Molly’s wide brown eyes studied me. She’d been watching me sleep again, and were she any of our other siblings I’d have shared some unsavory thoughts with her on that. You didn’t yell at Molly, though. From birth, she’d been that child who watched and smiled. Animals grew calm around her, and people, too. She was the kid who blinked up at you through tears with a silent plea, holding a wounded bird delicately in her small hands and expecting you to help it. To Molly, the whole world was made of love, and no one wished to tell her otherwise. No one said as much, but it felt as if her belief could make it true for the rest of us, somehow, someday.
There was a troubled weight in her eyes this morning, and before I could ask, she took hold of my hand and rose to her feet. I followed her down the stairs, through the oddly empty house, to the front yard. People stood in the street and clumped together in yards or on doorsteps. They were eerily still, and silent, and all of them looking up. Molly pointed.
The sky was cloudless, and though morning, already a vibrant shade of blue. Giant jet trails streaked from one end of the horizon to the other and I smiled. They lined up perfectly to look like two stick figures. The sort that Molly liked to draw. The sun was rising between them and it made a pretty picture. I wished for my phone, still upstairs on the nightstand, but supposed the image would be gone by the time I retrieved it. Already the jet trails drifted, and I laughed aloud, pointing. It made it look like the figure on the left was taking a slow step, arms swinging and all. The figure on the right swayed as well, though toward the figure on the left.
“What are the odds of that?” I marveled.
“Did you dream them, too?” Molly asked.
I glanced at her, but only briefly. That wasn’t right. The figure on the left was reaching out to the one on the right, and now the right one lifted its arms as well. They didn’t look like jet trails so much on closer study. There was too much substance to the light. More fire than cloud-stuff. An unsettled chill traveled through me.
“What’s going on?” I murmured.
“They’re seeing them all over the globe,” announced our neighbor, Mr. O’Neil. He was studying his phone, and faintly, I could hear the voice of a newscaster. “Mass hallucination, they’re saying,” he reported. “They look yellow at night,” he added after a minute.
“It’s the end of times,” said Mrs. Ogden from her yard across the street, and her voice traveled in the silence of the rest of my neighbors. I could see from their expressions that it was Mrs. Ogden they were inclined to believe.
“There’s already rioting, worldwide,” said Mr. O’Neil. “They’re saying to stay indoors and wait to see if it passes.”
“It’s aliens,” announced Mrs. Godfrey. She lived three doors down but she was standing in the street before our house, a filled grocery bag at her ankles. Something inside was leaking moisture onto the pavement.
Molly clutched my hand tighter and I gave her a reassuring smile. “They don’t know what it is,” I said. “They’re just sharing theories. It’s going to be okay.”
Molly nodded, but I could tell that she didn’t believe me. Our cat, Shadow, was weaving figure eights around her ankles and she pulled her hand away to sit with Shadow and pay him proper attention. I took the opportunity to sidle closer to Mr. O’Neil.
“It’s everywhere?” I prompted, unsettled by how many people had just turned to listen.
A ghostly stillness had overtaken the residents of our street that I found more unsettling possibly than the inexplicable figures in the sky. This many people shouldn’t be this quiet. I spotted my parents; Carl and Emmy huddled close in their arms. Only then did I notice, as a detail that would be important under different circumstances but seemed silly to consider now, that I wasn’t alone in still wearing pajamas. Half the neighborhood wore overlarge shirts, or less in some cases.
“Everywhere,” confirmed Mr. O’Neil, studying his phone. “There’s panic in the cities. Rioting and deaths, they’re saying.”
“What is it?” I asked, watching as the figures overhead took hold of each other and changed places. A small gasp filtered through the people along the block.
“Plenty of people are issuing statements, but no one knows anything that explains this,” he said.
“The end of the world,” nodded Mrs. Ogden. “Make your peace now. Judgment’s coming.”
“I’d like to invite everyone to a prayer circle,” offered Mr. Willis, four doors down. Quite a few people drifted toward his house.
“Do we need to ask for forgiveness?” asked Molly. She was standing at my elbow, and I wondered for how long. I looked to Mr. O’Neil.
He shrugged. “It never hurts,” he said.
Large, wet tears trembled at Molly’s eyes. “Oh, Molly,” I gasped, pulling her up into my arms and walking her back to the house. “It’s going to be alright,” I said. “Even if it’s the end of times, or whatever, we’ve had good times, right? How can you be sad about that?” I needed to put her down. My arms were trembling.
Everyone gasped, including Molly, and I turned my gaze back to the sky. The figures were moving a little faster now, bouncing the sun off the horizon, in what looked like a game. Molly buried her face in my neck and I could feel hot tears.
“It’s okay,” I heard myself saying. “They’re just playing.” Of all the ludicrous things to say… but I was pretty sure they didn’t make phrases for situations like these.
Molly wriggled out of my grasp and ran into the house. Shadow and I followed after her. She pounded up the stairs, to her room, and when I caught up to her she was weeping over her little drawing table. On it was a painting on blue construction paper. Two figures, with a yellow dot between them.
“You’re so talented,” I praised, lifting the painting. She must have been up early.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” she sobbed.
“Oh, Molly-bean,” I sighed, pulling her tight and trying to imagine what sort of offense could weigh on a six-year-old’s conscience; especially one as precious and innocent as my baby sister. “What is it?” I prodded.
“It’s all my fault!” she wailed.
“No it isn’t,” I said, working not to laugh. Of course she’d blame it on herself. That’s who she was. “Nobody even knows what it is. How can it be your fault?”
She lifted the painting toward me, sniffling. “I made it last night, before bed, and then I dreamed about them. I tried to wake up, so many times, but I couldn’t. Even when I thought I woke up I wasn’t really awake. They kept coming back. And I couldn’t wake up. And people got hurt, and I didn’t mean to do it!” She dissolved in my arms, heaving from sobs too large for a little girl. I pulled her close, but found no ready reply.
“You painted this last night?” I frowned, gazing again at the painting. For once, her painted rendition resembled reality with eerie accuracy, and that yellow dot really did look an awful lot like the sun. “How did you wake up, finally?” I asked through a tight throat.
“There was an old lady,” she said against my shoulder. “She told me to go to the river, but I never got a chance. Except… what if I didn’t wake up?”
“Impossible,” I sighed, looking to insert reason and nearly smiling at myself for the thought. This day had started without reason. “That would mean that I’m in your dream,” I pressed on, hoping at the least to ease her worry. “I can’t be in your dream. Maybe this is my dream.” As I said it, I realized that was the most reasonable thought I’d had all morning. “You know what you do to test if you’re dreaming?” I prompted. Molly lifted her warm brown eyes to mine and I saw hope spreading in them. “You pinch yourself!” I smiled, finding her ticklish side and giving it a playful squeeze.
On cue, Molly squealed in delight and wrestled free. When she came after me in retaliation I offered up my forearm as sacrifice. She pinched with fingernails and it hurt, but I didn’t mind so much. At least she was laughing. I pinched my arm, too. Painfully. The dream theory had seemed plausible and I found I was disappointed to disprove it. Molly peeked out the window and watched the sky.
My options were mass hallucination, end of the world, alien invasion or dream, and none of them seemed right. The silence of our neighborhood had shattered at some point, I realized, and now it seemed as if there was noise everywhere. We could hear chanting and wailing from Mr. Willis’ house, where the prayer circle had taken on a more animated tone. Mr. O’Neil’s voice drifted up, calling for everyone to calm down and return to their homes. Children cried and feet pounded past in large numbers. I joined Molly at the window. The sky figures continued their game with our sun but the scene beneath them was transformed. At the end of the block, where two roads intersected, it looked like people were fighting. Lots of people. The neighbors who had stood in silence before were gone now; presumably locked in their homes. Mrs. Godfrey’s grocery bag still seeped dark fluid onto the empty street. I could hear my parents and siblings downstairs.
“Get to the basement,” our father ordered.
“We need to go to the river,” said Molly, and there was conviction in her tone.
Someone rushed up the stairs while I was helping Molly out the window onto the sloping semi-roof that skirted our house. I followed her out, sliding the window closed moments before I heard someone enter her room. We held still, pressed flat against the house while we listened to the movements of our mother.
“Molly?” she called, and her voice retreated as she checked other rooms.
We crept along to the spot where the skirt overlapped the shed covering our garbage cans and I eased down, helping Molly onto the garbage shed and then to the ground. We ran hand-in-hand down the street, away from the brawl. I followed Molly’s lead through yards, under trees, sometimes hiding as other altercations sputtered past. Molly darted with the expert movements of childhood that, though I was only slightly into my teens, I’d apparently forgotten. Finally, the river drifted casually at our feet.
“What now?” I panted.
“We go in,” she said.
“You can’t swim,” I scoffed.
“I can doggy paddle,” she replied indignantly.
“How long do we have to be in the water?” I asked, eyeing the river dubiously.
There was a bridge not far downstream, and I knew the river flowed into a tunnel beneath it, but it was city after that and I’d never thought much about where the tunnel led.
“Until we wake up,” she answered, and she jumped.
“Molly!” I cried in horror, watching a current I couldn’t have guessed at grab hold of my doggy-paddling sister and whisk her out of sight.
I dove in after her.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!