Discordance — dislocation — dissonance.
A jarring screech tearing across the trembling membranes of consciousness, shattered into shards and splinters and slivers on the brick wall of the waking world, then re-forming with a sickening lurch and backward-time squelch of reversal as it sucks itself coherent again; rearing up with a herky-jerky stab-split into the crown of my s k u l l.
My eyes snapped open; so did my head.
Bone plates of my skull splayed wide like the petals of a flower, the dream blossoming upward from within my grey meat, climbing the air like ivy on a petrified tree; the whorls of my brain uncoiling and reaching toward a ceiling a million miles up, stretching my self-hood to breaking point, until I was a quivering note held at maximum extension on the air-gap between here and there, between awake and dreaming, between real and image, between me and me.
My eyes snapped open.
Naked and sweating, crouched in my chair before the table like a lake of wood with knots as continents, my body a tangle of coiled pain singing tight songs of nerve and damage and chronic endlessness; doubling up and vomiting a stream of steaming green acid onto the floorboards, watching my upchucked rejection eat through the varnish and grain and nails and glue and foundation stones and earth and rock; the dream billowing upward in smoky by-product, sucked into my lungs and melting my eyeballs and bonding with the cells of my alveoli to choke me in blind suffocation and nightmare isolation.
Eyes snapped open.
Wrapped in my own tentacles like a human-shaped caterpillar, wings sprouting in bloody ribbons as they displace my ribs, hard chitinous plates pushing outward from bone and joint and tearing my skin to flaps and shreds upon my bare muscles; the afterbirth by-product splashing down the steps of lighter slumber and spreading outward to form a deep and stinking pool; the dream shimmering in reflection as I cannot get my new wings to unfurl and I trip and I fall into the liquid of my own transformation, incomplete.
I opened my eyes.
Panting, quivering, caked in cold sweat, frozen in shock, I waited for the next barrage of dream-nonsense.
But nothing happened. My mind did not slide down my body and spool out on the floor. The walls did not fall away like cheap set dressing. My skull did not splay itself open like a flower — I actually reached up with one shaking hand and pressed against my hair, making sure that my bones were all there, shut tight, encasing my brain like proper bones should do, instead of imitating a plant.
“I-it was just … the dream,” I panted. “Just dream-logic. Lozzie?”
But there was no Lozzie; there was no anybody.
I found myself right back in the magical workshop — or at least a very accurate dreamlike representation of it — sitting in the exact same position as back in the waking world. Exact same chair, exact same angle, exact same clothes. Lozzie’s chair was right next to me, but Lozzie herself was absent. Everyone else was missing too: no peanut gallery of Raine and Evee, no sprite-like presences of Sevens and Aym, no reassuring Praem and dour Felicity. All of Evelyn’s usual clutter was present and correct, books and notepads littering the table, magic circles on canvas and tarpaulin lining the walls, strange magical bric-a-brac all over the place. Even the gateway stood sensible and upright, carved into the far wall and surrounded by the eye-bending mandala. The CRT television and the bucket were on the table too, right in front of me, a mirror-image of waking reality.
The bucket was full of clay — inert, wet, gloopy. Mister Squiddy was not in residence.
I raised my voice: “Lozzie?”
The recreation of waking reality was so perfect that for a moment I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream or not; had I passed out for hours and been left here to recover? No, that made no sense. Raine would have put me to bed. Raine would be by my side. We would be in full emergency mode, especially if Mister Squiddy had left his carefully contained clay vessel and gone walkabouts.
“Slipped out for a sneaky snack,” I murmured. “Nope.”
Such concerns seemed abstract and airy, mere whims which floated upward and out of my brain, motes leaving my thoughts, captured and interrogated by something very large which stood just behind me, that I could neither see nor hear.
That particular notion was so strong that I spent perhaps thirty seconds trying to catch sight of this hypothetical thought-investigator who stood behind me. Twisting in my chair, closing my eyes slowly and then opening them quickly, trying to look over my shoulder without being seen — none of those techniques yielded any results. Dream or waking world, I could not catch my own attentive shadow.
Then I giggled.
“Oh, Heather,” I told myself. “That’s a metaphor. Or it’s yourself? Myself? It’s a metaphor for yourself. You’re trying to catch yourself. An eye cannot examine herself without a mirror. And you do not have a mirror. Metaphorically speaking.” I let out a heavy sigh and stood up so I could peer into the bucket where Mister Squiddy should have been. The presence behind me politely looked over my shoulder, too, agreeing that Mister Squiddy was not present. “This is absolutely a dream. I giggled.”
Mister Squiddy, missing. Lozzie, gone AWOL. Everybody else — awake? I chewed my bottom lip and tried to focus, but an invisible hand kept reaching through the bones of my skull and stirring up my thoughts, like playing with bubble-bath.
I screwed up my eyes and looked down at my body; then I realised that was impossible, so I opened my eyes again.
“Tentacles, check,” I said out loud. “One, two, three, four, fix … five,” I huffed and corrected myself. “Six. All six, present and correct.”
One of the tentacles was swollen and slow and glowing neon purple. The dream had replicated my physical changes down to the last detail. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not.
“Yellow robes, check,” I said, running a hand over my chest, over the silken yellow layer of Sevens’ affection and trust. Then I poked and prodded at myself, wincing softly at the landscape of bruises across the canvas of my flesh, the delightful array of pain and ache shooting up my nerves. “Bruises, check. Why, though? Why take these into a dream?”
The large presence behind me purred sympathy.
