a short story
At first there was a smell, a sickly-sweet odor in an aromatic fog, filling Weylah with unease bordering on alarm. It was followed by sharp pain in the back of her skull, as if a huge needle had punctured it. Then the pain vanished, and she could see a cloud, bluish with feathered streaks of red, and murky lights glimmering through. After a moment, the mist and the scent dispersed, but the taste of danger remained, leaving her mouth dry.
“Hold the flask on the back of your hand,” Weylah heard. They were the first words she was aware of, almost like a dream. She glanced down at her hand where it lay on an armrest and saw a glass of sorts, half full of water, balancing on the back of her hand.
“Like this?” she asked as she took in more of her surroundings. A chair. That made sense. Armrests were usually attached to chairs. And they often looked just like this one when they were in an office or a clinic of some sort.
“That will be fine,” someone said. She became aware of the clinic. All the normal aspects were there; a waiting area with children playing with some toys in the corner, and a reception desk with a non-descript person answering questions.
Was this right? Would she have someone instructing her in the lobby instead of an examination room? The scene twisted and began to morph.
Wait. This wasn’t the lobby. That was a wall over there, not the play area.
She looked back down at her hand. The glass was pink, and the water bubbly. Am I thirsty? she wondered. Sometimes she dreamed of water when… was this a dream?
Weylah jerked her head around looking for the source of the words she’d been listening to. She was alone in the room. The motion made the flask wobble and splash water onto her fingers. Her brief concern was swept away by the conviction that it didn’t matter. Yanking her hand out, she grabbed the glass without spilling a drop. Ha! she thought, bringing it to her lips. Cold, fresh water.
She couldn’t taste it.
She set the glass down and rose to her feet. Was that a commotion outside? Or maybe in the lobby? A low rumbling sound and faint voices carried toward her from the distance, little whines in the wind.
With one step she reached the door and pulled it open.
The scene that met her eyes was chaotic, beyond her ability to grasp. She stared around in a stupor, taking it all in, struggling to make sense of it. It was as if gravity didn’t make sense anymore, and up and down wouldn’t stay in place. Things were whirling around and slamming into buildings or cars or whatever those moving objects were. Not a tornado. That would have some sense of motion she could interpret, fitting into a spinning, whipping pattern. This was all mixed up.
She took a step out into the wild and found her foot landing on solid ground that stayed where it should. “What is going on?” she yelled into the wind, the words were swallowed by the noise.
She took a few more steps and realized she could walk, and the visual distortion wasn’t a true interpretation of what surrounded her. There were wind and noise, but as she walked, she could make out a bit of sidewalk under her feet, and here and there, people, sitting or standing motionless staring up at the mess.
“What is all this?” she asked a kid who crouched with his arms in a semicircle.
“Quiet!” he hissed at her. “I’m trying to get it to trust me. Back away and go around behind me!” There was nothing she could see nearby but she imagined an animal, maybe injured. He was trying to coax it into his embrace so he could take care of it. For a moment she was tempted to squat next to him and help. After all, she was pretty good with animals.
No, she shook her head. The roar of the storm blasted her again. There was nothing there and she didn’t intend to take that tangent. This was clearly a dream and she wanted to know what it all meant.
The turbulence crystalized into a city street with a mighty storm beating at the buildings and buffeting the people, like herself, who were foolish enough to be out in it. The whole purpose of the windblasts seemed to be to force her inside. Anywhere.
She stubbornly stayed outdoors, shivering in the cold, getting drenched by the rain. Had it been raining at first? She didn’t know.
Then the flashes began, like lightning but all wrong. It didn’t arc from land to sky or from sky to land. They sliced sideways, at angles, sometimes in single thread-like beams, sometimes in scattered explosions. Like fireworks.
Weylah stopped walking and stared. The people she had been passing were being vaporized, one by one. The wave of death rolled up the street, taking down buildings as it neared her, but no one noticed except for her. Everywhere she looked, people were busy, preoccupied with little things that didn’t matter, and the ripple of destruction took them without warning.
She was looking right at it, her mouth wide open, shrieking into the wind, but she was unable to hear anything besides the roar it made, and never saw the flash when it pierced her.
It all faded.
Weylah opened her eyes and found herself in the room again, sitting in the chair. Only this time, there was no flask on her hand. An attendant sat across from her, eyes on a pad where he tapped and clicked, making notes.
A clock was ticking nearby. That means time is moving forward, she thought.
She looked at the attendant, waiting for him to lift his eyes so she could speak. He never did. She spoke anyway.
“Excuse me,” she said, using her polite manner. “Can I ask what I’m waiting for?”
The man glanced up at her, a distinctly smug look on his face, but said nothing. He went back to his notes.
“Am I waiting on results? I’m not sure what…”
“The test is over,” he said, gesturing toward a passageway on her right that led to a sunny glass door.
