It figures, she thought.
One of the containers was full of sand. A kind of pretty black glittery sand. And not the crispy savory steamy dumplings that Alora had dreamt of since leaving work that evening with the smallest of coffee stains on her collar.
She was so tired. She never checked the order from Sam’s. She never had to before. It was only five minutes away. They would make it right. They would probably even bring the dumplings to her place. She was a regular. She knew the names of all the staff on both shifts. But she was too tired to go back. Too tired to even call. Maybe it was a sign. She was so woozy. Dead on her feet. She was starving. She had skipped lunch. Her body felt sore, probably from being tensed all day. So, she needed the three necessities of a Friday night home from work: food, shower, and sleep. She just didn’t know what order.
She thought it was weird, the carton of sand. But not suspicious. Maybe it was a prank. At least it wasn’t a paper bag full of dog poo. Sam’s would make it right. Tomorrow. After a full night’s rest and a morning of mindless TV-watching to get her mind off the disaster at work, she would head over for lunch and just stay there, eat dumplings, drink vanilla cola, and get caught up in the drama of Miranda the cook’s good old-fashioned mother-in-law stories.
But tonight Alora felt as if she had raced past tired, zoomed past exhausted, and reached a new level of fatigue. She was drained. Drained of something vital. Her mind was shutting down. She crawled into bed just to lie down for a few moments before she hopped into the shower to get warm and refreshed, then ate some fried rice, and then changed into her pajamas for a proper night of sleep. She rubbed her eye and frowned. It felt like she’d gotten something in her eye. Was it the sand? The mascara she forgot to wipe off?
She sighed. She had worn eye make-up that day, just to see if it would make a small bit of difference. Sometimes the little things made a big difference. She would have to get up and wash her face at least.
But the minute her head hit the pillow, she fell asleep. It felt so sweet slipping into that sleep. She never knew that a person could be aware of the very moment when she fell asleep. But then she didn’t fall, she floated. Floated slowly and softly.
Slowly she felt the heat rise, and then she saw it on the horizon. The city was on fire.
She was sitting at her desk drawing in her sketchpad. She was engrossed in her work but there was a nagging sensation that tried to pull her attention away. She ignored it. She kept sketching.
I shouldn’t be doing this, she thought. This isn’t my job.
Her job. She heard a crash and when she looked up, the conference room where she’d been sitting was ablaze. Alora jumped up from her seat and grabbed her sketchpad just as a flaming rock the size of her fist slammed down into the table where her sketchpad had been lying.
She looked around. Flaming rocks were coming down all around her. She saw her boss cowering under one of the side tables in the conference room. Alora went to take cover as well, but then it occurred to her that what was happening didn’t make sense. That even though she was standing still, she had not been struck by one of the meteors that seemed to be falling from the ceiling or appearing out of thin air. She sensed that the meteors couldn’t hurt her, but she glanced around and saw that they could hurt the furniture, the buildings, and the other people in the room.
There were people hiding under desks and even chairs, wounded with cuts and bruises, terrified. She went to go help them. She knew that if she guided them out of the building, they would survive. They would be okay. And so would she. Let the meteors fall where they may.
When Alora woke, she felt good about her dream. She felt heroic, but somewhat tired from having lived the adventure, at least in her mind. Her mind did seem stronger and refreshed. She found that she had left her food out on the counter and she didn’t even get into pajamas the night before. All she had managed to do was take off her jacket, shoes, and socks. She still even had that cursed coffee-stained shirt on. She threw out the fried rice, but saved and set aside the carton of sand along with her receipt. But she didn’t feel like talking to or seeing another person, so she decided to take care of it later. The wounds from the day before were fresh, but now, instead of hurt and embarrassment, she felt anger and resolve.
It had been a tough week and her boss had always been demanding. He was unfortunately the kind of boss who made his assistant do more than just fetch coffee and dry-cleaning. Alora had covered for him when he took long lunches instead of being at meetings. She had written up reports for him that he was supposed to have written. She chalked it up to paying her dues and getting experience, and getting that all-important paycheck, at first. But it had been over a year, and he had only gotten more demanding and less grateful as the company struggled.
