Amy studied the backs of her hands, from the pointed tips of her turquoise colored nails, to the faint little wrinkles above the wrists. There was something she was missing… something more important than anything else right now, if only she could remember…
“You get it all?” Sandra asked, scowling. “I swear, if I get my hands on those little cretins.”
Oh. Right. Amy was checking her hands for ketchup splatter after two small kids, a boy and girl playing an enthusiastic game of cops and robbers, tore through aisle eight where she was stocking. It was cute at first (the girl had crimson hair like Amy’s, so maybe she held a soft spot) until the taller, lankier boy fired a finger pistol at his friend’s heart; she clutched her chest and fell back into the ketchup shelf in a slow, painfully dramatic demise. Five bottles hit the tiled floor and shattered, spraying half the condiment aisle–and Amy– in dark, oozing tomato blood. Her new CloudWalk shoes were saved at least; a huge relief since they were as white as the name suggests, and remarkably overpriced for its promise.
Sandra, her manager, had brought paper towels and offered to “help mop,” which really meant standing near the mop to gossip about Bryan in pharmacy. Amy was used to it, she’d been at this job long enough to know there was really no one to extend a hand.
It wasn’t long before Amy was called up to work a register, and even less time before some cranky old lady was arguing over the price of bananas. To most, this would seem a very bad day at work; Amy just called it Monday night. She bit her tongue and explained, as smiley-faced as she could muster, that the store charges for each banana, not by the pound like in the dinosaur days, and that each banana would cost a dollar-four.
“So if you’re planning to buy three bananas, Mrs. Larkin, it’s going to cost you three dollars and some change. Your total is right here on the screen, but if you’d like I can find a calculator–“
“–Well in my day the customer was always right! Then you post-millennials got all ‘woken’ and now there’s drone cameras everywhere spying on us shoppers, and ’employee rights'” – air quotes were applied to that last bit, performed by long knobby fingers trembling with years of abuse- “and now here I am being asked to pay over a dollar per banana. Per! Instead of by the pound as it should be!”
“You know, I remember when water was free! Yeah, you could just step right up to the tap, and there ya have it. I want to speak to your manager!”
“Well, I don’t think the water was ever really free was it?” Amy couldn’t help herself; besides the ketchup explosion earlier and Sandra’s meltdown in the deep freeze, it was a slow night. “I mean, maybe it was really cheap, but you got a water bill, no?”
“Sure, let me get her for you.” Amy suddenly remembered her customer-service smile, and quietly promised to stop being so cheeky. “But just so you know, I left her mopping up a huge mess, which usually doesn’t leave her in a great mood… but if you really want me to… I’m sure she can come up and use her big fancy manager calculator.” She cringed immediately and looked away, that was too far…
But there was no reply, and when Amy looked back the old lady stood motionless, her head hanging low, an outstretched hand in midst of the particularly rude gesture of a bird. A long wheezing moan passed through her thin pursed lips, sputtering off to a dead silence.
Amy scanned the checkout center for help, but no one was paying attention besides the tall guy next in line. Kind of cute, thought Amy, if he weren’t staring like a creep. Cute in like a nerdy movie star kind of way, she amended upon further study. She didn’t typically go for brunettes but there was something magnetic about his eyes, green with burst of hazel around the pupils. When he noticed her staring back, the young man smiled and said,
“You’ve already forgotten about the old lady, haven’t you?”
With a gasp, she snapped back to Mrs. Larkin, who still stood frozen by the paypad. Amy felt frozen too, except to reach out and touch the lady’s shoulder. It felt soft and warm, like when she last hugged her grandmother.
“Hey, are you OK?” she asked, and looked around again. Why won’t anyone help?
“Wow,” the cute guy said, “you really broke one properly this time, huh?” Amy wheeled.
“Are you just going to stand there?” she burst, panicking. “Get help! Call someone!”
Suddenly, manager Sandra ran up from the back of the store, heaving.
“You paged?” she asked between wheezes, “what’s wrong?”
“No, she didn’t,” said the tall guy.
