Thirty beds pressed against the walls, along with chairs and tomorrow’s clothes. The clothes were identical and rarely matched the child’s particular size. Near the door, where the air flowed best, sat the care-lady with an old book. It was a love story which she had read many times before. It rustled when she flipped a page.
Soft moans of sleeping children carried from time to time. Along with smells of soft breath and soiled sheets. The lady lifted her sharp eyes and caught a movement of muscle and fluttering lids.
They were dreaming. Not all good dreams. It was not a happy sort of place. There was little laughter during the day and even less so at night. But it was enough to care for basics and teach essential lessons until the time came to join the workforce.
The furthest bed was the largest. A brother and sister were fast asleep and moments from sealing their childhood by turning ten.
The boy fell asleep anxious again. Stories of factory accidents weighed hard on his head, especially the one about his father. His twin sister was braver and mastered her feelings despite being younger than her twin by a few moments. She woke herself after an unusual dream precisely when she switched ages.
No longer nine, her ten-year-old eyes fluttered as consciousness flowed into her like water soaking a sponge.
She was a master of dreams and stopped one at will. She weaved her nightly ventures like a seamstress. Creating realms and doing as she pleased. Mastering things she couldn’t master in her dull waking world.
In her dreams, she flew and rested in the warm daylight or ate a mound of lily fruit pie with a side of crescent puffs, such as she had only seen once in the market on a rare class outing. She never tasted the delicacy, but it was sweet and soft like spring clouds in her dreams.
Those were good dreams, but at other times they weren’t. They would weave her like she was their yarn.
At these times, she would gain her autonomy by choosing to die and wake up.
The girl decided to die at that particular moment.
She snapped awake with a sliver of sweat and a beating heart. She blinked away a tear and forgot the dream immediately, which was uncommon. She hated to forget her dreams, even the bad ones.
They were vivid and alive one moment. The next, they thinned into a trail of smoke. Gone. Only the feeling remained—a sense of loss and helplessness.
The starlight painted her bed a stark white. The girl flexed her hand with the red thread around the wrist. The shadow was crisp—swirling liquid shapes slinked and curled into one another, like drops of oil in the courtroom puddles.
It was unusual, but the girl had seen the shapes before. She caught glimpses of it when the shadow was of solid quality. And the vision disturbed her. She asked a teacher about it once, but he said she was making things up and gave her cleaning chores for the rest of that day. She learned not to ask again.
But was her shadow misbehaving? It looked alive and full of something. What something?
Her education was basic, and as hungry as she was for knowledge, this went beyond her red bracelet. Tomorrow she and her brother would receive a black thread to adorn their wrist. They would be rendered into new adults. Perhaps the thread would bring along wisdom.
The girl’s fingers tingled as the long shadows came to meet her mid-way.
She closed the gap between linen and fingertip.
The gap switched around, making room for something else.
Her fingers went right through and into a hole shaped tightly around her hand. Her fingers tingled like the mattress contained ice water.
She yanked out her hand in a gasp staring at her fingers to make sure they were still there.
The girl’s brother was oblivious to it all, but the care-lady noticed the movements. She placed her book aside and squinted, seeing the girl as well as her fretting heart. The girl held her breath as the care-lady glared with an unspoken threat.
Even from a great distance, the two saw each other clearly. Their eyes pierced through flesh right to the quivering organs. But the care-lady didn’t notice the girl’s hand submerged in the mattress. She was a moment too late for that.
Just a dream fright, the lady thought. Sometimes a gentle stroke would calm down the little ones. But this girl was not little. Tomorrow she and her brother would join the factory workforce, and it would serve them to learn how to soothe themselves.
And anyway, The care-lady suffered from aching veins in her shins. They had been bothering her more than usual lately, and the child’s bed was the furthest.
The girl turned the other way. Her heart pumped blood so loud she thought it would wake her brother. It didn’t, so she nudged him, and he snapped awake with a start.
“Can you see my shadow?” she asked him as soon as his lids unlocked.
He couldn’t understand her at first, and it took a few more variations of the same question to clear the mist off his mind.
His pupils rippled like flower petals until they settled down when he understood her question.
Her shadow looked odd; he told her so.
The girl demonstrated the shadow trick to her awestruck sibling, cutting through the sheet into a perfectly snug hole.
“How can you do that?” the boy asked
“I don’t know,” she admitted
“Settle down back there,” The care-lady whisper-shouted. “or you’ll be sleeping in the darkroom.”
