This dream will be my last, won't it? It's been a long one, but I can tell it's going to end soon. And when it does, I won't be with her, but at least I'll finally be free.
The rhythmic rattling of railroad tracks interrupts my thoughts. I know that when I open my eyes, the dream won't yet be over, but I won't remember her or our promise. Regardless, she's coming into view beyond a great white light that peels my heavy eyelids open.
I find myself in a small white room lined with murals of abstract shapes. The room's only other assets are the velvet red couch I'm sitting on just in front of a small window, and a granite fireplace. I feel for my hair and find it as long and voluminous as ever, flowing near the bottom of my black and white-striped blouse.
If this is a modeling agency, it’s one I haven’t been to before. Regardless, it's unlike me to be napping at a job appearance, and thanks to that, I can’t remember what I’ve been doing all day. I can't help but fear my memory has gone to hell, even though I'm just twenty-four.
I'll have to call my manager and have him remind me where I’m at, so I can land whatever job I'm here for. Whether this is a shoot or a meeting, I get the sense this place is upscale, or at least trying to look like it; it's crucial that I'm on top of my game.
Just as my fingers reach the cold phone in the pocket of my black suit pants, a voice nearly sends my heart leaping into my throat.
Somehow, I hadn’t noticed her until now, even though she's sitting on the other side of the sofa. Her confused expression compounds my stress.
“What?” my sharp response disarms the poor girl along with my glare.
Her beauty breaks my hard glare for a moment. It isn't surprising she's in with the same client as me. The fluorescent glow of her white skin compliments her soft-pink hair that must have taken hours to curl. She's got the frail cutie look down. I'm a bit jealous since I don’t think I ever could have pulled that off.
My better judgement overcomes the desire to unfairly antagonize her, reluctant as I am to act like the more experienced professional. However, before I can even muster the words that will prove me to be the bigger person…
“Do you… know where we are?” I didn't realize it till now, but she's holding her knees and fighting back tears. There's genuine panic on her face. My own face must not look much different, since my heart is racing.
“Wait… are you messing with me because I was asleep?” I ask with a forced laugh.
“No, I'm not," she cries, huffing and shaking. "I just woke up here...”
My eyes go wide. “Do you remember anything at all?"
"My name…" she mutters, looking down at her trembling hands.
My memory is still fuzzy, but I can at least remember what I do for a living. I'm beginning to feel obligated to comfort her. "What’s your name, then?”
“That’s a pretty name." My glare hasn't exactly softened, but she's managed to form a meek smile.
“And you are?”
“I’m Mary," I answer off-handedly, leaning into the sofa and racking my brain for answers to my incomplete memory.
“Oh, our names sound alike,” she exclaims as she wipes her tears.
I can't fathom why she's excited by that, considering our situation. “Yeah, I guess they do.”
“You aren’t Japanese, are you?” she asks, rubbing her sullen eyes.
“Irish. So, you’re Japanese?” I note, turning to face her.
“Mhm,” she answers, gazing down on thin legs covered by a pleated pink skirt.
I couldn’t even remember that until now. “Yeah, same for me. I'm sure we're in Shibuya, then. Maybe we took part in some sort of social experiment like you see on TV. Do you think you could be a model or an actress? Maybe a singer?”
“Sorry,” she replies, shaking her head. “I don't know...”
“Then who the hell brought us here… and why?" I mumble, my breaths speeding up once more.
"Do you think… we've been kidnapped?" she says, tears filling her eyes once more.
“Don’t even joke about that,” I fire back, my heart sinking at the idea.
“I don’t think that's it," I interrupt. "This place seems too casual, and we aren't… tied up, or anything. It is weird for an office to have one door, though…"
Before I can stand up and make for the door, I'm stopped in my tracks by the sound of flames licking the air. In the fireplace, the flames rise up to form a menace in the shape of a face. It’s a nearly abstract face that I can hardly call a face, bearing resemblance to the strange murals on the walls. Its blood-red eyes stare into mine, rooting me to the sofa. Mirei's gaze slowly follows mine to the fireplace, at which she lets out a stifled gasp.
“W-what the hell?” I follow, unable to hide the panic on my face.
“Good evening, ladies,” the fire hisses in a deep voice as the flames comprising its face overlap in a hypnotizing cycle. “You needn’t be afraid yet; nothing is going to happen on this train.”
“What… are you…?"
“Ah, Miss Mary, I’d expect you to take the lead. I am a god, so to speak. You may call me Aku if you like.”
“A-aku?” Mirei asks, shrinking back in her seat without realizing she’s clinging to me. “Like… the devil?”
“Miss Mirei, you may see me as a god or a devil, whichever you like,” he replies casually. “However, you should be worried about each other. I am merely your goal.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I cry, trying to calm my shaking limbs. “What are we doing here?”
“Your goal is, by the end of this train ride, to obtain my power— a power of gods.”
The sounds of clashing iron and a chugging steam engine reach my ear, bringing me pause. “Why would we need to do that?” I demand, ignoring my confusion to stand to my feet.
“That is simple,” he answers. “You desperately need my power. And you will participate in a battle of dreams to obtain it. That is,” he pauses as a thin smile forms within the shroud of flames, “If you wish to wake up from this world of dreams and return to your real bodies.”
“What does that mean?” Mirei stammers, tears filling her eyes again.
“What the hell have you done to us?” I shout, lunging at the fireplace. Just as I release myself from what felt like invisible nails latching me to the floor, the figure dissipates, the flames returning to normal.
“Mary, what is this? What’s going to happen to us?” Mirei sobs, looking up at me like a lost child as she holds her quaking shoulders.
“I don’t know... We need to get out of here!” I make for the door, only to be stopped in my tracks once more as the door opens with a creak.
“Excuse me, please pardon my interruption.”
A man shuffles through the door in a panic, as if he’s just arrived late to a business meeting. I immediately find myself averse to the young man, bearing a black tuxedo and slicked back hair that he keeps fixing.
“Who are you?” I demand, launching all of my lingering ill-will at him.
As if sensing the fear on our faces, he tries to loosen up and form a polite smile, but it’s way too forced. “My name is JC. It’s a pleasure meeting you both. I will be your guide on this train ride, so you may ask me any questions you have; though, I can't answer everything as I don't remember everything.”
“Are you with that thing in the fire?”
He nods with a smile as he replies, “I'm like a proxy of Aku’s. I'm a guide, an observer, and perhaps in some capacity a participant.”
“Participant? What kind of sick joke is this? Why are we here?”
“I assure you this is not a joke,” he answers with a stern expression. “You two are in a state of comatose sleep, and the only way you might wake from it is to receive the god’s power, Aku’s very essence that he brought into this dreamscape.”
“You expect us to believe that shit?” I bare my teeth as I berate him.
“Mary, look!” Mirei cries out from the window, beckoning me over. I reluctantly take my eyes off JC to gaze into the dark through the small windowpane.
As if we were gazing into space, giant stars shine across the horizon, their white glow reflecting in the water we're traveling through. “What?” I mutter, stupefied by the scene before me.
JC clears his throat. “As you can see, this world is not reality. It's a dreamscape that you're both trapped in, and just one of you may obtain the god’s power and escape. While the other… will cease to exist..”
Mirei's eyes meet mine, as if to confirm our sinking hearts. Shuddering, I turn back to him. “There’s no point in trying to run, is there?”
“You catch on quick,” he says with a nod. “You’ll forfeit the game, and your life, if you try to exit the train right now. You'll be allowed to depart like normal at our destination.”
“Where?" Mirei mutters, sitting and holding her knees while she weeps.
“This is a very versatile dreamscape, so we’ll be stopping in Shibuya— rather, a replica of Shibuya.”
I gaze at my reflection in the window; My face is pale and expressionless. "Why did this happen to us? What's happened to our real bodies?"
"I'm sorry, I don't know the answer to that," he says with a grave look. "But, I imagine Aku told you that you're both comatose, and in desperate need of the power. I don't remember the specifics, but I think the dreamscape is designed so that we will regain our memories by dreaming."
"Which means we have to participate…"
"Or we'll die without knowing anything…" Mirei mutters, burying her face in her knees.
“I have to say, you’re both reacting better than I expected," JC says, his earnest smile showing in the window's reflection. "I thought you'd be even more panicked."
“What good would that do…" I mutter. “I don't understand any of this, but it looks like we’ll have to adapt, if we want to live.”
“I-I don't want to die like this…” Mirei adds, sobbing into her legs.
“I hope you’ll continue to show such strength tomorrow," he says, his smile flattening. "Well then, I’ll be coming to retrieve you in the morning when we arrive. Try to get some sleep.”
I ignore the hesitant sidelong glance he gives before leaving, and slump onto the sofa next to Mirei..
“I'm scared, Mary...” she cries.
“…who wouldn't be?" I groan, unable to look away from my trembling hands.
“Yeah,” she bemoans.
"Maybe this is just a dream…" I whisper, rubbing my temples to ease my pounding head..
“Should we… um…” she stammers, peeking at me from behind her folded arms.
“What?” I snap, looking at her crossly.
“Should we help each other… if it's really scary?” She manages to stumble through her question with an innocent look despite my bad attitude.
Yet, thinking realistically, I look away. “Not if only one of us can wake up...”
She lowers her head again. “You’re right... It’s just, I think it's going to be even scarier for both of us if we're by ourselves.”
Her words disarm me. “You’re way too sweet, you know?” I flash her a short smirk, at which she blushes. Sensing my own cheeks reddening, I clear my throat. “We have no idea what's going to happen, or if any of what they said is true. I'm not convinced there isn't a way out of this. But if we have to go through with it, and it's really scary for both of us, then sure, we can help each other. But don’t expect me to risk my freedom for you, okay?”
Still crying, she puts on a smile that accentuates her pale cheeks. “Thank you, that really puts me at ease. I hope we can stay together…"
“Sure,” I respond, looking away as she finally stops crying and steadies her breaths.
“The view outside really is amazing, isn’t it?” Mirei asks, sniffling.
“I guess that’s the upside to being stuck in a dream world, huh?” I answer. “Those gigantic stars give me a bad feeling, though…”
“I feel like, maybe, it wouldn’t be all that bad to stay here a while and watch the water,” she says in a whisper. “I’ve never seen the ocean.”
“Really? You're an odd girl, aren't you?"
“I have a feeling I get that a lot," she answers with a chuckle, gazing outside. “But… I think I’ve always wanted to be on a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
“Now that I think of it, I’m sure I’ve done a summer cruise,” I reflect, looking at the ceiling. “Soaking up the sun with the smell of fresh barbeque in the air. Even better when it’s raining. A rainy festival on the water is probably the greatest thing in the world. Have you ever tried a meat-kabob?”
No answer comes to my ramblings as, before I’d realized it, Mirei had fallen asleep, her head sliding down to rest on my shoulder. I'm also overcome with a sudden urge to sleep. So, before closing my eyes, I take one last glance at the stars, hoping this dream will come to an end.