happened back there?” She waited. Still no response. “All right, but I’ll be here in the morning and you probably got me fired, so…” Her voice trailed off. She was sure he’d been faking when she first came back, but now his breathing slowed and deepened. How much had he drunk? She wiped the crusted blood off his face as gently as she could with the warm damp towel; he sucked his teeth and fidgeted any time she pressed too hard. She placed the trash can by his bedside and flicked the lights off as she tiptoed out.
Maya settled herself on the sofa, grabbed a blanket folded across the back of it, and pulled it to her chin. What else was she gonna do? Wander back into the fog and pray she didn’t run into a Minotaur?
Retching sounded from Dylan’s room.
Maya buried her face in her hands and groaned.
She looked about at the already dream-like landscape of the front room and soon her eyelids flickered. The room faded before her, as if the fog had slunk beneath the cracks of the doors, and Maya found herself standing outside a two-story apartment complex with ivy creeping up the sides. Razor wire spiraled across the top of the surrounding wood fence, rotted with age. It could have been dawn or dusk, but it was impossible to tell which; the sun, moon and stars were all out, and a crimson band extended across the horizon, fading upwards from orange to yellow and lavender and then blue.
A tall figure on the lawn beckoned, then paced down the stone path to the front door of the apartment. The figure flung open the door, revealing a spiral staircase to the second floor, and clomped up the steps. Two figures, silhouetted by lantern light, stared at Maya from the second story window above the screen door. After a short time another silhouette, taller than the other two, joined them. The new silhouette waved at her again, jerked its head.
Come on in.
Maya awoke with a start, knocking over a stacks of books, one of which fell on her foot as she stood.
She swore loudly and then, when she remembered where she was, clapped her hands to her mouth, the obscenities still slipping between her fingers. She stumbled across the cold hardwood, clutching her stubbed foot in both hands, hopping one-legged through the piles of books arranged throughout the room like headstones in a cemetery. She snatched the culprit: the blue book lying atop a dilapidated copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. She had been so distracted while she settled Dylan the night before that she’d forgotten all about it.
She crept back to Dylan’s doorway, and cracked the door. He was still sprawled on the bed. The comforter looked as though it had slithered between his arms and legs, the sheets draped across his bare chest. His nose hooked at an odd angle and the skin around his eyes was swollen and purple and blue. She leaned against the hallway wall and slumped to the floor, still clutching the journal.
Maya fished her cellphone out of her pocket and flipped it open: 5:37 a.m. Maybe the daylight would wake Dylan so she wouldn’t have to.
Maya’s foot throbbed. She watched Dylan’s chest rise and fall as he slept. He fought for each shuddering breath, the air whistling through his now-crooked nose.
She picked up the book again, tossed it on the sofa as she walked to the front room window. Outside, it grew lighter—the colors not unlike that of the sky in her dream— but the fog remained thick. She would have to wait for Dylan to wake before she could find her way to the diner again; although, she felt little urgency to return and explain herself. She felt a tangible thrill in this place, something like electricity.
She returned to the sofa and reached for the book but stopped short— her hand hovering over it— then grabbed it and opened it to the first page. She might as well read to pass the time. Besides, Dylan owed her. Now they’d be square.
Ever since I was little I’ve had a rich dream life. As early as four, I remember describing my dreams to my mother in vivid detail. I would wake up to her singing: “Lazy bones, lazy bones sleeping in the hay. How’re you ever gonna get your corn meal made?” and she would ask me what I’d dreamt.
In one dream, my mother and I swam in a giant bathtub. Around the rim of the tub lionesses paced back and forth, snarling at us any time we came too close. I couldn’t keep my head above water on my own, so whenever my mother swam too far away, I would thrash my arms and call out to her. I sank deep beneath the surface. I saw sea creatures swimming around me: whales and squids and sharks.
When I turned six, something happened. After my birthday party, once my family and I had cleaned up, my parents collapsed on the sofa, and I crawled into my mother’s lap. I lay my head on her chest and listened to her heart beating while her stomach gurgled from cake and ice cream and soda. I remembered my grandfather in the hospital and how my mother told me that his heart had stopped and now he was gone. It hit me that one day her heart would stop. And mine. Each birthday was a year closer to my own heart stopping.
I wondered if you dreamt in death. What if whatever dream you start when you die was the one you were stuck with forever? The idea of becoming trapped in a nightmare for eternity lodged itself in my mind. I choked back sobs as tears streaked down my cheeks and stained the front of my mother’s sweater.