There had been a morning meeting on Friday. Alora couldn’t remember the details. She had been so humiliated at the time. She couldn’t remember if she had done something, or if he had been angry about something else. She just remembered someone crying out. And she remembered turning just in time to see him reaching back. In time to see the naked rage in his eyes. She ducked. She would have been splattered in hot coffee otherwise. She might have been able to get him into a lot of trouble otherwise. First aid. The police. Some of her well-meaning colleagues filled her head with such ideas. But Alora simply wondered why she should have to call the cops to force her boss to treat her like a human being, or like any living creature for that matter, worthy of respect by the mere fact of existing.
She had heard that he was a doormat to his family, pushover to his wife, a teddy bear to his kids. He saved all his rage up and spent it all at work.
So the coffee cup missed hitting her and hit the wall instead. As his assistant, she was tasked with cleaning it up while he continued on with the rest of the meeting, cool as a cucumber. She could hear the uncomfortable shifting in their seats of the eight other people in that room, who had said nothing and done nothing. Alora needed the work, but the situation had gone too far. Till that day, she had wanted to be fired, so she could claim unemployment while she looked for work elsewhere in peace, instead of continuing to suffer the little degradations. She reminded herself there were people in the world who were far worse off.
But what would he throw at her next time? A punch?
There were a few people who would serve as her references. They had come forward actually. A number of people had tried to help from the corners, the shadows, from behind the scenes. But no one would stand up to the big boss.
What Alora really wanted to do was to be an artist, but she hadn’t figured out what that meant. Did she want to be a painter? A graphics designer? Did she want to draw or paint comics? Paint scenery for movies or plays? She was still trying to find her focus while she built up her portfolio. The only plus side to what happened is that it happened on a Friday. And it was a three-day holiday weekend. So her boss left early. And after he left, she had gotten nothing but sympathy from most of her colleagues. But it wasn’t enough. They couldn’t do anything. They weren’t the ones in charge of her.
So she went to her favorite place, Sam’s Chinese, to treat herself to a nice dinner. She came home so tired though that she didn’t even have the energy to feel dejected because the container of dumplings she was so looking forward to was full of sand.
She canceled the plans she had made for her Saturday and stayed in searching for jobs, preparing her resume and references, applying to jobs and keeping her fingers crossed. She avoided human contact other than the brief exchange she had with the guy who delivered her pizza. She forgot all about Sam’s and the sand until evening. The place was still open, but she was too tired again. She had a moment of indecisiveness, where she opened up the carton of sand just to look at it.
The carton was different from the usual ones. It was cardboard on the outside, but the inside was lined with a coppery foil material. She sniffed it, remembering that old dog poo prank again. The sand actually smelled subtly and exotically perfumed, something like sandalwood or amber, but neither of those. She wondered if the sand was some kind of old Chinese remedy. Then she wondered if that meant it wasn’t sand but some kind of illegal substance like ground elephant tusks dyed black. She brushed off her fingers and washed them. She went to bed.
She had another vivid dream. This time, she was in a desert full of sand that looked like the sand in her box, dark and glittering, and the sky was the same only with a tinge of blue and indigo. There were multiple versions of herself—her dream self—there. One of them made the connection between her dreams and the sand, reminding her of the old stories about the sandman, the bringer of sleep.
The next day, Alora woke, feeling tired in some ways but wired in others. She had believed in her dream, but when she woke, she looked at the sand and shook her head at herself. But she still rubbed some between her fingers and brushed her fingers against her eyelids before she went to bed that night, that last night of the long weekend.
She was an artist, and now she had the canvas of her dreams to paint on. She raised up her hands and painted a bright blue sky and then added a tinge of pink and purple to the horizon. She swept her hands and arms back and forth and wiggled her fingers and poked at the air, as if her hands were the paint brushes. The scene was easy and satisfying to paint, a desert of glittering black sand giving way to a spare forest with a path cutting straight through it and leading to a sumptuous city in the distance. That city was her destination. There was something there, or someone, that she needed to visit.
