A thin pinprick of light pierced the darkness. Hesitantly, it widened, forming a small circle of white. A voice came rushing into Grace’s hearing, but it was muffled, muted, as if passing through a layer of water.
The circle enlarged another inch, and the voice gained clarity, becoming a drumbeat, a pulsing repetition of some unknown word.
Grace opened her mouth to call out to the figure beyond her vision, but the moment she did, a cold liquid rushed down her throat, invading her lungs, stifling her breath. Grace fought desperately for air, arms clawing madly at the emptiness around her, but the invisible torrent continued.
Grace felt herself falling, descending into the sea of blackness, and with her last vestiges of strength, glanced up at the circle of white, steadily receding in her vision.
The circle shrank smaller and smaller, but before it could disappear completely, Grace was finally able to make out what the phantom voice was saying.
“Grace,” it called. “Grace!”
Suddenly, she awoke, tangled in her sheets, a familiar din invading her ears. She reached out to silence her alarm clock, but when doing so, found that the little black screen read 9:23, solid, unwavering, and unsympathetic.
Startled, Grace threw off her covers and dashed into the kitchen, where the stove clock confirmed her fears. Grace ran back into the bedroom, scanning around for clothes that would make her decently presentable. Something strange had happened, she concluded, and this something strange had caused her to be late for work.
Grace staggered out of her apartment, frantically fumbling with her keys to find the correct one to lock her door, dream forgotten.
When she arrived at her office building, Grace’s wristwatch read 9:48. She snuck a hurried glance at the sign stationed on the manicured lawn near the building’s entrance that read “GreenGro: Your source for Trusty Fertilizers”, hoping desperately that this small tribute would earn her remorse in the eyes of her workplace.
Grace rushed into the lobby and punched furiously at the call button of the elevator, which refused to light.
The man at the reception desk studied her quizzically, and then spoke up.
“Sorry ma’am, the elevator’s out on the weekends.”
Grace turned, confused and distraught. “Weekend? But today’s Monday.”
“No, I’m sorry,” the receptionist replied, “but today is in fact Saturday.”
Startled, Grace looked around her for some kind for confirmation of this absurdity, but found none. She opened her mouth to speak, but embarrassment forced the words back down her throat.
To dissipate the awkward stillness, Grace unnecessarily brushed a lock of hair from her face. Finding that this improved nothing, she stalked briskly out of the room, wishing never to see the receptionist again.
“Five days?” Stella’s squeal punctured through the coffee shop’s tranquility. “You slept for five days?”
“Yes, in fact I did, and somehow didn’t wake up even though my alarm was blaring away,” Grace said, and then added as an afterthought, “And quiet down. You’re ruining this place’s atmosphere.”
Stella heeded her friend’s advice. “Sorry,” she said in a subdued tone, “but I still can’t believe that. When I didn’t hear from you, I thought it was odd but…” her voice trailed off, but the flash of an idea brought her back again. “It has to be some kind of record!”
“I don’t really want people recording this,” Grace said. “I might not even have a job anymore.”
Stella swatted at her blonde curls in dismissal. “I’m sure they’ll understand. It was a freak accident! And besides,” she leaned forward and lowered her voice to an ominous timbre, “if not, you can always blame it on the chemical research and sue them for a million bucks.”
Grace matched her friend’s melodramatic posture. “And lose three million in legal fees!”
Both women retreated, laughing, and Grace sipped pensively at her drink.
“I guess I’ll have to see come Monday.”
Again taking a quick glance at the company sign, Grace strode to the GreenGro corporate offices with the confidence that it was a Monday morning and she was on time for work.
She waved hello to the receptionist, noticing thankfully that it was not the same man whom she accosted two days earlier. Grace hoped half-heartedly that this common gesture of kindness would serve as an appropriate apology for her previous behavior.
Instead of going to her desk on the seventh floor, Grace pushed the button for fourteen, the top tier of the building, where her boss presided. She waited impatiently for the elevator doors to close, wishing for solitude, but a man’s hand slipped through just before her safety was secured.
The doors reopened reluctantly, and Grace came to face Robert, one of her colleagues in Fertilizer Development.
“Grace,” he said, letting no emotion slip, “you’re back.”
Grace responded with a similarly ambiguous tone. “That I am.”
The elevator fell into silence. Grace fidgeted with her collar. Robert checked his watch.
Finally, Grace could bear the tension no longer. “Do I still have a job here?” she blurted.
Robert looked down at his feet, scanning his shoelaces for an appropriate answer. “I’m not sure,” he said. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Braxton. He was agitated by your absence, but never outright said he would fire you.”
The elevator announced its arrival at floor seven with a pleasant ding and Robert moved to exit.
“Thanks,” Grace said as Robert stepped out.
“Good luck!” he called back.
