Astra turned her head to the side, opened her eyes, and found herself lying on warm bed of bouncy green grass that smelled a little like cotton candy.
To her left, she heard the gentle gurgling of a stream. She smiled a little, because she knew she was dreaming. But the dream was so vivid that she felt a stone poking her back, and she smelled the fresh watery earthy scent of the dirt. Birds chirped and cheeped nearby, one of them singing a tune she recognized from music class. She lay in the grass basking in the warmth of the sunlight that was striking her at the perfect angle, feet first, until she heard a voice.
It was her brother calling out “hello.”
Just as Astra sat up, she heard a distant droning in the sky. She glanced up, expecting to see a plane, but it was a dragonfly. It was far away and far above, but she could still see and hear it. It wasn’t a plane, but it must have been the size of one.
She rose and immediately saw Fen glancing around and taking a few steps. She was amused to see that he was still in his pajamas, printed with green elephants. She looked down and saw that she was wearing her pajamas as well, printed with cutesy monsters. She wondered if she could change that.
“What are you doing in my dream?” Astra asked as Fen spotted her and they walked toward each other.
“I was going to ask you that.”
Astra crossed her arms. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
The siblings pieced together their bedtime conversation with their mom. They had been “camping out” in the living room. Their mom had said “lights out,” but they wanted to stay up and recount their adventure of the day—a visit to the natural history museum—and to plan even more adventures. They tried to convince her to let them stay up just a bit longer. She told them that the vastest realm to explore was the dream realm, because it had no limits, and unlike imagination, where they were separate from what they imagined, in dreams, they would actually experience what their minds produced. They both knew she was trying to trick them into going to sleep, but they relented after extracting a promise of ordering pizza the next day. And they knew she was pretending not to hear them as they whispered to each other about what they wanted to explore, until they fell asleep.
“Are we in one dream together?” Fen asked.
“I wonder how.” Astra shrugged. “Let’s look around. Maybe we can find some clues. Or…we can do what we wanted to do.”
Typical-looking forests lined either side of the meadow they found themselves in, which was cut through by a little stream. Upstream, in the distance, they saw mountains that glowed purple against a late afternoon sun. Downstream, they saw a glowing pink and purple light, and smelled an enticing caramel candy apple scent that decided their direction for them.
As they walked downstream close to shore, they realized that the grass was getting taller and taller.
“Or maybe we’re shrinking,” Fen wondered aloud.
Sure enough, as they kept walking they soon encountered a line of marching ants that were the size of cars.
One of the ants turned to them. “Humans…nice.”
“Ey, try not to step on us on the way to the booth, huh?” another said.
A synchronized chuckle passed along the line of ants.
Astra wanted to ask what booth they were referring to, but the ants marched relentlessly onwards, and anyway, she didn’t need to. Past the marching ants, she spotted an array of several booths. The siblings dodged and “excused me” their way through the ant line and approached the seemingly empty booths.
There were no workers visible, but tickets were being generated from an old-timey looking machine with round bronze buttons and three levers. They tickets floated away beyond the borders of the booth.
“Where to, kids?” a voice asked.
Astra and Fen glanced around to find the source of the voice. When the question was repeated, they noted that the lights of the booth blinked in rhythm with the voice. And they realized that it was the booth itself that was speaking to them.
“Uh…we don’t know,” Astra said. “Could you help us?”
“You can roam your own dreams for free,” the booth said. “But if you want to go into the Dream Dimension, where you can dream as a group, retain full memory, et cetera, et cetera, you need a ticket.”
“I’m eleven and my brother is nine.”
“Congratulations on your several years of life,” the booth said.
Astra frowned. She had revealed their ages in case there were age restrictions.
A glowing light illuminated a sign at the front of the booth.
Astra stepped back and tried to read the sign. She recognized that there were characters written in lines that looked like a bulleted list, but she didn’t know the characters. “It looks like gobbledygook.”
“Let your mind adjust and it will translate.”
As Astra kept staring at the sign, the characters began to shift into ones she could read. She grinned and started reading aloud. “Dream Sector Alpha. Basic fantasies. Opening gifts. Eating rocky road brownies—wait, I don’t like rocky road brownies.”
