When did Betsy realize that I didn’t remember? Why did she tell me they died in a car accident? Why didn’t she tell me the truth? Did she think it was better that I had forgotten?
* * *
When the mists parted, Lily and Mina were in a hospital room. A figure lay on the bed, wrapped in bandages. The checkered linoleum floor of the room tickled Lily’s memory, but she couldn’t say why.
Mina sighed. “Six months, thirteen days, and seven hours,” she said.
“That’s how long you’ve been in the hospital?” Lily asked. Again, Lily sensed that the words she heard herself say were not the ones her lips were forming.
“I think so,” Mina responded in the same manner. “I’m pretty sure I’m not dead, although this is close to what I’d imagine hell is like. But I think I remember being pulled out of the building, being in the ambulance.”
“You can’t wake up?”
“One nightmare ends, I show up here until the next begins. After a while I realized that I was dreaming, and tried to escape, but that’s when the monsters come. I’ve learned a few tricks, like how to use the mists, but one way or another I always come back here. It’s no more than I deserve.” Mina sat in a chair next to her own body.
“You’re in a coma,” Lily said.
“Yep. At least you’re here to keep me company this time. For a while I wasn’t sure what you were, but I can tell now you’re like me. Don’t worry, sooner or later you’ll get killed, disappear, and probably wake up in bed. That’s what seems to happen to everyone else.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works for me,” Lily said. “I’m sorry about what happened to you, but I’d better leave; there’s someone I have to find.” She turned away from the unsettling figure on the bed.
“Go right ahead,” Mina said. “If you can find a door, you’re welcome to use it.”
Lily looked; there was no exit. She was trapped.
* * *
I was trapped. Time passed. No dreamers would come here to free me; this was my own prison. I would starve in this dead end, this open coffin, under the gruesome sky. I’d never have a chance to talk to my sister about what I’d seen.
I could see this world’s stationary moon from where I was. Framed by the four walls, it reminded me of a cue ball on red baize. I’d never liked red on a pool table; I preferred the traditional green. Hector, why didn’t I listen to you when you tried to warn me?
Then, something clicked in my head; I remembered other words that Hector had spoken. “Did you know that when people see themselves as being stuck, they’re almost always facing a real choice instead? It’s when they’re rolling down a road with no exits that they think everything’s fine. Funny thing, people.”
Funny thing, I thought. If Captain Forrest was right, this dream world didn’t approve of choices; those who wanted things and chose to pursue them were frustrated – or destroyed – because desire was inseparable from fear, and this world fed on fear. Every time I had manipulated the dream, I had done it unintentionally, like the broomstick, or used a dreamer to do it for me.
But what if I wasn’t afraid?
I had seen the truth, and it was terrible. I had run from it, avoided the messages of my dreams until the truth pursued me into the waking world. I knew now why I couldn’t sleep. It was terrible. But it was also the past.
I finally reached the place where Lily had tried to help me get. There was a lot yet to do, a lot of talking, a lot of thinking. But I was ready to stop being frightened about what I had already survived. No – I chose to stop being frightened.
In that instant, the sky began to fall.
* * *
It felt as if everything in the room had jumped three feet to the right, and landed in exactly the same place.
“What was that?” Lily asked.
Mina shrugged. “No idea. It’s never ha...ah...” She broke off, and stretched her mouth wide as if she were gasping for breath.
Then Lily felt it in her eardrums, a sudden pressure. She pinched her nose and tried to compensate, but the pressure was building too quickly. She couldn’t exhale; her lungs felt like overfilled balloons. She clawed at her throat.
* * *
The walls imprisoning me folded away to the sides, as the ground and sky slammed together, flattening everything between them. There was a flash of an infinitely blue pigment, deeper than anything I’d ever seen and briefer than a blink. I was stretched out like a canvas, and I was aware of other people layered on top of me. I realized that I had never been alone, that there were thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of dreamers in exactly the same place, in that same dead end. As the universe compressed in my vision to a single bright line, I could see them all.
One in particular. I reached out for it.
* * *
Black spots were flickering before her eyes. Lily clutched at the corner of the bed to stop herself from falling, but it kept slipping away from her grip.
A great echoing, ripping, noise filled the room, and the pressure exploded away, as if they had been in a balloon pricked by a knife. She gasped as the air rushed from her lungs. A wind tore through the room from unseen directions and left the same way.
And there was Matt, catching her as she fell.
* * *
I had reached out without thinking when I saw Lily in that thin slice of reality. As soon as I touched the bright line, everything sprang back into three dimensions, and I was there, seeing her crumpling slowly to the floor.
Lily looked up at me and smiled, as I lowered her to sit against the foot of the hospital bed. I understood immediately, even before she spoke. The buzzing sensation when I touched her was unmistakable.
“I’m glad you’ve arrived on time for our session,” Lily said.
I don’t know what I had been expecting, but I still felt a fist around my heart. Lily was dreaming, of course.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 15.1]