Designer Children Chapter 4

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Chapter 4

I heard the whirring of an industrial strength ceiling fan. I knew the sound because I listened to a legion of them all day long in a previous job- my first LA job. I worked nine hours, loading and unloading shipping containers. Seconds later, I felt a tiny prick of a needle in my leg and then seconds later I blacked out.

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I awoke again, but this time, along with the hum of the ceiling fans, I heard water dripping. The way that it was hitting, it sounded like it was falling into a metallic sink. Each drop drummed in my ears, a consistent tapping, like someone knocking gently on the door. The flow increased, but still the water fell in drops, until it sounded like that same person banging, desperately trying to gain entry. My eye opened a crack, or at least it tried. They were so heavy, I began to wonder if they were stitched shut. I could move nothing else except for my left eye, but as it began to slowly open, like a massive stone door being lifted by an army of men, I felt a tiny prick of a needle in my leg and then, darkness.

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The dripping had ended when I felt myself return consciousness again, but the same dull hum of the ceiling fans remained. It was accompanied by another noise, and one that would have caused the hair to stand up on my neck, if not for the fact that I could feel nothing. It sounded like metal scraping on metal, like someone using a rake on a chain link fence, over and over again. Or, it could have been something else, something much worse. It didn’t ease my fear that I was basically helpless, seemingly paralyzed.

It was difficult to describe the exact feeling, but it was similar to the time I overdosed on a bathroom concoction that was supposed to be meth, but was actually laced with animal tranquilizer. My friend Danny thought it would be funny to be high and pretend we were crippled. It didn’t help that he was already high when he had the idea. Even at sixteen, I thought Danny was an idiot.

Little by little, I gained the feeling back into my fingers. Despite this fact, it felt like they were heavily splinted. I tried to open my eyes, but it was futile. I was blindfolded.

Just as my arms gained mobility again, I felt the prick of a needle in my thigh.

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I woke to a horrible sound, but an even worse smell, like science class when we dissected the foetal pig. The thick stench of formaldehyde hung in the air, blocking everything else. I didn’t need to see what was in the room to know that something sharp, probably a saw, was cutting through a piece of meat. I heard the saw scrape against bone, and then a discernible cracking as the bone was cut through cleanly, then a wet sucking sound. The saw went back and forth, and without the bone, it severed the target easily, because in a few seconds, I could hear the saw strike metal. I desperately fought against my bonds at this point, knowing that if I didn’t, I would likely be next.

I figured that I was in some organ harvesting plant. Dr. Travers had given me the vaccination, which primed my body for extraction, and now, I would leave here in a bag- in pieces. I fought against the cocktail flowing through my veins, obviously brought on by the needles, and managed lift my legs- but they were bound. I thrust my arms upward, or at least tried- they too were bound in place.

“Now.”

Needles entered every limb in my body. As a needle punctured my neck, I didn’t so much as fall asleep as fall unconscious. One moment I was thinking of escape and the next, a void.

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“Hey! Hey you, wake up!” A high-pitched voice filled my ears, attacking my senses.

I rolled over in bed, grumbling, “Screw off, kid. You’re not allowed in the break room.”

Moments later, I felt myself being shook awake. My eyes flew open and immediately narrowed as the light pierced them. Eventually, my eyes adjusted to the sudden assault of brightness, and I was able to see my attacker. A raven-haired little girl peered at me. She was immensely cute with a perfectly oval-shaped face, framed by light greyish-blue eyes. Her perfect little nose twitched as she regarded me curiously.

I pulled the covers over my face, still feeling exhausted. I really needed to sleep before my shift started. Seconds later, I felt the girl roughly shaking me. “Wake up! Come on, wake up!”

I heard a crackle of static and then a sing-songy voice, sounding like it was coming from a record player, “Madison, it’s not nice to wake your friend like that! In fact, it’s very wrong, why not wake her with a wonderful song?”

This immediately got my attention. Had I smoked some weed laced with LSD, or something worse? Even underneath the blankets, I began to feel like something was inherently wrong. As I gained more control over my limbs, and the feeling came back into my body, I noticed that hair obscured one of my eyes. I always kept my hair short. It wasn’t a military buzz cut, but it was still only an inch long.

The record player spoke again, or rather sang, “Come, Madison sing with me, sing about the beautiful day Kaylee is missing if she continues to hit the hay!” The thing warbled, “Ok!! Sleepy head, rise out of bed, greet the day, and say hooray! Smiles and laughs with all your friends, learning and fun, adventure and play, please don’t sleep away the day! Please join me, Madison!”