“I do!” Fen said.
“Dream Sector Beta…Zeta…Theta. Hey, I know this. This is the Greek alphabet.”
The booth blinked its light. “If you say so.”
Astra knelt down to get a better look at what seemed to be a menu of choices. “Dream Sector Kappa. Your worst nightmares. Why would anyone purposely want to have a nightmare?”
“I don’t presume to understand what you humans are about,” the booth said. “I’m just here to dispense the tickets.”
Fen knelt down beside his sister. “Astra, I can’t read anything.”
“It doesn’t make sense. It looks like your math homework.”
“Okay, let me read it all out loud, and we’ll figure out where we want to go.”
“Yeah, we should definitely stick together…until we figure things out anyway.”
Astra didn’t recognize a few of the Greek letters. And those letters had no descriptions next to them. The booth was little help, suggesting they could wake up, look it up, and return.
Astra rose and crossed her arms. “But…are these coming from my mind? How can I read them if I didn’t know about them before? And if I can know about the letters now, how come I don’t see any meanings for them?”
The booth blinked. “I don’t make the rules.”
Astra glanced up at the lights. “What rules?”
“There are no rules. You’re dreaming.”
Astra and Fen glanced at each other, then shrugged.
“Youngest goes first,” Astra said. “You choose.”
“This one.” Fen pointed to the Dream Sector designated Disigma, also known as Sampi.
“It sounds like ‘Sam Pie,’” Fen said, grinning. It was no wonder he picked that one.
“Well, we are dreaming, so I guess there could be someone named Sam in there who has pies.”
Fen had also picked one of the letters that had no description. Astra would have too if it were her turn to choose. But now a twinge of worry gripped her stomach.
“What if it’s dangerous in there?” she asked the booth, not expecting a response. But this time, the booth had a useful answer.
“Any time you want to exit the sector, and the dream altogether, all you have to do is tear up your tickets.”
As the siblings walked past the booth stuffing their tickets into their pockets, they immediately noticed a shift in their environment. The grass began to glow with its own light. The stems of plants and trunks of trees were various shades of purple instead of green and brown. Stones and rocks were colored pink and red instead of various shades of gray. And much to Fen’s delight, it certainly did smell like pie in the air. A warm flaky buttery aroma wafted past them, chased by the scent of berries, and the occasional whiff of chocolate.
They were still walking through a meadow of tall grass. They didn’t seem to be growing or shrinking. And they still kept to the banks of the stream, following it down.
In the distance, they spotted tall feathery curled stalks of different colors, some of them glowing, and there was singing coming from ahead. They aimed to meet whoever was singing and ask them about exciting places they might visit in the sector. Fen tugged on Astra’s sleeve and pointed to the blades of grass that towered over their heads. Some of them had markings on them, numbers. Others had images painted on them, images of tigers, panthers, jaguars, and various other big cats that the siblings didn’t recognize, including one with green fur and another with blue fur.
They came across a grasshopper holding a palette in one limb and a paintbrush in one of the others. The grasshopper was humming and painting on the blades of grass. The painting was of a red-maned lion standing majestically on a cliff. The siblings tried to compliment the painting, but when the grasshopper responded, they heard only chirps.
They smiled and nodded and moved along.
As the siblings discussed how they would communicate with the inhabitants of the sector, maybe by asking other human visitors—if they saw any—or going back to the booth to see if it had any tips, they were almost knocked down by two field mice who came zooming toward them.
Astra pulled Fen out of the way as the mice raced past, whipping their tails. They came to a sudden stop and pivoted. They trotted toward the siblings.
“Humans, nice,” one of them said, in a voice that was not at all squeaky. “Why are you so small?”
“I don’t know,” Astra said, exchanging a glance with her brother.
“Sorry about almost trampling you, kids,” the other mouse said. “We were just having a friendly little race.”
“Maybe we should take it to the skies, before we actually flatten someone. Hot air balloon race?” With that, the first mouse puffed up her cheeks and squeezed so that her head grew to four times its size. She began to float up and away, carried by a breeze.
The other mouse looked at her, then glanced at the kids. “She’ll win for sure. She’s chock full of hot air, that one.” Then he puffed up his cheeks, blew up his head, and also floated away.