Fortunately, Mr. Braxton had no appointments scheduled for the morning, so Grace was admitted into his office with ease.
As Mr. Braxton’s secretary closed the door behind her, Grace surveyed the room of the Director of Research. There were photos on the wall of Braxton shaking hands with other, presumably important, men in front of sprawling plots of farmland. Also prominently displayed were photos of his wife and two children, which Grace suspected were Braxton’s consolations for his frequent absence from his family.
Braxton himself sat in a large leather chair that he had bought with the pessimistic knowledge that one day he would be very fat. Now, Braxton filled only a portion of the chair, which helped hide the slight protrusion of his gut and emerging jowls.
“Grace,” Braxton said, mimicking Robert’s emotionless tone. “You’re back.”
“That I am,” Grace replied feeling a slight sense of déjà vu, “but I have a very good reason for being gone.”
“I would like to hear this reason.” Braxton leaned back, exposing to Grace his thinning hairline.
“Somehow,” Grace took a deep breath. “Somehow, and I know this sounds like some far-fetched excuse, but hear me out. Somehow, I was asleep for five days.”
Braxton looked dubious.
“I know, it sounds false, but you have to believe me. Something happened when I fell asleep Sunday night, something that caused me not to wake up until Saturday morning.”
“That sounds very convenient, missing only the workweek,” Braxton said with suspicion.
Grace felt her chance at immunity sliding away. “Mr. Braxton I’m telling the truth!” she pleaded.
Braxton sighed. “You sound quite sincere, but I’m not convinced.” Grace opened her mouth to protest, but Braxton cut her off. “However, you are one of our most promising chemists, and personally you don’t seem like the kind of person to skip work. I don’t know whether you’re lying, but I don’t really care. You have your job, but this leave of absence has used up all your sick time and vacation days for this year.”
“Thank you so much!” Grace said in a burst of elation.
“Just know,” said Braxton as Grace turned to leave, “if you ever have even one minute not accounted for at this company, you’re gone.”
“I won’t let you down,” Grace said, leaving the office with a skip of joy.
Again, there was blackness. Grace turned and twisted, searching her amorphous surroundings for any traces of light, but found none.
“Grace!” a voice clear and powerful pierced through the dark and Grace noticed now that it was decidedly feminine, and vaguely familiar.
Grace began to open her mouth to respond to the call, but fear of the deluge stopped her.
“Grace!” the voice shouted again, and Grace yearned to reply, to indicate her presence and ask for answers, but memories of the past deluge held her back.
“Grace!” the voice called for a third time, and, unable to stand her silence any longer, Grace pried her lips apart, fighting resisting impulses. An icy finger slid down her throat, and Grace could only let out a small squeal before her mouth was completely filled.
Although she realized her initial plan was a mistake, Grace was still determined to find answers, and she used her arms to propel herself upwards, hoping that just by resisting she could fight this dream.
Suddenly, she saw it–a small white circle nestled in the corner of her vision. Grace changed her course, hoping, believing, that the light would give her salvation from the watery onslaught.
Grace felt her arms grow heavy and sluggish, as if she was swimming through a gelatinous slime. Her chest felt weighed down with some extra burden, and she speculated that the water had filled a significant portion of her lungs.
Again, the voice called to Grace and Grace knew she had heard it somewhere before, but the burning of her lungs snapped her attention back to her goal. Grace increased her efforts, calling on any strength she had left, feeling herself dip towards unconsciousness.
Grace refocused on her relentless swim, and the white spot was now within full view. It appeared to be a circle whose diameter was larger than Grace’s body, and as she drew closer, it illuminated her watery environs with dazzling light.
Grace felt that she was within reach of the circle, but as she lifted a leaden arm out to touch it, the circle began to recede from her reach. Panicked, Grace brought her arm in a wide arc, making a mad swipe at the glimmering light, putting the last vestiges of her strength into this final motion.
Grace’s arm stretched to an almost inhuman length, but the circle evaded her grasp, and she knew her chance was gone.
Defeated, Grace could only watch as her salvation disappeared from view, hearing her name called one final time before darkness covered her.
“The dream happened again?” Stella’s worried eyes searched Grace’s face for signs of sorrow. “Do you still have your job?”
Grace was caught off guard by this odd question, but then realized her friend’s implication. “No, luckily it was only a one-night deal this time. But it really shook me up. It was so … intense.”
Stella leaned in closer. “How so?”
“I don’t really want to go into the details,” Grace replied, looking away from her friend. “Sorry.”
“That’s perfectly alright,” Stella acquiesced, though it was clear she wanted to hear more.
“Thanks,” Grace said, staring down into her drink, still trying to avoid Stella’s gaze. Suddenly, Grace noticed with alarm that something was wrong with her fingers holding the coffee mug. They seemed to have taken on a translucency; through the fingers Grace could make out the blue swirls on the mug behind them. Puzzled, with a little worry creeping into the back of her mind, Grace held her fingers up to the light streaming from the coffee shop’s front windows, and found that the scenery behind passed right through them.
“Grace?” Stella inquired. “What are you doing?”
“My fingers,” Grace breathed. “They’re disappearing.”
Stella looked at Grace sharply. “What are you talking about? I see them just fine.”
“Oh.” Grace gave her friend a preoccupied look. “I guess it’s just me then.”
Rat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat. The keys of Grace’s computer clicked furiously to keep up with her hurried pace of typing. The rough draft of her report on a new polymer she had concocted was due at the end of the day, and Grace found this a suitable distraction to take her mind off her disappearing fingers.
Pausing her frenzied working, Grace looked down with concern at her hands resting on the keyboard. Below them she could see clearly all the letters and symbols her fingers were dancing over just moments ago. The translucency, verging on transparency, had made its way up to her wrists, and tendrils of clarity had begun to snake up her lower arms.
In the side of her vision, movement drew Grace’s eye. She turned from her computer, and then started back in fear. Translucency had invaded a corner of her office, and was eating its way outward into the room, creating a void that opened into the floor below.
Grace scrambled for her purse and collected her things in a cold efficiency, struggling to contain her panic. She strode briskly out of the office, paying no attention to onlookers who asked why she was leaving so early. Grace kept her lips set in a tight line, afraid that if she moved them she would scream. Something was wrong, Grace knew, and this something had invaded her dreams, and now her life. It was coming for her.
Throughout her commute home, clear spots plagued Grace’s vision. Sidewalks, buildings, lampposts, they all succumbed to the encroaching translucency. Streets revealed the dirt they had been built on; dirt vanished to show layers of rock deep in the earth.
Grace kept her hands clenched tight on the steering wheel, for now she could no longer see then at all. Her arms too, had disappeared.
Glancing furtively at her surroundings, Grace noticed that although they were disappearing as well no one else seemed to be conscious of their plight, oblivious to their impeding erasure. Grace set her eyes back on the road.
After arriving at her apartment and removing her footwear, Grace discovered that her feet had vanished as well. Stifling a scream that instead dribbled out in a small whimper, Grace decided that a drink would do her some good. When she reached her hand up to open the liquor cabinet, however, she felt nothing connect with the knob. Grace looked at the place her hand had been blankly, feeling her heart increase its pulse. Now, Grace realized, she was not just turning invisible, she was turning into nothingness, along with the rest of the world.
Grace sat down hard on the tiles of her kitchen floor, for she felt that her feet were no longer stable enough to support her. She leaned her head back against the base of a counter and finally allowed tears to stream down her cheeks. For the first time, Grace understood fully that she was going to die, and that she would have no idea why. She felt dim regrets and misgivings, but they were dwarfed by the numbness overtaking her being.
Grace closed her eyes, suddenly feeling very fatigued, and tried to muster some peace and relaxation in her last moments alive.
She was surrounded again by darkness.
“Grace!” the voice shouted again, and Grace came to the sudden realization that it belonged to Stella.
“Grace you need to focus!” Stella instructed, and Grace nodded in affirmation to her friend, feeling the rush of water around her, bringing back painful memories of her last dream.
A flash of brilliance caught the corner of Grace’s eye, and she turned to find that the white circle had appeared once more. It widened slowly, stretching out against its murky surroundings, heaving with intense effort to dissipate the blackness. Finally, it could expand no more and was forced to be content with the surrounding darkness.
“It’s up to you now!” Stella called. “You have to get out of this dream!”
Grace nodded in affirmation, wondering fleetingly if her friend could even see her gesture. She swam for the circle of white with strong decisive strokes, being careful to keep her lips tightly sealed against the threatening deluge.
After making sizeable progress, Grace noticed that her throat was beginning to burn. First it was an itch, then an irritation, now a fiery pain that scraped up and down her trachea.
As Grace drew closer, the circle grew larger and ever more brilliant in her view, and she quickened her pace, muscles crying out in protest of their oxygen-deprived states. The burning had now become a raging inferno that licked at the corners of Grace’s lips, trying to pry them open and search for air. Grace kept her eyes set on the circle, her salvation, trying to ignore the agony of her body. A pulse of red haze began to invade her vision, accompanied by a throbbing pain in her temple.
Grace maintained her course, fighting every urge in her body to open her mouth and inhale a massive lungful of water. Finally, after what seemed to Grace like hours of struggle, she reached the white circle.
Again, Grace reached out to touch the brilliant light shining before her.
Her fingers connected with the light, a cool, refreshing sensation washing over them. Grace felt herself being pulled closer and closer in, until finally she was enveloped in a brilliant embrace of white.
