“We’re losing her.”
Light pierced through my closed eyelids. The dreamscape washed in red, puddling to form a bloody seascape punctuated by an angry sky. I lurched, struggling to catch my footing on a large ferry jostled by waves. A lighthouse flashed its dire warning. The boat was coming up against the cliffs. People went screaming by, grabbing life preserves. The ship was about to sink, every man, woman, and child for themselves! Fear stopped me from moving. The waves were sonorous, crashing thirty feet high against a scoured bare rock face. There was no way I’d have a chance in the water.
The lighthouse continued to spiral its warning. Flash. Nothing. Flash. I winced. The light. There had been a light. Headlights. Cars and crashes, the thing that cars did when they weren’t parked or driving. The voice was speaking of a car crash.
My eyes shot open.
I stared, pupils transfixed to the white panelled ceiling of a hospital hallway. Fluorescents blinded me as they streaked past. Frantic people were running around and rattling off information as they handed me from one group to another.
“Fifteen-year-old female. Blood type B. Was T-boned by another vehicle. Suspecting possible brain hemorrhage—”
I’d been in a car accident! I tried to scream, to shout, yell at someone to tell me what had gone wrong and where we were going. Instead, my head was locked in place, forced to look up in despair. My mouth was agape but noiseless, gagged by a breathing mask.
No! This can’t be real. This can’t be happening! Wake up. Wake up!!!
Doctors and nurses in scrubs and plastic aprons surrounded me. A ring of halogens burned its image into my retinas. The last face I saw was a man’s peering over.
“Hey, Ruta. Don’t worry,” he reassured me with an unnerving smile. “Everything will be alright. You’re in good hands.”
The blackness overtook me, then there was white.
For the first three seconds, I thought this was great. I wasn’t going to be ripped apart by a crazy surgeon in some sort of medical horror. From nightmare to a dream until I realized the sounds I was hearing was the whoosh of wind racing past my earlobes. I was freefalling at 85 km/h and wasn’t sure where the ground was. Everything was blinding white.
Thus, I did the sane thing I do in every dream where I’m falling at terminal velocity, I outstretched my arms and started flapping like a maddened chicken. As if that would stop me from going to splat into the floor below. I could see it, getting closer and closer.
Sometimes flapping worked, but not tonight. My brain was committed to making me suffer. Trying to fly didn’t work. I instead flailed for a handhold, but there was nothing next to me other than the white and grey of some kind of building whipping by. Only sensible thing I could do was scream, and maybe if I was lucky, someone in the house would hear me cry out and shake me awake before I became my own personal person pancake.
I could start making out details, of a few people milling about below on what was perhaps a half-circle platform, but it was obscured by some sort of blur laid over it. No way did I want to see how this played out, and scrunched my eyes shut.
My howl caught in my throat. I had been snagged in something, maybe a net. Before I could open my eyes and figure out what happened, the sinking sensation increased, followed by a mighty tear. And my curses. My imagination wasn’t going to be nice to me.
Then with an unceremonious smack, I landed straight onto a giant gym mat.
“Ugh…” My voice escaped me in a swollen moan.
These were the type of screwball nightmares that would give me the willies for weeks. Jessica and Christine always said I had the strangest ones they’ve ever heard of.
I flicked my wrists upwards. “Tada…!” I survived splatting onto the floor. Ten points. Give me gold. “Stupid, frickin’, messed up, pieces of—”
“Shoot! Did you just fall all the way from up there?”
I had been face planting the fluffy gym mat for the better part of a minute, not daring to look up. This wasn’t my first rodeo. The moment I became visually aware of my nightmare was when it turned sinister. While the voice of the teenage girl didn’t sound threatening, the mat I was snuggling with was safe, warm, and probably not going to turn into a pit of spikes. I remained lying there.
“What do you think?” I mumbled through the mat.
“I think you interrupted our practice, and we only have a limited amount of time tonight before the Shakespeare reenactors need to use the stage,” snarled the same voice, but with a tiny difference in her accent.
“Base jumping without a parachute… Geez, some Rutas are nuts.”
“Tell me about it. Can you, like, move?”
