. The sun’s glare eclipsing the top of the discrete six-story building makes it impossible to decipher a name or logo, and the plexiglass walls lining the first floor give no information either. We enter through a pitch-black revolving door and quickly make our way across an empty lobby and into an elevator.
JC presses the ‘6’ button and within seconds we’re jolted upward and thrust to a stop, the elevator door leaping open for us. Wasting no time, he leads us down a short hallway before entering a dark room. As he switches on a dim overhead light before ushering us in, I notice his facial features have relaxed significantly, and it hits me.
Due to my relief in realizing this is a dream world, I'd stopped looking for an escape route. Now, it might be too late. I slowly turn my gaze to Mirei, who's still holding my hand just outside the doorway, her gaze fluttering from me to the inside of the room.
“Well, let’s get started,” JC says, smiling. “Come in and have a seat, you two.” My eyes are drawn to a large screen on the wall. In front of the screen lay two exquisite red theater chairs beside each other. The whole room, in fact, seems to be themed after a theater, with matching red velvet walls and a projector situated behind a glass wall next to the podium JC is standing at.
“What is all this?” I ask, glaring at the chairs with pursed lips.
“It’s just as it looks,” he answers, not bothering to look at us as he digs through a drawer. “A theater that will bring your dreams to the surface of your mind, where you can’t escape them.”
“Our dreams?” Mirei says, her hand shaking.
“That’s right,” JC answers as he turns back to us. “This theater contains technology similar to what allowed this place to be imagined. To use it, I will need you both to drown yourselves in your own dreams.”
“Drown…?" Mirei mutters, her shoulders shaking.
“You'll do this until one of your dreams outweighs the other’s, which will decide who's dreams take center stage in this battle."
“Aku called this a battle of dreams...” I mutter. Is this going to decide the winner?"
"No, only the field of battle, you could say. It'll be clearer once the dreamscape shifts."
My eyes narrow at his words, while Mirei teeters with an anxious look. “Why do we need this theater if we’re in a dreamscape already?”
“All things are born of a catalyst,” he answers, smiling as he holds up two pairs of glasses. “If this is a replica, then it stands to reason why a realistic catalyst is needed to progress things. I’m merely an engineer for that catalyst, so it’s not like I can just snap a finger and show you your dreams.”
“Then what about Aku?” I ask, glaring at him as he casually approaches us. “If he’s a god or whatever, why can’t he do it?”
“He wants things to play out naturally, as if he wasn't here," he replies with a complicated look. "Now, I don't want to be rude, but I'd be thankful if you'd stop stalling and come inside."
My heart threatens to beat out of my chest. I avert my gaze, mind racing as I survey the empty hallway. If I pass through the doorway, there's no turning back. I said we'd stick together, but I don't know how I can escape through the elevator with Mirei. And even if we escape, what can we possibly do by ourselves? JC is the only one offering to help us, but he knows that we'll follow him because of that. Losing my ability to think rationally, I take a step back.
"Look, I understand how scary this is for both of you," JC says with a sigh, stopping me from taking another step. “You're both stronger than I expected, but anybody would be thinking what you are. You just want to escape, right? Then please, trust me as your guide, if you really want to get out of here. Doing this is the only way to recover your memories and wake from this dream.”
My breathing goes ragged, and I can't look away from him. He holds an open stance and a sincere expression, but I see through it. His words are no more than a tactic meant to scare us into complying.
"Mary, I know you might not like this, but I want to trust him." Mirei steals my gaze with her words. Whether JC's scare tactic worked, or she's telling the truth, I haven't seen this much conviction in her eyes— leaving me no choice but to trust her judgement. WIth one last glance at the elevator, I swallow my fear before nodding hesitantly and stepping through the doorway, where JC hands us each a pair of glasses.
“What are these for?” I stammer, holding the black-rimmed spectacles in front of me..
“These glasses will connect your vision to the screen once certain criteria are met,” he answers, taking a step back. “They are the relay point your dreams will use to travel from your mind to the screen. Your goal is to fill the screen with your dreams, cutting out ever ything else. Please, go ahead and put them on and sit down.”
The glasses fit me snugly, and I can see clearly out of them. Mirei looks at me with a half-smile as we sit in the comfortable chairs, and all I can think of is how well her pink-rimmed glasses suit her.
“Now, if you’ll focus your eyes on the screen, and try to cease any extraneous thoughts.” JC’s words pull me away from her charming figure, and I look ahead as he presses a button on a small remote before disappearing behind us. Ambient music begins flowing from speakers on the wall behind us, and the screen lights up.
I’m forced to cease any thoughts as my eyes are plastered to the screen. A layered image appears, giving me an impression of a flower. From the outside, black and white petal-like patterns overlap, growing smaller as they progress toward the center, a small black dot.
“Try not to blink, and focus on the center of the image,” JC says. His voice seems far away, as does the room itself. The patterns of the flower start to move as I focus my eyes on the center, and some layered petals grow larger than others. They expand, twist, invert, and begin colliding with petals on the other side of the flower.
Before I know it, I’m lost in the ever-changing nature of the patterns, and the petals on the left side of the flower begin to warp into something new. The shape infiltrates my head, and I suddenly feel detached from my body. My vision consists solely of the abstract shapes swirling about, and I feel like I’m swimming amongst them.
I’m wrapped up by the shapes, unable to move. As I try to break free and grab ahold of Mirei next to me, I’m folded up, completely smothered by the shapes. My mind feels like it’s going to cave in if I don’t struggle, but the more I struggle the more I’m smothered by the shapes. My arms and legs become the shapes, and I’m consumed by the feeling of being trapped.
Suddenly the shapes around me set in like ink on a page, forming a futon in a small room with a taped-over window. The ambient music fades into the rhythmic rattling of a train on tracks. The futon is hard and without sheets or pillows, its stuffing protruding from many holes.
Once I realize I myself am laying on the futon, the picture becomes clear. My hands are bound behind my back, and my mouth is constrained by several layers of tape which pull my shoulder-length hair with every movement. The only source of light in the small train compartment is seeping through the taped window, illuminating the room just enough for me to see all the blood stained across the white futon.
After a moment, I realize the blood is my own as it trickles down my face and neck.. Tears mix with the blood as I process the pain coursing through me, and fail to make any sound or movement. Suddenly, a blade rips through the futon from below, protruding by several inches and stopping just shy of my nose. I continue to sob in silence, unable to move against the paralyzing pain.
Seconds later, the blade tears through the mattress once more, sinking an inch deep into my ribs. My body instinctively jumps, and I am finally allowed to scream in pain. However, a sharp pain in my throat cuts the scream short, and continues throbbing with every breath.
The blade is withdrawn, and I hear cheering coming from below. It immediately cuts through again, stabbing into my thigh. As it returns to more cheers, I begin to understand. I don’t know where I am or why I’m here, but I understand that I absolutely must move.
Finding the strength despite my pained sobs, I roll myself over. Another strike of the blade comes, narrowly missing my hip. No cheers come this time as I roll until I reach the edge of the futon, only to slam into the wall.
Terror spikes within me as I writhe, realizing there is no floor in the room. The blade stabs my stomach, my back, my foot, my forearm, and my neck before I give up my struggle and bury my face into the futon. The mixture of blood and tears burn my eyes, yet I find some warmth in the moisture from the tears spilled on the mattress.
I ponder the option of laying like this until my throat or another vital organ is cut. I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. Right now, it doesn’t seem like I’ll ever die with how shallow the stab wounds are. A feeling of relief begins to sweep over me, but it is curbed by a sudden itch inside my head.
I’m overcome with the urge to drink the salty tears I’m burying my face in. It also feels like it’s become impossible to breathe out of my nose, as if I’ve forgotten how. I grow obsessed with the idea of quenching my thirst and breathing freely. I glance at the window through blurred vision, strengthening the feeling of restlessness inside me. I want to stretch my legs and bathe in sunlight.
An idea comes over me. I pick out one of the few spots in the futon that haven’t been stabbed through, and lunge toward it. The blade comes through right on time, and slices through the tape and into my mouth. I ignore the pain in my lips and wrench my mouth open. The torn tape sticks to my face but I don’t pay any mind to it as I roll myself to the window. Stretching my neck, I bite onto the tape covering the window. Starting from the bottom corner I pull at it like a rabid dog, ignoring several strikes to the back, until the window is stripped bare.
With mad eyes I gaze out at what should have been the outside world. However, what lies beyond the window is the figure of a young girl in a bright room filled with swirling shadows. She lies in a hospital bed in pink pajamas that match her strawberry-blonde curls, squirming as the shadows smother her frail figure.
The shadows take up so much space that I can’t make out anything else in the room. What bothers me is that I don’t know why the room is so bright. More than anything, I seek the light that seems to be coming from the room.
Even though the girl is being tortured by the shadows, and I’m still sobbing as I’m stabbed repeatedly, I yearn for the light that lies somewhere beyond. Controlled by that thought, I smash my face into the window. As the glass shatters and my head crashes through the frame, the room and the girl are enveloped in the light.
The soft hum of the ambient soundtrack reaches my ears as I come to, ripping the glasses off my face. My body curls up in the theater chair and I bury my head in my hands, breathing short, choppy breaths.
“It’s okay now, I’ve turned the machine off!”
The theater room is filled with light. The screen’s gone black and the music has stopped, but I can’t calm myself. Everything about the dream still feels real, and all I can do is push my head further into the soft theater chair as I sob.
“Mary! Answer me, Mary, please!” I recognize her voice, but there’s no way I can respond to it. “JC, you have to do something!”
“Please just keep holding her.” I feel something pierce my neck, but it doesn’t matter. Something within me has snapped. Something that I’ve been fighting off for a long time has filled me up and overflowed. Whatever game this is, I’ve lost. I’m lost within my own head, and there’s no way I can come out now.