a short story
Listen to this story:
It seemed so real. Rivers sparkled in the sunlight, meandering between soft green hills. Ali dipped low over a dark blue lake and caught glimpses of fish below the rippled surface. Warm air buoyed her up, towards a solitary eagle wheeling far above, but the wind failed and she fell back to earth.
She woke in bed and realised with a heavy heart that it was morning, already, again. Reluctantly she pulled back her covers and put her feet to the cold boards. Another day in paradise.
Boring days crawled by, nothing to mark one from another. She stared at her face in the mirror, wondering if this was it, all life had to offer. One grey evening Ali cuddled under a blanket on the sofa, watching nature documentaries. The kitchen was dark and cold, and after a long day of work a handful of dry cereal and a cup of tea was just easier. What was the point of cooking for one anyway? She could probably stand to lose a few pounds. She half-listened to David Attenborough talking about birds and habitat and such. His voice was soothing and familiar. She closed her eyes for a moment.
When she opened them again, a vast forest stretched below. From a distance it looked solid, but on closer inspection she could see separate trees in which flocks of scarlet macaws chattered noisily. Once again Ali fell, but as she wished that she could fly further, her descent slowed. She landed gently and put her feet to cool earth.
Around her, jewelled hummingbirds dashed from bloom to bloom and birds called overhead. Luxuriant foliage enclosed her in countless shades of green, and she breathed in faintly spiced air.
Her next thought was that she’d probably be eaten alive by mosquitos, but her arms and legs remained free of bites. She wandered around for a time until she heard buzzing. She looked up at a large beehive, with a few bees circling outside. Ali reached toward it but her arms were so heavy. She felt herself sink to the ground and woke in bed, limbs pleasantly warm and remembered birdsong in her ears.
That lunchtime she chatted to Debs, her desk neighbour for the last nine months. They usually dissected last night’s TV programmes. That was one thing Ali knew something about.
“Sorry, what?” She realised Debs was looking at her expectantly.
“I said, did you see those hummingbirds on TV last night?” Debs shook her head. “You’re a real space cadet today, didn’t you get your beauty sleep or something? Or, perhaps it’s someone who kept you awake…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Maybe Jake the IT guy. He’s been checking you out for ages.”
“Ew, no. He’s creepy.” Ali shuddered for effect. “Actually, I had the most realistic dream, and when it was going to end I wished it wouldn’t, and I kept dreaming. It was amazing.”
“Oh really? You should look up lucid dreaming,” Debs bit into her apple. “It’s when you know it’s a dream and you can control it.”
“Is that really a thing? I thought dreaming was all pictures from your subconscious.” Ali pulled a yogurt out of her lunchbox, and peeled the lid off.
“Ali, you’re not at home now,” Debs hissed. “No wonder Jake has a thing for you when you’re licking the lid in public.”
She hastily dropped the foil, feeling warmth in her cheeks. She was getting sloppy and distracted and it wouldn’t do. “Sorry. So anyway, lucid dreaming is real then.”
“Yeah, I had this boyfriend who was into yoga and all that mystical stuff, but I stopped listening after a while. Too airy-fairy for me. Better get back to work.” Debs gathered her things and left Ali thinking. She ate her yogurt with a spoon and avoided eye contact with anyone.
Ali turned to the internet. She devoured articles on lucid dreaming, yoga nidra, astral projection and yogic flying. With practice, she discovered a knack for slipping from calm wakefulness into a dreamscape of her own choosing. Her nights filled with brilliant images.
The auroras blazed green and red above the poles. She followed a barn owl on its silent nocturnal hunt, and skimmed the seas with dolphins. She walked exotic beaches alongside turquoise seas, and wandered cool pine forests leaving no prints in the snow. It was exhilarating. Real life could not compare with the wondrous worlds of her dreams.
Ali burrowed her feet into warm pale sand and looked out at the distant horizon. In her night world she felt alive. Nothing could hurt her. Daytime was drab by contrast, with Debs nudging her and asking if Jake was the cause of her faraway look. She agreed just to shut Debs up. All she really wanted to spend more time asleep, alone.
Controlling dreams seemed impossible. Until you did it.
A flash of light caught her attention, perhaps a reflection from the sea. It shimmered like heat haze. She walked along the beach to find it. The air in front of her rippled, yet she could see the beach beyond. She circled the ripple and looked back at normal beach. Hesitantly she put out her hand, only to find it vanished into the shimmer. She screamed and woke up in her bed gasping for breath, her mouth dry with fear. Her hand shook, but it was intact. It seemed so real.
That was not meant to happen. She was meant to be in control.
“Just a dream,” she muttered. But she couldn’t explain it.
Ali stopped lucid dreaming after that. The monotonous days dragged on, but it was impossible to resist the pull of her dream world for long. She found herself back on the same beach, standing in front of the hazy air pocket. There was only one way to know. She took a breath, and stepped into the shimmer.
Beyond lay a magical world. Brilliant stars twinkled in a purple sky lit by two moons. The air hummed with strange energy, plants and flowers glowed with unnamed colours. She could feel everything, and it finally made sense.
Then she looked up at the brightest stars and wondered what they looked like up close. She soared into the sky. As the ground receded she heard her name. She was back on the beach, quick as thought. A paramedic was clearly visible through the portal, standing in her bedroom.
“Ali, Ali wake up!” Debs was holding her hand and crying.
She hovered by the ceiling for a while, looking down at her sleeping form. Her body was not dead. But mere existence held no appeal.
In this vibrant universe, she was truly alive. She slipped away unnoticed. The stars were calling her.