“What?” Amy and Sandra retorted in unison. This weirdo was looking less cute by the minute…
“If you’ll remember, Amy,” he said, and stepped over to Mrs Larkin, then gently lowered her middle finger. “You never called for the manager. This lady asked you to, and you never did. And then, this happened.” He bent down and opened one of the old woman’s sagging eyelids. Satisfied, he stood and turned to Sandra. “No, she never called you, you’re a diversion to get us back on track. On script. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll show up soon.”
“Look here, my dude,” snorted Sandra, “I have no idea what you’re on about, but if you have any idea the kind of night I’ve had, you’d shut your mouth and let the adults do the talking, mmmkay?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied with a snappy salute. “but only if Amy here can tell me where she works.” Looking to Amy his hand lowered, “and don’t just say you work ‘here.’ What is the name of this store?”
“Are you crazy? There is an elderly person here having a real medical emergency–will someone PLEASE call 911!”
“You call them.” He shrugged. “Don’t you have a phone on you? What century are we in?”
“Well I – Yeah, I’m sure I have one… around here…” Amy patted her pockets and searched around the register.
“Where do you work?” he insisted.
“I’m not stupid, I know where I work! It’s– it’s uh… well, here. I work here. “
“What’s it called?”
“It’s called… Um, hmmm, hang on…”
“Why do you have ketchup all over you, Amy?”
“Well,” she replied, looking down. The sour stench of vinegar and tomato wafted up from her splattered shirt. “Yeah, there was a thing earlier and… and Sandra said I couldn’t go change because they might need me up on a register.” She looked to her manager, who nodded with reassurance. “I mean, I think, right? I was mopping all that up and then… I got called up to a register.”
“You sure?” Leaving Mrs Larkin, the tall guy stepped to the far end of the checkout counter, eying the nearest exit. “Or, did you just find yourself here, arguing with that delightful young lady about the price of bananas?”
“You’re right… ,” said Amy, slowly piecing it together, “No, I never called for the manager…”
Shoving past Mrs. Larkin, Sandra stepped up to the register and grabbed Amy’s hand, patting it softly.
Find your special place, by Shawn Powers
“Don’t listen to him Amy, everything will be just fine. You can go home and change your clothes right after I kick that trouble maker’s skinny little–aaaahhhh!–” The shrieking that ended Sandra’s sentence was short winded, as the old woman sprung to life and sunk her teeth deep into the manager’s veiny neck.
No, not teeth– they didn’t look like teeth at all to Amy, they just looked… wrong. Too long and shiny, like rows of little golden daggers. Amy stood shocked, as tiny bits of Sandra were caught in Mrs. Larkin’s deepest wrinkles; the old woman relished her meal with closed eyes–wait no, she had no eyes! Two black holes were all that filled Mrs. Larkin’s sockets, darker than the loneliest voids of space between dying stars. Amy fell back into the shelves behind the register and knocked over a bottle of red shampoo, dousing her CloudWalks in thick bloody soap, completing the ensemble.
“Amy, we need to go,” the tall guy said, “right now. Please, I need you to leave your register and let’s walk away. Carefully.”
“I — I can’t…” she replied shakily, unable to take her eyes off of Sandra. “Mrs. Larkin is a vampire?”
“Something like that,” he said, reaching out, “and yes you can. You can leave here if you want. But you have to want it, and quick before Mrs. Larkin is finished with her meal. Who do you think will be next?”
The old woman released her golden daggers from Sandra’s neck; then as if her lower jaw came unhinged, Mrs Larkin’s mouth opened wide enough to swallow Amy’s manager whole, head first. Her crooked body seemed to stretch and grow just tall enough to do it, and picked up a limp Sandra with very little effort. Before long she was sliding the feet down with a wet slurp.
“Don’t just stand there Amy, come on!”
Like breaking from a nasty spell, Amy turned to him and, shaking her head,
“Took you long enough, now let’s go!” His hand stretched further, wriggling anxiously for her to take it.
“Yeah,” she agreed, and their fingers met with tingling excitement. Off they went and he led her past the other checkout counters and to the big exit doors at the front of the store. A large man with no eyes stepped on their path reaching out with long stretching fingers; Amy’s new friend dodged expertly and rolled her around to his other side.
