The Schoolhouse and the Cave
Lily closed her eyes as the needle slid into her vein. Harte had dimmed the lights in the lab to help her ease into sleep Over and over again, Lily told herself that she had to be the one to do this; she didn’t sound convincing.
How long did she have before the drug started to take effect? Her pulse rate was up, she thought; that was probably just normal anxiety. Most of the Stage One patients had reported that Visulex had a calming, euphoric effect, so it couldn’t be happening yet, right?
She remembered her first session with Matthew, when he asked whether she’d ever tried Visulex. She didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to tell him that she had backed out of the opportunity to try it before the study began. There had been too much to do, that was all, and she would be the one who had to do it if Gloria, Hector and David were off tripping. Besides, she didn’t do drugs; she rarely even drank alcohol.
She wasn’t ready yet, that was all there was to it. She’d tell Harte to reverse the process, give her the anti-nootropic now. They had to wait until they had more time to plan, and she had time to think this through more clearly. Harte’s ideas about how to find Matthew boiled down to little more than thinking hard about him and hoping.
A sudden panic gripped her. Was she drifting off already? Reviewing the events of the day was a pre-cursor to the dream state. Was her racing heart speeding the progress of the drug? She tried to take stock of each part of her body, testing if anything felt odd or numb. Were her toes tingling, or was her foot just falling asleep? Oh God, what if her foot crossed over before the rest of her?
She labored to breathe, but felt like she had metal bands strapped around her chest. It could be an adverse interaction with her allergy meds. What was she taking now? Over the years, she had had so many prescriptions; but she should know what her current one was. Fexofenadine, maybe. No, that was an older one... Would there be allergens in the dream world, she wondered? Maybe there would be pharmacies... dream pharmacies. Would they sell sleeping pills in a dream pharmacy?
The examination chair pitched forward like a roller coaster car cresting a hill, and she gave a little whoop of exhilaration as she clutched the hand rests in surprise. Like Space Mountain, she thought. Hypnagogia, here we come. Her whole body began to vibrate; the chair twisted through strange directions just as someone barked a word with no meaning into her left ear at the top of his lungs.
Lily opened her eyes. The lab was darker, though Harte himself seemed to shine in the darkness, trailing afterimages as he moved around the room. She stood up, but even when she was on her feet she could still feel the leather of the examination chair pressing against her back. Harte was no more than a smear of color now, spreading out to nothingness as he moved. Then the only color was black.
The same part of her that still felt like it was in the chair experienced another surge of panic, but it didn’t seem to reach the rest of her. She peered into the darkness, and as she did, shapes began to emerge. A swing set, a sandbox. She turned, and saw a little red schoolhouse behind her. The white door of the schoolhouse was inviting, and as she approached, the bell in the tiny cupola on the peaked roof began to ring.
A flood of children rushed past her, crowding through the entrance. Three stragglers brought up the rear; two larger kids were chasing the third, a scrawny kid in a rather embarrassing shorts and button-down shirt ensemble.
“Where ya going, ya little queer?” one of the bullies shouted. “Gonna go give your boyfriend a kiss?”
She had never had much patience for that kind of thing, especially back when she was a skinny kid herself. She waited until the three were passing, then stuck out her foot. Mature? No. But satisfying. The biggest kid went flying face first into a mud puddle, which hadn’t been there a moment ago.
The pursuit froze into a tableau, and both pursued and pursuer turned toward her. She broke the silence. “Get lost, you two. Unless you want to try picking on someone my size – you want to get the snot beaten out of you by a girl?” She grinned, showing as many teeth as she could.
Without any warning, between one moment and the next, the bullies were just gone. Where the nerdy kid had been was now standing a pudgy, middle-aged man. “Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” Lily replied. “Hey, have you seen a guy named Matt around here, about so tall...?” He seemed about to reply, but faded away before he could answer. The schoolyard faded with him, and Lily was somewhere else.
* * *
She stepped out of the darkness. Walls of rough stone curved over her; the air was rank with sweat and filth. A dying fire at one end of the cave threw off sepia sparks, washing out all other color. Three old women crouched behind the embers.
“So, you come to us wanting,” the middle one said, her shadow looming on the wall behind. “Wanting and wrathful.”
“I’m looking for someone,” Lily said. “Medium height, sort of thin, spiky brown hair?”
“Wanting is dangerous, daughter,” said the one on the left.
“Wrath will turn upon you,” said the one on the right.
“I’m not your daughter, and if you want to see wrath, keep ignoring my questions. Have you seen him? His name’s Matthew.”
“Unwise, to decide on a destination without considering the path,” said the one on the right.
“Unwise, to walk the path without knowing the destination,” said the one on the left.
Unwise, to be wasting time with the B-cast of Macbeth, she thought. She turned to leave, but found that there was no exit...the cave was just a bubble of air in the rock.
“Let me out of here,” Lily said. “Now.”
“The only way out is in, daughter.” The one in the middle pointed to the sparking firepit. “You must lose what you seek to find what you have.”
Lily stalked closer. “If you want to befuddle someone into performing a pseudo-ritual immolation as a method of achieving personal enlightenment, pick someone without a psychology degree.”
The middle one met her gaze steadily, the crone’s finger still pointing to the fire before Lily’s feet. Lily broke first, and looked down.
And then she saw it. The burning embers rested on a metal grate; a wide hole lay below. Singeing her fingers, she pried up the grate, scattering coals across the floor of the cave. The hags grinned as she climbed down.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 8.3]