The man with the moustache glared across the table at Shellen, daring him to say something. This had been going on for ages, both men sitting, staring. It was becoming increasingly difficult not to fidget. Shellen’s stomach growled. He tried to remember when he’d last eaten and couldn’t. For that matter, how long had he been in this chair with his hands cuffed and chained to this table? Hours or eternity.
“Listen man,” Shellen said finally. “I know my rights. I get a phone call and I don’t have to talk to you.”
Moustache man smiled coolly.
“I don’t think you understand much young man,” he said. “You seem to be the sole, miraculous survivor of what looks to be an act of terror, and all you had to say for yourself when they pulled you out was that…” he checked his notes and cleared his throat. “Your mother claims that you don’t have a hisory of mental illness,” he said in an obvious change of subject, “so the press is selling it as a psychotic break, but we haven’t ruled anything out, including the possibility that this was an orchestrated attack.”
“You talked to my mom?” Shellen asked, feeling fury rise inside. “I want to talk to her! You can’t keep me here like this!”
He realized instantly that the correct response would have been, “what do you mean by orchestrated attack?”
Moustache man gathered his papers and tucked them into the neat blank file folder, and without another word, left the room. Shellen knew it was useless to strain against the cuffs but he did so anyway out of pure frustration. The worst part was that he wasn’t even certain that the explosion hadn’t been his fault, and though he couldn’t remember why, he suspected that the orchestrated part of this news may not have been a surprise to him either.
A pretty blonde woman entered. Like all of the people before her she wore a dark suit and carried a folder. He wondered if it was the same folder shared between them or if they had each compiled their own separate notes. She seated herself opposite to him and smiled warmly.
“I’m Emily,” she said. “I help people to talk about traumatic events. Will you let me help you talk about what happened to you, Shellen?”
‘Ah,’ Shellen thought, ‘the good cop.’
Emily nodded as if she had read his thought.
“I understand why you might be suspicious,” she said. “Can you understand why we are as well?”
She reached out and put her hand on his wrist in a comforting manner.
“Let’s you and I try to start instead from a place of trust. Here,” she said, pulling a photograph from the folder. “This is what has everyone so upset. Personally, I don’t think you had anything to do with it.”
Three scenes of utter devastation. A lump grew in Shellen’s throat. If anyone had been in there, the chances of them being okay seemed slim.
“Was anyone… were people…”
Emily nodded, her eyes soulful and understanding.
“We need your help Shellen, so we can catch whoever planned this before they do any more damage. Please. We need to know anything you can remember. The smallest detail could be the key.”
She tucked the horrible photographs back into the folder.
“Before you awoke you were talking,” she coaxed. “Who is Anna?”
Shellen could tell that his face had given something away by Emily’s barely hidden look of excitement.
“Is she involved?” she asked quickly.
“No,” Shellen denied before he could stop himself. “She’s… she’s nobody. Anna isn’t involved in any of this.”
He was cringing inside before he’d finished speaking. Crafty Emily had found a weak point after exactly two minutes with him and he’d opened his big mouth and gobbled the dangling bait. He could swear he felt the burn of a hook in his throat.
“And you?” Emily asked. “How are you involved, Shellen?”
Shellen sat back and gazed blandly at the mirror behind Emily, wondering who might be watching from the other side of the glass.
“Well,” she sighed, “no matter. A young woman named Anna was apprehended and I’d be willing to bet she’s the same one you think you’re protecting.”
“You have the wrong person if her name is Anna,” he said. He knew he should shut up but he couldn’t help himself. “She doesn’t go by Anna.”
“Yes, that sounds right,” Emily said brightly. “I believe she does go by something else, now that you mention it. Anna was her name at birth.”
A cold pit opened under Shellen’s stomach.
“Shellen, we know more than you’d think,” Emily said gently. “You met Anna, as we’ll call her, for the first time a month ago, right? On a Thursday night, I believe.”
A month? Shellen frowned. That wasn’t right. He’d lost track of time again. Anna had warned that could happen. He shrugged in answer to Emily’s question.
“You were paired with her,” she continued, “in a dream.”
Shellen’s eyes snapped up to meet Emily’s gaze. How could they know that?
“Do you think we’re unaware of dream skaters?” she asked, her tone almost pitying. “Shellen, the sooner you come to terms with the fact that the life you knew is over, the better this will go. Nothing you say here is going to let you go back to the way things were. So, the trajectory of your life from here forward is up to you. I’m offering you a way to make things better for yourself but you’re going to have to talk about what happened, and you’re going to have to be honest. There are limits to what I’ll be able to do to help you but I can help. Depending on the value of the information you give, I might be able to negotiate a relocation in a witness protection program instead of where they’re currently planning on sending you.”
“Which is where?” Shellen asked.
Everything he’d experienced in the last month had convinced him to keep his mouth shut and protect Anna but the gravity of his situation was starting to sink in. Emily’s expression became grim.
“Nowhere good,” she said quietly. “You were paired with Anna as part of an initiation,” she prompted.