“Don’t let them touch you!” he shouted, and picked up an umbrella to beat off a persistent eyeless baby crawling around their feet with tiny gnashing golden daggers. “Geez Amy, are all the demon babies this quick in your dreams?”
“I wouldn’t know!” she replied, “so that’s what these things are? Demons? These dream characters with no eyes?”
“Something… like… that!” he managed through strong forward thrusts. “And you… can call me… CLAY!” With the last word the tall guy swung the umbrella low and putted the baby high in the air and deep into the store; they ran harder. “You know, that way you can stop referring to me as ‘he’ or ‘the cute tall guy!”
“You’re reading my thoughts?” Amy yelled back, tearing her hand free but keeping pace. “I didn’t know dream characters can do that! Are you like some special kind?”
Clay didn’t answer, just gave her one long look as they neared the exit. A calm night peeked through the glass doors and Amy could just see her car out in the parking lot.
“They’re not opening!” He waved the umbrella at the doors’ sensors. “Ok we’re going through…”
“Through?” Amy slowed, wheeling in thought, “oh, I’m not good at going through things… especially in a hurry…”
“It’s easy, just don’t overthink it. Like how we have so much time to discuss all this even though we’ve been approaching the doors for quite a while. It’s a dream Amy, there are no doors, not really!”
“Ooooh, I don’t know!” She winced. “There’s got to be another way out…”
“Listen, doors aren’t important, we just need to get to the other side, the parking lot. Just close your eyes and think about the parking lot!”
She did and, after a short woosh, when her eyes opened they were now running outside and across the dark, near empty lot. Her car seemed a lot further than she remembered parking, but her mind was on what just happened. Did I go through the doors, she pondered, noticing the big cheese-yellow moon hanging over them as they scurried like mice away from the store. Or did I teleport? I totally teleported, didn’t I?
“Something like that,” Clay said, and she promptly ordered him to stay out of her head. “Really?” He replied, and she could’ve felt his smirk from eons away. “I’m not even reading your thoughts, Amy, you do well enough alone to broadcast them out like a free concert! You know, in a dream, your thoughts still feel like they’re in your head, but where is your head, Amy?”
“Something like that.”
Amy thought about what horrific things she might do to him if he used that phrase again; Clay requested she’d not go with shooting fireballs at him since he took so long choosing his outfit.
“I will when you will!” He shouted, and ducked as an expertly crafted iceball whizzed by, grazing an ear. “Oh good job, you’ve been practicing, huh?”
Amy didn’t know what he meant by that, and didn’t have time to explain where she learned the trick because two eyeless demons climbed out of a nearby vehicle and took chase with considerable speed. Amy threw large ice balls at them but any that would’ve hit were swallowed whole.
“Hey, you still know how to fly?” Clay shouted from further ahead.
“Yeah I can fly! Uh, but I have to jump off of somewhere high…”
“Oh you’re still on that? Ok, come here.” He flipped the umbrella down and pointed the long gilded tip at her shoes. “CloudWalkers, huh? That’ll work.” And with a quick incantation (“Hocus pocus… wibbly wobbly…abra kadabra!”) golden sparks leapt from his makeshift wand and disappeared into Amy’s shoes, now restored to a pristine white. The umbrella then opened high above his head and he lifted up and away into the night sky. “Now just walk right up to me, Amy! Actually, RUN!”
With a narrow escape of gnashing dagger-teeth and long stretching arms, she ran vertically right up to Clay who was already high above the power lines. Each step created a literal cloud to cushion her climb, accompanied by a cute little ‘poof’; luckily the eyeless demons couldn’t fly. When she caught up to him she asked again about the creatures chasing them.
“They’re kind of like an immune system response,” he said while they hovered well above the parking lot (Amy could see part of the town twinkling further down.) “Okay, or say that a dream is like a supermassive simulation with an aggressive autocorrect function. Those are the autocorrect. Correctors, I call them.”