Astra chuckled as she waved at the mice.
“Hey, we understood them,” Fen pointed out.
“You’re right. Maybe it’s the same as the booth sign. We’ve adjusted.”
Fen sighed. “But I still couldn’t read the booth sign.”
“Remind me to teach you the Greek letters when we wake up.”
“Why are we small?” Fen asked.
The siblings speculated on the question as they continued to walk along, ears attuned to the sounds of any more racing mice or ant stampedes, or anything else that might do them in. They were drawn by hungry bellies toward the smell of food ahead. The food was close, maybe just within the field of colorful feathery stems. They passed a sign that indicated they were entering the Fuzzy Fern Forest.
“Maybe it’s because we’re kids and we feel small,” Astra said. “It’s a dream though. We should be able to change that, right? We should be able to do things we can’t do in the real world.”
Fen shrugged. Then he grinned and held out his hands. “I want a strawberry pie!”
An outline of a pie sparkled into view in his hands, but quickly vanished.
“You have to believe,” a deep and gravelly voice said from above.
The siblings glanced up and saw a humongous—to them anyway—turquoise-colored lady beetle perched on one of the glowing feathery stalks.
“But I do believe in the pie,” Fen insisted.
“Not the pie, Prince Fengari. You have to believe that you can manifest the pie—make it real that is.”
“You know my name?”
“Of course, Fengari, Prince of the Moon. And Astra, Sovereign of the Stars.” The beetle shifted to look at Astra.
“How do you know us, sir?” Astra asked.
“Welcome to Disigma,” the lady beetle said. “I am king of this sector. I know the names of everyone who enters it. You can call me Sam.”
“Sam Pie?” Fen whispered.
“Look around and have fun,” King Sam said. “And if you run into any trouble, but don’t want to leave the dream, call my name. I can hear it anywhere in the sector. I’ll come—oh, someone is calling. Just stay within the borders of the sector—oh, I must go. Have fun, you two!”
The king’s turquoise shell opened to reveal his flight wings. They thrummed to action as he pushed off the stalk and flew away.
“I wonder what happens if two people call him at the same time?” Fen wondered aloud.
They continued on, still following the scent of food.
“I wish he could have stayed and told us more about how to make pies,” Fen said.
“Sounds like you just have to believe in yourself.”
“I do believe in myself.”
“Then maybe we’re missing something. Let’s go find someone else to ask, now that we can speak the sector language.”
They saw other turquoise lady beetles perched on the glowing fuzzy ferns as they traveled deeper into the forest. The siblings tried to talk to them, but the beetles kept flying off. Some of them said things like “on my way” and “hang on, I’m coming” before they left. And they all sounded like Sam.
“That explains a lot,” Astra commented.
Both siblings tried to manifest pies in their hands. And both almost succeeded, but couldn’t quite figure it out.
“It’s like, I understand the concept, but I can’t apply it,” Astra said aloud. It was the way she sometimes felt during math lessons.
But that feeling—at least so far—was eventually followed by the triumphant moment when she figured out the application part.
“It feels like it’s slipping away,” Fen said. His shoulders were slumping and he groaned a little.
“Come on,” Astra said, starting to job ahead. “If we can’t make pies, I’m sure we can find some. There has got to be some food up ahead. We’ve been following the tasty smells forever. Race you!”
As they raced each other, laughing and dodging the feathery ferns that bobbed around them, they came at last to the food they had been following since entering the sector.
A group of humanoid people their own size, with silvery gray skin, large black eyes, and bald heads were gathered near the banks of the stream. Dozens of them were making their way through an alley made of booths that all seemed to be selling food. Some of them were filling barrels at the stream, which seemed to be bubbling and was now colored a deep cola-brown.
“Aliens?” Fen whispered to Astra.
Before she could answer, a few of the humanoids approached.
“We are the nobles of the Food Court,” one of the people said. “And we bid you welcome.”
“Sam said you’d be coming,” said another.
They introduced themselves by name and escorted the siblings to a table.
“Help yourselves to whatever you want. Or pick from the menu and we’ll bring it to the table for you.”
