Fiction by Ilena Peng
Random Young Writer
The space behind my eyelids is a kaleidoscope of sunburst neons, a glimmering precursor to the feel of dream running in my veins.
I am seven years old, standing in my living room that stayed dark even when the blinds were open and the sun was out. I am a sunburnt child in blue plaid with the energy my parents wanted, and the imagination they did not. My days are filled with three pastimes — lying on the floor to kick my feet against the wall, running across the street to my neighbor’s house, and sleeping. Soon after, I build cocoons of blankets in the summer heat to muffle yells that imagination makes no money. I curse the music in my father’s voice and the watercolors in my mother’s slap.
My neighbor and I spend our summers under the magnolia tree. She is too scared to climb it, so I always climb it for both of us. Plastic flip-flops from the dollar store kick dry leaves as they grip old wood. The large folds of deep green leaves land on her, but she always stands beneath me as I climb anyway, face tilted at the sky, thin arms outstretched. Her face is folded up into scared wrinkles like she is feeling the pain of a broken bone that hasn’t happened yet, but I feel untouchable. Soon, I learn to stop looking back at the ground when I climb.
A magnolia tree’s leaves are too thick to see the clouds in the sky, so instead we look at globs of leaves. I think all of them are birds, but she thinks they’re all flowers. One of us always tries to take flight, the other is always rooted in the ground.
I dream that I’m trying to climb this monument, but I slip off the slick marble into a stifling pile of cherry blossoms. They seem almost as light as the clouds, but it’s hard to breathe under here. As the blossoms lift themselves off of me, floating away to join the gradient of a coral sunset, I beg them to take me too.
The leaves mold themselves into the shape of a seagull that flies westward, toward the ocean. We go to the beach and mist fills our lungs. Our friends warn us that the salt in the air makes them gag. But today, each inhale is deeper than the last. We are hungry for the smell of salt, the smell of something new. Our hands latch together as we wade into the water. Waist deep, our mothers yell, is too far. Back on the shore, we burrow neck deep into sand. I tell her about a dream I had, where a flying leaf carried me to Vegas but all of the desert’s cacti were garlic breadsticks. I tried tasting one in the dream, but they were disappointingly over-salted. She tells me that she only sees darkness in the space behind her eyelids. She wants to know if I ever dream of her.
I dream the echo of my mind trying to salvage a memory. I stand on a rock, in a hollowed out cave. Waves beat around me in the dark, but I don’t jump. I’m afraid the rocks will scratch at my shins. I look down and her outstretched arms are reaching. Here, the fog is dense enough that my eyes feel out of focus, but the image on my camera is clear enough that maybe the fog is only ghosts. When I stare enough, I think I see her.
Of course she’s been in my dreams.
At the top of the magnolia tree, I peer down at her easy smile, ready to give her a hand to hold to pull her to the top. We have a picnic at the top of the magnolia tree with all of our favorite foods — chocolate brownies, homemade waffles, and cheese-filled ravioli.
When I’m fifteen, I start to dread the slow purgatory of having my eyes closed and waiting for a dream. In these minutes, my mind begins to pedal its way through a spiral of thoughts. I have recently realized life runs on a stopwatch, but I am wasting these minutes between reality and dreams. I stay up later and later, messaging her. I just want to stay awake long enough so that I fall asleep the instant my head touches the faded pillow. In the morning, my eyes are dry and scratchy red. When I see her and she asks me if I’m okay, I tell her about my dream instead.
I am running in deep brown hills, where the heat is warmer with every step and the heat hugs me. It grips me, whispers that I should stop and rest. Instead I run faster, the heat chasing me. In the distance I see a mountain in the air and I sprint through its mist, falling onto a mound of moss.
Finally out of the green suburbs, nineteen years old becomes city wanderings and drowsy nights spent listening to Frank Sinatra. It is inked lyrics, unmade beds, and careless whispers at 2 a.m. I call her, but each call is a tug back to a silent home. Dreams don’t travel the same way through screens as they do between the sandy pits we dug in the beach. The space behind my eyelids is a kaleidoscope of fractured orange light, a sickeningly hopeful precursor to the life throbbing in my veins.
In this dream now, I am filled with dark blue and my fingers trace the shape of stars as I speed-walk my way toward something. The world closes around me into a dark blue funnel as I slide along cloud and mist into the teal ocean. I know that the dark blue will never turn into warm gray and then a light blue. Here, I spend forever trying to keep my head above water.
I wake up lost, rolling toward the wall as I try to get out of bed. My laundry hamper is overflowing but I miss our beach, craving that salty air as the caffeine withdrawal headache kicks in. I am stranded, left staring at a cupboard of mugs with no coffee grounds left to fill them. I drive home, fighting dreams as I wonder why the light difference between solid and dashed yellow lines carries the heaviest of stakes. I press her doorbell as the sun rises, waiting for her “What now?” so I can tell her about my dream, in person, the right way. She doesn’t answer, so I climb the magnolia tree alone. I give in and look down at last when the sun has risen, searching for her arms outstretched and suddenly, I am reaching for a hand that’s not there.
Ilena Peng is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University.
Image by ViJakob