Several voices overlapped, and they all sounded similar. Too similar. Curiosity got the best of me and I lifted my head.
Send in the clowns. Somehow this nightmare kept getting worse! There were two clowns in their full terror regalia, and four other girls in the tight sparkly neon outfits of Cirque du Soleil, leering at my prone form splayed out across the mat. Two of them were holding hula-hoops, one a pair of clubs, and the last one was carrying a flaming torch.
I shifted to a crouched position, eyes darting for an escape path. This situation could go south any second.
One of the clowns bent over, scarlet squeaky nose next to mine, and asked, “Hey, you okay? The fall didn’t daze you, did it?”
My eyes caught her irises, the identical hazel colour as mine. Coincidence? They sounded the same, and as I looked from face to face of each of the performers, a shudder reverberated through me. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it due to the makeup. My instincts told me that the likeness was uncanny—like that of my own.
“Earth to… Wait, where’s your name tag?” The clown made me aware of the other thing they all had in common. Across their hearts was a name tag, each with a number and maybe a name, but who called themselves Chuckles? Their attention became intense, as they edged closer, each leaning in to get a good look at the nothing pinned to my t-shirt. I had just fallen from the sky—quick glance up, and I swear I could see a ceiling—and landed in the middle of circus practice, and these six thought my lack of an identifier was the queerest thing in existence.
I was backing away on my heels, ready to bolt for it. One thing wasn’t like the other, and I had been singled out as weird.
“What name tag?” I asked.
Even creepier, they blinked in unison.
“You don’t know?” The juggler with the moniker of Toss emblazoned on her breast tilted her head, face full of skepticism.
Great, now the nightmare was twisting into riddles.
“No, of course not.” The entire dream sequence was stupid. How are lighthouses, surgical horrors, and this related, I had no idea.
Whatever I said shut them up, because they looked dumbfound and about as confused looking as I felt. After a moment, the revelation passed from one of their lips. “I think she’s new.”
“Does that mean she’s over 85000?”
“Is that why she dropped in from the ceiling?”
Then the line I didn’t want to hear was spoken. “We need to take her to Central.”
So much nope! No way in heck was anyone taking me anywhere, especially to whatever brainwashing authority that turned people into clowns. Screw it.
“Hey! Get back here!”
I should have looked where I was going. My body went cascading over the stage’s edge and straight into a bush behind it. There were twigs jabbing into my legs, and leaves in my hair, and a palpable terror beating in my ears. Someone shouted, the world around me got louder, and the bush was the dumbest hiding place ever.
I popped up from the bush, laser focused on an escape plan. In my periphery there was white and movement, ahead of me were several glass elevators. The longer I stayed there, the higher the chance that I would be captured. I legged it like a madwoman, dashing across shiny white marble floors with one clear goal in mind. Elevator! Elevator! Elevator!
A girl left, and I barrelled inside. My panicked mind hovered over the metal panel, eyes searching in desperation for ‘Door Close’ and a sensible floor to go to. Buttons, so many buttons. They went from 30 down to -30.
A surge of teenagers converged towards my elevator.
Running on adrenaline and no common sense, I punched -30.
“Move!” The two seconds it took for the elevator to compute my command and shut the door was an eternity. Fists beat on the outside glass, but I was safe. “Thank goodness…”
But, because I was an idiot, I realized I’d made a mistake. The elevator was telling those above where I was going.
I sighed, wishing I was an action hero with the strategic thought of a chess champion powered by coffee. Time for a Plan B. I swiped floors -25 through -29, lighting up an entire row of floors. There! See if the clowns could find me easy now.
The world around my pod became dark, concrete floor divides separated the lit hallways of each floor as I descended. It continued on without interruption until -25. The doors opened, no one was there, it closed and carried on. Deeper, downward, into what, I had no clue. As -30 flashed on the display above, I tensed, wondering if I had made the wrong decision. In reality, staying on the ground level was the smart thing to do. It meant I could escape into the wider world. In a dream, nothing was logical, but still being in the darkest of basements was a bad idea.
The elevator doors opened to reveal what I expected.