From then on, I would lie facing the wall every night wondering what it felt like when you died. When they buried me, would I have to stay in that brown box forever? Just the thought makes my throat swell. I wanted to find somewhere beautiful and safe to spend with the ones I loved now that I knew the world was so dangerous and people so fragile.
I thought of the baby bluejay I’d found dead in the back yard. I scooped it up with a garden claw and carried it into our pastel playhouse. As soon as it touched the bottom of the plastic kitchen sink, grubs crawled out of its eyes and mouth.
It was never long before some phantasm jerked me awake at night, and I’d sit there gasping on the sweaty mattress. For years I struggled with night terrors and insomnia. My mother took me to psychologists. I thought I was clever for screwing with them. I’ll never know if they could have helped me. I never gave them a chance.
One night I dreamt that a decaying corpse— a giant baby bluejay with grubs spilling out of its eyes and mouth— chased me. As I fled, I saw I had no legs. I didn’t seem to have a body at all. I stopped running and waved an invisible hand in front of my face: in my dream, I knew I was dreaming. This phenomenon, I later learned, was called lucid dreaming. I turned to face the creature chasing me but it was gone. I wept in my relief.
I set out to explore this new-found freedom. One night I flew, weaving through mountain peaks. Another night I conjured entire cities. I raised my arms overhead, and buildings burst from the ground. The next night I sank to the ocean floor, and lay unafraid of the silhouetted figures slithering through the water above me. I could swear I saw my father astride a giant gar as it swam past.
This was the beautiful somewhere I’d been looking for.
I’ve been researching lucid dreaming in preparation for practicing it again. In the meantime I’ve lost my knack. I stopped working at it when the nightmares stopped. But I have discovered some interesting things. The process of lucid dreaming was first developed and explored by a man living in the late nineteenth century named Hugh George Callaway. Callaway wrote a book titled Astral Projection: A Record of Research, in which he developed a method for lucid dreaming split into three stages.
The first stage of dream control: Dream recall. I’ve had to learn how to remember my dreams on a consistent basis—thus the dream journal. That way, when I find myself in a situation characteristic of my dream life, I can do a reality check. Every time I read something, whether it’s a menu or a clock, I quickly reread it to see if anything changes. If, on the second time I read it, something has changed, there is a good chance I’m dreaming; by recognizing this fact, I achieve lucidity.
Even if I’m better at dream recall and lucidity, controlling my dreams presents another challenge. Part of the difficulty is that once I become lucid in my dreams, I get excited and awaken myself. I have to find something to stir the sensations that makes the dream feel more vivid so that I can stay lucid and asleep longer. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is through the tactile senses. I find something with a distinctive texture to anchor me to the dream, like a tree’s bark. If the dream begins fading, I rub the bark. It’s as if the breath fogging my glasses has dissolved; the world comes into focus.
Callaway mentions one final level of dream control. He tells of instances when he and his fellow experimenters slept near one another and shared a dream. Or, as he puts it, they met on the astral plane. He explains this phenomenon with an analogy: scientists have known of the existence of brain waves for some time, and that these waves emit even when we sleep. Think of the realm of dreams— or the astral plane— as a pond: our consciousness is a pebble, and the ripples created by pebbles falling into the pond are brain waves. When we sleep we enter the astral plane. That is, the pebble of our consciousness falls into the pond, and the ripples it creates are brain waves. If two pebbles drop close to one another, their ripples run into each other. So, if two people sleep near one another, isn’t it possible their brain waves could interact in the astral plane?
It sounds too perfect. Everything I’ve looked for– I want to believe. But even if astral projection was possible, who would I meet?
This Callaway guy was a character, and Dylan—a borderline nut. An interesting one though. Maya stretched and ran her fingers through her hair, which had grown even frizzier from the fog the night before.
She returned her gaze to the book.
How the hell can I focus on any of that when I am around her? I’ve been coming to this diner for so long.
Maya’s heart leapt. “When I am around her?” Her as in—Maya? It was unlikely he frequented another diner.
My buddies and I used to meet here at three a.m. to eat waffles and drink coffee, pretend we were beat poets. We would save our nickels and play “Blue in Green” on the jukebox over and over. Then Maya started working here. Now I come alone to see her.
Yup. There it was in black and white. Maya’s gaze jumped across the page, her pulse racing in spite of herself.