Usually, she needed to say no more. But the siblings were captivated by what the shadow demonstrated.
The mattress sagged. The girl uttered a small cry when gravity tipped her into a sinking hole that soaked the linen with expanding darkness. She was slipping into it.
Other children were beginning to stir.
The care-lady slammed her book on the chair and made her way over in a slight limp, her leather shoes squeaking on the floor.
Darkness spread around the girl who grappled with the sheets. Her hand seized something soft. Instinct wouldn’t let it go, so the hole made room for more.
The air pressed. A narrow place caught the two like a carnivorous plant.
Their bones and muscles pressed together so tight their insides ached to the point of anguish. But just when they could take the pain no more, they released in a wrenching pop, carrying on the fall into darkness stained by brilliant colors.
The girl braced her body for an impact that didn’t come.
Where was the room? Why was the floor so far?
Her eyes blinked. Eternity expanded with stardust and fracturing galaxies. The girl and her brother no longer had bodies. They were a swarm of particles. Silver flecks as fine as sand grains. The girl touched the particles, but touching was impossible without hands. She swirled right inside herself.
“Is this magic?” her brother asked with a vacant voice.
“It must be a dream,” she said and didn’t feel her lips move at all.
There was a playful quality to the predicament. But there was also danger, and the easily frightened boy grew anxious. He fought to regain control of his spreading body, expanding and stretching—space filled his gaps.
The girl called for her brother. But he was carried away and apart from himself by a current that conspired to pull him apart.
She fought to reach for him, nearly touching, but, much like catching grains of sand, she grabbed hold of little. In her panic, she lurched forward like a beast made of air and noticed something important.
A tendril bounded the particles. It held the girl’s brother together like silky glue, as fine as the thread around his wrist. The girl nearly missed it, but it was there. Delicate, taut, and about to snap.
The girl pulled the tendril just as a force twinkled her attention—a way out or a way back home.
She held on to what she could of her brother.
He, in turn, clung to her like a drowning victim, managing to get a grip on his new fluid consistency, exhaling a non-existent breath of relief. They drifted towards the opening.
The care-lady would punish them for this. The girl felt a mix of solace tainted by guilt for saving her brother only to get him in trouble. In her fall, she must have incited a racket. Maybe she woke up a few of the younger ones. They could be crying right at that moment. Punishment by care-ladies meant going to a terrible empty place where the walls were too thick to see through and light never visited. Time was eternal in the darkroom.
Thoughts of punishment and darkness made the girl lose grip.
The opening yanked her like a magnet, accepting her and her alone in a gulp. The grasp on her brother severed.
And the girl slid into a tight space once again.
Breathing was impossible but unnecessary.
The tight space held her body captive for a few moments before letting go. The girl landed on her bed. She was back in the care-house.
No one cried.
It was silent and still.
Her brother was gone.
The girl called her sibling’s name. A hollow echo answered back. She turned in place, twisting in bed sheets that glowed white. The light bent funny, and the air pressure wasn’t right.
This looked like home and wasn’t – she knew.
Gradually came a change.
Subtle at first.
Windows dimmed like a cloud hid all the stars. Glass panels vanished into pale rectangles against a cloak of fake sky. The beds shook, shuttering their springs.
An earthquake? The mattress tilted, and the girl tumbled off onto the floor, watching beds, linen, and blankets elevating like they were made of mist. She dug her fingers in her palms, wanting to feel pain. To know this was real. But she didn’t feel pain; she felt something else. When she opened her palm, her brother’s red thread was there—ripped at a seam.
Her hand cast a shadow. But it was as solid as a closed door. She forced her mind to make it into a portal once again. Nothing happened.
This isn’t real – just a dream, she thought. Hoping her conviction would wake her.
Sound and light and air mimicked the real thing. She was the only thing alive in the world.
If she could only die and stir herself awake, she would.
Suddenly she was falling, plunging back into the tightness of an invisible tunnel.
Falling again, again, again.
Falling forever. Diluting her particles into something lesser and lesser than herself.
Then a glimmering magnet would pull her only to spit her into that strange dreamy place that she didn’t believe was real.
Like plunging through layers of ice sheets, delicate as fabric. An endless amount of them. And every time she landed back after the plunge in the void, the space grew stranger, Shattering and building impossible landscapes only to drop her into a painful hole again.
Her body grew weak. She fought the currents that took her brother. Her strength centered around holding on to his bracelet and nothing more. If she lost the thread, she would allow the power of the void to pull her apart.