“I’m such an idiot.”
The one flickering fluorescent light agreed. A long stretch of hallway greeted me, with its hissing utility pipes and blackness that had no end. I jumped at the sound of the elevator doors sliding shut as it ascended into a world of light, abandoning me in one of the creepiest places I had ever dreamt of. My overactive imagination constructed horrors that were not there, of giant spiders, and haunted armour, and flesh-eating zombies. In actuality, nothing moved in the shadows. The only animated object was myself, and the lightbulb above winking suggestively.
There was a rattling noise. I looked down, hoping not to discover a monstrous snake. No, it was my knees clacking against each other. Get it together, girl! All I had to do was put up with this until I woke up. If I ever woke up, my brain reminded me, failing at uplifting my spirits and instead making me fear that I could die in my sleep because of a heart attack. Just run.
Unlike in some dreams where I failed to run fast because for some stupid reason I was wearing sandals, I had my sneakers and jeans that night. Nothing was going to stop me except stamina… and perhaps a ghost. More motivation to run faster.
I streaked helter-skelter down a long stretch of hallway, eyes peeled for anything that would attack me, or a small space to hide. Pipes, panels, conduit cables, and vents flanked the hall, covering the walls. Maybe there would be a break in their surface, but as I ran, whatever may have been obvious flew past.
The first sensation I noticed, which was no longer the fear because I had become numb to it, was the burning choke in my lungs. I couldn’t breathe.
My lungs gave out, and I slowed to a crawl, my nagging conscience noting the oddity. There was a tightening in my chest, the sickening lurch of exhaustion. I could feel the trickle of sweat slicking down my back and the overheating that lead to it. In my entire lifetime, it was a first where I could recall touch while asleep. Or maybe it was something else.
I shook my head. This was a dream, this wasn’t reality. Probably was psyching myself and panicking a little. Yeah, that was it. I was getting worked up by the killer doctors and sinking ships and crazy clowns.
The pause allowed me to have a greater bearing of my surroundings, and the two-foot wide gap between the pipes. A perfect, Ruta-sized hiding spot that I took full advantage of. I slipped inside and shuffled a few meters into the darkness and hopeful safety.
“Stupid nightmare.” My friends were going to ask how much sushi I had the night before, which I could confidently answer, a few. I stared at the metal pipes across the way, reflecting on the California rolls I ate for lunch. Came on those plastic trays with a glob of vibrant green horseradish cosplaying as wasabi and a curl of pickled ginger. Sure, the avocado in the roll was browning a bit, not like one can expect better from a grocery store sushi tray. Can people get wicked, lucid nightmares from imitation crab meat?
“You okay in there?”
“Yeep!” My yelp echoed inside the hollow.
“Sorry. Did I startle you?”
With my body plastered against the piping, one would think it was kind of obvious.
It was hard to make out the features of what I could presume was another teenage girl. While I hadn’t caught sight of much of the upstairs, one thing was consistent: The place was populated by packs of young ladies out to clownify me.
“It’s safe. You can come out.” She outstretched her hand. There was nothing sinister about the hand with the manicured nails, clean and innocuous. “I won’t hurt you,” she reassured. Some part of me felt inclined to believe her.
I followed as she led me out into the hallway with better lighting than the hole I had been cowering in.
“There. Much better,” the young woman quipped. Then she faced me, and the terror returned in a flood.
I had come face to face with me. I mean myself. I mean her? She was me. I was her. Was this a mirror?
“Something wrong?” My fear was palpable to even her.
It was like looking at my own reflection, well, one with bleach blond highlights, a tan, and as I jealously noted, dressed far flashier. Hazel eyes were identical, as well as the rest of her highly made up face, but the clueless expression of rapid eyelash fluttering was not.
“Uhh?” Words were not my forte right then.
The butterfly flapping continued as she homed in on me.
“Oh. My. Gawd. You really are new!” she squealed with glee, hands clasping onto mine. “I thought Giggles was joking. This is amazing!!!” The girl guided me in a wonky dance, spinning me around. After being brought to the point of nausea, she released me from her viselike grasp, I whirling away to a woozy, tilting standstill. I groped at the wall for some semblance of stability. She, however, must have been unbalanced in another way. The girl adopted the pose of a dreamy love-struck teenager, poised in expectant awe.