“Lozzie,” I said. “Lozzie, check? Lozzie? No Lozzie.” I sighed. “Well. Onward we go.”
I left the magical workshop and went into the kitchen and went to the fridge and found a lemon and put it in my mouth. The sharp taste exploded across my tongue; my bioreactor gurgled in response, hungry for citrus, processing dream-matter into dream-energy.
“Oh, Lozzie,” I sighed again, spitting a chunk of inedible lemon peel into my hand; even in a dream I wouldn’t dare drop it on the floor. Praem would be very disappointed. “This isn’t going to work without you here. I can’t think thoughts in a dream unless there’s a reason to panic. Or if you’re around to make me sharper. You are a whetstone to my mind. Lozzie, Loz-Loz, where did you goooo-”
That was an understatement. The Big Thinky Heather who stood just behind me agreed; the dream was all well and good for specific purposes, but it was hard to think real thoughts in here. When Lozzie had pulled me into the dream to rescue Badger from the Eye, I had been instantly baptised in a state of screaming mad panic, more than enough to pull me into buttoned-up lucidity.
But this? Lozzie had made a promise to Evelyn that she would pull me out at the first sign of trouble. Lozzie had intentionally pulled me into the dream. So there couldn’t be any trouble. So there was no reason to think clear thoughts. Whatever was going on, it must be safe. So I dreamed on.
“This doesn’t work without you here, Loz. Loz-Loz. I love you Lozzie but I need your help. Where did you go? I assume this was meant to happen, but … ”
Big Heather To My Rear suggested that we go over to the window and take a look. I wanted to eat more lemons, so I did that instead.
When we eventually got to the kitchen window — which felt like it took about three days — I stood there staring at regimented rows of colour-coded flowers, a polished wooden bench framed by a trio of young saplings, and a little pond edged with dark slate.
“That’s not our garden,” I said.
It’s your mum and dad’s garden, said Large Heather Who Was Behind Me.
“Oh. So it is … ”
I swallowed. A nagging feeling itched in the back of my skull. That was dream-logic, undeniable; the garden of my childhood home stood just beyond the back wall of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, completely out of place and time. My dad had since filled in the pond and replaced it with a rock garden. What was it doing here, inside a dream?
My thoughts felt more dense than before, like the collapsing matter of a dwarf star compacting tighter and tighter in a futile, dying effort to reignite nuclear fusion.
Where was Mister Squiddy? And where was Lozzie? What was the point of pulling me into the dream and then leaving me to my own devices?
“Unless she’s gotten into trouble herself,” I murmured. “Lozzie does do that, sometimes.”
Rear Heather Behind Me handed me another lemon, neatly skinned and oozing thin juices.
“Thank you,” I murmured. I bit into the lemon, sharp citrus flavour coating my tongue and—
Lozzie might be in trouble.
Lucidity snapped tight like a rubber band against the inside of my skull.
I turned around so quickly that I almost lost my balance. Tentacles splayed in a protective cage, warning hiss clawing up my throat, skin bristling with the silent threat of toxins and paralytics and spikes and armour.
Nobody was there.
No Tall Heather Behind Me. Just a dream recreation of the kitchen, the wooden table and the old chairs, the battered counter-tops and the big fridge, the door to the front room wedged open. It was perfect, completely flawless. It even included the plates we’d left on the table at lunchtime, and Evelyn’s unlabelled bottle of painkillers.
“What … who?” I stammered out, lips numb, tentacles quivering. Then I stared at the lemon in my hand, freshly skinned, with one bite taken out of the flesh. The juice was sliding down my hand and dripping onto the floor. “What was I speaking to?”
Nobody and nothing replied.
“Oh. Oh no,” I whispered. “Something has gone terribly wrong here.”
I poked my head into the utility room behind the kitchen and looked down the cellar stairs too, in case they had been replaced with anything else, like the garden outdoors. But they were perfectly normal, every detail of the waking world replicated with perfect accuracy, even the scuffing on the skirting board and the precise way the old sofa sagged in the middle with its broken back and ancient cushions. I kept my tentacles up and my eyes wide, expecting a nightmare to jump out at me from every corner.
“Lozzie?” I hissed. “Lozzie?”
No Lozzie. I stepped into the front room, but it was more of the same — a perfect mirror of the waking world, absent any people. The old grandfather clock ticked away to itself. Boxes of junk sat against the wall in neglected piles. Several pairs of shoes stood next to the door in their usual jumble. The door itself was shut and bolted and locked.
The air felt slow and thick and dark. I crept over to the stairs and peered upward, heart pounding.
I sighed at that, feeling absurd and a little angry. This was home, the house, Number 12 Barnslow Drive, or at least a version of it, reflected in a dream. Part of me felt deeply offended that the house could ever be made to feel creepy or spooky or unwelcoming; it was a disservice to all of us who lived within, to the physical building itself, and to something deeper as well, some essential essence of place.
“Sorry,” I whispered, patting the wall with one tentacle. “I know you’re not real, this is just a dream, but it’s not fair on you. Where has Lozzie gotten to, really? This is completely absurd. And unsafe. If Evee knew, she’d be going bananas.” I raised my voice, calling out to the empty spaces. “Lozzie!”
The echoes died away, receding into the depths of the dream-house.
The voice came from upstairs — far, far upstairs, far and away, buried behind walls and doors and plaster and brick and wood and steel.
And it wasn’t Lozzie.