Shellen nodded. There was a time for loyalty and then there was the reality of disappearing down a dark government hole if he didn’t play his cards right. Besides, who was Anna to him, really? A fellow initiate into a secret society he hadn’t even applied to. They’d approached him. How was he to know he hadn’t been duped from the start?
“Yes,” he confirmed.
Emily smiled and squeezed his wrist again.
“Good,” she said. She seemed relieved. “You’re making the right choice. Tell me about how you two met.”
Shellen leaned back and closed his eyes.
“It was a dream, as you said. I was surrounded by people but only Anna was in focus. They explained to us that they’d been watching us for a while. They called us dream skaters and said that Anna had been skating for a long time so they had put us together. I had potential and she had experience.”
Emily watched him with her wide, encouraging gaze.
”Go on,” she prompted.
“We were going to be given a series of tasks, each one in a different… location…”
He’d almost said ‘world’ but couldn’t imagine the amount of explaining he’d have to do then.
”What kinds of tasks?” Emily asked.
”The first few were easy,” he said. “Pick up a backpack here, deliver it there.”
”They had you delivering things?” Emily asked with interest.
Shellen paused. In light of the photos she’d shown him he realized with sickening clarity how stupid he’d been to refrain from peeking or even asking about the contents of those packages. Anna had seemed so self-assured about the whole thing. Almost bored by it, truth be told. He’d gone along for the ride, too wrapped up in the fact that he could dream so lucidly.
”You don’t understand,” Shellen said. “Anna said she’d been doing stuff like this her whole life. She had some crazy stories, from her childhood, you know? And then she said she’d been locked out for years, so this initiation was exactly what she’d been waiting for, and delivering a few dumb bags from one…” he’d almost said it again. “You know, from one dream to the next,” he continued, “she made it sound like it was nothing. No big deal. I didn’t think to question it,” he admitted bleakly.
”Tell me about your first assignment,” Emily prompted.
Shellen smiled, leaning back. “I remember Anna told me that I’d be fine and gave me this easy smile before she grabbed my wrist and pulled me through a doorway I hadn’t noticed before. I felt like my guts turned to spaghetti. Everything spun for a while and then we stood in an old forest. Like, really old. Biggest trees I’d ever seen. And Anna’s eyes were wide with excitement.
”She touched one of the huge trunks and closed her eyes. Whatever she’d expected apparently didn’t happen because she stepped away again with a disappointed sigh. ‘Well, let’s get going,’ she said, and I stumbled after her along a path that I hadn’t realized was there.
“Most of our adventures over the next few days went the same way. Anna led and I stumbled along after her. There is something I never figured out… at each checkpoint Anna asked the person waiting for us if they knew someone called…”
He almost had the name but at that moment Emily tapped her finger on the folder and he lost his train of thought. She seemed so well put together and he found it odd that she might have a nervous habit. He tried to recall what he’d been saying.
”I can never remember his name when I wake up,” he explained. “It started with a ‘D’ I think. None of the people we met knew him, anyway, but all of them reminded us again and again that dream skaters must show absolute loyalty to each other if they’re to be initiated.”
Emily raised an eyebrow.
”Initiated into what?” she asked.
”I asked again and again,” Shellen sighed. “‘Everything’ was the answer, and always said with this annoyingly knowing smile. I asked a few times what would happen if we failed initiation or stopped playing along, you know, that kind of thing.”
”And?” Emily asked.
”’Then you have everything to lose,’ was the answer. It was like it was scripted. The warnings and responses never varied. I woke at intervals between these… adventures and muddled through those days in complete distraction.”
“I imagine,” Emily said. “It seems like the kind of thing most people would want to talk about with a friend. You didn’t turn to anybody?”
“I considered telling my friend Jordan about it after the first dream but I found myself hesitating until the moment just wasn’t right anymore,” Shellen replied. “Anna had said that those warnings about loyalty had meant silence on the subject of the dreams, and I think that I was too nervous to find out what the elusive punishment would be, just in case this wasn’t all a figment of my imagination. That next night, when I woke to Anna leaning over my bed, I was glad I’d kept my mouth shut.
”There you are,’ she’d said with this smile of relief that I’ll never forget. She said, ‘it took me a while to find you. We need to get going. They’ve already assigned us our task and I only have a few hours left before I have to wake up.’ Then she threw this cloak over me and we headed out.”
”Cloak?” Emily asked.
“The cloak is a metaphor,” Shellen explained. “Anna taught me all about it. The dream worlds are safe enough for most people but dream skaters can be targeted, and hurt. She said the quickest way to achieve the protection you need is just to imagine yourself wearing a cloak. It felt silly, but it’s worked to keep me hidden more than once. She did say that once you get more comfortable with all of this you can set the cloak image aside and just cloak your presence to pass unnoticed.”
”’Unnoticed by whom?’ Emily asked. “What enemies would you have, Shellen? In dreams or otherwise? You seem like a nice guy.”
