“I think we were supposed to cross that canyon.” She pulls free of my hand and stops. “If we don’t move through to the next level, you could be trapped here.”
I spin on my heel and face her. “I am not playing this stupid game anymore!” I shout. “That thing should not have been here! I am not”
Thunder cracks and lightning explodes across the sky. The beautiful blue day is gone. The skies are a dark, mottled gray. The clouds are roiling and churning. The thunder is pounding in a rhythm and the wind is picking up again.
Chimera’s face pales. She steps towards me, and her body shifts in the two steps it takes to reach me. She is back in her original form, her black wings spread across the sky. Her tail flicks across my face. Her fur is soft, and I plunge my hands into the down of her back.
The torrent is whipping up a frenzy around us, and I’m clinging to Chimera as her wings get buffered about around us. The shift that I am wearing is whipped around, and the clasp breaks. The fabric floats away, leaving me naked and scared. I don’t want to be scared, but that choice is out of my control.
Out of my control. I hate those words. And I hate this feeling.
I stand up and scream as loud as I can. I scream at the winds, the thunder, the feelings of inadequacy, the rage that has been hiding deep inside me and increasing in density year after year. I scream until my throat is hoarse. I scream until there is no sound left.
The sky splits above us, and the wind dies. In the silence, I can hear my breath heaving.
“Are you all right?” Chimera leans over me and places a hand on my back. Her skin is warm, making me feel cold.
That is a good question. I’m naked and cold, but I’m in control.
I stand up and look at Chimera. “I have never been better.” I grab her hand, pick a direction, and head off into the sea of green.
I let each step fuel my rage despite the tempest flaring about us. I am so tired of feeling less than deserving of my Dreamwalker status. Anne of Cleves’ nightmare was not my doing. Her death in reality was completely separate from me.
Reaching behind me, I clasp Chimera’s hand tighter and feel her wings flutter against my skin. She is airborne. It takes me a moment to realize why.
My steps are getting more difficult because I am sinking. I didn’t notice the grass had disappeared. When did that happen?
I take a step, and my foot plunges into the muck up to my ankle. I can’t pull it out to keep moving.
“Chimera, can you pull me up?” I shout over the torrent trying to separate us.
“I’m afraid my strength is failing me,” she calls down. “I cannot get purchase to elevate you over the mire.” A gust of overwhelming wind blasts through us, and she is spun head over heels away from me.
I scream her name, but the wind rips it from my lips and casts it aside.
I am sunk to my knees now with no hope of escape. I wonder what it feels like to drown in mud. Does the liquid reach your lungs or do you just suffocate from being cut off of air?
Such dreadful thoughts now. I was doing so well with passing my tests. Why did she have to enter into it? And why is this dreamscape so unforgiving? I defeated that bitch. I passed the test. Sort of. Why am I sinking into a mire of death?
I think of Artax giving up in the swamps of sadness. I am ready to give up. Poor Chimera is lost to me.
They’ll find her another Dreamwalker.
I feel the mud on my fingertips. It is cold against my calloused skin. Lifting my arms, I look at the mud that has trapped me to my hips and is still gaining.
Oh no, it swallowed my toe.
Oh gee, it’s up to my knee.
Shel Silverstein said it was a boa constrictor. I’m gonna be mad if I’m sinking into a snake’s gut.
Leaning back into a squat, I sit into the muck. I’ve given up like Artax. Accepted my fate like the man in the poem. Resigned myself like sweet Anne of Cleves.
With a deep breath, I lay back and let the mud take me.
Everything is dark. Darkness has a sound. It hums ever so faintly.
I’m tired of the dark. I’m tired of the blackness. It’s been so much darkness, and I want to feel light again.
I’m not dead yet. I’m still sinking deeper into the muddy blackness. I feel it trying to fill my ears, my nose, my eyes. It pushes at my lips, and I have to press hard to keep them clamped shut.
But if I fight to keep the mud out, have I really accepted this is my fate?
Retreating into myself, I try to find a corner of my mind where I can hide. There is nowhere to go. Unlike other dreams where I could get a piece of me always kept secret, there is nothing left.
Protocol requires a string to escape by. Where did my string go?
I am out of my depth in this continuing dreamscape. How could I have built such a cruel test? I couldn’t possibly hate myself this much?
But I did then. Oh, how I hated myself. I thought I deserved nothing but punishment and sorrow because that’s what I was told I deserved.
Thinking like the me that wanted myself punished for every bad choice, mistake, and friend trusted in vain, I open my eyes. I open my mouth, and in pours the mud.
I sink like a stone.
But I’m still not dead.
And I’m not alone.
Sitting across from me is a boy with eyes like ice. A fire flares between us, and I can see we are in a cave. Shadows dance on the walls across paintings of crude buffalo and men hunting them.
“Did she send you here?” I ask him.
The boy looks at me with a blank face. The fire light glistens on his blonde hair making it orange in undulating waves. He does not speak.
