Elle was almost completely certain what was happening right now was all in some crazy dream. She was dizzy, sitting with her feet tucked in close to the left side of her body while the heels of her hands made shallow indentations in the soggy yet firm bit of earth beneath her. The world around her was gray at the edges and wobbling drunkenly before her eyes. When she could say with some certainty that there was only the one small yellow weed of a flower standing stiff and obstinate against the breeze just a few feet away from her she began to take in more of her environment. The chit-chat of birds behind her didn’t sound like the usual congregation of mockingbirds and grackles that roosted just outside her bedroom window and sung through the night. There was no sign of anything she would begin to call civilization in any direction there was only the clearing she was in a huge expanse of flat land speckled with the occasional wildflower or patch of clover and surrounded by trees she was sure could dwarf any of the buildings in Houston’s skyline.
That’s when the first tickles of fear began to set in.
It was a dream. Elle was nearly certain; experience told her that if she just went with the flow and let things play out as they would, she would eventually startle herself awake. Depending on what time it was, she would go back to sleep hoping her mind wouldn’t put her in the same dreamscape all over again.
But she was only half sure it was a dream. There were clues. Her hair was long, the ends of it brushed against her bare skin around where her bra strap might be if she’d been wearing one with the sundress and sandals she’d tried on today but didn’t buy. She hadn’t let her hair get that long since she was old enough to understand how to work a pair of scissors around the age of five. For most of her life, the length of her hair ranged somewhere between her ears and her shoulder blades. Despite how cute her mother thought her hair was long, the stuff was thick, heavy, and just plain uncomfortable in combination with the near-constant heat and humidity in her hometown.
Still, some things made what was happening seem too real for a dream. For one, she could smell the things around her like the musky scent of the flowering vines climbing the incredibly tall but spindly trees nearest her and the strange mingling of wet soil and wood chips. All of it was coming from the wall of trees at her back and not the garden section at the hardware store she associated with those fragrances. She could also feel textures.
She’d never done either of those in a dream before.
She had had dreams where she was on the beach or on a mountain and with them an abstract sense that there was sand under her feet and the smell of saltwater in the air or that she had rocks to climb and that the air was sharp with cold and absent of city aromas. Then, it had been as if her brain were building a convincing but hollow scene for her, filling it with old memories and speculations. Now, she could feel the dirt’s grainy texture ruining her manicure and clogging the space between her nails and fingers. There was the gentlest of breezes against her exposed skin and the dampness from the ground was beginning to seep through the material of her dress.
With her senses as sharp as they were in this probable dream, the go-with-the-flow option seemed like a bad choice as two men who looked like extras fresh off the set of some medieval action flick were coming toward her and laughing in that mean way miscellaneous villains always did. Their faces were coated with layers of grime and sweat and the teeth they were missing hadn’t come out cleanly, as she would have imagined, but looked to have been broken or rotted until jagged black fragments broke up crooked rows of yellowed teeth. The laugh told her nothing was particularly funny but that they intended to enjoy what happened next though she certainly wouldn’t.
The just-go-with-it attitude she usually adopted in dreams was out of the question. She had two options left; fight, or flight. Both men were pudgy, they had the look of former athletes gone soft, hints of powerful muscle struggling to survive as it began to deteriorate into layers of fat. She’d gone all-state in three sports her senior year of high school and she was still in damn good shape even after 6 years of college. Track and field had been one of those sports so she chose flight and took off into the trees.
She moved quickly and efficiently occasionally hurdling downed trees and high stepping other obstacles. Just as she was thinking, she’d leave those two oafs in her dust and set some kind of fastest run in a dream record, she smacked headlong into another one. She stunned him but not so much he didn’t make a grab for her and trip her up. He’d caught her ankle and kicking him off cost her precious time. She only got to take a few more strides before she was suddenly surrounded by three sneering, semi-toothless men. She could smell them now too; the stench would have been a compliment to the aroma they gave off. The concentrated mustiness of gym clothes was the most pleasant of the odors wafting off of them. Elle’s family made good money running their own unique neighborhood bar and grill in one of the suburbs of Houston. At the end of the night, any plate of food that had been returned for whatever reason was reheated and distributed to the city’s homeless. Even Old Riley, who’d all but lived in a dumpster on Canal Street for as long as she could remember, would have been offended by the smells these men put off.
With her first two options out, there was nothing left to do but fight. Luckily, the trees in this forest seemed inclined to drop large pieces of themselves at frequent intervals. There was a sturdy-looking branch close to her. She picked it up. It had a width similar to a PVC pipe but it felt as solid and heavy as any aluminum bat she’d ever held. She gripped it, took a stance that melded the way she stood on her softball team at the chili cookout every April and one she’d seen in ninja movie once, and tried to concentrate on the men closing in on her. They seemed amused. She was more than scared.
Elle gritted her teeth and reminded herself that she wasn’t one of the weak damsels in the movies out of sorts and swinging whatever came to hand blindly and half-heartedly as she waited for the hero to come to her rescue. This was her messed up dream which meant she had to be the hero