We are delighted to have Amna AlHashemi back with us with a brand new post for our fantasy theme! we hope you enjoy her short story titled “False Reality”
“Wait for me!”
The kids run ahead of me, giggling and throwing their heads back to mock me for my slow pace. I laugh and continue to chase after them, all the way to the castle. I slow down as I take in the magnificent sight of it, beautiful and towering, both homely and foreign. I sigh in content, happy for what I have. We all rush ahead into the front gates, and I ignore the twigs pulling at my skirt.
It is lunchtime at last, and we are all hungry after the long day out in the sun. We aren’t tired though, and we are eager for the chance to go back out and play in the field. The food is delicious and filling, and it seems endless.
When we manage to get back out to the field, despite mother’s warning to be careful, we continue running and playing, without feeling the extra load of the heavy lunch. My younger siblings catch up to me, and I crash down on the grass, catching my breath among beautiful spring flowers. I lie there on the warm ground, and take in the beauty of the nature all around me. The bright blue sky, occasionally spotted with cotton-candy white clouds. The vibrant green trees, swaying with the gentle movement of the wind. The breeze tickling our feet as it passes us. The flowers turning their faces around, greeting us with their liveliness. I can stay here forever, and never tire of it.
And of course, that is when I wake up. I open my eyes slowly, and stare up at the steel-black and dark ceiling above me. The machine beeps along the side of my head, dragging my soul back up to consciousness. I sigh, close my eyes for a moment and try to visualize the blue skies again. The warmth, the smell of spring, and the joyous laughter become just another memory. I am left with nothing again, nothing but the machine-driven bed, the beep of the monitor, the sickly-sweet smell of a laboratory and the deadly silence.
I sit up, slowly and painfully, my muscles aching with the movement. I’m not sure if I’m in pain because of my lack of proper nutrition, or because of how many long hours I’ve been spending on the machine. I stretch my arms, lean on the side of the bed, and prepare myself for another report.
I turn to the pad next to the machine and remain motionless while it scans my eyes, my heartbeat, etc. Once the screen flashes green, I start on my daily report.
“Good morning, D14.” The monotone female voice of the computer greets me. I’ve been called D14 for so long now, I almost mistake it for my real name.
“How was your night? Did you have a good dream?”
“I’m ready for my report now.” I can’t stand the fake friendliness of the machine. It may have a human-like voice, but it is not human. Not to me.
“You may begin.”
And so, the routine repeats.
“Time?” The female robot asks me, despite the fact that the time is always written down in the records. Apparently, it’s for “quality assurance and training purposes”.
“Historic. Spring. Daylight. Family.” I am beginning to sound like a robot myself.
“Abrupt.” I still haven’t managed to take control of the transition between sleeping and waking up. I jump awake most of the time, with today being the exception.
I sigh, and go through the rest of the questions. I finish the report and the robot bids me farewell, reminding me to eat all of my meals on time. I barely even think about the answers anymore, which is a common reaction to patterns.
Instead, my mind wanders back to the very beginning of all this. All the way back to two years ago, when we were first recruited into the program. I was a high school senior at the time, and like most of my classmates, I had no idea what to do with my life. We were set up for a meeting with a guidance counselor. They didn’t tell us much about them other than they were from a Higher Education organization and were looking for “talented seniors with potential”.
I was very surprised when I went into my guidance session alone. I never knew that walking through that door would change my life, forever.
I sat at a table in a plain classroom facing with the counselor. She was friendly and full of smiles, despite my cold and arrogant attitude towards her. I kept dodging all of her personal questions and replied with one-word answers. The interview was stretching on longer than necessary, and I couldn’t figure out what she was looking for from me.
Until she started telling me facts about myself. Things I have never spoken to another soul, not even my late mother. She started with pointing out my scars.
“Why do you cut yourself?” she asked gently, tapping her own left wrist for emphasis. Her tone made it seem as if we were discussing the weather.
I stared wide-eyed at her observant face, unable to comprehend how she would know that. I wore long sleeves all the time to make sure I covered everything. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, and swallowed visibly.