Astra smelled barbecue and cheddar cheese and some kind of chocolate dessert. She sighed in disappointment. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any money. Is there something we can trade? She looked down at herself, but she was still just wearing her pajamas. She didn’t have any earrings on, or a pen in her pocket, or even a hair tie around her wrist.
Fen likewise had nothing of value to trade. He only had a folded up facial tissue in one pajama pocket. He said it had been there since the last time he had a cold.
But the members of the Food Court insisted that everything was complimentary to the honored guests.
The siblings ate.
And they ate and they ate.
Astra started by hesitantly nibbling on some honey-roasted peanuts. But soon she was chomping on chips and salsa, a barbecued chicken leg, macaroni and cheese with crumbled potato chips on top, and a slice of melty warm chocolate cake with a scoop of strawberry ice cream.
Fen started with dessert. He still had pie on his mind. First he had a slice of strawberry pie with whipped cream, then he moved on to chocolate custard, then he had some lemon meringue—hold the meringue. But he too moved on to the savory after seeing all the different dishes that his sister was sampling. He ate spaghetti and meatballs—his favorite—and three-cheese pizza, then tater tots, and chicken nuggets shaped like hands (in response to his sister’s raised brows, he claimed that it was satisfying to bite the fingers off).
And both siblings drank pitcher after pitcher of sparkling cola fresh from the stream.
“I can’t move,” Astra said. She waddled slowly forward. Fen followed. They had managed to make it out of Fuzzy Fern Forest and drag their overstuffed bellies with them.
Those bellies didn’t stretch out big in the dream as they would have in real life if they’d eaten and drunk as much as they had at the Food Court feast. But then, in real life, if they had eaten that much food, their stomachs would probably have really burst, and they would have died.
Fen groaned. “I’m dying. Astra, I’m dying!”
“Okay, let’s stop right here.” Astra took a labored breath as she pulled her dream ticket out of her pocket. “I think…maybe…it’s time to wake up.”
As she spoke the last words, they heard a droning sound approaching, a sound that was vaguely familiar to Astra.
They glanced up. A dragonfly was heading toward them from upstream. It was dropping altitude fast, and it seemed to be spewing smoke and fire. As the siblings stood where they were, back in open meadow, they realized that the dragonfly that was as big as a biplane was bearing directly down on them.
And it was breathing fire.
Astra and Fen, their full stomachs forgotten, began to run, angling away from their previous path. The dragonfly swooped over them. With a roar and a spout of flame, the dragonfly crashed into the ground, turning to the side, and tumbling over and over until coming to a stop on all six feet.
Astra and Fen clutched each other and watched, trying to discern if the creature was dead.
With an unexpected grace—given the manner of landing—the dragonfly spun around and faced the siblings.
“By the skies! I’m so sorry!” the dragonfly said, in a surprisingly gentle and quiet voice. She sounded almost distant until she bounced up onto droning wings and hovered over to them. “Are either of you hurt? Singed? Burned? Roasted? Seared? Please tell me you’re all right!”
Astra and Fen, who were still clutching each other out of fear, felt their fear fade as the dragonfly continued her profuse apologies, in the midst of which, she gasped, turned her head to the side, and coughed a few times.
Flames spewed from her mouth each time.
“Are you…sick?” Astra asked.
“Sick? What’s that?”
The siblings exchanged a glance.
Fen explained what it meant to be sick.
“Oh, that sounds unpleasant. I hope I’m not sick.”
“It sound as if you are,” Astra said. “I mean, I can’t tell if you’re congested, because I don’t know if this is your normal voice, since we just met. But it sounds like you’re coughing. Do you normally spit fire like that?”
“No—well, yes—but no. I mean, I do spit fire, but I can usually control it. And I’m an excellent lander, by the way. What you just saw was…oh my skies. I’m so sorry!”
“It’s okay. We’re not hurt,” Fen said.
“But you are,” Astra told the dragonfly. “Too bad we don’t know where we could find some cold and cough medicine. Sounds like that’s what you need.”
Suddenly, Astra froze as she pictured the medicine in her mind—the bottle, the chemical components. By instinct, she held out her hand, and she manifested a bottle of cough medicine.
