1-3 Within the infinite dusk there was no heaven, no earth. Only the high, hollow sound of each falling drop of water. Youko saw the thin, crimson glow in every direction, the writhing shadows, the strange beasts galloping towards her.
Less than two hundred yards separated them. Their sheer size collapsed the distance further. There was a monkey amongst the menagerie, its mouth agape in silent, raucous laughter, its fur glistening in the red light. It was so close that with each leap and bound she could see the flex and draw of sinew and muscle.
She stood rooted, dumb and immobile. As much as she tried to avert her gaze, she could only watch the cavorting menagerie. The smell of death was thick on the wind and it choked her.
I must wake up.
She had to rouse herself from the dream before they reached her. Even as she repeated the mantra to herself, she couldn’t think of anyway to do so. If will alone was enough, she would have done it already.
While she stood there helplessly the distance between them was halved again.
I must wake up.
A frantic desperation possessed her. The panic coursed through her body and crawled along her skin. She gulped for air. Her heart pounded. Her blood thundered in her ears.
What happens if I can’t escape?
In that same moment she felt a presence above her head. A crushing bloodlust engulfed her. And yet, for the first time in the dream she found that she could move. She looked up at tawny wings, limbs of the same color. Scaly feet tipped with razor-sharp claws. She didn’t have time to contemplate escape. An ocean roar filled her body.
She fled. She did not think about how to escape. Her body simply fulfilled the desire. She bolted and ran. Only afterwards did she stop to take in the landscape around her.
And the startled look on her teacher’s face, the wide eyes of her classmates.
She was standing several steps back from her desk. It was the middle of English class. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, then reddened with embarrassment.
A beat, and a gale of laughter swept the room.
She’d fallen asleep. The dreams were turning her into an insomniac. She often found herself nodding off at school. But the nightmares had never visited her before in the daytime.
Her teacher strode towards her. Youko anxiously bit her lip. She usually had no problems ingratiating herself with her teachers, but for some reason this one resisted. No matter how accommodating and subservient Youko tried to be, her English teacher remained stubbornly antagonistic towards her.
The teacher tapped on the desktop with the corner of the textbook. “I accept that a student may try to steal a few winks in one of my classes now and then, but this is a first, Miss Nakajima. Will you bring a pillow to school next time? I’d hate to think that our uncomfortable desks might cause you any distress.”
Youko bowed her head and returned to her desk.
“Of course, one has to wonder what you think school is for? Silly me, believing that students should do their sleeping at home. Then again, if you find your classes so tiresome, there’s no need for you to show up at all, is there?”
“I . . . I’m sorry.”
“Or are you perhaps too busy at night to get any sleep at all? Is that it?”
The remark produced an eruption of laughter, some of it from her friends. Youko even heard a restrained giggle from Sugimoto.
The teacher casually picked at Youko’s braids. “Your hair, it’s naturally this color?”
“Really? A friend of mine in high school, she was a redhead, too. More so than yours, even. You remind me of her.” She smiled to herself. “During her senior year, she ended up in juvenile court and had to drop out. Whatever became of her? Ah, it was such a long time ago . . . ”
Stifled laughter rippled around the room.
“So, are we ready to starting paying attention, Miss Nakajima?”
“In any case, you’d better stand there for the rest of the class, to help you stay awake.” She sniffed to herself, quite amused at her half of the exchange, and paced back to the front of the room.
Youko stood by her desk for the remainder of the hour. The muffled laughter didn’t completely die down.
Her performance in English class was duly reported. That afternoon she was called down to the office for a grilling about her personal life.
The vice-principal was a middle-aged man with a perpetually furrowed brow. He said, “In fact, a number of teachers believe you might be engaging in some, ahem, extracurricular activities. Can you think of anything in that regard that might be relevant to your recent behavior?”
“No.” It was neither the time nor the place to start explaining about her dreams.
“So you’re staying up late, say, watching television?”
“No, I . . . ” Youko grasped for a good excuse. “I . . . my midterm exam scores, they weren’t so good.”
The vice-principle bit down on the bait. “Ah, yes, indeed. True, your grades have slipped recently.”
“You of course understand that burning the midnight oil will only prove counterproductive if you can’t pay attention in class.”
“No, no, no, I’m not looking for apologies. Unfortunately, Miss Nakajima, people jump to the wrong conclusions about the most innocent things. They see the color of your hair, and, well, you know . . . ”
“I was thinking of getting it cut today.”
“Oh?” He nodded in agreement. “It is harsh, I know. But as disagreeable as the rules might appear at times, we’re only acting in your best interests.”
He shook her hand. “Well, that’s all. You can leave.”
Youko replied with a perfunctory bow. “Excuse me,” she said.
Behind her a man raised his voice.