I threw the covers off and jumped out of bed, yelling, “What in the actual fuck is going on here?!”

My hands flew to my throat as my previous words were uttered with absolutely dulcet tones. My scream was high-pitched, but unlike the horror movie bimbos, the ones who wore high heels while trying to run from the killers, it was immature. It was the voice of a little kid.

A second after my utterance, I heard an obnoxious siren and then a record player the size of a big screen TV with a woman’s face (that was really the only way to describe it!) entered my field of view. “Kaylee, that’s a very naughty word! This is something we must absolutely curb. Do you understand why this word is banned?”

Madison, the girl who shook me awake, said quickly, “Just say yes.” As Madison spoke, I noticed that I was actually looking up at her. None of this was possible. Had the doctors in the basement cut my vocal chords, had they removed my legs? I took a step backwards, as my faculties continued to process what had happened to me.

Madison shook her head, “Oh for god sakes, girl. I figured it out in two seconds. They’ve turned us into children. Look at yourself. You look like me.” She pointed to a door which I assumed was the bathroom.

As I walked unsteadily toward the bathroom, the record player thing (woman?) followed me, as did Madison. It said, “Kaylee. Do you understand why this word is banned?”

As soon as I reached the mirror, I knew why the weird record player had called me that. Certainly, I could look down at my tiny feet or peer at my hands, which were dainty, and equally small, and I could see my little body clad in a pair of pink pajamas with a yawning cartoon cat saying “Too cute to sleep”, but seeing my face in the mirror removed the final cobwebs from my mind.

Staring back at me was absolute perfection, a little girl with bright blue eyes and pig-tails. My jaw dropped as I saw the extreme clarity and depth of my eyes. The large crystal blue spheres were expressive and were such a vivid blue, that I thought for a moment I was staring into a fifty-inch plasma television with a three-dimensional effect. The eyes sparkled in the available light, the black pupils seemingly shooting out rays of cascading and intense blue.

“Kaylee. Do you understand why this word is banned?”

I blinked and my eye lashes fluttered. I proceeded to blink rapidly, surprised by the length and fullness of my lashes. My chin formerly recessed (read weak) did not protrude overly, but it had enough presence to shape my jaw line in a way that would be considered symmetrical. My soft jaw line was supported by a pair of cherubic cheeks that would make most women (and some men), who were so inclined, gush over my very presence. It was the type of face that begged to be pinched by some half-senile great aunt.

It was also the type of face that would make others exclaim, “She’ll be a real heartbreaker when she grows up.” The very thought terrified me, even though I was probably ten years away from that happening.

My nose was a crafted beauty, as the tiny up-turned appendage seemed to exist only to allow me to breath from two perfectly-shaped nostrils. My skin was lightly tanned and had a wonderful healthy glow that I would have enjoyed on a bikini model, or Jessica. Shit. I had completely forgotten to text her before the ambulance took me away.

“Kaylee. Do you understand why this word is banned?”

It was difficult to determine my age, only because kids grew at different paces. All I knew was that the girl I had become belonged in an elementary school, probably in the junior yard. Not all the schools I attended had segregated yards, but the first few did. It was an attempt to keep the older children from dominating the younger. I, of course, often brazenly marched into the senior kids’ yard wanting to play.

My hair was a sandy blonde, or as I liked to call it, Malibu blonde. As much as I had a deep-seated jealousy, and sometimes hatred, for the wealthy, and very wealthy, the girls in Malibu- well, they were about as perfect as could be. A culture of perfection permeated there, so hips, thighs and tummies were tucked, breasts enlarged, and the boring- the tedious dishwater brown hair, was coloured. I wasn’t sure, but I think there were more blondes in Malibu than anywhere else in the world. The few road trips I took out to the beaches there usually led to impressive scores.

“Kaylee. Do you understand why this word is banned?”

Some of the girls there too, had been pristine conservative family values types, but when they moved to Malibu, they disposed of their values and their virginity. I knew it because so many of them called out His name after intense doggy style. Were they praying for the second time to be better, or were they thanking Him?

“Hey! Just say you understand, so Musica will leave us the hell alone!” Madison was looking at me crossly. Her bottom lip was puckered, in a gentle pout.

I was brought from the reverie of my sexual escapades by Madison’s shrill voice. I looked to the bizarre record player and said, “Sure, Musica- I get it. No swearing.”

Madison asked, “What’s your name? I mean your real name. Not your weirdo-kids-playroom-horror fantasy-name.”

I looked at the girl and then at myself, shaking my head in the process. “This isn’t real. I’m in a hospital somewhere, or I’m dead. This is impossible.”

Madison shrugged her shoulders, “It’s real. I’ve been here for a few days I think. Well that ridiculous music player wakes me up every morning, so I know it’s been two at least. I don’t know how you slept through it.”

I said with a smile and a touch of madness. “No, it’s not. Because it’s impossible for this to happen. So I’m dreaming, or I’m really high. I hope…that I’m high. Like really high. Man, it must be some incredible shit to dream up this.” I motioned to Musica.

Musica reacted immediately, “If I catch you saying another naughty word today, they’ll be no free play!”

Madison sighed, “Great, I’m trapped in a room with a drug addict. Oh god, I hope you don’t start kicking or whatever it is addicts do. I’m not holding your hair while you puke.”

I shook my head, “I’m not a drug addict. I don’t do any needle drugs, just pot mostly these days. Come on, you’ve done pot before, right?”

Madison nodded, “Yeah. A few times. So what’s your name? Your real name.”

I looked down at myself, and then peered at myself in the mirror, taking in the image of a confused little blonde-haired girl. I said sheepishly, “I still don’t believe this is real. But it’s Ryan. Ryan Sullivan. I guess your name isn’t- ”

Before I had a chance ask if the girl’s real name was Madison, she burst out laughing. It wasn’t a musical lilt or a little giggle, it was a full-bodied mocking explosion of laughter.

The girl pointed a finger at me, seeming to regain her composure for a moment, she said, “Really? I-I…Oh how…terrible for you!”

The moment was lost as again she viciously ridiculed me. The high-pitched laughter was punctuated by the odd snort. It was very light, and hardly noticeable, but it was familiar. I seethed as Musica turned toward Madison.

The music player said, “It’s not polite to point, and look it’s got poor Kaylee all out of joint!”

I narrowed my eyes and stared at the girl. I took in her features, the greyish blue eyes, the dimpled cheeks that would expand and contract with each new burst of laughter, but it was the derisive snorting that clued me in.

I sneered, “Ashley.”

The girl flew in front of me and looked at me with brand new eyes. Within her orbs, I saw supreme enjoyment. She snorted lightly before managing to compose herself enough to speak, “Oh. My. God. You are so slow. You really didn’t recognize me? You practically had your eyes glued to me at the bus stop when we first met. Or were you looking at something else? My face pretty much looks the same give or take 15 years, save my nose, but hmm, I guess my body is a little different, hmm? You are really clueless. But…this is just too funny. You really think this is a dream? Oh Kay-lee, Kay-lee, Kay-LEE, what have you gotten yourself into?”

I shouted, “The exact same thing happened to yooouuuu! And call me Ryan!”

My eyes widened as I heard my voice. I sounded like a petulant child. Worst of all, I had put a bizarre emphasis on the word ‘you’ that sent shivers running up and down my spine. The zigzagging syllables of the word took off from my mouth like a runaway rocket.

Ashley burst out laughing again, “I mean Musica said I was getting a roomie, but this is just beyond perfect. Yes, Kaylee, I was caught too. I got the vaccine, just like you did. And while this sucks for me,” her eyes took on a devilish quality, while her mouth curled into a satisfied smirk, “I can’t imagine how much more it sucks for you.”

Her eyes widened with a terrifying energy, the blue mingling with the grey in torrid unity, “And this? This is real. So real. Here, I’ll prove it to you.”

She reached out and roughly pinched my arm, which caused a girlish yelp to escape from my lips. I pushed the girl away as forcefully as possible, and she tumbled backward.

This awakened Musica, “Girls! Stop acting this way, or you’ll both lose your play!”

I looked at the record player more closely. A cartoon face of a woman was attached to the table of the old-timey player. The needle actually sat directly in the middle of her nose. As she moved about the room, I could hear the gears spinning. Her mouth moved like an animatronic Chuckee Cheese character, inhuman with a slight jerkiness. Despite this, the voice had a discernible human quality in the form of emotion.

I took a few steps back from Ashley as she picked herself up with a huff. “Look at all of this crazy stuff around us. How can you not think this is a dream? I mean look at this thing. And turning younger, and me, well- it’s just not possible. The only explanation is that this is a dream. And the pinching is a lame test. I’ve felt pain before in dreams.”

Ashley’s retort was snarky, “Are you sure it wasn’t a drug induced haze?

I shook my head, “Why do you care that I think it’s a dream or whatever? Just leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with you. I’ll wake up, and you’ll be a really, really bad memory.”

The hard lines on Ashley’s face painted a picture of extreme seriousness so unusual for a girl her age. “Because I told you, I’ve been here for two days. Twice I’ve gone to sleep and woken up, and everything I see feel and taste. It’s all real. I need your help because you are the only other person I’ve seen, and we are better off working together than fighting all the time.”

She sighed, “Look it’s really none of your business, but I used to be a lucid dreamer. Someone who wanted to try and reach a state of awareness in my dreams. I’ve actually reached this state a few times. So I know a couple tricks. A test to know if you are dreaming. Will you trust me to try them? After that, you can decide whether you still think you are sleeping. OK?”

I said, “I don’t give a fuck what you say. You aren’t real. None of this is real. I’m not helping you. You know that your dream self is an even bigger bitch than the real you? You’re so bossy. Just let me figure this shit out on my own.”

Musica chimed, “Kaylee, I’m sorry to say, you’ve lost your free play! But tomorrow is another day, and good girls who listen and don’t say naughty words will get their just rewards!”

I gave the music box the finger and stomped out of the bathroom. This whole setup was crazy. I was starting to think that the pot I had smoked the night before had been laced with something- experimental.

I took in my surroundings, taking a very long look at the bedroom I apparently shared with Ashley. That girl was such a goddamn know-it-all! Everyone dreams! I knew that if this was a dream, the objects I saw wouldn’t remain constant. I knew that words on the pages of books looked strange, usually impossible to read. I didn’t need someone who called herself an expert or whatever dreamer to tell me that. Apparently, my subconscious hated Ashley more than my conscious self.

The room looked like a standard room that sisters might share. I had no siblings and only had male cousins, so I hadn’t seen a girl’s room until my first year of high school, and by then, the stuffed animals and dolls had been replaced with band posters and makeup tables. I honestly didn’t do a whole lot of sightseeing past the actual bed.

Next to the bunk bed that Ashley and I apparently shared was a small night table. On the table was an object that personified the intensely feminine theme of the room- an ornate princess lamp. The body of the lamp showed a young woman wearing a sweeping ball gown. She was forever set in a dancing pose, her arms outstretched as if seeking a partner. The lamp itself looked fragile, with the body made from thin glass. It wasn’t the type of object one expected to see in the room of two little girls, who probably had to be told daily not to touch it. This was the first sign that I was actually within a dream. I wasn’t a parent and even I thought having the lamp in the room was a terrible hazard.

Above the night table, however, was something that made me consider that this could be my reality. Written in flowery script next to the bunk bed was the following, “Once upon a time, two princesses were born…!” Underneath the writing was a set of fabric letters spelling out KAYLEE and MADISON. My mouth opened slightly as my eyes returned to the letters and they did not dissolve or become impossible to read. I recalled a dream I had where I was studying for a test (yeah right), and as I looked down, I couldn’t make out the words in the book. Here, the words, the letters spelling out the name given to me by this world never changed.

“They are going to stay the same. It’s the first test in lucid dreaming. You read a clock or a book, and you know you are dreaming if they change. Now do you believe me? This isn’t a dream, Ryan. Tonight, you are going to go to bed, and you’ll wake up as Kaylee. And it will be the same the next day. Believe me when I tell you, I’ve tried everything.”

Ashley said firmly, “I even held my breath until I nearly passed out.”

I shook my head, “Here’s the only test that matters. I don’t look like Ryan Sullivan. That’s it. Now leave me alone.”

Ashley shouted, “You are so stubborn! Why won’t you believe me? We’re in real trouble here. I have no idea what they are planning, and if you haven’t noticed, we are really vulnerable like this. We have to figure out a way out of here.”

I turned my back to her, and she stayed quiet. Unfortunately, Musica chose this moment to spring to life. “Time for free play! Choose any three toys! Sorry, Kaylee, you are banned from this today.”

Ashley moved toward the toy box at the far side of the room. In keeping with the girly girl theme of the room, there was also a closet with the words “SUPERSTAR MAKEOVER” written in neon pink. I assumed it was full of costumes, but either way, I wanted nothing to do with anything in the room.

I heard Ashley burst out, “Wow! I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid. ” I turned around, and I could see Ashley carefully brushing the long golden hair of a decapitated doll.

I said, “Why are you giving into this? You are acting exactly like a kid would. You say you want to fight against this, but then you are sitting there brushing the hair of that stupid looking doll's head.”