“How did you do that?” Fen marveled.
Astra shrugged. She knew, but the knowledge was fading, the way memories of a dream faded after she woke up.
The bottle had a dropper. Astra administered the medicine to the dragonfly, who said she was already feeling better. Her throat felt clearer. Sure enough when she spoke, her voice was smoother than it was when they first met. Astra read out the instructions, and told the dragonfly to keep taking the medicine until she felt better and then to stop.
“Thank you, both,” the dragonfly said. “My head was like a cloudy sky. It feels so much better now, like a clear sky. I can give you a ride somewhere, if I may, to return the favor.”
The siblings explained that they were just about to leave the sector.
“On your next visit then,” the dragonfly said. “Be sure to look me up. My name is Meek. Farewell, my new friends!”
Meek cleared her throat, then launched herself into the air. She rose quickly, made a somersault—as if showing off—then zoomed away downstream.
Fen pulled his dream ticket out of his pocket in preparation for waking.
“Oh, no,” Astra said, as she checked all of her pockets, and found them empty. She remembered. “I think I dropped it when we ran from Meek.”
They scanned the meadow for the ticket. It couldn’t have burned up. If it had been destroyed, Astra would have vanished from the dream as she woke up.
Astra spotted the ticket near the banks of the stream. She raced toward it, just as a stray breeze picked it up and dropped it in the stream. She called out to Fen, who had stuffed his own ticket securely back in his pocket.
The siblings followed the stream, which had seemed so lazy earlier, and now was like a rushing rapids. They ran until the meadow thinned out into packed earth and stone. The stream was thinning too, but the ticket was still just ahead of them. They noticed that the environment was growing dimmer and bleaker. The colors were fading to gray. They spotted a tall fence up ahead. The stream ended beyond it, emptying into a puddle of bubbling mud. The ticket had landed on the putrid-looking banks on the other side of that fence, which was marked with a sign written in large red letters, “Danger: Sector Kappa.”
“Stay here,” Astra said as the siblings stood at the fence, gazing at the ticket just beyond reach. A sulfurous stench struck their noses. And something crashed through the straggly gray forest that lay several yards from the fence. “I’ll creep over, grab the ticket, and sneak back. And if something happens, I’ll just tear the ticket as soon as I have it, and I’ll wake up. Then you do the same.”
Fen nodded and gulped.
Astra squeezed easily through one of the links in the fence. Her slippers squelched in the rotting mud. She crouched low and kept her eyes on the tree line.
Suddenly, she heard Fen cry out. She turned and looked behind herself.
Something had grabbed her little brother. A mucky tendril coming from the puddle of mud. The tendril was dragging him toward the fence. He was smaller than her. He would easily fit through the link.
“Fen! Tear your ticket!” she cried.
Fen screamed, but then he looked at her and asked. “Do you have yours?”
Astra turned and tried to reach for it, but another tendril lurched out of the puddle and grabbed the ticket. Then something emerged from the puddle. The oily mud slicked off the thing and a single stalk with a huge yellow flower rose from the puddle’s surface, at the base of the stalk was something that looked like a huge misshapen balloon. The tendrils were coming from inside the balloon’s opening. One of them pulled her ticket into the balloon.
The other tendril squeezed Fen through the fence. Astra cried out in anger. She pictured a weapon, a pristine blade so sharp it could slice through sunlight, an ebony hilt etched with silver calligraphy that marked the sword’s name. She held out her hand, and she manifested the sword. She swung down and severed the tendril that was holding Fen. But another tendril shot forth, and another, grabbing both her and Fen. Astra dropped the sword. They were dragged toward the balloon, its opening expanding to fit them, and before they knew it, they were swallowed by the monster in the mud.
The tendrils released them and fell away once the siblings were inside the balloon. They were waist-high in some kind of sticky goo. Astra tried to manifest the sword again, but she couldn’t even manifest a sparkly outline. She feared it was still lying on the ground where she had dropped it.
“I saw a sign when it was dragging me in,” Fen said. “It said, ‘Beware the Blood-Sucking Bladderwort.’ It’s going to eat us, Astra. I think it’s already eating us.” He banged a fist against the bladder wall.
Astra turned to her brother.