“When things go wrong,” Amy added, “or off script like you said earlier…”
“Yeah, the correctors are the number one reason you don’t get lucid more often. They show up lots of times when you start noticing things are unusual, but especially if someone tries to tell you that you’re dreaming. They get real nasty then. And it’s not hard to keep you on track, they just swallow the evidence, literally.”
“Well I don’t remember seeing any dream characters like that before! It’s certainly not something to forget…”
“Of course not. When they destroy the evidence it’s like it never happened, including their sudden appearance. You just go on with the dream, maybe under new circumstances that you believe were always there. The mind adapts. And when all else fails, they’ll just eat you. Then you wake up and poof– it’s like it’s never happened.”
“So that’s why I don’t remember so many of my dreams?” A topic heavy on Amy’s mind as of late.
“Sometimes.” He said instead, and began to lift higher and higher to the pull of his umbrella; Amy thought he looked more like Mary Poppins now than a handsome movie star (well I guess he could be both…) “And sometimes you just have really awful memory,” he added, and dodged a whizzing fireball or two. He swung the umbrella far away to avoid losing his fabric vehicle to Amy’s fiery retaliation– “Hey I’m flying here!”
“Fly away then, you’re no help!”
But before she could spray him with a barrage of fire and ice, a helicopter zoomed up from the parking lot and three more correctors leapt out, diving straight for the quarreling duo.
Mad Man Moon, by Shawn Powers
“Follow me!” yelled Clay “to my ship, quick! Straight to the moon!”
“Your ship in on the moon? But it’s so far!”
“Something like that…” he muttered. Holding his free hand up to the moon, he pinched his fingers together, then pulled them apart like zooming in on a virtual tablet. The moon stretched and grew from the size of a watermelon to taking up the whole of Amy’s view. When awake, she had seen close ups of the moon but never knew the rocky craters to have such an iridescent shimmer. “And my ship’s not on the moon…” he corrected, “it is the moon.”
One of the large craters opened up like from a cheesy old sci-fi movie, and Amy marveled that she’d even dream up such a thing. It seemed totally out of the norm of her usual dream-fare, to have some irritably handsome mind reader whisk her away to the moon. Maybe it was the special tea she had last night at Evelyn’s party….(I was at a party last night, right?) Or perhaps from binging too much Professor Zero on DisFlix.
She CloudWalked (or rather, cloud-ran,) right inside the crater behind Clay, and after a short swirling vortex of a tunnel, found herself stepping into the dark cockpit of a futuristic looking spaceship; her shoes no longer created little clouds on the metallic floor. A lanky silhouette of Clay shifted across the small cabin to the pilot’s seat on the left, partially illuminated by the glow from a multitude of prismatic buttons and switches comprising a ridiculously large dashboard. A giant screen towered above, displaying a moon-sized Earth on a dark and silent night.
“Take a seat,” Clay said, patting the other one on the right. “It won’t bite. It will give you ten kinds of temporal massages and a total chakra cleansing–that is, if I can remember where the buttons are…” He scanned through what seemed like thousands of flashing buttons above the empty seat alone, and promptly gave up. “Come on, we’re safe in here. The correctors can’t get inside. Come on, take a seat… “
“Fine,” Amy said with a firm resolve. “But only if you start being honest with me. No more ‘something like that’ crap, just… tell me the truth, even if you don’t think I’d understand.”
“The truth? Sorry Amy, but I’m not here to tell you the truth. I don’t even know if half the things I could say are true. What I can tell you is that we can have fun, if you want.” He patted the seat again.
For the first time, she saw him. Sure, she had looked at Clay plenty of times by now, but it suddenly made sense who this was, yet impossible to put together into a single cohesive thought. Amy was flooded by memories of dreams she had as a small child. In them, there was always a special friend who bailed her out of trouble, or helped her to understand things as a scared little girl, or took her to amazing new places beyond her wildest dreams. When awake, she even had an imaginary friend based on this character, but didn’t remember it being male, or of any gender, really. Eventually she had stopped talking to this friend and slowly forgot about them as interests turned to boys and clothes, or the worse, adulting.
No, this was not just some random dream character, this was her most secret and adventurous childhood friend, back again after all this time…
(To be continued in episode three…)