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Illusions of Reality

The shadows drip like black ink from the ceiling, pooling into lightless nothing on the floor. There’s light in the distance, outside the confines of my room. Probably the nurses’ station. Here, there is only silence. Darkness. Darkness, and the things I see in it.

Last night I dreamt of chess pieces moving through the hospital corridors, nurses with horse and castle heads, doctors with crowns. They danced through hallways where iridescent snowflakes fell, lit only by moonlight. But when I woke the shimmering snow still fell, pawns still roamed past my room, and the darkness whispered words in a language I didn’t know but understood anyway.

Tonight, there are no voices. The snow is gone, and the giant chessmen. They faded with the daylight, replaced by walls that melted and air that glittered. And now shadows that bleed through the walls and whisper not in sound, but in echoes of light.

Part of me thinks I might be dying.

The night nurse wanders in, checks over everything. His movements are punctuated with iridescent black fireworks, backed by the too-bright blue of his scrubs. “You’re up late. How’re we feeling tonight?”

It’s hard to talk. They’ve got me on oxygen, loaded up with antibiotics, but the coughing fits can be overwhelming., and the fever exhausts me. “Tired.” The single word falls out in a whisper, barely a spark in the bleeding darkness. I can feel the cough trying to start.

“Easy, now.” He’s quick and efficient, doesn’t annoy me. “Anything you need?”

I shake my head slowly, watching shades of darkness swirl in the air, and he turns away, scribbles something on the whiteboard next to my door.

“Try the stairs, they’re always an excellent starting point.”

It takes me a moment, a beat. My mind is slow and foggy. It takes me a few moments after to push out the words. “Did…did you say…”

The nurse turns back to me. “Miss?”

Another beat. The voice wasn’t the same.

I shake my head, but this time I can’t stop the coughs that rip through me. The nurse runs back over, holds the oxygen mask on me while he coaxes me through the fit. Eventually it passes, leaving me drifting back into sleep, watching the ornate staircase that twists around my room, leading ever upward through an endless universe of books and shelves and stars that run ever upward into the cosmos.

I don’t think it was there before, but maybe it was. Maybe it’s always been there.

I dream of underwater cities filled with mer-people, and twin planets with many moons spinning around their concentric orbits. Of starry nights and bright galaxies that pass over and around me, stellar symphonies in blue and red and purple and green, splashes and storms of light. Of white trees with purple leaves and dragons flying through orange skies. And I dream of a girl with violet eyes, short black hair, and a matching purple streak. She smiles at me from the doorway of my hospital room, silver lip ring glinting in the hall light, worn leather jacket hugging her like a second skin.

She winks, and the darkness devours me, whispering sweetly to my soul.

I wake to bright sun and spicy heat, sand in the wind, and worn adobe walls. The constant noise of hospital machinery is gone, replaced by the trickle of water from a fountain where my door once might have been, while deep bells toll sonorously in the distance.

The dry heat feels nice, and I think to myself that if this is dying, it’s not a bad way to go.

I wonder what dream I’ll end up in, if it is.

“It isn’t.”

There’s no one in my room, yet I hear the words clearly as if they’re spoken right by my ear. But hearing voices isn’t any stranger than anything else I’ve hallucinated since my dad brought me to the ER with pneumonia so bad I couldn’t breathe, and a fever so high he thought I was dying. Whatever the voice says, I’m not so sure I’m not.

Dying, that is.

“You’re not.”

I snort, which sends me coughing, and leaves me no room for anything but focusing on breathing. Slowly. Calmly. Focus on the spices in the warm dry air. Breathe in the calm peace.

After, the thought slides through me that death might be nice, if only for the uninterrupted sleep. I drift off again to the sound of laughter like windchimes, and dream of doorways and windows through infinite worlds.

Worlds I wish I could travel.

“You can.”

The whisper hugs me, haunts me.

I watch stars entwining, blinding structures of crystalline ice rising from snowy peaks, and billowing oceans of tall red grass parting as herds of something six-legged gallop through and gryphons wheel in the lavender skies above. I shake my head, because these are fever dreams or hallucinations, not magical destinations. But I wish they were.

“What if they are?” My disembodied voice seems more and more insistent, more frequent, and as worlds appear and vanish before me, I think I see something else. Someone else.

Laughter like bells, and then she’s there, back in my hospital room, as dreams shift half around us. Dry red canyons to my left, lush green islands floating through the doorway on my right. She smiles at me, violet eyes shimmering impossibly, dim light illuminating brown skin. The walls disappear for a moment, replaced by a glowing, iridescent forest, only to return again unchanged.

The violet-eyed girl stays. “What if this isn’t a fever dream? What if it were real?”

Even dreaming, the pneumonia weighs heavy on me. Words come out in more of a raspy half-growl, my throat dry from the oxygen and coughing and disuse. “Can’t be.”

She smiles again. “What if it can?”

I breathe slowly, trying not to start coughing again. “Dying then.”

“You’re not. I’ve told you.”

I grunt softly. “What then?” It may be a dream, I may be dying, but I’m interested. Even if it’s just my imagination running on drugs and fever.

“You don’t believe me.”

Raising my eyebrow is easier than using words again, and less likely to make me start coughing.

She laughs. “You’re so trained not to believe, so sure magic can’t exist. Even when the proof is right in front of you.”

I want to laugh. I want to, but I know if I start coughing I’ll lose whatever thread this is. I’m so focused on breathing slowly, keeping the cough at bay, that I miss it when she moves. She’s just there, beside me, before I know it. Holding my hand, brown skin contrasting my olive. I’m so shocked that it takes me a while to realize I can feel her hand.

I can feel her hand.

“Try to believe. You’re not dreaming, Evan Grainne Xenakis. And I swear you’re not dying.”

I hadn’t noticed until now her faint accent. It’s like the touch of her hand on mine brought everything into clarity. Her accent, her luminescent eyes. For all that my hallucinations had had a quality of reality, this was something else, something new. I don’t understand it, but I want to. I want to know more.

Wouldn’t mind knowing how she knows my name, either.

“Your name was easy. You told me.” She squeezes my hand.

I lift one of the fingers of my free hand. “You’re…in my head.” She winks. “Not fair.” Not fair she’s in my head. That she knows my name, and I don’t know hers. That I’m stuck in this hospital bed, hoping the girl holding my hand and reading my mind is real. That, all her assurances to the contrary, I might be dying.

“I’m Saffiyah. And for the last time, you’re not dying. You’re changing. Manifesting.” The walls behind her vanish in a golden desert, twin suns setting on the horizon. “You’re Umbranti, Evan. A World-Walker.” A sandstorm rises on the horizon, lightning crackling as it builds. Hot wind hits my face, turning wet as the desert becomes a tropical forest, trees reaching higher than skyscrapers and just as big around. “You said you wanted to travel them. Touch them.”

I can feel the burn of the cough building in my chest, but I force it down. “How?”

Saffiyah squeezes my hand and leans in towards me, until I feel her breath on my cheek, her words tracing patterns on my skin. “Let go.”

Let go.

“Stop fighting it, Evan.” The heat of her breath makes the burning in my chest grow. “Let it take you. Let it change you. Accept the gift.”

Just like that. Let go.

“Just like that.”

I turn my head until we’re face to face, and I’m staring into glowing lavender eyes just inches from mine. And in them, I see everything. Everything I want and need, every answer.

The burning in my chest grows as she sighs and leans in, her forehead touching mine. My eyes drift closed, and with her there, holding my hand, I let go.

I dream of a great, glowing bird of fire and flames blazing brighter than the sun, consuming itself until it turns to ash, only to rise again.

And I feel the fire consume me.

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