Her body trembled with weak muscles that barely had the strength to clutch her fist tight.
“This isn’t real,” The girl thought,
“It is, and it isn’t,” a voice replied.
Startled, the girl looked up, straining her powerful eyes into a wall of milky mist.
A tall stain of a man rippled the white curtain.
The girl stood up at once. The mist swirled as a man – a massive mountain of a man, stepped through. He held the hand of a young boy.
Was that her dead father? Had he found her brother? It made sense. And it meant she was dead.
The girl’s muscles snatched into standing, she broke into a run, heading for her family. Both happy and horrified. She found her legs didn’t yield to the commands of her mind; she fell.
Frozen, she shuddered as the mist rolled in a lazy sway until it revealed the two figures for what they were.
Not her brother.
Not her father.
The boy was much too small and frail to be her sibling. His eyes were beady things, poking her with their gaze; his hair was frazzled and oily.
“Hello,” the man said. His voice was guttural, like a grating stone. His clothes had peculiar straight lines, the color of unnatural dark blue. The boy, who clutched his hand, wore something similar. The odd pair looked curious and rigid.
The girl sniffed. The terror suffocated, rendering her speechless.
“Don’t be scared,” the man said when he was close enough to be seen, really seen, deeply seen. He was wide chested, with bloodshot eyes and thinning hair. The vessels of his heart were calcified, and his lungs were bloated by ailment. He was as old as her father would have been, maybe older, and his eyes were as murky as that of his boy. It was his boy.
“Murky?” The tall man said with a smirk as if he read her thoughts.
The girl didn’t know what to say, so she closed her mind.
“Do you know where you are?” The man said.
The girl shook her head.
“Have you been here before?”
A nod.Yes. Many times. I can’t leave, she thought. I’m trapped.
“Not trapped. You are gifted.”
She didn’t understand.
“This is the echo,” he said and spread his arms. “Most people don’t get here as you did.”
The wet puddles on the earth dried up. Buds of vegetation dotted the ground. In moments they sprouted and bloomed into flowers as delicate and splendid as dreams. The girl had never seen ones so lovely in waking life. The mist cleared entirely, and with it, the clouds gave way to a soft aqua blue of clear skies—an ocean scent mixed with fresh greenery. In the distance stood a building of stone on an island surrounded by a plate of smooth water.
“The echo is a crest among a universe of wakes” The man kneeled to be at eye level with her. “Do you understand?”
His boy stood behind him. Peering with mild interest.
The girl shook her head. She didn’t understand a thing.
“This place is like the gaps between an ocean of realities.” He lifted his palm up and down in wave-like motion. “People come here when they dream.” The man said. “They stay for a short while and then pop back into their reality- their wake, without realizing the extent of their travel.”
The girl nodded because she thought she was supposed to.
“Why are you crying?” The man said.
“I lost my brother,” she broke her silence. The pain of her words squeezed her stomach, and she couldn’t help but weep.
The man watched her with a slant of the head and got up. The boy gazed at his father.
“Oh now, no tears,” said the tall man and reached out his hand to touch the girl’s crown.
She wiped her nose and snuffed her tears.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Leila,” She sniffed.
“Leila,” The man repeated. “I’m Mr. Tikk- And this,” The man held the boy’s shoulders with his enormous hands “- is Elias, my boy.”
The boy appeared to have shrunken into his father’s silhouette.
“You’re the youngest shadow traveler I’ve ever met.” The man said. “You’re very talented, Leila.”
The girl liked the sound of that. It made her feel a little brave.
“Would you like to visit my home?” The tall man says, “it’s beautiful.”
“I have to find my brother,”
“Where have you lost him?”
“I lost him in my shadow.”
“I’ll help you find him,” The man said with a twinkle of his murky eyes.
“First,” the man held her shoulder as darkness spread around them, “I’ll help you control your shadow”
The three of them fell.
The man called Mr. Tikk fulfilled part of his promise. He taught Leila how to master her shadow. But he never found her brother, and soon enough, Leila had forgotten her brother’s name. But she tied the loose thread along with her own. A set of double-string bracelets clung to her wrist. She never took them off. Long after losing meaning, they still held a seam of sentiment.
A notion of something missing. Like fleeting memories of dreams, which are nothing more than fading wakes of other worlds.
This short piece came to me as back story of “Shadow Traveler”– A novel i’m working on. Keep in touch if this interests you and wish to read more. Feel free to tell me what you think.