Ashley glared at me, “This is a Zoe Glamour bust. It’s just missing the part below the head. And it was one of my favourite toys growing up. As for why I’m playing with her? Because Musica will constantly, and I mean constantly tell me that it is play time. The first day, I refused and she kept telling me it was play time for a solid three hours. I played with this Barbie corvette for five minutes, and that appeased her.”

She added, “Plus, I’m of the mind that I don’t want to make the people angry who did this to us. I’m rebelling in my mind, I mean I don’t like playing with this stuff. But if I do it then I can think of ways to escape.”

I said with a smirk, “You’re weak. That’s why. It’s all bullshit, Ashley. You are giving up two days in. Just like my mom, you cave under a little pressure. I used to see if I could get her to absolutely lose it. I’d make these ridiculously annoying noises- over and over again. And she caved each time. You know what happened when I did that with my dad? Let’s just say I only did it once.”

She shook her head, “At least I’m not delusional, Kay-lee. And I don’t believe in physically disciplining a child. Your dad doing that- well I think it’s led to some of your ‘brodude’ issues. What would you do when faced with a nattering music player? I think you’d cave.”

I nodded, “Fucking wreck her. I could hear a bunch of gears as she was moving around. I could probably just jam something in there and make it impossible for her to move then take her apart piece by piece.”

Ashley said matter-of-factly, “Typical male response. Break stuff. Once you do that, we’ve lost our advantage. If we play along, then we can bide our time and look for an opening.”

I replied, “And in the meantime, you’re playing with that doll every day and you start to enjoy it.”

Ashley replied, while continuing to brush Zoe’s hair, “The same thing could happen to you.”

I scoffed at the girl, “Not likely. Why would I want to play with a bunch of girl toys?”

Musica sung softly, “It’s OK to be jealous of your friend Kaylee, but tomorrow will be a bright new day, you’ll see!”

Play time continued, and I took this time to wander around the room, looking for signs that I was living through a nightmare. In the far corner of the room, I found a refrigerator, and upon opening it, I noticed that it was packed with items that were a testament to late 90s after school (or Saturday morning) commercials- aimed primarily at kids. Like Ashley with the doll or bust, I felt a sudden sense of nostalgia, bringing me back firmly to a time where I had few concerns in the world- the most pressing being what I was going to watch on TV next.

Snack packs, Sunny Delicious, and even the old generic 2% milk cartons from the cereal commercials could be found in the fridge. On top of the fridge, I could see a collection of cereals that didn’t even exist any longer. There were Oreo O’s which was basically like eating a box of Oreo cookies in hoop form, and if that wasn’t appetizing, there was the breakfast cereal that was supposed to taste like French toast.

Because of my schedule at the restaurant and late night escapades, breakfast usually consisted of black coffee. Still I hadn’t had either cereal in years, and since there was no coffee maker in the room of two apparent princesses, I quickly poured a bowl. Everything in the room was at eye level for me, so I didn’t need a stool or a chair to reach the drawer with the utensils. What I thought at first was a play kitchen was actually a fully functioning kitchen, minus the stove or the microwave.

I took one bite of the cereal and my taste buds came to life. It was like I had poured ambrosia over them, and each bite was better than the last. My eyes lit up as I felt the sugar coursing through my body, and I rapidly shovelled the rest of the bowl into my mouth. As I poured myself a second bowl, I pictured myself at Kaylee’s age, sitting in front of the television on a Saturday morning, clad in only a pair of Superman pajamas, I sat transfixed, enjoying the action and revelling in the existence of such larger-than-life characters. Like most boys my age, I was obsessed with superheroes, so anything with strong-chinned men battling alien menaces or flying to save the city from a bomb threat- it was all right up my alley.

I found it easy to lose myself within the memory, and I felt my mind beginning to drift further to that time. It was a period of high adventure, where anything dreamed up within my imagination could exist. I could be that superhero, smashing my fist into the maw of some deranged creature, saving millions in the process. A little smile appeared on my face as I finished the second bowl of cereal.

***

Throughout the day, Ashley continued to pester me with what she called ‘reality checks’ to prove that I wasn’t in a dream. Musica kept us busy (and annoyed) with constant attempts at sing-a-longs, games and lessons. While hers and Ashley’s attempts were unsuccessful in gaining my attention, I began to have doubts that I was actually sleeping. I couldn’t remember a dream so vivid, or so detailed. At lunch, I pulled sandwiches from the fridge and munched on them at the small table in the kitchen. The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tasted incredible, and again, my mind returned to the past. My mom used to cut off the crusts. She never forgot even once. It was such a foolish memory, but it brought a pang to my heart, knowing that the innocence and joy of those moments would end in an absolutely fractured relationship between us.