“I didn’t think I’d get to greet a newbie!”
And I didn’t think I’d have a dream where I was talking to a better-dressed version of myself with air for brains.
“I can’t believe it. Not even a name tag.” She peered at me, eyes dropping to my chest in an unnerving stare that made me contemplate if swatting her chin was appropriate. At the mention, I noticed her own, a bland square with a name and number emblazoned on it. However, what was written on it was strange enough, that I didn’t believe it when I read it.
“Doh. Silly me.” The girl gave a playful tap to her forehead. “I’m Mall Rat!” She outstretched her pretty manicured hand, flashing a gleaming smile. I limply shook it, all the while noting that what was written on her name tag matched what she had said.
“Mall… Rat?” I winced. Below the atrocious nickname was the number 20514. At least she was not an actual rat.
“Yeah, because my special trait is that I love shopping!” she shrilled with a high inflection at the end. “Well, that, and I’m good at navigating and finding amazing deals.” She added a wink. “You would not believe how many Selves get lost here.” Mall Rat finished with a wave, an untamable ball of excitable energy. I encountered myself, and she was a valley girl. Still not a nightmare, quite, but it was weirding me out. “What makes you special?” Mall Rat asked, adopting the look of adorable cluelessness while batting her mascaraed eyelashes. There was not a second where she wasn’t moving something.
It was hard to process what she said amidst the blur of words and inhuman noises that escaped her gabby mouth. My brain chugged to catch up with the rest of the dream. The best response I had was to shrug and say, “Uh, I dunno. I like… to… uh… do stuff.”
“TV, movies, hang out with friends.”
“Can you fly?”
“Ooh! Ooh!” she hooted, face breaking into a manic split as she postulated the most absurd idea yet. “Can you juggle flaming hula-hoops while balancing on a bear’s nose?”
“Uh. No?” Also, what vibe did I give off that would make her jump to such an insane conclusion? I could see my straight dirty blond hair lying across my shoulder, it absent of the fire engine red clown frizz.
“Poop. No one seems to. Bummer.” Mall Rat crossed her arms and sulked. She then got into her ‘serious mode,’ the manic twitching and flailing ceased. “Okay then. For realz. What dimension are you from?” A casual conversation tone, finally, yet I was unsure what role I was supposed to be playing in this surreal narrative.
“Dimension? Is this like from sort of science fiction film or something?” There was a movie where there were a bunch of different characters of the same name in it, hedging a bet that was what she meant. “Then I guess I’m all for the primary one.”
Mall Rat’s eyebrow went high, her disbelieving frown matching. Her eyes bore into my core, freezing me. For someone to go from spastic energy to the stillness of a winter lake, was chilling. I had made a major faux pas, and had no clue what it was.
“Seriously. Which dimension are you from?” The giddiness was turning terse, she had tone, a negative one. Her frigid look further drove the point that whatever expectation she had for me, not only was I not meeting it, I was bordering on offending her.
“The main one,” I countered, going for the logical answer and hopefully the one that would appease her. To me, it made sense. My shopaholic opposite had to be from a parallel dimension where my allowance was three figures, unlike the one where I came from that got twenty bucks a week.
I failed to placate her. Mall Rat’s face took on the qualities of spoiled milk, absolutely curdling.
“Okay, so there is nothing unique, extraordinary, or weird about where you’re from? So you’re Basic? High numbers can’t be Basic. You have to be special. You have to be special!” Her shout ricocheted off the walls.
A silence prevailed, interspersed with the hissing of water pipes. I wasn’t special, so why was she so darn mad about it? Her face smacked of indignation and fury, as if I had been in the wrong for not being the peak of excellence.
“Hey, you doing okay down there?” Two dark forms loomed at the other end of the hall.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Mall Rat replied.
“There are lights.” At the mention, the hall switched from the epitome of nightmares to a utilitarian sci-fi corridor found in the bowels of every large space vessel constructed by movie-making mankind.
