This story is by Alia Raven and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Two fans stir the air, one on the ceiling and one on my side of the bed, as I set the alarm for the early hour of 6 a.m. It’s already after 11 on a work night. With one press of a finger, the white noise machine activates, drowning out the bumps of the night.
I need to fall asleep quickly. And yet, as I climb under the light-weight blanket and close my eyes, sleep eludes me, dancing just out of reach like the dark blotches floating behind my eyelids.
With a huff of frustration, I open my eyes and stare into the darkness. A faint wash of light from the streetlamp outside the window highlights the hard edge of a photo on my dresser and a pair of discarded pants on the floor.
I can barely make out the smiling face of my friend, the two of us posing over our dessert with whipped cream on our noses. A treasured moment captured forever.
I seek out more familiarity but find only oddities, straining to give meaning to the dark void hovering above the dresser, or the large, disfigured blob on the carpet. Has a portal to another dimension opened up in my bedroom? Is a misshapen figure crawling slowly towards me? My mind scrambles, panicking, until lethargic logic recognizes the dark void as a tv, and the disfigured blob as a t-shirt and bra.
My imagination unfurls from the brink of my tiredness, boldly whispering whimsical ideas into existence in the room framed by darkness.
I could reason it back into its box and eventually sleep would win, but what would life be without the dragons in the clouds, the monsters in the closet, and the chance to be reunited with those that I’ve lost?
I succumb to my imagination.
The white, plaster ceiling shifts into an endless sky full of bright, twinkling stars and twin moons, full and staring, unblinking, like owl eyes. I sit up on a grassy hill, a gentle breeze stirring the ankle-high blades. The drone of cicadas fills the night air.
My frustration with the waking world bleeds away. The perfume of unseen blossoms sweet and fragrant, as I take a deep breath.
“I was wondering if you’d show.”
My breath catches at the familiar voice. I smile and stand, brushing off my pants and composing myself before turning around. “I’d never miss a chance to see you, Michi,” I say as I take in every unaged detail of her face. Michi had once been my lover and always my friend.
Her face lights up, and she grins, revealing the small gap between her two front teeth. “I have an adventure planned for us tonight.” The wind whips her long, dark hair, and she brushes it aside.
I laugh, because her words don’t surprise me. She always was the more adventurous one.
Michi holds out her hand, and I take it. I’d follow her anywhere, except to the one place I can’t.
We spend the start of the night splashing in an ocean aglow with tiny, stingless, phosphorescent jellyfish. Once the small creatures drift away with the tide, we pull ourselves from the calm sea still singing with laughter. A large figure, all black, joins us, lurching onto the sandy beach. It opens its mouth wide and grins a face full of white fangs.
I step in front of Michi, arm blocking her, but she pushes past me to hug the shadowy beast. Black and white shift and whirl together before settling in their designated spots – black legs and shoulders, white belly and face, and a kind smile under a dark nose and eyes. The panda snorts as Michi climbs onto his back but otherwise doesn’t seem to mind. She stretches out her hand, and I take it, climbing up behind her.
The panda lumbers forward, its stocky gait slow. I grab onto Michi’s waist, fearing I’ll fall, but she only laughs.
As with any dream, the journey is omitted, and we’re teleported directly to a mountain road lined with cherry blossom trees. The air chills to early spring, and I hold Michi closer. A cool breeze brushes by, carrying the scent of pines and sweet flowers.
“Watch this,” Michi whispers over her shoulder. With a flick of her hand, the wind gusts and tears through the trees, filling with pink petals before hurtling towards us. A tornado of blossoms wraps around us, blocking out the other scenery.
My mouth hangs wide open. “How did you do that?”
Michi grins. “It’s your imagination,” she says without answering.
The wind settles down and the petals drift to the ground, paving our path in pink as the panda plods forward again. The cherry blossom trees are still full of flowers, magically undisturbed by the sudden tempest.
In the next moment, we’re in front of a wood cabin, petals, panda, and pink forgotten. The old house perches in the branches of an old oak, embraced by bark and shielded by leaves. A rope ladder dangles from a small porch.
Before we can move, cats swarm us, meowing, rubbing against our legs, and pawing at our hands for attention.
Michi laughs and bends down to try to pet them all.
I join her, smiling.
“Not quite how I remember my family cabin, but I guess you were never able to visit me there,” says Michi, carefully wading through the cats, pausing to offer affection every few steps.
Before I can apologize, she continues. “It doesn’t matter, though. We had plenty of other adventures.” She climbs up the ladder easily and clears the landing. Peeking over the edge, she beams down at me and stretches out her hand. “Come on up!”
Eager to be reunited, I maneuver through the sea of cats and scale the ladder to take her hand. Together again, we both settle into a pair of wooden rocking chairs. From our heightened position, everything I remember about her paves the world beneath us – late nights with friends, shared classes in high school, driving home from college every weekend just to see her.
A falling star streaks across the sky.
I rock back and forth a few times, the chair creaking. “I miss you,” I suddenly say.
She reaches over the space between us and taps my temple. “You know I’m always here.”
I turn to meet her honey brown gaze.
The bleating of an alarm shatters the imaginary world until it’s only the two of us left slowly rocking in darkness. She smiles again, but this time I spot the unshed tears in her eyes. “It’s time for you to go.”
My voice crawls out in a croak. “I know.”
“Until next time.”
“I can’t wait,” I whisper.
The alarm continues to blare, growing louder and louder until it’s unavoidable, and I’m back in my bed, arm flailing in search of the snooze button. I finally bash it and continue to lie in bed in silence as two fans stir the air, one on the ceiling and one on my side of the bed.
In the faint wash of light from the rising sun, the bittersweet memories of love lost and found swirl within me. Michi, my beloved friend reborn in my dream, is gone with the dawn, preserved only in the photo on my dresser, always smiling.
The alarm sounds again, and I pull myself out of bed. Time for Michi to return to her resting place and for logic to reassert itself until my next restless night.