The vibrant sky above glowed and glittered with early-risen stars. She painted herself a sidekick for her adventure, a great bird, half as tall as she was. That bird was the color of night and fire. The color of a meteor. The bird’s cry shook the walls of that faraway city where a cruel ruler ruled. The bird’s wings could create and launch the meteors, and those meteors would destroy the palace that was built on the blood and sorrow of the city’s people.
There were innocent people in that palace. So she had to get everyone out, including the ruler.
I’m just working out my issues, she thought. This isn’t real. But I can’t let innocent people get hurt.
She had once stopped playing a video game after she had started mowing down pedestrians in a fit of rage about other stuff—work or personal. She couldn’t remember. The game was designed to make the pedestrians and bystanders jump out of the way if the player’s car ran over them. No harm was done. Except to Alora’s conscience. She just remembered feeling terrible because her intent had been to harm.
But this was no video game. This was her dream. She controlled it. She sent her sidekick—the great black bird with the fiery wings over the city—just to menace not to harm. The people saw the dark shape against the dimming sky. There were cries of alarm. The city emptied. The palace emptied. But she didn’t see the enemy she sought.
She went into the courtyard, and she still couldn’t find the ruler. She was met by allies whose faces looked familiar. They pointed her to the most secure place in the palace, the dungeons. That was where the ruler was hiding. While the flaming black bird destroyed the palace, Alora descended to the dungeons. She was agile in her dreams. The last remaining guards and warriors who were faithful to their ruler tried to attack her and stop her, but she eluded them with ease.
She found him, cowering in a corner. He too wore a familiar face and one for whom she had no regard. While she did not pity him, she also did not feel the heat of rage in that moment.
Alora woke then, her business unfinished. She felt tired and distracted. In her mind, it felt as if a movie had been left running, one she wanted to see, but couldn’t because she was doing whatever else she was doing that day. It was distracting. She came home early from a day out with friends because she was tired and because she longed to dream. She found something under her pillow. She knew what it was, but did not fathom how it could be there. A feather, black as night and bright as fire.
She felt the dread as soon as she woke the next morning and realized she had go in to work. She hoped that her boss had decided to extend his three-day weekend into a four-day weekend. Alas, no luck. He was there, on time. She’d gotten his coffee and breakfast as usual. She felt her heart pounding and her chest straining with fear as she approached his office with the coffee. He was alone in there. No one has yet been summoned in. He saw her and stood up. He was not cowering. He was towering.
She saw the earpiece in his ear. He was on the phone with someone and he’d started pacing his office. Alora gave a silent thanks to whoever was on the other side of the call as she handed him his breakfast. He took it without any acknowledgment. Alora was just fine with that. The rest of the day was tense, at least for Alora. Her boss seemed completely unaware and indifferent. Everyone else was likewise. Perhaps it was the amnesia of a long weekend. Alora hoped it stayed that way. She could handle the tension until she found another job.
She avoided Sam’s Chinese that night and opted to go to the local farmer’s market to get some fresh food and cook at home. It was relaxing. She picked up some ravioli from a bubbly woman who gave her tips on how to make fresh pasta at home. She chatted with a good-looking guy when she was searching for a good avocado. And when she went home, she saw that she had received a reply on one of her applications already.
Each day better than the next, she chanted to herself.
That Tuesday night, Alora brushed some of the sand onto her eyelids and hunted down that cruel ruler, not to a city this time, but into some ruins where he was looking to pillage for precious metals or gems or something. The flaming black bird waited above. There was no one he could harm save the ruler, and yet Alora hesitated to give her friend the signal. The ruler cowered, and then she woke. Five minutes later, her alarm went off and she had to get up and go to work.