Whenever a song comes on the jukebox and I find myself tapping my feet, she’s singing along and dancing too. Tonight “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” came on. I atrophied into the booth as she swayed behind the counter. Every night I tell myself I’ll work up the chutzpah to start a real conversation.
Sometimes she’ll sit at my booth and tell me about school and my throat gets tight like when I was a kid. I nod and sip my coffee and ask questions. Any time she asks about me, I scramble to turn the conversation back to her.
Jeez… listen to me.
She dropped the journal to her lap. So, Dylan thinks he’s in love with her? Had she been somewhere other than his house, she might find this oddly endearing, but with him right there in the other room, bloody and nearly naked, she wasn’t sure how to feel.
Maya bit her lip as she looked down at the journal.
When she went to refill my mug her perfume crashed over me like a spray of ocean air, and everything else dissolved. Tonight I’ll make an effort.
Last night I had the dream again. I was standing on the apartment complex’s lawn at twilight. A tall wooden fence with razor wire on top surrounded the apartment. All around me were figures I’ve known well but wouldn’t care to run into: lionesses, my dead grandfather… that baby bird. A stone path cut across the lawn leading to a screen door. The lights were on in the complex’s second story window, above the screen door. I can’t explain why, but I had to find a way inside. I’ve had this same dream for the past three nights and each night I come closer. I’ve made it through the screen door and up the stairs. I stand outside the apartment door, and just as I extend my hand to grab the tarnished brass knob I wake.
Maya looked up from the book. Had she read that right? She flipped back a page, and reread, her finger tracking along under the lines as she mouthed each word. Was it possible? She resumed reading, frantically now.
Last night I got inside. The dream played out the same as before, but this time the door flung open before I could touch the knob. A tall man stood in the doorway. He had wavy black hair like an upturned mop on his head and he wore a blue velvet bathrobe. A stub of cigarette hung between his lips under his long, parrot’s-beak nose, and in one hand clutched a glass of white wine.
“There you are.” He looked back around the corner into the apartment. “He made it,” he said to someone inside.
I didn’t move.
“Well, come in then. C’mon, c’mon.” He gesticulated wildly, then dropped the cigarette at his feet and stomped it out.
I took a step over the smoking butt into the apartment. I stood in a kitchen the color of sweet corn, the wallpaper covered in a gold baroque floral pattern. I followed him into the living room, lit entirely by candles. Super-eight film canisters sat stacked along the room’s edges. In the room’s center a reel-to-reel projector faced the far wall, bare except for a large white pull-down screen. Another man sat on an ottoman to my left. He wore an over-sized olive corduroy jacket and oval, wire-framed glasses. He nodded at me and smiled a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Every so often, he pinched his throat and harrumphed.
The man with the cigarette handed me a glass of wine. “Welcome to your humble abode. And I mean humble. Kind of a dump, but I guess that’s up to you.”
“This is your dream, isn’t it?”
I stared at him.
“I beg your pardon, I should have introduced myself.” He extended his free hand. “I’m Epicurus and this,“ he gestured to the man in the spectacles, “is Diogenes.” Diogenes averted his gaze. “But please, let’s keep this informal. Epi and Dio sound all right?”
I looked from one to the other.
“How does it feel knowing that you’re pretentious even when you’re unconscious, eh?” Epi winked as he sipped his wine.
“Me? How am I the one who’s–“
“If you’re dreaming, then you’re the only one here.” He clinked his glass against mine, toasted me and drained the glass. “Smoke?” He held out an open pack of cigarettes.
“I don’t smoke.”
“No,” he said. “But you’ve always wanted to.” He lit another cigarette and took a long drag on it.
I set my glass down on the coffee table and picked up the film canister nearest to me. A strip of white masking tape ran across one side with “Dylan’s Sixth” written in black marker. The canister beneath it read “Bluebird.”
“Ok,” I said, ”I’ll bite.”
“Good boy,” Epi said. “The question you should be asking yourself about now is not who, but what we are.” He sat in a nearby armchair and crossed his legs. “Plato described us as two horses pulling the soul’s chariot. Freud thought of us as an iceberg’s mass, hiding beneath the water’s surface.” He waved his cigarette as he talked, drawing a ghostly image of an iceberg with smoke.
I laughed and shook my head. I was about to respond when I noticed a tin with “Maya” written on it.