I stood frozen, dumbfounded for a moment by the high, querulous tone, so familiar and yet so different. I’d heard that voice before, in the mouth of an imitator, full of life and expression and emotion, but this version was flat and empty, mere air pushed over vocal chords and muscles pulling at lips.
It was my own voice. It was me.
“ … Sevens?” I called out. “Is that you, wearing my face? Sevens? Are you in here, in the dream?”
No reply. Shadows sat smooth and silken at the top of the stairs, flowing with invisible currents.
I put my hands on my hips and sighed sharply, but I did a poor job of covering up my sudden nameless fear; my tentacles betrayed my true reaction, drifting upward as if ready to defend myself from whatever awaited upstairs. I was breathing too hard, cold sweat prickling on my skin; something had invaded our home — in a dream, yes, but it was still home.
“Mister Squiddy?” I said, but nothing replied to that either. “Oh, for pity’s sake. I won’t have this. I will not! I shall … wake myself up! As soon as I find Lozzie.”
“Heather,” said the me-voice from far away upstairs. That time it wasn’t a question. It sounded more like somebody who had never heard my name before, rolling it in their mouth.
A hiss tried to claw up my throat. I pursed my lips and swallowed. “Stop it!” I snapped. “Oh, fine. I am coming up there, you … you … ”
I glanced down at the shoes next to the door; Evelyn’s walking stick was right there, propped against the wall. I reached for it, desiring a weapon to brandish, something I could threaten to rap over an offending head; yes, I had six working tentacles, but I blame the dream-logic for making me want a nice heavy object in my fist. Dream-logic or ape instinct, one or the other. I wanted to hit something with a club.
But then I noticed: among all the shoes, one pair was missing.
Lozzie’s trainers were gone.
“Heather,” said the voice upstairs. But I could see nothing up there except familiar old shadows and the shape of the upstairs corridor.
I wet my lips, swallowed, and said, “Whatever you are, I don’t feel threatened by you. But I think Lozzie is outdoors, so I’m going to go, okay? I’m not leaving you behind, if you’re … part of me, or Mister Squiddy, or … or … I don’t know. This is just a dream, so maybe you’re not even real, but … I’ll see you shortly. Okay?”
No reply. I stamped into my own shoes — dream-shoes — unlocked the door, opened it wide, and stepped out.
As it shut behind me, just as the latch caught, I heard my own voice say: “Be safe.”
I would have turned back and wrenched the door open again, but the sight in front of me was far more bizarre than an unexplained voice.
Barnslow Drive — the road on which the house stood — was gone. No cracked pavement and crumbly asphalt invaded by tree roots and water damage, no houses spaced far apart in memorial of some 19th-century nightmare which never came to be, no old gnarled trees hanging over the opposite side of the road in their ancient grandeur, dusting the gutters with their fallen leaves.
Instead, the road was tightly lined with semi-detached houses in pale brick, with modern plastic windows. The road itself was newly resurfaced, shiny and slick and black, inviting the stickiness of unfelt fingers. Young trees were planted in front gardens. Cars stood parked in stubby driveways. Down the street, more leafy suburbia unrolled toward a neat little roundabout with yellow signposts and a zebra crossing.
“This isn’t Sharrowford,” I breathed, eyes wide, tentacles pulled in tight as if to protect myself. I clutched Sevens’ yellow robes to my chest. “This is Reading.”
It was the street on which I’d grown up — on which Maisie and I had grown up.
“Except that,” I said, as my eyes were pulled inexorably upward, over the rooftops, past the buildings, into the metal-tinted sky. “Pretty sure that’s not from Reading.
Towering over the leafy suburb of where I’d grown up was an edifice of shining metal: a great dome in brass, gold, and chrome, like a clockwork meteor which had fallen into this dream of my childhood. Pieces of the dome floated free in the air, unconnected to the rest of the structure, as if suspended by magnetic force. Bands of shining metal rotated like pieces of cloud formation. Many-sided shapes shifted and rotated and clicked and joined and parted and locked and sank and rose and stilled and translated and—
I gasped as if coming up for air from a terrible depth, from lightless caverns of the mind.
“Is that— you?” I breathed. “I— I don’t— I—”
My eyes were dragged along the clockwork perfection, moved as if I was a piece of the machine; after only a second of following the mechanical perfection, I could predict where the pieces would go, how they would fit together, which next steps they must follow — and what they meant.
A scratching scraped against the inside of my skull. I winced and screwed my eyes up.
“That’s you, isn’t it?” I breathed. “Mister Squiddy? Or … whatever you are. That’s you. It’s okay, I’m … I understand, I can see. I’m on my way, I … yes.”
I stumbled down the short garden pathway on numb feet, then turned in panic as if I might see my childhood home behind me, filling the space where Number 12 Barnslow Drive should be standing. But no; my home, my real home, was right there, the Victorian red brick and brooding windows and climbing ivy and patched roof of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. The house had wedged itself in between several modern semis, like a piece of history air-dropped into a dream.
“That’s exactly what has happened,” I said. “The house came with us. With me. Um … thank you?”
The house did not reply.
I trotted out into the street, assailed by a million memories of Maisie and I walking down that pavement on our way to school. My throat closed up, my heart swelled, and tears threatened to prickle in my eyes. A numbness inside me woke up, filled with pins and needles and aching in a way I needed to avoid thinking about. I ripped my eyes away from my own ghost and looked up and down the road instead, trying to avoid the beating rhythm of the brass-gold dome of perfect mathematics.
“Lozzie!” I shouted. “Lozzie!”