There was another meeting in the afternoon that day. Prospective investors. Her boss said nothing to her as she handed him his coffee. His desk was strewn with files and he was engrossed in them all through lunch. He snapped at a few people who came in to ask him questions or get his signature on something, so after that, everyone else just stayed out of his way.
There was a file he needed for the meeting. He marched out of his office and asked Alora to get it. When she asked questions about the specific file he needed, he huffed impatiently, gave her a dismissive wave, and told her he’d get it himself and she should just make sure she got the refreshments ready if that was all she could manage. It was rude, but she had resolved to put up with whatever he did short of physical abuse. A few people had suggested that she go to Human Resources. She ignored them. Under different circumstances, she might have. But the job wasn’t worth that much to her. She had a new mantra that day.
Don’t get angry. Don’t get even. Get out.
She hoped the meeting went well, because if it didn’t, her boss would be in a foul mood for the rest of the day. She didn’t think anything would happen during the meeting though. These were outsiders he was meeting with, not internal executives and managers like the last meeting.
Alora’s job was to sit in on the meeting and take notes. When her boss got to the part of the meeting where he needed that file he’d been hunting for earlier, it wasn’t there. He laughed uncomfortably and blamed his assistant for being a bit disorganized. Alora saw at once that the investors were not impressed with the deflection. She offered to fetch the file. The investors were professionals. Their tough questions were only about the project and the company. But there was an unspoken tension in the meeting. When it was over, after he had walked them out, and shook their hands, smiling all the way, her boss returned to his office, closing the door gently. Alora was amazed. She thought it was over. He came out and asked her to make an announcement to gather everyone into the lobby in the next half hour.
He had Alora stand beside him with her notes on the investors meeting, and he started with a summary of that meeting. Somehow, before anyone knew it was happening, he launched into a tirade about the reason for the company’s current issues being that they hired subpar employees, and how that would be changing, how more would be expected of everyone. That change would start with his own assistant. He went through a list of her failures under the guise of transparency.
Alora had never seen this kind of behavior in real life. A truly and unambiguously nasty person. She stood by his side while he blamed her for his failure because she didn’t double-check his reference materials before he started the meeting (because he took them into his office to check them himself). Glances shifted toward her. Newer employees who had never dealt with him before looked baffled. Some of his sycophants looked smug. Most understood what a tyrant he was, but were incredulous at the targeted attack.
A cold rage overcame Alora, freezing and shattering her embarrassment.
She felt her fingers flickering. They were painting. She called and felt the answer descend from high above. And suddenly, there was a meteor headed right toward her boss. It was a small one, the size of Alora’s fist, and it hit the rostrum, right in his precious files, which all begin to burn. He leapt back and there were shouts and screams. Another meteor hit the spot where her boss had just been standing before security swept him away. Alora was filled with fury, but even through that she exerted enough control to not do what she could so easily do, strike her boss himself with a meteor. Or maybe she was just afraid of hitting the innocent men who were shielding her boss with their very bodies.
She was grabbed by someone. One of the executives pulled Alora down from the lobby stage and calmly swept her toward the front entrance.
The fire department was called. Investigators arrived to check out the fiery rocks that had pocked the lobby in the most highly localized meteor shower anyone had ever seen.
Alora gave her statement to a police officer and went home. She was still in shock, unable to process the fact that she did all that damage that had driven people out of the building, that had summoned rescuers and investigators. She was only starting to feel the impact of the possibility that she might have hurt someone, or killed someone. And even if that someone was the worthless waste of air that was her boss, it would have been wrong, because it would have been murder.
Was it me?
Of course it was, another part of her said. Her dream self, perhaps. You have been dreaming of nothing but meteors.
There was a knock on her door. Alora jumped. She tried to calm herself. She didn’t answer. She wasn’t expecting anyone and she didn’t answer the door when she wasn’t expecting anyone.
A man’s voice spoke from outside. He said he had some questions for her about what happened that day in the lobby of her office building.
Alora hesitated. Then she pictured him breaking down the door and went to the door. She stood beside it and asked to see his badge and asked for his name.