Maya started again. She had her own film now?
“Go ahead, hook it up,” Epi exhaled twin streams of blue smoke through his nostrils.
Dio stood and took the tin from me.
“Here, let me help,” he said, addressing me for the first time as he hooked up the film. This time, when he smiled, he smiled with his eyes too. He flicked the switch. The rotors clicked as they turned, and the projector shot a block of light onto the screen hanging down the wall. Maya’s diner appeared. Everything was exactly as I remembered it from the night before. It was if I were standing outside the diner looking through the window next to my booth. Maya stood behind the counter swaying as she flipped eggs.
I walked around to the side of the living room to find a seat, never letting my gaze break from the screen, and as I did, something strange happened: instead of staying at a fixed perspective, the shot’s angle shifted with me as I moved, like the eyes of a painting. I took a step closer to the screen, and the shot’s depth shifted accordingly.
“Are you seeing this?” I turned to face Epi and Dio. They stared past me at the screen, their eyes following Maya as she moved around within it. Epi leaned forward in his seat, his fingers forming a steeple, while Dio crossed his arms and slumped his shoulders. Neither of them spoke. The only sound in the room was the projector whirring. I turned back to the screen and approached it. I could hear the sounds in the diner now, faint and garbled, like I was hearing them from under water. I stood six inches from the screen, which shimmered, liquid-like. I reached out to touch it, and ripples spread from the spot. A flickering iridescent residue trickled down my fingertip. Sam and Dave cheered “Hold on, I’m Comin’,” from the jukebox, and before I knew what I was doing, I plunged into the screen.
I fell into my usual booth and everything came into focus. I smelled bacon grease and heard the griddle hiss. I looked back at where I had entered. Every other window in the diner looked out into the parking lot, but on the other side of the window I had fallen through, Epi and Dio still sat in the living room of the dream apartment. They waved at me as if nothing had happened, rippling and silent behind the screen.
I righted myself on the slick false leather and looked closer at my surroundings. The other people in the diner were covered with a haze, like heat rising from asphalt. Where their faces should be they had blank doughy slabs of skin and when they moved they looked like the mechanized puppets you see at theme parks. Every one of them turned its head to face me.
I slid out of the booth and approached the counter. Maya didn’t seem to have noticed me come in. I straddled a barstool and grabbed a menu off the counter, the text a mass of shifting gobbledygook. I breathed deeply as I fumbled for something to say. But then it hit me. Here, I could say everything I’d ever wanted to say to her without fear of rejection.
The more I thought of this the more excited I became, and the diner’s lights flickered like in a horror movie. Everything began to fade and fall to pieces. Maya, still standing with her back to me, melted. I looked for something to grab, to anchor me. The griddle. I leapt across the counter and smacked my hand down on the sleek black metal. My skin crackled, and a very real pain ran through me that lingered even after I awoke. I sat in bed clutching the hand as it convulsed and contorted uncontrollably.
Maya looked down at her own hand, flexing and closing her fingers. She’d burnt herself on that griddle many times.
Why hadn’t he just told her how he felt?
I’ve now learned to maintain lucidity and not wake myself. I’ve replayed that same reel over and over, and each time, the memory changes. It reminds me of a quote I once heard. Something about how, all memories are only dimly remembered, and by the time they’re told, only halfway true. By last night, the other people in the diner disappeared altogether. One night on the reel, Maya and I talked about mythology and another night we kissed, but the sense that I was alone grew stronger each time. Maya swayed at the griddle as usual. She smiled at me from the screen before I had a chance to make it through. She even walked out from behind the counter and sat at my booth.
“You’re on, slugger.” Dio clapped me on the shoulder, and gave me a feeble smile.
“Make us proud, yeah?” Epi said without looking at me. He held out the pack of cigarettes. I took one.
Epi struck a match off of the bottom of his slippered foot and held it to the cigarette; I cupped my hands and puffed as I’d seen others do. I turned back to the screen and paused.
“Epi,” I said. “Each night I come here, I’ve noticed something odd when I wake up.”
“The more time I spend here, the fuzzier everything seems to be when I’m awake. Yesterday, I felt like I was a spectator in my own head. It was like I was making suggestions to myself about what I should do, but in the end it was up to my body whether it would listen.”
He grinned. “Do you remember your twenty-first birthday?”
I frowned. “Well, no. I got so plastered I blacked out. I only found out what happened because of the videos my friends took. I kissed a girl. I forgot about that.”