She looked down the hall with the strong impression that it led to waking up. Then turned to her left to look at the door she had gone out earlier in the dream.
The attendant ignored her.
Normally, she would prefer to wake up, especially in this kind of dream, but something made her hesitate. Nightmares bring terror—but she wasn’t afraid, just more alert, aware of both realms while sleeping. And there was an underlying tension that triggered something deeper than dream fear.
She jumped to her feet and ran toward the door to her left.
“Not that way,” a voice behind her called.
She ignored it and pulled open the door to the outside.
The streets she had seen before awaited her and a storm was kicking up. It began moaning and slamming loose doors, knocking things over, whipping trash and debris around. It was almost as if the dream had started over and she was stepping into it earlier than she had the first time.
She made her way down the sidewalk, passing people occupied with various mindless pursuits like watching a butterfly, playing with a yo-yo, kicking a can, scratching patterns in the dirt, trying to catch a skittish cat.
“Hey!” she found herself saying as she turned to look at the kid she had noticed the first time. “What happened to it?” Inside she was wondering, did her mind fill in the cat or was it easier to see because the storm hadn’t blown out of control yet?
“I don’t know,” he said. “She ran out the door and she’s never done that before. She’s really scared…” He circled his arms and squatted, cornering the cat. It wavered between looking at him fondly and staring over his shoulder. Then its hair rose on end and its tail puffed as the noise of the tempest began to increase. The sidewalk underneath them swayed and dipped, like the entire city was inside a rocking cradle.
“Come on,” Weylah patted the boy’s arm. “Let her go. We’ve got to run before the full brunt of the storm hits.”
He looked up at her in confusion. “The what?” he said, and his eyes bulged, as if he hadn’t noticed the noise till that moment. “What’s happening?” The cat ran past him into the distance.
“Come on!” she yelled and they both ran the same direction.
The wave of destruction, crashing and exploding behind them, poured down the streets in their wake. Most of the people they passed seemed to be unaware of it. Weylah slapped at their arms or pushed them as she ran past, calling them, but unable to slow down to try to wake them up.
There was no time.
“Come on! Come on!” the kid screamed, kicking into high gear and tearing down the road faster than her. The skies overhead were getting darker, billowing with solid clouds of storm. Or was it like ash from a volcano?
The roar grew louder till it shook her body as it vibrated through her. She should have been terrified, but wasn’t. There was still that strong sense of something else.
She never saw the end. She just stopped vibrating and opened her eyes again in the clinic chair. The attendant was sitting in the same place, still tapping the pad. She stared at him for a moment, knowing he was aware of her, waiting for him to say something, or just look up. He didn’t. But she knew he wasn’t feeling quite as smug as he had the first time.
This is my dream, she considered, in my head.
He paused, finger poised over the pad, listening. Aware.
Somewhere in my brain, I know what he’s typing.
The attendant’s eyes lifted to hers and glanced away. He definitely wasn’t looking as smug as he had before.
She jumped to her feet and ran for the door to the left again. This was a puzzle and she was going to figure it out.
“Wait!” a voice called, “Well done! You’ve passed the test!”
Outside, the buildings, sidewalks, roads, and people were all the same as before, but not everyone was doing the same thing as before. Some of them had shifted. They must be on a different loop, if that was the right word, and her story was the only one repeating. The woman with the butterfly had coaxed it onto her finger. The man with the yo-yo had stopped swinging it around and was studying the pattern etched in its side. The old guy kicking the can had disappeared.
The kid who had tried to catch the cat was watching her as she approached. As if he had been waiting for her.
“You!” he said.
“Where’s your cat?” she countered, glancing over her shoulder to see if the wave had started.
“She got away last time,” he said, backing up as if he wanted her to run with him again.
“Did the wave get you?” she asked as she started jogging next to him. They passed several of the same people as before.
“Yeah. I don’t know.”
A woman scrolling on her phone raised her eyebrows in recognition as they went by. “Aren’t you the one who pushed me last time?” she asked Weylah, “Why did you do that?”
The dream was looping but the people weren’t.
That was important.
“We’ve got to get away from the storm,” the kid answered before she could.
They began collecting people as they ran. There were at least twelve as the storm began raging and overtaking them. At the last second before it vaporized them, she turned around to look into it, wanting to see what it was, what lay behind the power.
Time slowed. Her body twisted in slow motion and her eyes focused on the broiling storm cloud, the shock wave. She planted her feet and burrowed into it with her mind as well as her gaze. And she saw something behind the destruction.
A being. Multiple beings, running along with lasers in their hands, gunning down everything in their path. They had rectangular torsos with faces in the middle and they seemed like they were having fun.
“NO!” she yelled at them, unable to hear the sound from her own lips.
One of them almost ran into her and paused as if startled.
She closed her eyes. The crash. The flash. The quiet. The room.