“Tear your ticket,” she said. “Get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Astra reached for Fen’s pocket. The siblings struggled, but Astra managed to pull the ticket out of his pocket. She tore it before he could stop her, expecting him to vanish in a dust of sparkles.
But nothing happened.
A realization dawned on her. “It was a group ticket,” she whispered, her eyes widening with horror.
The bladder was filling with more liquid. They were running out of time.
“What about the king?” Fen said.
Horror turned to hope, then back to horror. “We’re outside Disigma. What if he doesn’t hear us?”
“We have to try.”
Both siblings called his name. “Sam!”
Within seconds, they heard the king’s voice outside.
“My friends! You are outside of my sector. I can’t help you. Why don’t you tear your tickets?”
They explained how Astra had lost hers, and she couldn’t find it in the muck of the bladder.
“Sam, we met a fire-breathing dragonfly named Meek,” Astra said. “Can you find her and get her here? Her fire might be enough to hurt the bladderwort, and force it to open up and let us go.”
Sam told them to hang on and try to manifest some weapon while he flew off to find Meek.
“Do you think that will really work?” Fen asked.
“I don’t know what else to try. I dropped my sword. I can’t manifest anything else. I don’t know why. Sorry I got you into this Fen.”
“You don’t have to blame yourself for everything just because you’re the oldest. I chose to come.”
“I just hope he can find her in time. I hope she hasn’t flown too far away.”
“Maybe we’ll wake up anyway,” Fen said. His shoulders hitched. A tear trickled down his cheek.
Its twin trickled down Astra’s cheek as she hugged her brother. They probably would wake up. It was only a dream. It was only…a terrifying nightmare about drowning in digestive juices.
Sam’s voice was the most beautiful sound either sibling had heard all dream.
The next sound they heard was even more beautiful. It was a cough and a roar.
They heard a squeal of pain and splashing. The bladder began to shake. The siblings couldn’t keep their footing. They fell into the liquid just as the bladder began to open. Within seconds, they found themselves lying in the emptied bladder.
“Hurry! I don’t want to accidentally roast you!” Meek cried.
Astra pushed Fen out of the bladder before squeezing through herself. They began to run toward the fence. They ducked as a burst of fire passed over their heads, driving the bladderwort’s grasping tendrils back so the siblings could reach the fence.
Astra and Fen squeezed through the links and tumbled back into Sector Disigma. They rose and dashed out of the reach of the tendrils.
But Astra still didn’t have her ticket.
Meek hovered overhead, her wings droning. If she burned the bladderwort completely, it would destroy the ticket that was still floating in the bladder somewhere.
It’s just a dream, Astra reasoned. It’s not a real live plant.
“But no, we can’t kill it.” She called out to the fire-breathing dragonfly to stop her attack. She turned to Fen. “Let’s go back to the booth. I’m sure it’ll tell us what to do.”
“Or you can just use this.” Fen held up a ticket.
“You found it! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Fen shook his head. “I didn’t find it. I tried to manifest it. And it worked!”
“But how…?” Astra thought back to the times when she succeeded in manifesting something. It was when she was doing it for someone else, and not for herself. Fen’s manifestation must have worked for the same reason. He had done it for her.
“You can wash off in the stream,” King Sam said, landing before them. The stream on the Disigma side of the fence was clean fresh water. The lady beetle glanced at the fence and raised his gleaming hindwings toward it in a threat.
Meek fluttered her wings. “And I can give you a ride back to…uh, wherever you want to go.”
“Thank you, both, for saving us, but we’ve done enough exploring for now,” Astra said. “Disigma is the best, King Sam. Thank you for letting us explore it.”
“We had a great time, mostly,” Fen said, waving at their new friends.
“You did? But you didn’t even stop by the Mall of Magnificence,” King Sam said.
Meek nodded. “Or the Palatial Playground.”
“We’ll just have to come back sometime soon,” Astra said.
Fen gave a nod. “And we’ll make sure we stay in the sector next time. I’ll tape my sister’s ticket to her forehead or something.”
Astra laughed as she tore her ticket.
The siblings watched each other sparkle and fade from the dream, just before the dream sparkled and faded from them.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel