Kiran had not really considered the supernatural. Yes, she had seen the occasional horror movie, had flipped through pages of random vampire novels back when her mother had collected books in their paper form. She had a distinct memory of telling ghost stories around a campfire in the middle of the woods, betting with the other children who would shriek first when the wind howled around them, flashlight shadows dancing against the clouds. Even then, she had never truly believed.
Once, her brother had joked about dead spirits of past tenants haunting the house, claiming that “old Ms. Massey up and died right in that old rocking chair” pointing a shaky finger at it while pulling on a thin string in his other hand, the string expertly tied to the chair’s base so that it would heave back and forth slowly. Kiran had punched him in the shoulder as hard as she could before ripping the string from his hands and demanding an apology for thinking her stupid enough to believe him.
She sought out her answers. Every croaking stair, every rattling window or clanging pipe, Kiran would stop at nothing to discover the origin of the noise. She would get on her hands and knees and crawl in the basement to uncover hidden airflows, pressure inconsistencies due to uneven heat distribution, and in some cases, just ancient material that somehow avoided standard upkeep. Kiran always felt fortunate to live in a dead house, not encumbered by the machines, where whimsy still strived against the harshness of reality, where questions still hid in the corners waiting to be discovered.
And now, she needed answers about the man appearing in her dreams.
“What’re you even doing?” Duri asked Kiran, her head cocked to the side. “Is that… is that an actual book? Where did you even get that?”
Kiran shuffled forward from the back of the top bunk and let her feet dangle over the side. She pointed out the window toward a tall building that loomed in the distance, ivy clinging to its brick walls. “The library.”
“Oh,” Duri said, confusing riding in her voice, “I didn’t realize that was still, you know, open.” She began to walk into the hallway and then suddenly stopped in the doorway, turning around quickly. “Wait, why haven’t you been in there before today? I know how much you hate using machines.”
“I do not hate the machines!” Kiran half shouted, her face aghast, her eyes darting around the room nervously. You never could be sure who or what was listening. “I’m just not used to it and I was trying to make a change to fit in but I couldn’t find any relevant information when I was searching for the tree man virtually so I just went back to books because I understand books.”
Duri grunted. “What is that one about?”
Kiran held up the book, proudly, displaying the cover to the room, “Dreaming!” she exclaimed. “Lucid dreaming to be precise. I’m going to teach myself to recognize when I’m dreaming and then I’m going to confront that old creep.”
“Uh huh,” Duri replied and disappeared down the hallway.
“I know how much you hate using machines,” Kiran mimicked Duri under her breath while shimmying into the corner of her bed, pressing her back against the wall. “She wants me to use the machines, fine.”
She cleared her throat and spoke loudly with a tinge of nervousness embedded within her voice, “Alarm, set five hours from now. Voice command only.”
“Alarm set,” her device replied, the glowing hum of its screen shining against the night sky.
Shortly after, Kiran drifted off to sleep mid-page, slumped awkwardly against the wall.
She twirled through her dreams, the landscapes and people morphing and shifting around every corner, every time she blinked. Somewhere from afar, a tugging at her mind urged her to check for reality, check all machines, all text, to test their limits, see if anything transformed dynamically rendering its comprehension impossible. But each time she focused on anything, it would fall away and be replaced by something else familiar leaving her to merely think, yes, this is it. I was meant to be here.
The first morning she woke to Duri screaming at her to “turn off the goddamn alarm, Kiran!” She wasn’t accustomed to using an alarm and preferred waking up when her body dictated, never oversleeping, always a crack before or after dawn. Kiran yelled at the alarm and then furiously scribbled her fleeting dream memories into an old notebook while Duri stared at her in disbelief. If she had seen the man in her dreams, she did not remember the encounter.
The second night, Kiran nearly caught ahold of her subconscious when an old analog clock’s hour, minute, and second hands got stuck at precisely 6:24 p.m. but before she could latch onto it, her kindergarten class melted into a snowy landscape peppered with red benches and spinning cubes. It only took Duri five minutes to shake her awake and tell her to “never use that fucking alarm again.”
On the third night, while running through a wheat field, Kiran stopped and stared at the sun for what should have been too long but her eyes never hurt. “I’m dreaming!” she exclaimed and woke herself up, dawn spreading across campus. She forgot about finals.
On the fourth night, she flew between mountain crags, the wind whipping at her long yellow cloak.
On the fifth night, she began to doubt the old man’s existence.
On the sixth night, she dabbled in pushing the boundaries of her subconscious, attempting to teleport her dream self to various locations she believed she had seen in her vast landscape. But abandoned building after abandoned building, she found them all empty and wanting. Dust adorned every surface and in some remote locations, the wildlife had began to reclaim their environment.
And then she happened upon a forest of dancing trees. It was hard to think while stepping through the overgrown path. Branches swiped at her arms and the wind whispered sweet nothings into her ear that pursued her with impossible promises. She closed her eyes and strained to dissolve into another reality but found she had lost the ability. She pinched her arm to no avail. She slapped herself across the face and winced in pain. She muttered under her breath and trudged forward until she saw the dim glow of a fire in the distance.
Kiran approached cautiously. As she grew closer, the faint outline of a person slowly came into focus.
“Hello!” Kiran shouted and grimaced as her voice echoed throughout the woods. The figure flinched and then stood. Kiran stopped short. “Is that you, old man? Why aren’t you in your tree?”
The shadow sat beside the fire again.
Kiran’s legs wobbled. She was not accustomed to being nervous, especially within her dreams. Sure, she had experienced anxiety dreams, teeth and eyes falling out while peering in the mirror, finding herself naked in school, public speaking gone wrong, but this felt different. In those, the sense of dread outweighed the sensory input, but here the forest would not let her go.
She plodded forward until she felt her skin warming in the deep glow of the fire. She sat across from the woman, whose long green and purple hair spiraled in front of her face.
The woman raised her head, a mixture of concern and curiosity on her face. “Do you know where you are?”
Kiran’s skin trembled. “I… I’m sleeping,” she stammered.
The woman brushed the hair out of her face, her green eyes boring into Kiran’s. “No, no you’re not. And neither am I apparently.” She stood and turned her back to the fire. “I thought I was so close. Just a few more miles through these woods. You never can trust the directions they give you, you know?”
Kiran was at a loss for words.
“Oh of course you don’t. You seem new at this.” The woman turned around and waltzed around the fire, placing a hand on Kiran’s shoulder. “Word to the wise, kiddo, it’s probably not worth it, whatever it is they promised you.”
Kiran recoiled and woke to the sun high in the sky.
by Dan Diehn