“I don’t have a badge. I’m not a police officer or a federal agent or any other kind of official. I’m more of a private investigator. I saw the damage, the tiny meteors. I think you can help with a related case.”
“Why me? There were two hundred people in that lobby.”
“Do you ever eat at a place called Sam’s Chinese?”
Alora felt her heart skip. She said nothing.
“Have you gotten anything unexpected in one of your orders recently?”
Fear rose in her chest. Her fingers began to flicker.
“Look, miss, I’m not here to cause you any trouble. In fact, if you are the person I’m looking for, I think you might already be in some trouble. If you have the stuff, if you’ve…used it, then you need help right away. It’s very dangerous, not just to others, but to you as well.”
Something came shooting out from under the door, making Alora jump back. It was a business card.
“Forget about work tomorrow and come by my office. Not to sound dramatic, miss, but your life may very well depend upon it.”
Alora finally peeked through the peephole and saw the man walking away. She picked up his card and looked at it. It didn’t have his name, just the name of his company and a vague title. Paranormal investigators.
She didn’t sleep that night, and so she didn’t dream, but she wanted to, badly. She wanted to give herself a dream of forgetfulness, a fantasy world of unicorns and castles, like when she was twelve and had no cares. She’d rubbed the sand on her eyelids, but it was no good if she couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned, and woke up in a hot sweat, though the morning was cool. She was shaking. She felt a strange subdued anxiety and a pulse in her head as if a headache were about to come on. She wanted her dreams to be real and her reality to be a dream. She needed to handle things. But she didn’t know what to do. She needed help, but who could help her with such a problem?
She made a decision. It might have been a bad one, a disastrous one, but once she made it, she felt better, stronger.
When she walked into the offices of the paranormal investigator, the last person she expected to see was the good-looking man who had flirted with her over avocados at the farmers’ market. She hadn’t recognized his voice at all from the other side of her front door.
“My name is Al,” he said, offering his hand.
“Me too.” She stuck out her hand and firmly shook his. She smiled politely. “Alora, that is.”
“Alastair,” he said gesturing to the chair across from his desk.
She pulled out the carton of sand from her bag and placed it on his desk. Her hands shook as she did so, and she noticed that he noticed. He didn’t bother with small talk.
“Have you ever been addicted to anything in your life before, Alora?”
She shook her head.
“It’s a good thing you came in. I didn’t want to send the black suits after you, but after what you did yesterday, I would have had to, before you hurt anyone.”
“I wouldn’t have hurt anyone.”
“Are you sure? Were you in complete control?”
Alora sighed. She wasn’t sure. “Can you tell me what is happening?”
“Yes, and I’m afraid there is some bad news in it for you. But some good news too, depending on what you decide to do after I lay it all out for you.”
Alora folded her hands on her lap, sat up straight, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“I hope you’re not one of those people who has a hard time believing in weird things,” Alastair said, “or worse yet one of those people who believes in all the weird things.”
“I guess we’re both about to find out.”
Alastair nodded and he told her his part in the story.
Sam’s Chinese, aside from being a place where one could obtain quick and delicious, if not quite authentic, Chinese food, was a front for trade in mystical and supernatural items and substances. Alastair was a regular at Sam’s too, but not for the food. He went only for those mystical and supernatural items and substances. That was why he and Alora had never run into each other. When a carton of dream sand went missing over the weekend, the owner hired Alastair to track down the sand, and to figure out if it its loss was a mistake or a purposeful redirection, like if someone was skimming from the business or something.
The sand was a powerful hallucinogenic known as dream sand. But it wasn’t just a chemical. It was imbued with mystical energies. Its purpose was to give the user the most exciting, adventurous, and heroic dreams possible. When applied directly to a mucus membrane, it produced lucid dreams in most individuals. Alora really had gotten some in her eye that first night.