As I finished, Ashley brought her own sandwich to the table. She was the one who initiated all the conversation at this point, and I hoped I could slink away from the table without another one of her sleep lectures.

She sat down at the table, unwrapping a ham sandwich and a package of carrot sticks. I thought I was home free, but a quick sniff of the air brought a shout from the girl, “Were you eating peanut butter?! I’m really, really allergic!”

I threw my hands in the air, “I didn’t know! I’m sorry.”

Even though I wanted to desperately believe that I was still living in a dream, the way Ashley acted was unlike anything I had ever seen. How could my mind have dreamed up such a complete person?

I had left a smear of peanut butter on the table, which was now fixed to Ashley’s palm. She stared down at it with horror, but her breathing never changed. She shook her head in disbelief.

I said, “Maybe this is a dream. I mean that’s impossible right. Your throat should have swollen up by now if you are that allergic.”

Ashley, perhaps believing my words, returned to the fridge and removed a plastic wrapped sandwich. She sat down at the table, unwrapped the sandwich and took a big bite. I watched her in fearful fascination. I didn’t like the girl, but I didn’t want her to die.

“Mmm! So good! And this one is made with chunky peanut butter I think. So this is what I was missing…it tastes amazing.”

I nodded, “So that’s just not possible. You should be convulsing on the floor. Nothing works here the way it should. Not to mention our bodies. Maybe one of us is in a coma or something. I don’t know. I mean I had this really messed up dream before this one.”

Ashley quirked a brow toward me, “Really? Like what?” She took another massive bite from the peanut butter sandwich, washing it all down with a HiC juice box.

I replied, “Well I was strapped down, and they kept-“

Ashley interrupted, “Poking you with needles?”

This brought a sense of instant fear. Ashley’s voice was unsteady as she spoke the words, while my right leg began to shake gently.

I nodded, “Yeah. And there were these sounds, sort of like well a butcher shop or a construction site in some cases. There was dripping, and the sound of metal on metal, then something sharp going through bone.”

The more I remembered, the more frightened I became. The memory of the sounds assaulted my mind, a creeping fear inching its way up my spine to rest within my head, like a thousand spider eggs suddenly hatching and hairy wriggling bodies climbing over each other desperately trying to escape their confines.

Ashley shivered, “I remember the exact same thing. All those sounds you describe. Everything. Did you try to open your eyes or move, and it felt like trying to move through molasses?”

I nodded, growing more fearful, yet angry at the same time, finding this almost debilitating fear a painful sign of weakness. I was a grown man, I shouldn’t have been scared of some noises. “Yeah, something like that.”

Ashley said, “You know it’s OK to be scared of this, Ryan. Something unbelievable has happened to us. You’ve got to admit that it’s a pretty big coincidence that we had the exact same experience though. Even lucid dreaming, where you are actually aware you are dreaming, isn’t this complex or nuanced. I agree that the whole peanut butter thing is really weird. But I wish you’d believe me, this isn’t a dream. Look, I’ll stop bugging you about it OK?”

I shrugged my shoulders and left Ashley to finish the rest of her sandwich.

***

Ashley whispered to me, “Just play along with this, OK?”

I sighed, “What do you mean?”

Ashley replied, “Musica is going to try and teach us a bunch of stuff we already know. I don’t know what the purpose of it is. I mean, it’s probably to get us into the mindset. The more I think about it, the food we’ve been eating, and the toys from when we were kids- I think they are trying to get us to start thinking and acting like kids.”

Musica glided toward us. The closer I looked, I could see that she was actually attached to the ceiling. On the ceiling, were a set of tracks that guided her movement. These tracks led to the bathroom, kitchen area and the bedroom. The room itself had no windows, and even stranger, no doors, other than the one leading to the bathroom.

“Alright girls, we’ll play a fun game and write our name!” Musica glided toward a small table with two plastic chairs. On top of the table, was a set of pens and a stack of papers. I rolled my eyes, deciding not to follow Ashley to the table.

Ashley shouted toward me, “She’s going to bug us until you do it! It’ll take three seconds!”

I shook my head, choosing to search the room for a television or a video game system to take my mind off the madness that was unfolding before me. Ashley huffed and took a pen in her hand.

“W-What’s going on? Why can’t I do it?”

I heard Ashley’s voice from the other side of the room. Her frustration reached a point where I saw a pen fly in my direction. Even if this wasn’t the real Ashley, I would certainly take a moment to revel in her defeat at the hands of- a piece of paper and a pen.