The newcomers were another pair of carbon copies, except one was dressed in a working jumper and a hard hat, and the other in overalls and plumber’s cap. This dream was starting to become unsettling, an homage to my inner plethora of what if-isms.
“Thanks, Plumber and Ratchet.”
“No problem.” The two tipped their hats to Mall Rat and carried on, while I gaped, dumbfounded the whole while. So many questions, and no answers for them. Why was I there? What was the deeper meaning behind this Mall Rat girl? Since when could I fix a kitchen sink? Dad blamed me as the source of all our backup problems. Sorry that my hair likes entangling itself in the shower. I glanced sideways at Mall Rat.
“Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about. My name is Ruta. I come from Earth. I’m just an ordinary girl. Basic, boring, normal.” A sound and truthful defence.
“Hmph! Fine. We’ll see what Central has to say about this.” Ultimatum delivered, I was to be judged by another. The one thing this dream/nightmare/whatever wanted was to present me to whomever the entity was.
“Central?” I asked. Mall Rat strode past, heading in the direction the pair of mes came from. “Who’s Central?”
“Come on.” She flagged me over, beckoning me to follow. “You’ll see.” Not that I wanted to.
I traced behind Mall Rat, watching her long highlighted locks sway back and forth. Unlike in a typical nightmare, where I was being taken somewhere unknown and against my will, I was free to move as I pleased. The thought crossed my mind, trickling in as my pace lagged further and further behind hers. All I had to do was turn around and run for it. Just keep going until I escaped into the waking world. Such a simple idea that I stopped, ready to turn heel and sprint away, yet curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to know. Who was Central?
Every turn left me lost, each dim hallway nearly identical to the former. I had no idea where I came from nor where I was going. The one hint I was given was that we were visiting the Central authority, be it witch or The Wizard of Oz. There were no markers, no yellow brick roads to follow. To say the least, I wasn’t in Kansas. We stopped in front of an elevator door. My inner cynic noted that unlike the flatness of Kansas and its grain elevators, nothing got down to negative thirty nor as high as thirty floors above ground as this one did.
Mall Rat ushered me inside the cylindrical tube with its glass panes but no view.
“Got to take you to the main floor.” No sinister insinuations were made. As the number changed and the elevator rose, my stomach went with it. There were a multitude of bad things that could appear upon arrival. Still, there was a mystery to be discovered, a potential inner truth to be revealed by my dreaming subconscious. So as long as I was not suffering, I was okay.
A final bing warned me that there was nowhere to run. The door opened to reveal the thing I had fled from earlier, except, that time I was in the mindset to observe it in its entirety. The first thing to hit me was noise, the innocent burbling chatter of girls. I gaped at Mall Rat, feeling cheated. I was expecting the terrifying splendour of a massacre of zombies, instead there were the sights and sounds of bustling daily activity, of people milling around. Casual and calm, but no landing sight. In a place with sixty-one floors, it would make sense that there were elevators dispersed throughout.
“Come on. I know you want to look around, but we can do it later when we have time.” Mall Rat grabbed hold of my gob-smacked self transfixed by the view of a broad hallway with its huge windows and little gardens interspersed along its length. I could come back and smell the roses later, after I was done talking to the mythical Central.
Focusing on the architecture was a challenge when I had a bunch of mes to admire as we walked. There were taller mes, shorter mes, mes with better hair, and mes who just did not care. Most of them were going about whatever business they had, a few would slow down and stare, looking at my chest and the lack of a name tag.
A near-identical clone of myself went by. On her name tag there was an empty space for a nickname, below was a number, 08105. Another variant of myself went on her merry way, whistling a tune. Unlike the one before, she did have a nickname, Robin. Her number was 18744. The girl glaring at me, that had no name, was 38772.
“Hey, Mall Rat?” Saying her nickname made me cringe. “Why do some of them have nicknames and others don’t? What’s up with the numbers?”
Mall Rat slowed down, joining me by my side. In a hush, she whispered, “Wait, do you really not know?”
I gave a broad shake of my head, shoulders shrugging for added emphasis. Easier to play naïve rather than assert I knew anything in front of her.