“I’m not following.”
“Well, when you blacked out, your body couldn’t keep functioning without some kind of direction, right? So, part of your consciousness must have been working—a part of you that allowed you to do things you had always wanted to.”
“Ok,” I said. “So, there was still a repressed part of me that, but what?… Oh.”
“So, when I’m here you’re—” I sputtered, choking on smoke.
“Think of it this way: until now, you’ve worked the day shift, and I’ve worked the night shift. We’re just switching shifts.”
“Are you telling me… Are you saying I’m schizophrenic?”
“No. Schizophrenia just causes hallucinations. Anyway, you’re thinking of dissociative personality disorder.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, everything I know you know—or rather, everything you know, I know. Though, I guess you could’ve forgotten that last little tidbit.”
“If I’d forgotten it how did you know about it?”
“Cause you never forget things, it’s buried or hidden in your subconscious. It’s rattling around in that thick head of yours somewhere.”
“So, I don’t have–“
“Dissociative personality disorder? I don’t think so. That would be nice and neat, wouldn’t it? Convenient to be able to slap a nice science-y label on the situation to make it all better. Look, we’ve talked about this before. In here, when you dream, when anyone dreams, and they meet all these other people, most of the time the only person in there is just… them—though sometimes it certainly feels like other people. It’s like how you talk to yourself when you’re awake, when you’re trying to make a tough decision and you debate with yourself. Or how your body can function to a certain degree even when you’ve blacked out. But in either of those instances, it’s all still you. It feels like other people, but it’s all you. Me and Dio: We are those bits of you. But what if Callaway was on to something? What if someone else really could make it in here?”
I turned back to the screen. Dream Maya waited in my booth and waved at me. I stepped through.
“Hello, again.” She smiled. I set one foot through the screen into the booth and settled opposite her. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
“You haven’t.” I took a long drag on the cigarette. “But that’s the point, isn’t it? I want you to miss me, so in here you do.” I exhaled a small cloud. Maya came around and slid in next to me. We sat in silence. I could smell her perfume as I had so many times in the diner. I took her hand. It was cold.
I marveled at the way she was looking back at me with the same eagerness, the same yearning I felt for her. And the thought that nowhere but here would she look at me that way nauseated me.
I jumped back through the screen.
“What the hell am I doing?” I said, sniffling.
Epi helped me to my feet, and I wiped my nose.
“Go after her,” he said. “The real her.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
Dio shook his head. “It’s safe here. You can see her everyday and do anything you’ve ever wanted to do together.”
Epi turned on Dio and glared. Dio shrunk back into his seat.
“It isn’t her!” Epi said, pointing to the Maya on the screen.
“But it’s safe here,” Dio whispered.
Epi looked at Dio and then back at me. “If you’re so dead-set on staying here bring her with you.”
I laughed. “How?”
“You know how,” Epi said.
“C’mon, lucid dreaming is one thing, but I don’t buy that astral projection bullshit.”
“Fine, stay here.” Epi said. “Hide in fantasy-land and rot.” He threw his hands over his head. He stalked across the room to the door, taking one last look at Dio and me before slamming the door.
And then I woke up.
Maya looked up from the book to the hallway to Dylan’s room, her breath fast and shallow. If what the journal said was true he was now withdrawn deep inside himself with only his fears and his desires to keep him company. Maybe she had entered his dreams last night. Maybe she could reach him again.
Her hands shook as she closed the book and, clutching it to her chest, she slid from the sofa. She limped softly across the room, unable to tip-toe because of her stubbed foot. She turned down the hallway and inched toward Dylan’s door. Still hugging the journal, she peered once more through the crack between the door and the frame at him: he lay on his side facing the wall, the covers drawn tight around his shoulders.
He groaned and shifted in his sleep.
Maya jumped and dropped the book which hit the floor, splayed open on its back. She crouched to pick it up and noticed it was open to an entry she had missed.
On the last dog-eared page, written in jagged arched letters, the final entry read:
If you won’t do anything, I will.
Oliver was raised on myths, fairy tales, and tall tales told around the dinner table. He’s had the privilege of studying under best-selling authors in commercial fiction, literary fiction, and SF&F, including Joshua Hood, Tim Johnston, and Orson Scott Card. Two of his stories have received awards from the Writers of the Future competition, and he has one piece forthcoming from the journal Built from Human Parts.