I grinned, feeling my lip curl into a satisfied smirk. I approached the girl and peeked over her shoulder. I could see that she managed to very crudely sketch out an ‘A’, but the lines were crooked. The ‘S’, however, or rather, the multiple variations, were a collection of awkward loops that looked nothing like the letter Ashley intended. I took this moment to laugh at the girl, the sound bursting from my chest and into my mouth like a shrill trumpet blast.

Ashley thrust a pen into my hand and the slightly taller girl managed to firmly guide me to a chair, “You try!”

Musica said with a smile, “If at first you don’t succeed, try-try again, you can’t expect to get it the second you begin!”

I laughed again, a boisterous belly laugh, as I formed the letters of my name in my mind. I knew exactly what the letters looked like and how to spell them. I took the pen firmly in my hand, intending to write RYAN in cursive. My hand wouldn’t cooperate. It was like I had never performed the action before. I managed to draw a jagged line for the ‘R’, switching to printed letters, but the moment I tried the loop, I just couldn’t get my hand to follow the direction my brain was giving. My loop extended beyond the point where it actually resembled an ‘R’ as I failed to curve it. It looked like a lower case ‘r’ with the longest top in history.

To me, again, this was proof that what I was living was a horrible dream. Still, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my motor skills, even before I had come to this bizarre dream world, were failing. My inability to play Halo and the missed catch from Greg all pointed to the vaccine, but my brain refused to admit this because doing so meant accepting that I was Kaylee.

True to her word, Ashley didn’t try to push the reality theory again. We both continued to struggle with writing our names. By the end of it, we were tearing up the pages in frustration. That goddamn loops seemed like the hardest thing in the world.

Musica chimed, “Don’t worry, girls! Practice makes perfect. You’ll see, inch by inch, eventually your loops will be a cinch!”

I grumbled, “Fuck off, Musica.”

***

Tucked away underneath a series of girlie board games (did girls even want to play something called Dream Phone?), I found a Gameboy colour with a single cartridge inside. While Ashley continued to practice her letters for hours, under Musica’s watchful eye, I entered the world of the PowerPuff Girls- a team of child superheroes who had eyes so huge, it made me think they had eaten some really excellent shrooms.

The game itself wasn’t very good, but it took my mind off of the lunacy before me. I continued to hear Ashley cursing her inability to write her name. As I became immersed in the game, I noticed that it was a standard platformer, which was the easiest genre usually. Like Halo, however, I absolutely sucked at the game. At first, I couldn’t even get passed the first pit. My motions were extremely exaggerated with my arms flying up, nearly losing my grip on the Gameboy, each time I tried to navigate a pit.

I took a break to eat dinner. I realized that the sandwiches filled me up well, and the pudding I had for dessert left me feeling completely full. Musica insisted that we both have a large glass of milk each. After supper, I returned to the game, while Ashley returned to the table. After what felt like hours, and as the Gameboy’s battery started dying, I finally finished the first level. I felt an intense sense of satisfaction, greater than a Halo kill streak or even a really successful night with a smoking hot girl.

Musica chimed, “Time for bed, girls! But don’t worry tomorrow we’ll explore so many fun worlds!”

Ashley had actually gotten dressed, but I had stayed the entire day in my pajamas. Had it really been an entire day? Again, I couldn’t remember a dream where I was completely aware of my surroundings or one where I actually knew I was dreaming- let alone one that lasted an entire day.

I looked at the clock, and I could see it was 8 PM. Despite this fact, I realized that I was exhausted. I used to do the morning shift at the Palace and then sleep until 8, knowing that my night was going to be long and hopefully fruitful, but now I was actually ready for bed.

Ashley said, “It gets really dark in here, I-I um, I like to usethenightlight.”

I laughed, “Are you serious? You’re a grown woman scared of the dark? Really?”

Ashley looked at me crossly, “Shut up, Kay-lee! It’s almost pitch black in here when the lights go out. And I was alone for the first few nights. Not everyone is an emotionless prick who only cares about himself. I’ve tried to explain to you that this is real, and I hoped you’d be smart enough to realize it is.”

She looked at me sadly, fear crossing her pretty features as her eyes darted back and forth. “This is terrifying for me, Ryan. I’ve been here by myself for two days with that ridiculous music player. I don’t know if anyone knows where I am- I don’t know if I’m going to die! But you don’t give a shit, because you’re King of the Assholes, right? You can just step all over your feelings like they don’t matter. Well you won’t be able to do that here.”