“Woah… maybe that’s your special trait. You’re dumb.”
Maybe she was called Mall Rat because she had the mannerisms of a scraggly rodent that thrived on trash. The insult stung. Last thing I needed was prettier me mocking me to my face. I buried my rising anger before I chewed her out for being a jerk. She did not make a lick of effort to save face.
“It’s probably not the worst name any Self has. I mean, like not the best, but hey, if the name fits, wear it.” She tapped her name tag for emphasis and carried on leading. She did advertise herself as Mall Rat, after all, not that I thought it was something to be proud of.
The light was getting brighter, the noises louder. The crowds of my clones densified. Maybe we were getting closer to the hub of activity, but I couldn’t tell. After a good five minutes of solid walking, we came upon the open atrium.
I stopped to gawk. The space was massive, a football stadium in diameter with a height of a thirty or so stories with connected balconies encircling the central area, rising narrower and narrower until it vanished into a bleak blur above. I wavered from the pathway, walking towards the open circle with the giant stage at its centre that I had unceremoniously fallen on. Rows upon rows of perfect alabaster amphitheatre seating were facing it and the gardens that composed its backdrop. To think my sleeping mind could create such sights astounded me. Couldn’t draw to save my life, yet the scope of the building’s interior with its grand gardens and pathways left me in gape-mouthed awe. Wow, brain. You’ve done good for once.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Mall Rat had noticed my dumbstruck wonderment, voice murmuring in my ear. Her smile was sweet and kind, supportive of my blind admiration for the place and its mammoth scope.
“Some Selves really like the Citadel and look forward to visiting it when they sleep. Some others think it looks soulless. I like spending my time here, navigating all the floors and rooms. There’s thousands. Most Selves stick to the hub, though.”
I gazed back at her, wordless, then cast my eyes around the expanse. Hordes of girls were everywhere. Interspersing the bleached facades were fountains and parks with greenery. A waterfall cascaded from a higher floor to a pool close to the stage, splashing ceaselessly in a soothing rhythm. The rooms nearest to the hub had broad windows, some floor-to-ceiling, with copies of myself arranging flowers or drinking tea. There were several groups sitting in the stands, chatting idly, laughing, making conversation. It looked like an elite school for the super wealthy mixed with the practical discomforts of a prison, except instead of everyone wearing the same uniform, everyone wore the same face.
On the stage was a troupe of more talented mes, practising for a performance. The moustache on the one holding the flower was clearly fake, it hanging across her lip, giving her a dopey smile. It was a wonder how her lady love could keep a straight face in front of such a silly suitor. True actors knew how to play along. She took the flower and did a graceful curtsy, a feat I’d also be unable to accomplish without stumbling onto my butt. Why was my brain showing me this? We were studying Shakespeare in English class. That must be it! Still, it looked like they were having fun, at ease in their roles.
“I’d come here every night, if I could.” In spite of the creep factor. Alternatives included the aforementioned medical drama. Mall Rat beamed at my remark.
“Not a bad time to start! C’mon.” She tugged, leading me to meet this Central person, which I was beginning to suspect was another copy of myself.
We navigated to one of the major spokes connected to the atrium. Not far from its entrance was a massive door, tall, arched, and carved with a pictogram of some kind of diamond-shaped space city.
Tap, tt-tap tap, tap tap! Mall Rat rapped at the door in a knock that was identical to my own.
The huge doors swung inward, revealing darkness and a melancholic cobalt glow, looking the ante of inviting. I backed away from the threshold.
“You know what, I’m good. I’m going to stay out here.”
Mall Rat prodded her hand into my back.
“Seriously, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Not like Central is going to bite or anything. Well, unless Bite is also here. But it’s also just a name, she doesn’t actually bite.”
I stared at her, mouth agape, baffled by her utter obliviousness. If she was me, then did she not fear what I also did? Then again, if this was a dream, then what was I worrying about? Might as well get it over with.
“Whatever,” I grumbled. “I’ll go.”
I prayed for my sanity against whatever terrors I might encounter in the dark.