But dream sand wasn’t a recreational drug. It served a purpose. Normally, the dreams would get consumed. There was an arrangement in place. Designated sleepers took the sand and the dreams they generated were consumed (this was why people sometimes forget that they had any dreams at all upon waking). The beings who needed the dreams were known by a name that translated to “breathers of dreams.” Human dreams were like a nutrient or a vitamin that they needed. In the same way that plants thrived on the breath people breathed out, these beings thrived on the dreams that people dreamed. The arrangement was made for a reason, but Alastair didn’t go into the details of what humanity got out of the bargain.
He went into why it was important for the dream-sand-induced dreams to be consumed. The dreams were different from normal dreams. They were…alive. That time Alora felt as if her dream were continuing even after she woke, there was truth in that. The dreams continued, and they needed the dreamers mind to live, and that drained the dreamer of energy and vigor. The second problem with using the dream sand, especially if the dreams were remembered and not devoured, was that the dreamer developed a dependence on the sand. Everyone’s tolerance was different, but it didn’t take long.
“There’s a detoxification program,” Alastair said. “You’ve only been taking the dream sand for a few days without a breather paired up with you, so it won’t take you long to get through the program.”
Alora blinked. She had never taken any drug stronger than aspirin her whole life. She had rejected all those anecdotes about artists making better art when they were suffering or intoxicated, or both.
“The faster it’s done, the better,” Alastair continued. “But you will have a craving for it for the rest of your life, I’m afraid. The only good news is that this stuff is much, much harder to find than typical drugs.”
Alora crossed her arms. “Really?”
Alastair’s face fell. “I’m sorry this happened to you. It was a fluke. I’ll make sure that Sam pays for this mistake. For one thing, he’ll be paying for your treatment.”
“I made the meteors.” Alora peered into his eyes, locked her gaze with his. “I’ve been dreaming of mowing down my boss with meteors and yesterday I almost did it. How can a drug let me do that?”
For the first time since they met, Alastair looked nervous. “A subset of people have a particular reaction to the dream sand. They can do what you were able to do yesterday, bring dreams into reality. They can weave into solid form what began as thought energy.”
Alora realized that the look in his eyes was not just nervousness, but fear.
“At the market,” he continued, “you said you were an artist. That makes sense. Most of the instances I know of, where someone has developed this ability, that person is an artist, specifically a visual artist.”
Alora laughed, and her laugh was half-bitter and half-awed. “Everyone wants to make their dreams a reality, including me. And I did it, literally. If only I could make the boss’s dreams come true.”
“The bad ones.”
Alastair leaned forward onto his desk. “Alora, please don’t do that again. Dreams run wild, even when they are controlled. You can’t completely control a dream. Or a nightmare.”
“When did the meteors stop?” She had been too dazed to realize until then that she didn’t know. She thought they had stopped when she broke focus. But she remembers that they were still falling when she was being helped to the door.
“The last one fell about an hour after you left the scene.”
Alora exhaled and uncrossed her arms. She rubbed her hands against her legs. “The last year has been a challenge, but nothing I couldn’t handle. This last week…I haven’t had such a great week. But those dreams were the one good thing.” She looked up and felt her throat begin to close and her eyes fill with tears. She swallowed and composed herself. “But they weren’t real. I knew that. I was just trying to work out my issues until I could move on to a better job.”
“I met your boss briefly. This may sound cheesy, but I know of far better ways than violence to bring down a nasty character like that guy. You don’t need to bring nightmares to life, unless you’re okay with collateral damage to other people, and to yourself. Is he worth that?”
“No.” Alora felt her face grow stony. “But I’m not looking forward to being powerless again.”
“You mean ‘feeling’ powerless. How can you, now that you know what you’re capable of? And if you’re capable of making dreams manifest, what else are you capable of?”
“Something that scares you a little less, I hope.”
Alastair leaned back and for a moment she thought he would pretend that he wasn’t scared. But he only said, “So do I.”
“I’ll do it, then. I’ll do the treatment,” Alora said. Then she paused as a thought occurred to her, and with both hope and trepidation, she asked, “Dream sand doesn’t have any weird side effects, does it?”
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel