In a lesser-trekked part of New England, Sandstone Drive is a mostly-forgotten road in the twilight of surrounding towns and cities where people try to ignore the daunting gaze that comes from the surrounding thickets. This leer isn’t cast from people or animals (nor one sole thing), and publicly they wouldn’t even say it was there, but privately amidst themselves something was watching — as if all the trunks faced them from outside their homes as wardens, with intent or as a witness. Watchers of generations that share in all the soul damage of tribes, communities, families— some being carved into the wood where love would be declared or scratched out. This ordeal began— for me — amidst one such group of watchers that oversaw my house.
Wistfully the trunks lean towards one another, branch in branch as we hold hand in hand, making an inviting arch one could see from the window of my room. Time calcified my group of friend’s and my own trepidation in finally exploring this entrance, at first only being the apprehension in not being near home, though that changed. Fall was peaceful. Wind sang with the leaves and water flowed by the stream – “The Stream”, as there was no other to us, and her punishment was mild, taking our boots with the grip of her mud and devilish tricks with the thickness of the ice, though we still loved her and she was gentle with us. It was a lovely spot to be in what used to be simple times.
There seemed to be an odd glimmer outside as you would expect of cars passing at night, but this came from the back yard with no road, and yet my window proved faithful because even after pushing it open and letting the winter wind rush to my face, the glass was honest— light was near those same wistful trees my friends and I walked amongst earlier. Mesmerized, the ball just slightly moved, like it was the pendulum bob of a clock, loosening my body and weighing my eyes, though just slightly— lulling with the radiant sway that gently contoured the top of the traveled snow. I took its rhythm as a gift, and would have continued had I not heard my wheezing. I always felt guilt when beholding beauty, the mark of a shy boy but still I found myself easily enchanted until something broke the spell, leaving all parties involved uncomfortable or embarrassed from lingering eyes. The dropping of a pen, a dangling of loose change, crows cawing. Never was I held like this.
Was it still moving? I (we?) were locked in a heraclitean dance of drowse, sway, lurch, and swing. Could it split into two? Couldn’t think about it, but it did as words did on a page when locked in the same glare with a book and no sleep.
No movement, simply was in bed now with my eyes closed, and yet I saw the same thing. Maybe I was floating, would that be so strange? It didn’t seem like it would be, but now I was standing again. Now everything swayed, lurched, swung, and waved. With whatever sense I had left, it seemed that I was asleep— not an absence of sense or emotion, but just left with those that seem oddly fit for being in that realm we enter where we act with such foreign certainty despite being a prisoner to a kind of beyond. I realized I was standing back at the window.
Shock hit. Confusion. It’s unsettling to have the certainty of dreams leave you. My own voice resonated in my dream mind as if it were God speaking to me in the waking world. Resonance. The surroundings weren’t clear, the environment, the thicket, the walls, where was it supposed to be?
The light wasn’t moving.
The voice that would be God were I awake but mine in my dreams was speaking. The certainty of my presence was gone now and I was scared. The Real was seeping in in the worst way it could— keeping the illusion of my surroundings but not my trust in it. I knew too much and as the image dissipated, reason invaded where it was not welcome. Smoke and blur bewildered me with color and time failed to sooth me, all congealing into cracks, corrosion, dissipation, seeping out of this world. Had I the awareness of the waking world, I’d realize my body wasn’t there, as that also gave way to crumbling delirium. My voice grew louder, clearer but speaking here isn’t of consequence. Time abandoned me as it does all of us at these moments before waking, and a voice was surely to be present as soon as I woke up. Was I yelling? Was I standing? Were my eyes closed? I was sitting somewhere, kicking, throat clicking and no air was coming? What were the words?
Why did it sound like that? Can’t even gasp, there’s no air. Why did it sound like that?
It wasn’t my voice. It was my ears tingling with the sound, my eyes opening, and my head turning, but it wasn’t my voice.
It was a woman’s.
Time and breath came back after having left me in abandon, though color still betrayed me save for a few. All around me was pure white, like I was sitting in a blank canvas were I to take a few steps in any direction, though near me was the stream we played at. I was sitting on a felled tree, moss and clumps of bark, few remaining leaves and dirt below by my feet. A blank world of light save what was in hand’s reach, and centering my view away from myself I saw Her. Nearly pure white herself, save blood-red hair that served as her only clothing that ran down her back, as she faced away from me. The back of her head was perfectly centered towards me. Swiftly she lifted her arms and brought her hands to the side of her head, as if to cover her ears, but her fingertips pressed together, as she slowly parted the hair on the back of her head as her elbows were raised above her shoulders. Pulling her hair away further, there opened two emerald-green eyes that peered into mine, and if she had a mouth, I saw no mouth and yet again she spoke.
I certainly was returned to the way of dreams because I didn’t recall fear, but a longing for her eminence. Her hair still parted, those eyes one would find unnatural were familiar and she didn’t need a mouth to smile, as I knew she was.
“I know I’m dreaming.”
A reverberation like the sound of all different chimes being struck collapsed into a solid sound
“So sure of that…”
Where was that coming from? Her eyes glazed slightly between her hand-parted hair, but she still held a gentle gaze. Her words mixed with an impossible crystalline quality, yet all of these were quite tranquil. Still, I saw no mouth on the back of her head with her eyes, but I heard her clearly as if the words were spoken right in front of me. Self awareness of a dream was nothing new to me and was something I frequented under typically far worse circumstances than this. This was different, but it was still a dream, was it not?
“I think I’m dreaming, who are you?” I was about to question why it was so bright and where everything was, but the sea of white void dimmed, oscillating between shades of green and violet, like the world was being swirled in a cup of water-colored paint. Did it change because of me?
“…That depends…do you think this is a dream?…”
The varying intonation throughout the question was how older women spoke to me, it stood out as both ominous and playful.
“Yes, I think this is a dream.” I could only sound so certain.
“…Then I am the Emperor of Dreams…”
The purple and emerald hues of my theatrical backdrop turned to a night sky. Specks of light that formed into stars and constellations moved around where we sat. Small planets and clusters slowly swirled around us, seemingly in both directions. Warmth of the sight did battle with the chill of the thought — that this was indeed the center of the Universe. For just this moment.
“…Small soul — …so precious you see it that way… We hoped you would…”
She knew what I was thinking? Why is it so cold now? I hadn’t noticed that before. I had the presence of mind to think the next question, almost knowing it would be answered, but I had also felt afraid to break the silence again. Anxiety crept into my body, but the curiosity kept it at bay from my mind. I had to know — where am I?
Her fingers relaxed along with her now violet-tinged hair from the light of our cosmic surroundings, her piercing eyes behind their veil as she tilted her ahead to the side, slightly raising her head as if to look up into the stars. Despite her temple being directly aligned with my eyes, I saw no ear, and still couldn’t see her face — the front at least. I focused on my breathing, because it was getting more and more taxing. The cosmic backdrop seemed to spin faster.
“…Imagine riding upon a great arrow across existence…”
The assemblage of chiming bells that made her voice got notably lower. Deeper.
“…The wave… you ride upon brought you here to …this meeting place… — in what you call… here — what you call… now…”
I heard her but the anxiety of my body entered my mind now. This isn’t a dream is all I could think now. Again, my breathing hastened but became less and less satiating of my need for breath. My vision was spinning. The stars and planets, the cosmological map in which I was captive was so close now it became a cage. I was next to the Sun, all of the Suns in this place. Caged in constellations. A box, shrinking to right upon me. I was choking. I focused back in on “her”, this creature. Reason was coming back to me, as was the world — my world. The wave in which brought me here was pulling me back, and now the beginning of my distraught-stricken eyes could hardly stay on the back of this hidden Being’s head. A synaptic flash entered my head of what my unconscious secretly desired, and she immediately knew what it was.
She looked at me.
But I was looking at myself. Her face was my face. A perfect mirror. No human voice, just words reverberating amidst a second skin of stars blanketing me as I gasped to breathe.
“…Nomad of this hastened plane — I am the other wave…”
All the pieces falling to the ground, behind them leaving darkness— like pulling apart puzzle pieces with black holes behind every stripped part. A finger, ear, a star, planet, an eye, hers and mine, falling to the ground with only black left where it was. No movement — a shattering mirror with each shard falling one piece at a time until nothing was left but two closed eyes. My two closed eyes, bursting open with my parted, gasping mouth — finally taking in air from my room with my window wide open. My flickering night light greeted my eyes with light from the only world I knew up until my soul’s invasion from forces that cannot be, from a place and time that cannot be.
Wherever I walked stars would follow me, even if the Sun was out. Sometimes it was light as day but there was nothing in the sky. No clouds, no Sun, a vast, blank canvas of sometimes blue, sometimes other colors. I was often caught just standing still looking for the Sun and people would look at me. Sometimes the stars would leave.
I was still obliged to go to school but that fell apart almost immediately. There was a chance at playing it off but there was no way to keep time, the clock meant nothing — high noon and it would be dark out, a sunrise with no sun in the evening. Sleep was totally annihilated and people noticed, first teachers, then my parents, then doctors. A speculation of Mono was relieving enough for the adults to put their worries at ease until the test was negative, but the burning skin changed that to bracing for a bad fever. I wanted to believe that was the problem.
It was already known that I had sleep paralysis along with night terrors when I was little. It was the best way to describe what happened without saying it, which I decided I could never impart.
My sleep paralysis was bad. My dad would set up an old camcorder to watch me sleep and I would get up and move the furniture around, to snap out of the haze and completely freak out. I had watched The Exorcist on late-night TV when this was happening and the furniture flying into the room scarified me. I totally freaked out when I saw it and associated it with what I did in my room, and naturally this landed me in some kind of juvenile mental ward. Some girl tried to bite off her own tongue in there, along with other things I never saw, but you heard it. All you’d see is the medical staff in all-white jumpsuits fly right past you so fast it was like watching a phantom fly by your door. It probably didn’t help that if you even mentioned that you felt “off”, they’d just give you some kind of small pill that would make you nod out and sleep. Not really sleep, but something like sleep. Something like I was stuck in now. Some kid that cut himself thought it was cool that Xanax backwards was Xanax.
There was no way to show people what I saw and there’s no way to show people what I’m seeing, and I’m supposed to use whatever words I have to tell a walking clipboard that I had the most powerful delusion of my life. I knew exactly where I was going if I even said anything about it. I made a vow of silence.
And it didn’t matter — this was something else. Even in the most intense panic and depression I’ve felt up to that point, the irreality could be broken at some point. There was a haze that was like seeing a mirage in the real, but if something strong enough broke your attention, I’d come back to reality— no matter the circumstances, I’d come back.
And yet I went to other worlds, and other worlds came to me.
There were no stars in the sky.
There was no Sun.
There was only a plane of unreal exhaustion. Strangulation from Chronos and Hypnos, each with a hand crushing me.
“…I came to bring you to the worldless…Come with me into eternity…”
Windows nailed shut, the heater chained and the door closed. I had the room to myself. No sound, no movement, and clear — audibly, I heard the voice. It was in the room. Loud. I was panicking. Quickly I ran to the door with whatever stealth I could muster, my body locked up like a mannequin but still scrambling. I realized after my first few steps how scared I was to move. When I was little and it was night, if I was alone going up the stairs, I knew there was something behind me. I could never look, I just ran scared every time and closed the door. Sometimes it was me just being a kid, sometimes I was having a night terror and something really was behind me. I hadn’t felt that in so long until fleeing the mint-green hospital bed to the heavy door.
I got to the door and glanced through the little slotted window with the black wireframe like you’d see in any federal building or a school (it was uncanny to see even given the moment), and having not seen any movement or heard any noise in the dim hallway, I had to do it. I turned around as fast as I could and immediately my eyes were drawn to the window. I thought I had seen movement. It was so hard to tell.
Hyperactivity from mania. I didn’t notice how fast I was breathing.
Breathing. Breathing. I was breathing like I should have been, right?
Now I couldn’t get that out of my head. I closed my eyes to try to correct my breathing and then a synaptic flash of fear coursed through me. A threat mechanism, that in those moments something could get inside. I looked at the bed and swelled up with tears and held back crying when I realized I was scared to look under the bed. Why was this happening to me? I don’t want to be sick anymore. The tears offset the panic and I bit down on my arm hard as to not let out a scream and ruin any chances I had of not being hunted down by shadows in this enclosed temple of suffering. I balled up against the door on the floor and the several layers of distraught, neurotic panic took the helm. I was light headed, but level with the ground and I could see under the bed. There was nothing there. Nothing in the room. Nothing but myself.
I stood up and centered myself. Breathing. It took courage but I accepted at that moment that I had to face the reality that there was something seriously wrong with me. Whether that be medical, spiritual, mental, it was me. There’s plenty of insane people in the world. I saw them all the time on the street. It crossed me how easy of a position that becomes for so many people. I always walked by them, even with a type of hatred. I wanted to be different from them and I didn’t want to believe that they were people. I had to just face that it was me.
Lying in bed I saw dawn coming over the horizon despite it being 11PM. I figured I’d never get used to that. Maybe one day I’ll never notice it. Crazy people don’t notice much. The ceiling was very slightly swirling. I’ve heard of apophenia before and always thought I had it. Maybe time passed? I didn’t know. Outside seemed to get darker, like the Sun peeked over the horizon and it just had enough (if there still is one). I decided I’d tell the medical staff tomorrow that stars follow me and there’s no Sun. Just start on my long road to recovery.
I wanted to wash my face from the guilt of crying. For being in a medical facility, the bathrooms were very homely here. You had showers that you’d see in any decent condo, and from what I understood most people took several showers a day because it’s either that or joining whatever “activity” they want you to join in on — an displeasing thought.
After running the water I wet a hand cloth and rubbed a little bit of the bar of soap into it, and looking up I gently dabbed it on my face. Fifteen going on fifty, and after just turning fifteen at that. Under my eyes were almost just a black ring. Hair sloppily cut, I just pushed it back with some water to have it be anything than it was then. Working the cloth into my cheeks felt almost rough like a rug burn because of how sensitive my skin was. Something about the sheets was getting me. This entire ritual of cleaning had surprisingly calmed me. Insane people get used to their surroundings at some point. Working the other side of my cheek with the cloth I whispered out loud, just barely—
“Maybe schizophrenia was the natural state of the human mind. I’m normal.”
It was in levity, I just barely chuckled to myself. This might be over soon, I might be home soon and I can live. There’s medicine. I can go home.
I don’t know what it was but I put the cloth down on the mirror and looked at my reflection quizzically. Something was strange about it all. I thought if it was just the way I said it and got deep into thought, the slight head tilt of the dog.
And there, again, it’s like a signal that something was wrong. I suddenly got nervous because the door was closed and paranoia began to build up. Forcing myself to center, I had to accept that wasn’t the case. The windows shut, the doors closed, the staff is outside (aren’t they?)
I froze up and looked straight into my own eyes. I tilted my head, and the image tilted back. Raised my right hand with a boyish wave and got the expected results. Still it bothered me, but nonetheless it was just me.
Just me and my reflection.
Whitney got off the bus and began her trek from the bus stop down the winding cul-de-sac, making note of the frozen over street sign.
The green condos looked especially faded, and with the pure-white snow reflecting what little light was left this late in the afternoon, they gave the impression of a cold blue hue. Her adored snow boots faithfully crunched against the salted ice of the sidewalk as she worked her way past each sign that marked a set of homes, each of them having their own address in a range of hundreds. Already exhausted (largely from having gym at the end of the school day on top of it all) she crunched her way by each sign around the winding road, eagerly awaiting to see the familiar “800s’ ‘ around the way that marked home. The sidewalk would give way to asphalt and return to sidewalk frequently, and having taken a bad step, she frantically slid and broke a fall, smacking her hands on the ground but regaining enough traction to not completely crash to the street.
Enduring a minor strain (she thought she pulled a muscle in her calf), she deliberately brought herself upright with care so as to not slip again, and she tried to reorient herself. Straightening out, she adjusted how her backpack sit upon her back and played with the straps as to not be totally lopsided, and as she wrestled with the buckles she found that her gaze got fixed onto one of the entries on the closest sign to her, being one of the few not covered in ice.
Every time Whitney would focus any significant amount of time on this particular sign, she couldn’t help think about him and that it’s already been over a year since anyone saw him. She veered off her normal path and walked along the sidewalk that leads to the particular set of condos where his family used to live, having just recently been bought by some young professional couple, who themselves had gossip about them (apparently they acted quite odd after moving). The sidewalk would take her close to the white front door, and she found herself lost in thought for a moment. How could he just leave everyone like that? It’s something he talked about before, but it was something the other boys talked about all the time too— just getting away from it all and going anywhere but here (often Canada came up, specifically Quebec for some reason).
Whitney back away from the front door and went to the side of the house, where there was a hill that eased to where the 500’s condos and 600’s met, so it was really nobody’s backyard exactly, and after hooking around the back she looked at where the treeline started— that old thicket with the leaning birches formed that arch that marked their entry into the woods, the last of which being before he went missing. Ever since then none of her other friends really wanted to go back.
Before she really even thought about it she found herself treading towards the archway, having to really lift her legs up high from the foot of snow over the grass. Heart pounding, progress was made and she found an alien sense of determination which subsequently gave way to a wave of emotions—namely a kind of heartbreak. Images of her and all the kids from the neighborhood coming here over the years played like an old movie with a suppressed tear coming down her eye, which felt momentarily warm and made her notice that her skin was numb from the icy wind. Finally having made it to the arched trees, she cried after a quick pause. The images kept playing in her head. How could he just disappear like that? How could he not reach out to anybody if he was okay? He would have, and that means he’s not okay. Something happened to him in that hospital, and she thought it was covered up. It was rumored that his parents tried to sue the hospital but due to some kind of technicalities they never amounted to anything and he was just filed as missing, with no video or evidence saying anything bad happened to him.
He was just gone.
All of these converging thoughts along with the darkness of the thicket made Whitney really start to feel scared. She didn’t want to come here anymore, and didn’t even know what compelled her to really come anyway. Her leg was killing her having slipped before and she insisted on some kind of reconciliation with this. She wanted closure.
There were carvings in one of the birches over the years, some of which look like they could have been etched in yesterday. Initials, hearts, smiling faces, it was too much. Odd enough though, looking close to one of the trunks just beside the closest facing one to the arch’s entrance, there looked as if there were little white ribbons tied around it. She didn’t remember them ever being there, and from where she was standing it looked like they were tied off as if they were holding something against the trunk. She carefully maneuvered around the uneven ground (a steep hill began on the other side of the trunk), and as she turned and got some leverage, she noticed something that for a fact nobody ever mentioned to her.
There was a little mirror tied to the tree.
She was familiar with the design, it was a Victorian-style hand mirror with little flowers and stars on the handle that went all around it, but this one looked authentic despite being so clean and having the appearance of being just made. Obviously she didn’t know, but the glass was flawless. A tall girl, she moved back slightly— the steepness of the hill bringing her level with the newly-found anomaly with just a single step. She looked at her light-brown hair and hazel eyes. It was a beautiful mirror and she was immediately captivated by it, and oddly especially by herself. She didn’t think she was ugly but she was definitely shy and endured the cruelty of boys (but more so the other girls) enough to be self conscious. The emotional wave passed, even ignoring the now-blistering wind as the Sun lowered enough to have a hard time seeing clearly. The reflection seemed brighter than everything else.
Time was passing but she didn’t really notice it. At first her girlish mirror etiquette ran its motions but after a few minutes she just continued to look at herself, a rare feeling of admiration taking over that gave way to almost a feeling of longing. She never felt this about herself before, almost intoxicated by a feeling of romance? She changed her expression to a quizzical one and noticed something was wrong. Some kind of slight echo in the image, like it was slow. The way the reflection was looking back at her, she knew that gaze, a familiar stare that used to scare her when she was a girl but grew accustomed to.
The slight pain in the eyes looked just like him.
“…you can come with me..”
She lost her footing and drove her knee into the mud of the hill and scrambled to her feet, her bag smacking down as she scrambled for it and put it on herself covered in snow. Frantically looking about her surroundings, nothing possibly could have made that sound—one of crystals and windchimes all crashing into something akin to a voice. Trying to get to her feet with the combined weight of herself and the bag along with the slant of the hill and her hurt leg proved almost too much, but having grabbed onto the trunk for support, she looked upward, foisting herself up until she saw that in the periphery of her vision, her face was still in the glass as if facing it on-right as she was before, a face of longing and concern with a hand pressed up against the glass trying to get free.
“…look back…and come to the light I give unto you..”
She bolted having got upright and having the adrenaline coursing through her veins, trudging through the snow in utter terror and exhaustion. She struggled to not scream but was so short of breath from the exertion she couldn’t if she wanted to. Around the bend and past the 600’s sign, she flew down Sandstone Drive in a half limp, half sprint, with the darkness overcoming the winter day and the freezing wind howling as the only song in the air.
It was blamed on illness, both for the comfort of the adults and for Whitney’s own sake that she would be largely despondent and not seen in school. Days blurred, her mother having a hard enough time trying to raise her alone and keeping up with a career largely left her to her own withering in her room. Rarely she ate, even rarer she bathed, and her mother told herself (likely in coping) that her daughter was covering the bathroom mirror because she didn’t want to look at herself being sickly and depressed.
Whitney was in her room, having to wait for her mother to leave in order to open the windows. The stifling air and the oscillating miasmas drove her further into despondency and despair. One could run their fingers through the carpet and lift their hands with her pieces of her hair that she had reliably been pulling on. She couldn’t cry anymore. Earlier she tried looking at herself just for a moment and it was just like that night weeks ago coming home— it was his eyes looking back at her. His scared, longing eyes. It was unbearable.
There was no sleep, that was a distant act of a different time. There was brief removal from one place to another— like a dream plane that she was awake in. Sometimes she heard her friend’s voice, it was distinct. Other times she heard some other voice, and it was indescribable to her. The windows blowing freezing air inside wasn’t enough, even at night. Hoping it would open further, she shuffled up to it, eyes glazed and lost pushing the glass open the slight bit more the window would give until giving pause.
Looking outside in the snow, near a patch of trees and illuminated in the dark was a ball of bright-white light, and she swayed back and forth with it — the stars extinguished and the moon engulfed by a floating wispy mass, letting out a crystalline howl from the sky.