Grace awoke in a hospital bed to see people clustered above her clamoring to get a closer view, as if she were an exhibit in a zoo. Almost all of the strangers were wearing lab coats, and many carried clipboards. Among them, Grace spotted Stella’s face, which she latched onto it as a beacon of sanity amidst the confusion surrounding her.
“Where am I?” Grace asked meekly. “And who are these people?”
Stella responded to Grace’s inquiries by barking orders at the onlookers. “All right break it up! You can poke and prod her later, just give the girl some space.”
The throng retreated from the room and Grace smiled thankfully.
Stella turned her attention to Grace. “Sorry about them,” she said, then sighed like a parent having to explain a complex issue to a child. “Grace, you are … in the real world now.”
“Where you have been living for the past thirty-odd years, well only about six months in the real world, was in fact a dream, manufactured by this apparatus,” Stella motioned to the tangle of wires hanging over the bed where Grace now sat. “The operation was very complex; this was the longest time anyone had spent in the Dreamspace. The difficulty of the whole thing was getting you out of the dream before it expired. There’s a rule that the dream will only last until you reach your current age, then there’s nothing left to imagine and it just ends. There were complications, like our first attempt that lasted for five days instead of just one night, and the botched second attempt where we couldn’t keep the Gateway open long enough for you to cross it. You’re lucky you made it when you did, or your consciousness would have been trapped in dream purgatory.”
Grace furrowed her brow in worried consternation, mulling over the implications of what Stella had said. “So we’re not really friends? We don’t meet and have coffee?”
“We’re still friends,” Stella replied. “In fact, we designed this system together. It was our lifelong dream. I guess we get coffee sometimes. The Dreamspace is made up of your mind, so some things will hold true.”
Grace shook her head. “This just still doesn’t feel real,” she said with worry. “I still feel like I’m dreaming now. I just can’t believe that my entire life, everything I remember, was all a fabrication of my brain.”
The door of the small room opened, and a man stepped tentatively in.
“I was told I could see her now?” he asked Stella.
Grace was now even more confused. “Robert?”
“Grace!” he replied with elation and moved to embrace her, but Grace shied back.
“Her memory,” Stella began, but trailed off and let the phrase speak for itself.
“Grace,” Robert repeated with dejection. “Don’t you remember me? Your own husband?”
“Husband?” Grace echoed with abhorrence, for the possibility seemed so foreign to her, that she and Robert could ever have a relationship outside of their work life.
Another man entered the room, older and with the beginnings of obesity lining his body. “Is Grace ready for the doctors?” he asked impatiently. “They’re getting really antsy out there. Not to mention the news crews. Let’s move it along.”
Grace looked at him with wide eyes. “Mr. Braxton? You’re part of this too?”
Mr. Braxton glared at Stella and said with annoyance, “Is she not acclimated yet?”
“I’m sorry sir, but it’s been harder than we anticipated. Even the sight of Robert couldn’t bring her back.”
Robert let out a frustrated huff as he tried again to connect with his wife and was again rebuffed. Stella and Braxton paused in their conversation and looked over to Grace’s bed.
Grace had shrunk back in her hospital bed, head brushing against the cool metal wires. Her mind was slowly filling with panic at the thought of these people invading her life, her life that had been so perfect but now was ripped away. “No, no,” she mumbled frantically, shaking her head from side to side. “No, no, no, this can’t be happening!” She addressed her surroundings, “This has to be a dream! You’re all a dream! None of this is real!”
She jumped from the bed and darted past her three stunned onlookers, hospital gown swishing against her legs. “Take me back, take me back!” she screamed, fleeing into the next room, where all manner of medical professional jumped up to receive her. Grace pushed through their outstretched hands, desperate to get out of the horrid building and back to her life.
She had made it through the clot of doctors when Braxton stepped out of her room. “Stop her!” he commanded. “Don’t let her get any further!”
“Take me back, take me back,” Grace moaned as she sprinted down a hallway in a blind frenzy. At the end of the corridor, she saw a large, important-looking door that, in her head overloaded with new information, she reasoned could only lead to her old life. Grace increased her pace.
Grace had her hands wrapped around the metal handle when the bullet struck her. It ripped through her skull, carving a grizzly path straight into her brain.
Grace sank to the floor, hands limply falling from the handle of the door marked “Press Room.”
Behind her, Braxton clicked the handgun’s safety back into place and handed it back to the guard he had taken it from. “You never know when these things might come in handy,” he said.
Braxton turned to Robert and Stella, who were standing at his side, mouths hung open in mortification. “Not a word of this to anyone, right?” he said. Then, extending his voice for all the doctors to hear, “Not a word! The official story is she died before we could properly get her out of the dream. Got that? Not a word of any of this … business. Nothing.”
I am currently a student who loves to write. In my free time, I am an avid runner and enjoy tinkering on the keys of a piano. My favorite authors include John Steinbeck and Aldous Huxley.