“How do you know that?” I tried to mask my discomfort with her, but my voice still came out shaky. I was as uneasy as a ticking bomb, fearing the coming explosion and yet longing for the release.
She smiled, and reached over to pat my hand. “It’s all right, I understand.”
And that was when I snapped. I pulled my hand back, stood up and yelled at her. Yelled about everything and everyone, screamed about no one ever being able to understand me, cried about never feeling like myself. About being alone, always alone, especially after mother was gone. About feeling dead while my heart still pumped blood through my body, refusing to give up when my soul has left me so long ago.
“You have no idea what it’s like, don’t you dare tell me you understand! Do you understand what it’s like not to feel comfortable in my own skin?!
Do you understand what it’s like to feel like an alien in my own home?!
Do you understand what it’s like to be your worst enemy and your worst nightmare come true?
Do you understand what it’s like to live every day hating yourself, feeling nothing but self-loathing?
Do you understand what it’s like to feel like your lungs are crashing in on you, no matter how hard you try to breathe better?
Do you understand what it’s like to wake up every day wishing I could just die and never go through another morning again?
You know nothing about me, lady, absolutely nothing! Don’t pretend that you do! You don’t understand!”
I was visibly shaking, with tears streaming down my face and splashing onto my shirt. I wasn’t sure how long I was talking for. I was breathing very heavily, clearly distraught, and I expected my homeroom teacher or school principal to just walk in any second and drag me off to a mental hospital. Strap me to a bed. Force me to swallow pills and stare outside windows that are too high off the ground for me to view any trees or flowers. Or people.
Throughout my whole mental breakdown, the woman remained focused on me with a cool demeanor. She didn’t even blink in shock.
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you, my dear. That I do understand,” she stood up and moved closer to me. “And I can help you.”
I didn’t know what to say, she wasn’t behaving the way I expected her to, as all adults seemed to. “What do you mean? You think you can make my dreams come true or something? Will you turn my pumpkin into a horse-drawn carriage?” I laughed hysterically, and yet the woman smiled widely. Nothing seemed to shake her confidence.
“Actually, I can. Literally.”
And that was when she told me the true purpose of their visit to the school, and all about the “Dream Initiative” program. She was a representative of the top-secret program, and they were going around looking for potential study participants who would test out the machine. The purpose of the machine is to enable the dreamer to learn to control the dream, in every way possible, to record it, and to access the deepest levels of the subconscious mind. They became masters of the art of dreaming, and the machine was finally ready to be tested. I would be paid to participate, I’ll be provided with shelter, food, and everything else I would need. All that would be asked of me is to become a subject of the study, and provide them with feedback and data.
“But what does this have to do with making my life better?” I asked her.
“Well,” she looked down for a second and then caught my eye again. “I’m sure life is pretty unbearable for you right now, and only when you are asleep do you really feel better. I’m offering you the chance to integrate your dreams into reality, and make them a part of your every day life. You will be able to control your dreams as you wish, your deepest and most precious desires would come true, all thanks to the machine!” She placed her hand on my shoulder, and smiled encouragingly. “I really did mean it when I told you that I understand. And I assure you; I can make your life a better place for you. I can make you feel at home again.”
I hesitated for a second, but then I thought about her reaction. She must have experienced what I’m going through herself, otherwise she never would have looked at me with those comprehending eyes. I was looking for an exit, for a way out of my failures. I wanted a new beginning, a new chance at living, and a new anything.
“You’re right, I do love to sleep.”
And two years later, here I am. Cooped up in a room much like a hospital room, sleeping on a bed with machines and wires and monitors connected to it, and living in the most colorless world. Winter bites at my skin even through the walls of the building, my gray uniform hangs loosely around me, and the room reflects an endless shade of silver shadows. I escaped from the real world out there, walked out of it right after graduation and jumped head first into this program that represented my only hope for a better life.
Two years later. And I still don’t feel at home.
At least, not when I’m awake.
Author: Amna AlHashemi