Lily heard a sob from somewhere below her, and, looking down, saw another hiker clinging to the ground, prone, just a few feet below her. I’m trapped in a nightmare, Lily realized. The woman below, all of the ones in trouble, they must be the ones sleeping and dreaming. And the hikers who aren’t affected are just making it worse.
“Whoops, miss a step?” came a mocking voice. “How’d you trip on your shoelaces when you’re wearing sandals?”
“Piss off,” she said absently. There had to be rules to this place. She had studied dream interpretation, she just needed to apply that to what she was seeing. So, metaphor. I’m on a path, and it’s getting steeper. And colder. I can’t feel my fingers.
Focus, focus. A path. A beginning, an end, at first you have choices but they all look the same. It keeps getting harder, and some people have it so much easier than you do, and make it seem like the problem is you. Then you find that you have no choices at all, but you can’t go forward, and you can’t go back.
What is that? It seemed familiar, like something from childhood...then she had it. A dead-end job, a failed career. And Lily knew why she was there.
Lily’s father had been a successful attorney at a firm in San Jose. He was all the clichés: a solid provider, a good father, a loving husband. But as Lily grew older she realized that some part of him was miserable and always had been. He had gone to law school straight out of college; his first real job was at his first firm. The impressive starting salary led to financial commitments and lifestyle improvements that required that his income continue at that level. And the rewards were substantial: a very nice home; her mother being able to pursue volunteer activities rather than a second income; private school for his daughter.
The only problem was that her dad had realized too late that he hated the law. Had he figured it out when he was younger, he could have switched careers without a severe pay cut; but as a junior partner at his firm, the barriers to changing jobs were just too daunting. So he found himself under constant pressure to build a book of business he did not want, so that he could rise to a more senior position that he did not care about. And when he finally succeeded and became a full partner, the demands only increased.
Lily and her mother hadn’t seen the breakdown coming. Her father simply shattered. One day he was a person trusted with settlements and court cases worth millions; the next, he couldn’t find his way downstairs to the kitchen without help. The confusion and terror of those first days, when none of the three of them really understood what had happened, eventually transformed over the weeks and months of constant care into pity, layered thickly over an underlying horror at his condition.
Lily loved her father. She was angry at her mother and herself for their passive role in keeping him in that job, and she hated herself for wanting to be nowhere near him. And she was afraid of what might happen if she followed the same path.
Her grip was beginning to weaken. Leaving the path. If she was going to do it, it had to be now.
Lily looked to her left, toward the edge of the path. She thought there was a foothold on a rock about a foot over and six inches up, and she sought for it with her left toe. Then, bracing herself, she let go with her left hand, flexed her aching fingers and tried to breathe warmth back into them. Her fingers tingled and stung, but she reached her left hand out, and dug her fingers as deeply into the gravelly stone of the path as she could. She swung her right foot over to the spot her left had just occupied, then breathed on her right hand and flexed those fingers...
Slowly, Lily inched her way across the path, dodging the feet of the nightmare hikers, quickly snatching her fingers out of the way before some alpha power walker stepped on them.
At last, her hand touched a patch of scrub grass, and the world instantly righted itself. With a lurch, she rolled the rest of her body off of the path. She lay on her back and squinted at the bright sun overhead. Tall golden stalks waved in the summer air, and she drank in the light and the warmth of the meadow for a long moment.
“Aaah...oh God, no...,” came a frantic voice from the path.
Lily stood up, and saw the dreaming woman who had been below her before still face down, clinging to the track. She had lost her grip with one hand, and was swaying back and forth.
Lily walked alongside the dreamer and said to her, “You need to get off...jump to the side if you can!” But the woman either couldn’t hear her, or was too terrified to let go with her other hand.
Then one of the dreamer’s feet slipped, and the other followed; she was hanging on only by the fingertips of one hand. The dreamer howled for help.
“Finish line’s just around the corner!” said a hiker, striding by with a broad grin.
“Hold on! Just hold on!” said Lily. She didn’t know what would happen if the dreamer fell, but she couldn’t let it happen right in front of her. She knelt down at the edge of the path, and said, “Swing your other hand over to me!”
But the dreaming woman continued to ignore her, straining to hold on with one hand. Then, in a final effort to regain a toehold, the woman attempted to haul her whole body up with just her fingers. For a moment, her arm bent, she sought for another handhold,and then she lost her grip.
With a scream, the dreamer fell. To Lily, it looked as if she were being yanked backward by her feet along the path. Lily threw herself flat, and managed to grab the dreamer’s outstretched arm with her own aching fingers.
Lily nearly let go when they made physical contact. The dreamer’s hand seemed at once to be insubstantial and at the same time yanking down on Lily’s arm with the entire weight of a full-grown woman. More than that; the woman was tall, and had the muscles of a bodybuilder. But Lily braced herself, and heaved backward. The weight disappeared as the dreaming woman cleared the edge of the path, and they both sprawled in the tall grass.
Lily massaged the hand she had used to rescue the dreamer. Touching the woman had set off a host of indescribable sensations in her cramped, frozen fingers.
The woman was sitting up and looking around in confusion. “Are you all right?” Lily asked.
The dreamer’s head turned this way and that, until she finally fixed Lily with a glassy stare.
“Now you’ve done it,” the dreaming woman said.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.1]