“Here!” a faint cry echoed over the false rooftops of dream-Reading. “Heather! Heather!”
I picked up my feet and ran down the street, trainers slapping on the asphalt, bruises singing and joints screaming, but the adrenaline and fear and confusion blanketed the worst of the pain. And after all, this was only a dream.
Lozzie was just around the corner next to the roundabout, wild-eyed with a mirror of my own panic, fluttering in her pastel poncho like a lost jellyfish in an unfamiliar current, in the alien dream-waters of a remembered Reading.
“Heathy!” she cried out. We caught each other in a sudden rough embrace, mutual reassurance that we were both real, both really here.
“Lozzie—” I panted. “What—”
“I’m sorry!” she said, pulling back but holding onto my arms. Her face was distraught and confused, her breath coming in jerky little gasps. “I don’t understand how we got separated. That doesn’t happen! That’s not a thing! I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep without asking, I promised Evee I would help and we can stop right now we can go back we can—”
“Lozzie, Lozzie, slow down, slow down.” I nodded gently until she nodded along with me. “Slow down.”
“I’m sorry,” she squeaked. She bit her lip and sniffed hard, eyes brimming with tears. “You told me not to do this again. You told me. I’m sorry.”
“Lozzie, I’m not angry with you.” I smiled for her — and found it wasn’t forced or fake; the implications of our surroundings were filling me with a heady cocktail of hope. “I wish you’d asked before dunking us into the dream, yes. But we’re not in any danger. I don’t see the Eye rising over any mountain ranges, nothing like that.”
“I-I hope not,” she said.
“You didn’t interfere in a process. You helped it along.” I glanced left and right, at the roundabout and the terraced houses, at suburban Reading marching off in all directions — or at least, a memory of suburban Reading — with that vast dome of distant bronze and gold towering over the town, shifting and adjusting like a clockwork god. I had to tear my eyes away from that promise of meaning. “In fact, Lozzie, this is an incredibly good sign.” The smile jerked wider on my face. “Incredibly good. If I’m right, I don’t think we’re in any danger at all. This is great. Lozzie, yes, you should have asked first, or warned me, and please do so in the future. But — thank you. This is good news. We’re on the right track. You see that giant dome? I think that’s Mister Squiddy. Or his message. It has to be.”
Lozzie bit her bottom lip, smiling through the anxiety — but also staring at me like she had to break some bad news.
Dream-Lozzie looked ever so slightly different to the real Lozzie back in the waking world; I’d experienced that shift before, back when we’d first met for real, in the bowels of the cult’s castle.
This was no emergency spiritual rescue operation in the no-man’s land of the Eye’s obsessive observation, so Lozzie’s physical form was subtly different, perhaps a reflection of her idealised dream-self. Her pastel poncho glowed even under the direct light of the sun, like a bioluminescent bottom-dweller adapted for life on the surface; the hem seemed to shift and twitch independently of the motion of her body. The tips of her long wispy blonde hair floated upward slightly, like inquisitive tentacles rising from slumber. A pink-on-pink plaid skirt poked out from under her poncho, over eye-watering neon-green leggings, both items of clothing which I was pretty sure she didn’t own in the waking world. Her sleepy-eyed look was full of energy, even if currently turned inward with worry.
“ … Lozzie?”
“We might be in a little danger,” she said — and pointed past my shoulder. “Didn’t you see?”
“See what?” I turned to look. “The big brass … ”
Opposite the giant brass-and-gold segmented sphere of divine mathematics, towering over the other end of this dream-slice of Reading, was a gargantuan black moth.
A living hillside of dream-flesh, furred in luxurious silken obsidian, velvet and smooth and soft as night. Wings folded back atop the giant, covered in whirls and spirals of white-tinted fur amid the black, like cream on tar. A mass of tentacles, each the diameter of a house, reached upward from beneath the wings, waving their mouth-like tips in the air, like seaweed in a shallow ocean pool. Fluffy white antennae twitched and shivered above a massive head. The body was in repose like a cat with the paws tucked beneath, resting peacefully. But the face held more than a hint of familiar human shape, despite the black fur, the wedge of insect-snout, and the eyelids lowered over giant orbs. The mouth was kinked with sleepy amusement, as if lost in a silly dream.
I stared up in shock, breath stilled in my throat.
Lozzie whispered: “I don’t know why she’s here.”
“Is that … ” I choked out. “That’s Tenny. Lozzie, is that Tenny?”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped.
“What … ” I just shook my head, unable to form a question. “Is she … sleeping?”
“Luckily for us!” Lozzie said. She pulled an awkward smile when I looked at her. “Tenns wouldn’t be dangerous to us though, not really!” she added quickly. “She’ll just be really confused if she wakes up. In the dream. Not for real! If she wakes up for real, that would be very good! Very good. Yes. Wakey-wakey, Tenn-Tenns. Pleaaaaase.”
“Lozzie, Lozzie, wait a second. How did she get here? How did she get into the dream with us?”
Lozzie pulled an embarrassed grimace. “She must have been napping! Whoopsie.”
“That can happen?”
Lozzie’s grimace collapsed back into real worry. “It just did! Heathy, I don’t know what’s going on. It was just meant to be you and me, inside Mister Squiddy’s dream. But the dream brought Tenny too, and split us up, and I don’t even know where this is! This isn’t Sharrowford, is it?”
I shook my head. “No. No, it’s Reading, the place where I grew up.”
Lozzie blinked, then burst into a smile. “Oh!”
“Yes!” I smiled too. “That means—”
“In theory,” I said. “In theory, if this was inside Mister Squiddy’s head, then Maisie might have put it here. This is a good sign. But, wait, back to Tenny.”
“Big Tenns.” Lozzie almost giggled, her anxiety lifting. She was delighted that this might be a message from Maisie after all.
“Yes, big Tenns. Why? Why is she the size of a Godzilla monster? I mean, I recognise her. But that’s also not her.”
Lozzie shrugged. “Maybe she wants to be big.”
I opened my mouth to say something like ‘that’s absurd’, but then I reconsidered. If Tenny wanted to be the size of a hill in her dreams, then who was I to tell her no? It wasn’t even the first time she’d been technically massive — her cocoon had reached across Sharrowford and out into the countryside with a single tentacle, for the purpose of devouring random sheep to fuel her fleshy transformation. Tenny had experience in being large. She was more than justified.
“Well,” I said awkwardly, “good for her. But this isn’t the time.”
Lozzie muffled a giggle. I sighed and glanced up at the giant sleeping Tenny-moth-blob again.
“Lozzie, what happens if she wakes up? In the dream itself, here, with us? She’ll recognise us, right? I mean, it’s Tenny, she’d never hurt us. I’m not worried about that, I’m just … well. She is very, very large.”
Lozzie shook her head and flapped the hem of her poncho — it fluttered slowly down as if underwater. “Tenns loves us both very much. Buuuuut … ” Lozzie looked up at Tenny, then pointedly turned her head to look at the giant brass sphere of mathematics. She raised both hands, made fists, and then knocked her knuckles together. “Fight-o.”
“Ah. Yes. Giant monsters having a rubber-suit fight. I can see the logic.”
“Mmm.” Lozzie bit her lip.
“Did you let her watch a giant monster movie recently? Something like that?”
Lozzie rolled her eyes left and right as she considered the question, then said: “I think she was reading a wikipedia page about Mothra … ”
“Mothra.” I sighed. “I don’t even know what that is, but I probably don’t have to ask.” I stared up again at Large Tenny. “Can you wake her up?”
Lozzie blinked at me three times. “You want her to have the giant monster fight?”
“No! No, I mean, wake her up for real. End the dream, for her.”
Lozzie chewed on her bottom lip. “I’d have to go with her. I’m sorry, Heathy, I don’t know what’s happened here. This isn’t normal!”
I squeezed her hand and smiled awkwardly. “It’s all right, Lozzie. It’ll be all right. I think I need to reach that big brass sphere thing, it’s … mathematically sound. If I can get up close, maybe I can comprehend it better without wanting to claw at the inside of my own skull. If this is Mister Squiddy’s dream, like you said, then that’s probably what he’s trying to communicate.” I looked left and right again. “I recognise this road, and the sphere is to the east. If this space works on realistic logic, it should only be a twenty minute walk. I think. I hope.” I glanced at Lozzie again, trying to judge if she was worried about more than just Big Tenny. “Do you know if there’s anything else in here with us?”
Lozzie shrugged. “It’s a dream! Could be. Sorry, Heathy. Sorry-sorry.”
I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders, pulled Sevens’ yellow robes snug around myself, and made sure I had Lozzie’s hand tight and secure in mine. “How much time is passing in the waking world?”
Lozzie bobbed her head from side to side, as if consulting some kind of inner motion-based clock. “Three seconds. Maybe five?”
“Good enough. We have time. Let’s get going.”
“Okidoki! You can show me the sights!”
“Of Reading?” I managed a weak laugh. “I wish I could. But we’re here for business.”
“Serious business,” Lozzie chirped. “For serious faces.”
Leading Lozzie along the pavements of my childhood memories was a supremely surreal experience — not just because this was happening in a dream, nor because these were not technically my memories, nor because of the geologic-formation-sized Tenny towering over one end of the town and the giant rotating brass sphere humming in mega-calculation over the other end.
No, it felt strange because Lozzie did not belong to this period of my life.
We walked all the way up the narrow terraced row of Beecham and ended up on the wide thoroughfare of Oxford Road, with its little shops and brick garden walls and rubbish in the gutters. We passed the TA centre and a beautiful little library and at least two Churches that I barely remembered. In some ways, Reading wasn’t too dissimilar to Sharrowford — less post-industrial, more alive, more Southern — but Lozzie seemed so out of place among the cracked pavements and terraced houses and parked cars. She was out of place in this part of my memories, bright and shining and free, when I’d been lonely and half-dead and sick with loss. Walking along with her, hand in hand, made me wonder how different life might have been if I’d met Lozzie at thirteen years old instead.
But this wasn’t Reading. It was a dream.
Cars were parked in driveways and along the pavement, but nothing moved on the street; no sounds of distant traffic hummed from between the buildings, no other pedestrians shared the pavement with us. Lights showed in houses and buildings, behind closed curtains or shining bright from shop-front windows, but nobody moved behind the glass. Reading, remembered as a ghost town.
The brass-gold dome loomed over it all, plates floating through open air, clicking in rotation, their angles and sides referencing each other with mathematical perfection.
Physical pain seemed to ebb away here, too. Which made sense, because it was a dream and all. My bruises ached less and less, until I forgot all about them. My throbbing neon-purple tentacle sat heavy over one of my shoulders, beneath my yellow robes, but it didn’t hurt like a numb and ice-dipped arm anymore. My joints clicked and clacked, but eventually flowed smooth and easy as we hurried down the pavement.
And beneath it all, a delicate and fragile elation fluttered in my chest: the mathematics of the sphere must be a message from Maisie. Mister Squiddy was her creature all along.
Nothing to worry about. Big Tenny was a sleepy girl. Mister Squiddy’s math-sphere would teach me how to add five and three. Lozzie was safe.
And just like that, lucidity slipped away.
The dream closed back in, heavy on my eyelids and cool in my hand. Lozzie’s shoes tapped the pavement, spelling out a word as we walked. Click-clack, click-clack went the sphere overhead, telling me secrets that I couldn’t understand yet. I saw Number 12 Barnslow Drive on the corner of a street, and then again two streets on. Hello, house. Are you following us too? Don’t worry, you’re quite welcome.
Bigger Heather Who Was Behind Me struggled to keep pace with us. She wasn’t used to moving around, after all.
“Lemon,” I said.
A lemon was offered and placed in my hand. I bit into it, letting the juice run down my fingers and stain the grey pavements of my childhood. A few stray tears joined the citrus.
“I wish I’d known to eat lemons when I was nine,” I said.
“ … Heathy? Where did you get that?” Lozzie giggled.
“We’re in a dream, aren’t we?” I said. “Want some? I wish you’d been there, Lozzie. I wish you’d been there before we thought to go through the hole to Wonderland. You would have said not to.”
Lozzie’s eyes went very big in her face, wide with terror-wonder, directed right at me. Was I really so scary? I wiggled my tentacles but Lozzie didn’t giggle. I took another bite from the lemon, chewing with bone-deep satisfaction.
“Do you want a lemon too? They taste of growth and … and … time? Do you want a lemon?”
“Mmmmmmmm, okay?” said Lozzie.
Larger Heather At The Rear reached over my shoulder and offered Lozzie a lemon.
Lozzie opened her mouth and screamed.
Lucidity snapped back, hard as a metal ruler slapped against my forehead. Lozzie stopped screaming, eyes wide, staring at me and the space behind me, tugging on my hand, her poncho all fluffed up and quivering like a spooked cat.
“Lozzie, what—” I looked over my shoulder, but there was nobody behind me. “What was that? What—”
“It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you!” she squeaked. “That wasn’t you!”
“Wait, wait, something like that happened back in the house, at the start of the dream.”
“In the house?”
“Yes. Home. Our house. Number 12 Barnslow Drive, it’s where I started the dream, sitting in the same chair. And it’s … it’s right there.” I nodded. Lozzie followed my look, over to where Number 12 Barnslow Drive currently stood, wedged between a chippie and a row of terraced houses. “Lozzie, what did you just see over my shoulder? What—” I glanced down and found I had a lemon in one hand. Another lemon lay on the pavement, bruised from the fall from a mystery hand.
“I don’t know who that was,” Lozzie said. “We’re not alone.”
As if on cue, echoing down the roads and across the streets of this dreamlike Reading, came a dull metal clank clank clank.
Lozzie and I whirled on the spot, holding on tight to each other’s hands, her hair flying outward in a wispy cloud as we tried to locate the source of the sound.
“I think you’re right,” I said. “Somebody else is—”
“Coming this way!” Lozzie chirped.
Clank clank clank stomped the metal footsteps, short of stride and frustrated of footing. Clank clank clank. I raised all my tentacles and edged forward, giving Lozzie somewhere to shelter.
“This is a dream,” I whispered to her, my head on a swivel, trying to figure out where the steps were coming from. “How bad can a fight get in a dream?”
“Bad,” Lozzie whispered. “Another dreamer would be bad.”
“Okay. If it’s something really, really bad, we have to leave,” I hissed.
“But we might not be able to get back!”
“I don’t care. We both promised to Evelyn. We promised. If a walking nightmare comes around a corner, we leave, we’re not staying to fight off Mister Squiddy’s immune system, or whatever this is, or—”
A suit of armour stepped around the corner of Zinzan Street, framed for a moment by the ghostly frontage of a grilled chicken shop.
The knight paused, metal helmet pointed toward Lozzie and me.
It was most definitely not one of Lozzie’s Knights, somehow transported here from Camelot; the suit of armour was a real suit, cut for a human, with intricate metal joints and overlapping sheaths, clad from head to toe, complete with gauntlets and hand protection, and a coat of arms on a sort of tabard hanging down over the breastplate: a red dragon wrapped around a trio of tarnished, broken crowns. The helmet was shaped like the head of a goat, complete with metal horns and wide-set eyes above the actual visor-slit, a dark opening on a glint of pale flesh within.
A long sword was slung over the figure’s back, wrapped in oil-cloth and greasy tarpaulin, strapped around the knight’s chest with bits of mangy looking modern rope, blue and frayed. The weight was too much for the knight; they were hunched with the mass of the weapon.
Whoever was inside, they were also shorter than me.
“Hello?” I called out. “Who—”
“Oh!” Lozzie chirped in apparent delight. “You were napping! You must have been napping!”
The diminutive knight marched up to us, every step bubbling with frustration even through the mute steel plate. Lozzie was beaming, but I didn’t lower my tentacles. A hiss rose in my throat, muscles ready to spring forward or back away or screech or run or—
The little knight stopped with an angry stomp, fumbled with one gauntlet, and clacked the visor up.
“What the fuck am I doing here!?” demanded Jan.
Wide-eyed with terror and confusion, flushed in the cheeks, and completely out of her depth — but Jan was undoubtedly real.
Lozzie went all a-giggle. She pulled away from me and threw her arms briefly around Jan’s armoured shoulders. Jan had no idea what to do with her hands and just stood there huffing and puffing until Lozzie pulled back again.
“You must have been napping!” Lozzie said, like Jan was a late arrival to a nature walk, not an unexpected inclusion in an already complex equation of dreaming and mathematics.
Jan stared at her like that made absolutely no sense at all — which, to be fair, it didn’t.
The petite mage-slash-con-woman who we knew as Jan Martense managed to somehow make a suit of armour look ruffled and hassled, even though all we could see of her flesh was the oval of her pale little face. A few locks of her dark hair were mashed against her forehead by the metal helmet. She was red in the cheeks, her eyes were wide and bloodshot with panic, and she was coated in cold sweat. Despite a lifelong fascination with castles, I knew almost nothing about medieval armour, but even I could tell that the suit of plate mail fitted her to perfection, each piece of metal cut and curved exactly to the fit of her muscles. It looked impregnable.
Jan looked at me instead, shaking a question with her head.
“Hello Jan,” I said with a sigh.
“Where the hell is this?” She threw up one gauntleted hand. It barely even clinked. “How did I get here? Why am I wearing—” she tapped her chest with a knuckle; it went clonk “—this?”
“You were napping!” Lozzie repeated, beaming. “Janny, you’re here! I wanted to see you today but everything is so busy and there’s so much to do but you’re here anyway and—”
Jan held up a polite hand. I saw great patience struggle across her face. “Lozzie. Please.”
Lozzie bit her lips and nodded.
Jan took a deep breath. “Yes, I was napping. I was having a little sleep. And what is that!?” She pointed at the gargantuan Tenny-Mothra fusion dominating one horizon. “And that!” she added, pointing at the other horizon filled by the brass-gold dome.
“Tenny!” Lozzie pointed. “Isn’t she impressive!?”
Jan gaped at her. “Well … I … yes? Did you make her large?”
I cleared my throat. “We’re in a dream. This is not real.”
Lozzie went, “Pfffft. It’s a dream, but it’s real!”
“Lozzie, I appreciate the importance, but please don’t confuse her,” I said. “It’s a dream. Jan, you’re in a dream.”
Jan peered at me, still wide-eyed. “I’ve had lucid dreams before. This is not a lucid dream. I’m really here. Are you really here?”
“Yes!” Lozzie chirped. “Woooow! I really wanted to do this with you, but—”
“Lozzie,” I said softly. “Jan is about to panic. May I explain, please? I’m sorry to talk over you, but this is important and—”
Lozzie nodded with great enthusiasm. “Mmhmm mmhmm! Is fine! Talk talk!” She clamped a hand over her mouth, a silly performance, but it worked.
Jan boggled at me.
“Jan, um,” I searched for the words.
“Short version,” said Jan, snappish and running out of patience. “Bottom line. Least words possible.”
“Lozzie can pull people into dreams. This dream belongs to a demon, or possibly some kind of messenger sent by my sister, I’m not clear. I’m really here, Lozzie is really here. Tenny is really here too, but we don’t know why she’s so big. The big brass sphere is a mathematical teaching tool — I think — which is going to … well, it’s probably going to help me.” I pointed at the house over on the other corner, the familiar facade of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. “The house is here too. I think it’s trying to help.”
Jan just stared; I saw the cogs working inside her head, suppressing a very specific kind of temper. Then she reached up to her cheek and pinched her own flesh, hard, with the metal gauntlet fingers. “Ow!” she hissed. “Okay, a dream. Fine. Whatever. I don’t want to be here! Can you wake me up?” The gauntlet went up again, palm out. “Wait! First, why were you screaming?”
“Large Heather,” I said.
“Oh!” Lozzie unclamped her mouth. “I think that was nothing.”
“Nothing?” I asked. “You screamed.”
Jan huffed. “You did! Normally I run away from screams, thank you very much!”
Lozzie lit up. “You came running because it was me?”
Jan huffed. “Lozzie, Heather, are you in trouble? Can we all leave together? I am not cut out for dream shenanigans, and I am very put out at being clad in a suit of armour with the sword strapped to my back. It’s followed me into this, I’m not … I can’t … can we leave?”
Lozzie pulled an awkward smile. “One out, all out! I think!”
“We’re not a miner’s union,” Jan sighed. “Look, if you’re not in danger, if this is safe … ” She trailed off, staring back at Lozzie’s pained smile. “Oh, I’m here for the duration, aren’t I? You mean you can’t get me out, alone?”
“I’m sorry, Jan,” I said. “I … don’t understand how you’ve gotten pulled in.”
Lozzie chewed her lip. “Me neither. S’weird.”
Jan screwed her eyes up. “Weird magic dreams, with this sword on my back. Wonderful. This is my least favourite thing. I should sit down and refuse to move until I wake up, but that would probably be worse. Much worse. Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“Lozzie,” I said slowly. “Jan is miles and miles away, back in the waking world, isn’t she? Tenny makes sense, she’s just upstairs, but Jan?”
Jan sighed. “I promise I’m not secretly sleeping in Lozzie’s bedroom.”
“She’s not!” Lozzie chirped.
Jan said, “It’s probably the sword.” She opened her eyes again and gave me a very exhausted stare. “Look, Heather. This — as in, me, here, inside a magical dream, with the sword, with the sword, this needs to not happen.” She chopped her hands back and forth, gauntlets glinting. She pointed at us both. “This is putting you in danger.”
“Janny?” Lozzie tilted her head.
I said, “I don’t think this dream is dangerous, Jan. Not between the house and giant Tenny, if anything goes wrong.” I took a deep breath. “What’s happening here is seriously important, if a little … unclear. We can help look after you, and when this is over, you’ll just wake up like normal. Please. Please, Jan, that brass dome up there is some kind of message or tool from my sister, and I need it.”
Jan swallowed. “No. The sword on my back. Me being here. Those things are putting you in danger.”
Lozzie tilted her head the other way. “Janny? What is it?”
Jan screwed up her face. “This has nothing — nothing! — to do with you. It’s none of your business, you don’t need to know. Lozzie … maybe I’ll tell you one day, if we get married or something, but not now. Not now! Not in a dream! Not with the sword! Not when you’re trying to accomplish something important!” Jan went to rub at her own eyes, then huffed when she found the gauntlet in the way. “And why armour!?” She shook her hand as if trying to dislodge a cobweb. “Fuck off! Oh, God. Okay. Look, I’m sure whatever is going on here is safe — without me here! Without the—” She slammed to a halt, then looked at Lozzie. “Can you send the sword back, by itself?”
Lozzie blinked at her. “Does it dream?”
Lozzie bit her lip. “If it dreams and I make it leave, that could disrupt whatever’s happening. That would be bad!”
“Look,” Jan huffed, struggling with the scraps of blue rope around her middle, trying to get the sword off her back. “Just try, okay? I cannot be here with the sword. I cannot! And not because it’s my problem, but it makes all this … this,” she gestured around at the dream. “Dangerous to you! Okay. Don’t ask why, just— just try? Please?”
“Mmmmmmmmmmmm,” Lozzie made a grumbly sound. “I can try, I guess, but—”
Bigger Heather Who Was Still Behind Me But Hiding Very Effectively came out of hiding and pointed over my shoulder, toward the corner from which Jan had emerged.
A petite figure shuffled around that corner, framed by dream-remembered grilled chicken shop.
Oozing black blood and dark brown pus, marked with old wounds and weeping sores, naked from bloody soles to matted crown, eyes rolling and glassy-dead, purple lips slack and drooling thin bile, every inch of skin dirty and stained — was Jan, again.
Lozzie froze and put a hand to her mouth, eyes brimming with sympathy and worry. I raised my tentacles, ready to — to what? To fight off a zombie?
Our Jan, clad in not-so-shining armour, turned, saw herself shuffling toward us in gory reanimation — and let out a very tired sigh.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she said. “Too late.”
Welcome to the Dreamlands! We have: childhood trauma expressed in the body of the city, extremely confused Heather, a second Heather behind regular Heather, dome, B I G T E N N Y, and Jan wearing a suit of armour which may or may not be some kind of metaphor for her past/destiny/fate/obligations/self-doubt/cool suit of armour. And a zombie?! A zombie. Right. Hope you’re enjoying this weird little trip into the dream, because it’s going to get so much more weird (but I promise it’ll make sense in the end!)
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Next week, it’s a zombie! Aaaa! Aaa! Zombie! Or is it really? This is a dream, right? This must be something Jan dragged in. All Heather needs to do is reach the weird spinning dome thing and … do some maths. Right.
I’ll trust you that this will make sense in the end.
Thank you for the chapter.
I promise it will! The next couple of chapters have gone down very well with patron readers, so I’m pretty confident that I managed the weird dream sequence well enough. We’ll see!
And you are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it, thank you for reading!
I was making a joke but forgot that doesn’t always come across so well in text. Sorry.
Thank you for replying.
No worries, I took it as a joke too! You’re absolutely fine, it’s okay. No need to apologise!
Oh boy… this seems not good.
Thanks for the chapter!
The dream is turning into a nightmare! But Heather and Lozzie are both very good at this. I’m sure they’ll … muddle though?!
And you are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it! Yay!
Aww, Jan came running. And shambling, I guess.
And I can’t blame Tenny. I had a cat named Mothra. She is objectively the best kaiju.
Jan heard Lozzie in trouble, which was enough to override her usual extreme self-preservation! She really does care.
If Tenny wakes up she’s going to have so much fun. Big Tenny! Mothra Tenny! She just wants to be l a r g e.
B I G T E N N Y
B I G T E N N Y
B I G T E N N Y
and Big Heather?
Very fun chapter, you convey confusing dream logic very well. I’m not quite convinced by Lozzie dismissing Big Heather after screaming about it. Also Big Heather is very reminiscent of that thing in a dream that you know is there but can never see, affecting the dream but never fully acknowledged.
Big Tenny! Woo!!! And yes, Big Heather, too???
Thank you! Really glad you enjoyed this! The dream logic prose was a big experiment and I’m glad it’s paying off well. Lozzie probably has more of an idea about what is actually going on, but … she’s Lozzie. She’s probably not able to communicate it clearly, at least not in a dream.
Gosh, yes, I wanted to tap into that exact feeling here, something in a dream which is not acknowledged. Really glad that came across.
Interesting…we have a role reversal. Heather is cool with this, and Lozzie is scared.
Thinking of this song https://open.spotify.com/track/4hlVWkQO0hxR9Ob1IsNdN0
Heather is experiencing this in a very odd fashion. Perhaps at one remove, or buffered, or protected somehow? And Lozzie is used to being in control of dreams, fully in charge, but here something is … different!
Oh gosh, that song. Yes, quite fitting!