“What do you want?” I’m annoyed. I don’t know who this boy is supposed to be. He’s not talking, so he’s not helping me get back to Chimera.
Leaning across the fire, I reach for him. He scoots back and grins. His teeth are crooked in a minor way that makes him look older than I first thought. He’s easily a teenager. The shadows hide him from being wholely seen.
“All right. I give up. She wins. I am sufficiently punished this time. Now let me out of here.” I turn around and take a step to leave the cave when a pit opens before me.
To my left, I see mound of dirt with a shovel sticking out of it. I spin around and glare at the boy. He laughs at me.
“Any idiot can fill a hole. Just do it and get where you’re going.”
I glare more fiercely at him. He smirks and leans back into the shadows.
I pick up the shovel and thrust it into the mound of dirt. The soil smells fresh, and I like it. I scoop the dirt and toss it into the hole. Twisting back to the mound, I gather more dirt and toss it into the hole.
Over and over I collect the dirt and toss it into the hole. I start humming to myself; I’m enjoying the mindless exercise of repetitive motion. Back and forth. Back and forth. Moving the dirt from one place to another so I can continue on my journey.
I’ve hummed the song in my head five times now, so I lean over the pit to see my progress. I drop the shovel.
The pit isn’t just empty. It’s deeper than it was before.
I spin on the blonde boy with eyes like a glacier and say, “What game are you playing, boy? Why is the pit deeper?”
He smirks at me, and I want to slap him. I want to slap him so much, I start storming toward him to pop his head off like a zit.
He laughs and holds up his hands. “Any idiot can work a shovel. How is it my fault you can’t do this?”
“I know how to work a shovel because I’m not an idiot. Why does putting dirt in the hole make it deeper?” I’m within throttling distance of him, but he takes a few steps back.
“Are you sure you know how to work a shovel?”
I scream in his face. Apparently this is the challenge of seeing how long my lungs will hold out when my patience fails.
I grab handfuls of his shirt and pull him towards me. He keeps smirking at me to make me angrier. Now that he’s standing, he’s slightly taller than I am and definitely not a boy like I had originally thought.
His straw hair falls straight down his head and brushes the tips of his ears as he laughs. He grabs my arms, and his strength surprises me. Laughing in my face, he pushes me away from him. My hands fly out in front of me as I fall. My elbows skid against the dirt, and the rocks tear into my skin.
I am lying on the ground with my face in the dirt. Each breath out sends a cloud of dust rising in front of my face. The grit in my eyes makes them water.
With the dam broken, the tears of physical irritation turn into tears of genuine frustration. I sit up, and the shredded skin of my elbows sends twinges of pain up my arms.
I sit naked in the dirt and cry. My cries turn to sobs of agony, and the tears pour down my cheeks like rivers of pain. My body shudders as the sobs break free of my throat. I continue to cry, pulling my legs up and cradling them in my arms. Rocking back and forth, I let the agony pour out. Everything I thought I had already conquered fills me. The lies that the Griffin tore out of me. The criticisms that poured out of my torn and broken body. The idea of who I was and who I want to be.
My hands slide across my arms, and I can feel the shredded skin of my elbows. A nail snags on a flap of skin, and instead of hurting, the movement of flesh is pleasant.
I grab a larger piece of skin and pull it towards my wrist. Instead of excruciating pain, the feeling is more like becoming lighter. I look at my arm where I’ve peeled the skin from. I expect to see blood and muscle, but beneath the skin is another skin.
I pick at the edges of the wound I’ve made, and the skin pulls away cleanly. Gripping the old flesh, I pull away an even larger piece of skin. Still no blood.
Pushing my fingers under the skin at my wrist, I force my hand further in. The skin stretches like a latex glove. It splits open, and the skin glove falls to the ground.
My skin is fresh and pink from the elbow down on my left arm. I hold it up to the firelight and see the shadows dance across the me waiting beneath the surface. A large shadow falls across me, and I look up. The blonde standing over me, and his sneer is turning into a genuine smile.
“I remember that arm.” He takes my left hand in both of his, and he is warm on my new skin. Leaning over, he kisses my hand softly. His icy eyes twinkle when they meet mine. He sets my hand in my lap, wipes a tear off my cheek, and returns to the other side of the fire.
I sit and stare at my new skin. I wonder if there’s more beneath the rest of me. Digging my nails into the scraped skin on my right elbow, I pull the skin off. Fresh, pink, new; there is a new me waiting beneath this old skin. I’m going to dig her out.
I pull; I dig; I tear, and my old skin falls away. Warm air wafts across my new skin, and I shiver with delight. Standing, I take a step towards the fire to get more warmth on my exposed flesh. He is crouched behind the fire watching me.
“I’ve missed you,” he whispers. Staying crouched behind the flames, he watches me.
I smile and reach for him through the flames. “I’ve missed me too.”
He stands and takes a step towards me. The next step places him in the flames. He smiles, and I watch him dissolve into smoke over the fire.
I step into the fire. The smoke envelops me, and my world becomes gray. The next step I take leads me to a world of blue skies.