There was the attendant again and he wasn’t tapping notes this time. She was back in the chair. She focused on the pad in his hands and projected her understanding toward it. All is going well, it said at the top. Apathy is an easily spread substance. Thoroughly effective at rendering them helpless.
Something in her knew that the words hadn’t been in English—and she had supplied the translation.
A minor difficulty… followed after a break in the notes, subject behaving erratically. No need for concern…
Weylah was pretty sure she was the ‘subject’ and ‘apathy’ was the cloud over the minds of the people in her dream.
“Who are you?” she asked with less force than she had meant to project, feeling a little weary from the running around. I should sit here for a moment to recover, she thought.
The attendant’s eyes didn’t lift up to look at her, but he was intensely aware of her. Why would she dream of him? What did he mean in her mind?
She rose to her feet calmly this time, took a step and snatched the pad out of his hands. It was blank. “It is not blank,” she said. Words began to form on the surface in not quite legible shapes and flourishes that resembled letters but meant nothing.
“I can read it,” she said, and she recognized the meaning she had already discerned even though the lines on the screen remained unintelligible. Handing the pad back to him, she turned and walked toward the door on the left again. He didn’t try to stop her.
Outside, the kid was waiting for her. He must have figured out which door was hers which struck her as being very cool. “What are we going to do?” he asked. “We can’t just keep running.”
She looked at him carefully, studying his face, wanting to remember it when she awoke—because he was a real person, not just the product of a dreaming mind. She was sure of it.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Weylah… or Wey…” She wasn’t sure why she added the nickname of her childhood.
“Oh,” he said.
“Did you look at them?” She faced the direction the storm always came from.
“I was going to… when you turned around,” he answered, his eyes widening as he stood beside her, facing the same way. “But all I saw was the lightning strike and you puffed into a swirl of smoke…” He gestured with his hands, pantomiming the explosion. “Then I was gone again.”
“Where do you wake up after that?”
“My room… I’m supposed to be straightening it but the cat…” he scratched his head and scrunched his nose as if he had to add pressure to his skull in order to figure it out.
“Look out!” Weylah cried out. The tossing clouds and torrents of wind were upon them. “There! There!” she added in a screech that barely carried over the noise.
“I see!” he yelled back in his boyish voice.
The beings were running toward them, waving triangular loops of glowing metal, shooting out bolts of blue and white from the points, sometimes one, sometimes all three as it rotated in their grasp. Their faces gaped with triangular mouths and no teeth.
One ran up to the boy and another ran up to Weylah. Again, time slowed down. She was sure it was the same being as before, grinning, stretching its triangle till it filled the rectangular body with a black maw. The first time, it had been startled by her but now it chose her. Long fibrous strands hung from the top of its rectangular body like fringe. They were cords that turned their tips to look at her.
Eyes, she thought, hundreds of light receptacles scanning her.
Digo was backing away, one step at a time, just out of reach of the being’s arm. It wasn’t shooting at him. The one in front of her wasn’t shooting either. It had stopped at the edge of her personal space and was twirling the laser gun on a spindly limb of some kind.
There was something repulsive about it and it made her angry. She shouted words at it, not sure what they were, challenging it. And as she continued voicing her defiance, she shoved her fist out in front of her, almost brushing its waving cords. The being shrunk back, the cords trembled—and she stepped toward it.
One punch, with no power in it. The kind that feels like you hardly moved because part of your brain knows you’re sleeping, and the arm isn’t moving. But the rage she felt was real. Her fist pushed up to it and sank into its gaping mouth, brushing against a cloudy fuzz that expanded like a bubble. The being exploded into chalky dust with streaks of several bright colors, pink, green, blue, like carnival ribbons. Like finger-paint colors.
In that one spot, the storm ceased, and time sped up again.
She whirled around, looking for Digo. He was staring at her in astonishment, the word “What?” half formed in his mouth when the being pursuing him blasted him.
Then Weylah was vaporized as well, struck from behind by another being.
She opened her eyes.
The attendant was sitting very still, holding onto the pad tightly with both hands, staring at it.
Invasion Tactics, the header read.
He couldn’t just hang out in her dream without giving her access to those notes. He should’ve thought of that. The attendant closed his eyes. “You may depart,” he said, and for the first time she noticed that his lips didn’t move when he spoke.
Desensitization is very effective… proceeding according to plan…
“What are you doing to us?” she glowered at him.
Then the gist of the whole document suddenly pierced her understanding and she knew that this was not just a dream of an experiment with imaginary creatures.
She jumped to her feet.
How would a race of aliens test the possibility of invasion? What if they were approaching humans in dreams to see how they would handle an attack?
“Wait right there!” she commanded the attendant and ran to the door on the left as fast as she could, knowing he was stranded in her mind until she let him go.
Digo was holding a bat. “There’s no way they’re getting me this time,” he yelled. “Here!” He tossed her a stick about three feet long.
“Quick!” Weylah called out as she caught it. “Let’s round up as many people as we can before they get here.” With that they started down the street, slapping, knocking, shoving people to get their attention. Some of them were already awake and aware of them.
“No, don’t run!” they were crying. “Fight! We can do it!”
The aliens had created a scenario where people met their end in a puff of vapor, because it fit their own experience of extinction. This was what death looked like for them.
The rumbling started and the wind kicked up.
“Come on!” Weylah and Digo yelled to each other as they sprinted into the wind swinging their weapons.
Clouds of color burst in their wake as they barreled into the crowd of creatures. The storm dispelled in bubbles of quiet as the dust of each one settled to the ground. All around them people were fighting, and the noise of the battle spread down streets and blocks and across the neighborhood till the clouds were gone and a mighty cheer burst from the throats of the victors.
Sunshine began to brighten around them.
“No!” Weylah cried out with all her might. “Not yet!! Don’t wake up! We’re not done!” But all around her, people were vanishing and waking up from the dream.
“Digo!” she called, searching all around. But he was gone, too.
The light was encroaching on her mind, but she turned her back to it. Not yet. She wasn’t about to leave that attendant lurking in her dream state. Where was the door she had come out of? She wandered down the chalk-covered road in the direction that felt right and soon found it.
She stepped back into the waiting room where the attendant waited, riveted to the spot where she had left him.
Weylah sat down across from him resting the stick on her knees. He stared down at his pad but was observing her keenly.
How many of them had come testing people in their dreams before this night? Was this the first time or was she just one peon in a batch, in a stream of batches of dreaming people?
Humans around the world were falling asleep as the planet turned and their homes entered the dark side of the world. Like a wave. They were accustomed to letting their minds ramble or stress or venture into unknown realms. Would they find a storm threatening?
She stared at the attendant. “How many?”
Many, she sensed his thought. He couldn’t hide it from her. He had exposed himself when he entered her dream.
The answer was simultaneously past and future. She saw the Earth cycling in orbit halfway around the sun, turning on its axis. Half a year. A few more planet rotations… a few more days to go.
“Till what?” she insisted though her voice sounded calm—and she knew what.
Till we move in. He turned his eyes toward her as if he were unable to stop himself, as if he had more than two eyes. His hair seemed pulled toward her, and he was vibrating.
Somewhere, a mass of rectangular brutes was stretching and warming up. Laughing, practicing their target shooting, getting ready for the day that would soon come. This wasn’t the first species they had conditioned not to resist. It had been a successful tactic a number of times.
The attendant’s face was looking smug again. Its eyes were glowing a little and its head grew more horizontally oblong than before, though still humanoid. The illusion it had kept for her was fading. She saw another image in its mind, not rectangular like the parody of an alien they had decided to portray in the storm, but an aged, desiccated, barely moving lump of a body. Their real bodies, wherever they were out there, had been lovely once long ago. Now, they were nothing but chalk held together by thought, hardly moving, breathing husks at the end of their usefulness… soon to be vacated.
“Will you swipe your stick at me?” it asked as its mouth triangulated and shaped words laced with humor.
She could. He would turn into a puff of chalky dust and her dream would end. She would wake up and enter the real world where all this would seem distant and foolish. They would move on to the next batch and start again.
“I could,” she replied, leaning forward. He shrunk back a bit, but the arrogance never left him.
Sometimes invasions were drawn out, bloody affairs.
Sometimes they were quick and unexpected.
Weylah didn’t believe this was just a dream. From the beginning, the being had tried to get her to go out the door on the right and wake up. And each time she ran out the left door, they began the experiment again. If this was a precursor to an invasion, what were they afraid of? Why didn’t they just overpower or imprison her?
“If you do not leave the dream, you will die here,” it said, its corded fringe waving in the air, looking at her.
Sometimes invasions were high risk.
And sometimes… they backfired.
Weylah rose slowly to her feet, gripping the stick tightly in her hands. The being’s face flicked back to a human shape again with alarm etched in its features. It sensed her intent and began screeching.
“Where is the door you came through?” She set her lips in a grim line. The link the attendant had made to access her mind—the one he didn’t want her to notice—was open into his mind.
“Abort! Abort!” it began screaming, wheeling its limbs in a chaotic frenzy.
Then she saw the third door, straight behind him. Three strides took her there and she pulled it open with enough force to rip it off the hinges. The tempest raged out there in violent tosses of night-colored storm clouds and a wispy funnel shaped light snapped around in the center.
“You’ll never survive!!” the alien was wailing as a sucking wind pulled it out the opening.
“Neither will you,” she said as she gritted her teeth and stepped through after it.
Dream Sequence was first published in the Northwest Independent Writers Association 2019 Anthology