Shellen smiled ruefully. “Just being a dream skater is enough reason for me to have enemies in my dreams,” he said. “They’d just appear. I think they go after regular dreamers too, but they’re just thought of as nightmares. Anna had all kinds of names and categories for them. I couldn’t keep them straight. The thing they all shared in common was that they were made of shadows and fear. Anna hinted that they were drawn to our light. Thus the use of cloaks and hiding.”
Emily nodded. “Light,” she said softly, as if discovering a missing piece to a puzzle. “Astute.”
Shellen felt uneasy suddenly.
”So,” Emily said, “you’re an initiate. You’ve been paired up with Anna, who seems to know a lot about everything. There are nightmare creatures from which you have to hide and a secret organization tasking you with transporting unknown items. What did you figure out about this shadowy organization? You were initiating into their ranks, I imagine you were curious about what it was you were joining.”
Shellen studied Emily. She was pretty but not so glassily perfect to trigger distrust. She had just enough endearing little flaws to make her seem relatable. You wanted to trust her on an instinctive level. He wondered suddenly why he hadn’t thought to check yet whether he was awake. The test was an easy one. Names never seemed to translate well between sleeping and waking and there was one name he never got right when he was awake. It was the man Anna asked about every time she met another dream skater.
“Demin,” he said under his breath.
Emily’s eyes went wide.
”Is that the name of the leader?” She asked, but Shellen had the first sense since she’d entered the room that she was being insincere. The name had meant something to her.
Shellen shook his head. He felt like he was sinking.
“I’m in a dream, right now,” he said. His voice sounded as hollow as he felt. “That can only mean one thing.”
He gazed steadily at Emily until she rewarded him with a sad smile.
”I failed,” he said.
Emily nodded. Her eyes held compassion and regret.
”What happens to me now?” He asked.
The handcuffs released with a metallic snick.
”I’ll see you out,” Emily said, rising to her feet.
”What happens now?” Shellen asked again, rising unsteadily.
A light came on in the room behind the mirror and Shellen could make out a couple of figures standing on the either side of the glass. He saw Anna’s face and realized, as the details became clearer, that she was crying.
”Now,” Emily said, “you wake and you forget.”
Shellen had sensed it coming but the words came like a punch anyway. He’d had something, been part of something, over the last month that had made everything in his life feel alive and relevant. He’d been part of a cosmic mystery and had stood on the threshold to understanding. And he’d thrown it away to save his own skin. He’d given Anna up without even thinking to go through the very first precautions she’d taught him.
”Since I’ll forget anyway,” he said, gazing at Anna’s tear-wetted face, “who is Demin?”
Emily looked to Anna, who nodded.
”We haven’t found him yet,” Emily said. “Anna had hoped he was you. It’s difficult to tell sometimes. We were all sent back to our waking lives a little differently and some of our memories were repressed more deeply than others. Some remembered everything and have been looking for the others ever since.”
”Since what?” Shellen asked.
”Since we all shared an important dream,” she said, and Shellen got that there was a much larger answer behind her spare words. In his mind he saw all of the places where he and Anna had been. Old forests, ruined cities, tropical islands, dim catacombs and cold mountain passes. He imagined each of those places under different circumstances. The cities before they fell. The catacombs buzzing with hundreds of young voices. Armies stretched out across wide plains.
”We’re literally searching the world,” Emily said. “Names and faces may not always match up to who we are in waking life. The odds that we’ll all find each other are so slim, but we have to keep trying. We’d hoped that the exercises we put you through would reawaken your memories, if you were who we thought you were. We decided that you weren’t, so the only question that remained was whether you could be trusted to keep us a secret.”
Shellen felt like a cockroach. He wanted to make promises to keep their secret but there was no use. They all knew the worth of his silence. He nodded to Emily to indicate that he was ready and followed her from the room. He couldn’t meet Anna’s tear-filled gaze again so watched his feet as he shuffled past the mirror. They turned down a long corridor.
‘Names and faces may not always match’ she’d said. Suddenly, with a conviction he couldn’t explain, he knew that Emily’s name, at least her dream name, was not Emily. The corridor seemed endless. There were no more doors or adjoining corridors, just an infinite path.
”I’m not Demin,” Shellen said with sudden realization, “but I remember him. He was my friend. And I’ve spoken with him since. I know how to find him. And your name isn’t Emily,” he said, his memories rushing back in ecstatic waves. He’d missed his friends terribly and they’d finally found him, except they’d gotten his identity wrong. His dream name wasn’t Shellen. And Emily, her name wasn’t even close. She’d been young the last time he’d seen her but how could he ever forget his old friend? He’d been so worried for her those long years ago.
“Your name, it’s…” when he turned Emily was no longer beside him.
Shellen gasped out of his dream and sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes and checking for drool. He could tell he’d been in a deep sleep. It had felt like surfacing from water when he finally pulled through to consciousness. He knew the dream had seemed important but he chuckled at himself. It couldn’t have been that profound. The words on his lips when he’d awakened made no sense gazing out at the sunny calm morning outside.
”It’s windy,” he said aloud, shaking his head. “Really Shellen? That’s your epiphany. It’s windy.”
He yawned and headed toward the bathroom for a shower, fighting down the incongruous sense that those words should hold deep meaning to him.