Outside the comfort of her parent's house, Nao was much more aware of just how cold it could be. And with no one to make sure she stayed warm; Nao would have been frozen solid by now if not for her mother's concern and her natural stubbornness.
"I'm fine, Mom!" she protested as she dug into her bag and pulled out an extra sweater that she had bought on impulse when they visited the local mall one day before winter started.
The night sky was filled with stars, like glittering diamonds scattered across a sheet of black velvet. The moon shone bright enough to cast shadows in the forest surrounding them. It was pitch-black. No matter how hard you looked at something, there were no details visible beyond the light from your torch. For someone who didn't spend time outside of town very often, this was terrifying. But it was also exhilarating; a reminder that this world wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. That there were places where things weren't safe, even during the day.
"It's so dark," Nao whispered. "Why can't we go back? I don't want to stay out here."
"We're almost there," said her mother. "Just keep walking straight ahead."
Nao nodded and tried to follow her mother's example. But after only a few steps, she stopped again.
"Mom! What's wrong?"
Her mother looked over her shoulder. "Nothing's wrong," she replied. "Keep going."
But Nao wasn't convinced. Her mother seemed tense. There was something she was hiding.
"Stop asking questions and start following my lead."
Nao swallowed and nodded. They continued forward. And then...
A strange sound echoed through the darkness. It sounded like someone was laughing. Or crying. But there was nothing around them. No one was there. The sound came from nowhere. Nao stared at the trees, trying to find some hint of movement or a trace of light behind their leaves. But she couldn't see anything. All she could do was listen to the laughter echo through the woods.
Something fell from the trees above them.
At first, Nao thought it was a bird. But then she saw the shape of the thing falling towards them. She recognized it immediately. This wasn't some bird dropping. It was another person. Someone had fallen from the tree branches above.
No. Not just someone.
Someone who looked exactly like Nao. The same crystal blue eyes, the same long black hair, even the same clothes. But that wasn't all. She was wearing shoes instead of the flip-flops Nao was wearing and her facial expression was different, too. It was a little more serious, a little less childish.
This wasn't Nao's twin sister.
She was Nao's reflection...
It was like something out of a dream. The two girls stood side-by-side. Looking identical but completely different. One of them wore a smile while the other was frowning. Both of them held a hand up to shield their face from the light. But it was obvious which one was the real Nao, and which one was her reflection. The real Nao's eyes glowed in the darkness, whereas her reflection's eyes were shrouded in shadow.
Curious about the way she'd suddenly appeared, Nao reached up to touch her reflection. Her hand brushed against her twin's cheek, but the reflection's skin felt cold, like ice. Was this what it meant to look into the mirror? To touch the reflection of your face?
Nao tilted her head in confusion. Why did her reflection feel so cold? And why did she appear to be wearing makeup? Nao had never worn any makeup before.
A natural beauty, if you know what I mean!
Both Nao and her reflection laughed. Then they started talking at the same time.
"What are you doing here?!"
"You should be at home sleeping right now!”
They continued babbling away, both of them talking over each other.
"Who are you? What happened to me?"
Nao turned to face her mother.
"What's going on here? Is this my reflection?"
Despite her best efforts, her voice emerged as a whisper.
"Honey? Are you okay?" asked her mom in a worried tone.
But Nao couldn't answer her. Instead, she waved her hand in front of her face. Her voice seemed to disappear when she spoke. Like her body was being drained of energy.
"Did you hurt yourself?" her mother asked, reaching out to take Nao by the shoulders.
Nao shook her head. She tried to point her finger at her reflection, but her hand went limp and fell to her side.
Nao's mother couldn't see the reflection standing next to her daughter. Only Nao could see her double.
"I think you might have bumped your head when you fell," said her mother, slowly backing away.
Nao was confused. She didn't understand why she couldn't speak.
Nao desperately struggled to call out to her. But no matter how loudly she shouted or how many times she tried to point her finger at her mother, she couldn't make a single sound.
"Okay, I'll help you get back inside," said her mother. "Are you sure you're okay, honey?"
Nao nodded weakly. She wanted to ask her mother to help her, but nothing would come out of her mouth.
She looked around her, desperate for some sign of hope.
The sky was dark; the trees were silent, and the birds had all gone to sleep.
Nao's reflection pointed at the sky and smiled. Then she turned her back to Nao and walked off down the path.
Some breeze blew between them.
Nao felt something brush past her ear. A pair of wings fluttered in the night air, and then a crow landed on her shoulder.
It scratched at her with its sharp claws, then spoke in Nao's mind.
"Hello, little lady."
Nao looked down at the crow. Its feathers were red and black, its beak was yellow, and its eyes were bright green.
"Hello, little lady."
The crow cawed again. It bowed low and then hopped onto Nao's head.
"If you can't speak to your mother, try writing something down on the ground."
Nao turned to face her reflection. But even though she was standing right there in front of her, her mother still couldn't see it.
The reflection appearance was distracting the young girl to the point where she couldn't notice that a crow had spoken to her.
The crow squawked, and Nao's reflection took a few unsure steps toward her.
Nao took a deep breath.
"Now then, what can I write on the ground?"
Her reflection paused and thought for a moment.
Then she turned and walked away.
Nao followed after her.
"How about 'Help me'?" suggested the crow.
Nao nodded and wrote the words down with her finger.
Nao's reflection stopped. Her expression changed, and she turned back to face Nao.
Nao observed her reflection. Then she smiled.
"Thank you," she whispered to the crow.
"That's quite all right," answered the crow.
The crow jumped off of Nao's head and flew away.
Nao turned to face her reflection once again. She raised her hand and drew a line in the dirt.
Nao's mother stared at the line, puzzled.
After writing the first word, Nao's eyes narrowed in disbelief.
She couldn't read the word she had just written.
Confused, Nao knelt to inspect the ground. Her reflection wasn't standing behind her. There was only an empty space where she had stood.
"I can't read the words I've written!"
Nao frowned. The crow that had helped her earlier appeared and perched on her shoulder.
"Oh no, little lady, don't worry about it! You did fine! You're doing great!"
Nao nodded and scribbled another word in the dirt.
"Let’s try writing a question this time," said the crow.
Nao nodded and wrote: "what?"
"I can't read my writing? How strange. That makes no sense at all. Why would I not be able to read my writing?"
Nao tilted her head.
"Maybe this is a dream?"
She raised her hand to write another word.
"What if I can't read my writing because I'm dreaming?"
Nao's mother watched her with a worried look on her face.
"Does that mean I'm going to forget everything as soon as I wake up?"
Nao's reflection smiled.
"That's the spirit, little lady! Don't give up! You're doing so well!"
Nao's mother leaned over to whisper to her.
"Are you sure you're okay, honey? Should I go find someone to help you?"
Nao shook her head. She then raised her hand to write another word.
And again, she couldn't read what she'd written.
"Is this a dream?" she screamed. This time, her voice echoed across the forest. Her voice came back to her, and her mother was frightened by the sound.
"Honey, are you okay?"
Nao turned to face her reflection. She had already concluded.
"None of this is real. None of it exists. It's all a dream. It's my dream. My dream alone. And I want to wake up. Right now."
Nao turned to face her mother. She didn't know how long she had been here. But whatever was happening, it was important enough that she needed to tell her mother about it immediately.
Nao's mother laughed.
"It took you a while, but you finally figured it out."
Nao's reflection smiled.
"You're a clever one, aren't you? You're far too smart for your own good. This is indeed a dream. Or rather, it's a nightmare. But I'll have to disappoint you. It's not the kind of nightmare that you can wake up from. Because there's no waking up."
Nao looked down at her hands. She couldn't move them. She could barely breathe.
"How does it feel, knowing that you're trapped inside of a nightmare?"
Nao's reflection smiled, then continued.
"Don't worry. It'll be fun. You might even enjoy yourself. After all, you have nothing to lose. I can assure you that. After all, I am the master of this dream."
Nao opened her mouth. She tried to scream, but nothing came out. All that came out were whispers.
"What will happen now to me?" asked Nao, her voice barely audible.
"Isn't it obvious? What happens in every nightmare: the Great fall."
"Huh? What's ..."
Before finishing her words, Nao fell to her knees. She felt her heart racing faster and faster. Her breath grew shorter and shorter. The ground beneath her feet cracked.
Nao's reflection smiled as she watched the young girl fall into the deep dark hole that suddenly appeared in front of her.
"I'll see you soon, dear Nao. Until then, I wish you much suffering and fun."