She looked me right in the eyes, “Because sooner or later, you are going to realize this is your reality, and you’ll be bawling your eyes out, acting exactly how you look. But you know what? I’ll be there for you, even though you haven’t been there for me. You know why? Because I’m a better person than you. A better human being.”

I said, “Am I supposed to be insulted by that? Did your therapist tell you that it is normal for an adult woman to be scared of the dark? If this is real by the way, you’ve already lost. You might as well be a deer eating right out of the hands of the hunter. You know what happens to the better people? They get destroyed. It’s a good thing you were fucking hot, Ashley because there was no way you were going to make it in Hollywood with your attitude. The moment you show a sign of weakness, there are ten people just waiting to knock you off the ladder. Did I care that I lied in my audition? No, because I got the part. It’s all about the face we put on, and that face determines our success. And right now, your face looks like it belongs on a scared little girl.”

In a huff, Ashley climbed the top bunk and immediately set her head on the pillow. I slid into the lower bunk, claiming my victory silently. I waited a few minutes, listening for Ashley’s breathing to change. Despite her fear, like me, she was likely exhausted from a fully stimulating day. I saw no sign of Musica, so I slowly slipped out of bed and proceeded to climb the ladder to the top bunk.

My younger cousins had been the unfortunate victims of my boyhood pranks, which usually left them holding each other, and one time, actually peeing the bed. I would lay in wait for them. They usually took forever in the washroom for whatever reason, so I would wait in the wonderful embrace of pitch black darkness, listening for their footsteps as they approached the door. I had to sleep on the floor when they visited because with two of them, my mom said it made more sense for them to share my bed.

Hiding underneath the bed, I waited for the exact moment that one of them would lift his leg to climb into the bed, then I would seize it, gripping hard and pulling, as if I were a creature trying to pull them into my lair deep beneath the bed. This usually resulted in hysterical crying and copious amounts of laughter, following by a scolding from my mom, which I always ignored.

Eventually, they figured out that I was hiding under the bed, so I changed my tactics. I listened for their breathing to change, indicating that they were just on the cusp of sleep. As they entered a world between awareness and a dream state, I would grip one of their limbs and make a noise that could only belong to a three-eyed monster with row upon row of razor-sharp teeth. Even if the other boy wasn’t asleep, he knew to stay quiet, because the next night it would be worse.

My dad never said anything about it, unlike my mom who had apparently been tormented by her brother. It was, after all, just boys being boys. It made sense in my mind, and it was the perfect defence for my actions. I eventually grew out of it, and my cousins learned that sleeping on the floor was a safer place than my bed.

I reached out and grabbed Ashley’s foot, which made an attractive target, sticking out from the safety of her covers. I didn’t need to emit a monster noise, no- the girl shrieked like she was possessed, throwing herself at me and knocking me off the ladder. She began crying hysterically, her breaths ragged, each one entering her body with a slight gasp.

She screamed, “You fucking...asshole! I hate…you! I-I can’t believe you…did that to…me!”

I wasn’t laughing, mostly because Ashley’s fierce push had sent me tumbling to the floor. I landed on my back, striking my head against what was thankfully a carpeted floor. I felt my bottom lip begin to quiver as pain shot through my system. Tears welled, but I violently thrust them away with a quick finger. I rose to my feet unsteadily, while Ashley continued to cry.

Eventually, Ashley’s hysterical crying became more of a strangled whimper. Her breathing had slowed down, but I could still hear the odd gasp for air. I feared retaliation, but it never came, and I slowly drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke, darkness still blanketed the room. I could hear the gentle ticking of the wall clock, but I couldn’t see the time from my bed. The clock reminded me of the nightmare, previous to this one, where I could hear water dripping into a metal tub. Each tick brought back the horror from that moment, causing me to grip the covers tightly. I peered into the darkness, and even without shadows, my mind quickly sketched out beasts to fill my fear. Inky shapes filled my eyes, and I shut them rapidly.

Considering I rarely slept in anything other than boxers, I knew that I had awoken as Kaylee, and while this fear, along with the beasts that likely wanted to dine on my blood, was prevalent, my mind and body were still exhausted. So, while I still gripped the covers more tightly, even pulling them up to my nose at times, I managed to fall back asleep.

“Sleepy head, rise out of bed, greet the day, and say hooray! Smiles and laughs with all your friends, learning and fun, adventure and play, please don’t sleep away the day!”

My eyes shot open, and while Musica’s presence reaffirmed my fears, the feeling of the pajamas and the dangling pig tails shot the point home that I had awoken not once, but twice as Kaylee. No dream was as multi-layered as this.

Oh god, Ashley was right.

This was real.



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