"Meredith! We're waiting!"
"I'm coming!" Meredith called, throwing one more pair of underwear into her purple backpack. She raced out of her room, down the stairs and shot through the front door. She ran through her front lawn, crashing through a cloud of brightly colored butterflies. One flew into her mouth. Meredith's tongue tasted cotton candy and wingtips before she spat the insect back out into the cool morning air. It raced away, back to the horde of butterflies from which it had came. Meredith never broke stride.
It seemed like forever, but finally she reached the blue-and-white Volkswagen bug parked on the side of the street. Meredith's mother's head stuck out a window, her black hair disheveled and framing her face. "Meredith! Come on!"
"I'm here, I'm here," Meredith gasped, slightly out of breath. She flung open the car door and launched herself into a seat. Her brother, Michael, was already in a seat, his green backpack on his lap. His legs were bouncing up and down, as if he was ready to run at a moment's notice.
"Full of energy?" Meredith asked him, smiling.
"I'm just ready to go!" he replied, a grin stretching across his face. His backpack bounced along with his knees, and Meredith could see clothes ripple and jolt inside of it.
Her mother turned the key in the ignition and stomped on the gas. Meredith could see her smile, braces gleaming, in the rear view mirror. Her mother was the only adult Meredith knew that had braces. But they didn't make her mom look silly, or childish, or anything like that. If anything, they made her mom's smile just a little bit brighter.
The car shot forward like a rocket, pushing Meredith and Michael back into their seats. Michael howled with all the delight of a child, and Meredith found herself grinning like a maniac. The world shot past them in a blur, reds and greens and blues all streaking by outside the car's windows. Meredith wasn't worried they would run into something. Her mom used to be a race car driver back in her twenties. This was nothing new.
"Ready to go to Fantasia?" her mother yelled, turning the car wheel. The vehicle jerked to the left, smashing Michael up against Meredith and Meredith up against the car window. It didn't hurt, but Meredith screamed in surprise, thrilled. The car spun to the right, then the left, then the right, then the left. Meredith and Michael were pressed up against each other and flung from side to side, but they just laughed, not able to contain their glee. Meredith hugged Michael, and he hugged her back, smiling, just before their mom made another sharp turn and they were both flung to the right, howling like wolves at the moon.
The world outside the windows was nothing but a kaleidoscope, an endless mix of color and light, and even when it seemed they couldn't move any faster, they did, and the world outside became imperceptible. Meredith stared out the window in wonder. She couldn't even see the road anymore.
And all of a sudden the car was flying, the solid asphalt road turned to clouds, the flying mixture of light and color turned to blue, blue sky, as far as the eye could see. Michael stopped laughing long enough to take a look out the window, and gasped in delight. Meredith's mother's smile in the rear view mirror became even wider, her braces sparkling like a sunlit lake.
Meredith was transfixed by the world around her. The clouds were the whitest she had ever seen. They were happy and free and beautiful, and Meredith found herself beaming at them. If she looked close enough, she almost though she could see the clouds smiling back.
And in the distance, perched on a cloud the size of a country was a castle, its spires high and gleaming, with fairytale flags on their ends, flapping in the wind. It was like the land on top of Jack's beanstalk, but without the ogre, without the danger, with only peace and enough happiness for a lifetime.
"Are you ready?" Michael asked from behind her.
Meredith nodded. "Of course I am," she breathed, turning to face her brother.
The car sped at rocket speed towards to castle, a thousand stories high, shining in the unobstructed sun. Meredith clasped her brother's hand and stared at what was to come: the beautiful world of Fantasia.
But then the car stuttered, faltered. It stopped in the air for a second, throwing Meredith and Michael forward in their seats. In the rear view mirror, Meredith could see her mother just slightly frown.
"Mom, what was that?" Meredith asked nervously.
"Don't worry about it," her mother said, pumping the gas again. The car once again proceeded forward. "We'll get there."
They coasted through the air, the sun's light fracturing as it glided through the car windows. Meredith felt her heart slow back to its normal rate. She looked out upon the castle; somehow, it seemed even brighter and more beautiful than before. And it was approaching so quickly--
But then the car jolted again, stuttering. The entire vehicle rocked from side to side. Meredith screamed as she fell out of her seat and onto the car floor. A few seconds later, Michael landed next to her.
"Don't worry, I've got it!" Her mother's voice cut through the air, the first hints of worry leaking through her mask of calm. Meredith couldn't see her. She couldn't see much of anything. She could only feel the car rocking and the rapid beating of her heart.
The car uttered a groan, so similar to a dying animal that Meredith's heart twisted when she first heard it. The car stopped rocking so violently. Ever so slightly, Meredith relaxed.
And then the car began to fall.
Meredith's heart leaped up into her throat. Michael was screaming and her mother was barking commands and the car was howling like a newborn baby, and Meredith was screaming too. She could barely hear her mother's voice, but over the screams she could make out the words "Jump!" and "...calm!"
The world raced past them in a blur outside of their window. Clouds, blue sky, the sun, birds--all meshed together into a light gray sheen outside the car window, speeding by at a thousand miles per hour. Meredith shakily climbed to her feet, nearly falling as the car pitched to her side. She hauled herself up to the window and glanced out. The ground was nowhere in sight. How far up are we--
A click and a bang caught Meredith's attention. Her eyes shot to the front car door. It was open, and her mother was on the edge of the opening, her toes extended into the air.
"Mom!" Meredith cried. "What are you doing?!"
Her mother looked Meredith straight in the eyes. There was fear there, but there was also a savage determination, like an animal cornered by lions at a cliff's edge: scared, but utterly determined to survive.
"You have to jump!" her mother cried. Slowly, as Meredith watched with wide, horrified eyes, she let go of the doorway.
"MOM!" Meredith screamed.
Her mother fell forward, into the oblivion of rapidly moving clouds and sky. One moment, she was there. The next, gone.
Meredith screamed. The sound seemed to echo through the car. She whirled around to Michael, to see his reaction, his face--but Michael wasn't there. An open car door was in his place.
Meredith turned around, screaming, screaming for help. The only sound she heard was the wind whistling through the open doors, howling like an animal. Or maybe the one howling was Meredith. She didn't know. She was lost in an abyss of tears and clouds and screams and sky.
She rushed over to the window, almost losing her footing as the car tilted. She looked through the window. The clouds were rushing up to meet her, but they were growing thinner, and behind them Meredith could see the green of the earth, of fields, of grass--the green of death.
Meredith staggered back, clutching onto a car seat for support. This is how it ends, she thought. This is how it ends. This is how it ends. This is how it ends.
And then, suddenly, the car was full of butterflies. Brightly colored butterflies, almost iridescent, seemingly unaffected by the car's free-fall. One of them landed on Meredith's nose. Another landed in Meredith's raven hair. They swarmed her until Meredith felt nothing else but hundreds upon hundreds of insect legs and wings on skin. The air still whistled behind her, the car doors flapped open and closed, the car still fell. But Meredith didn't feel like she was falling. She closed her eyes and felt legs scamper upon her eyelids.
She couldn't feel the car anymore. She could only hear and feel the air around her, whistling as it swirled and coursed down, down, down, as the world became closer and closer.
Air twisted through her fingertips. It was cool and fresh and unlike the stale air that had inhabited the car. Meredith couldn't feel anything besides the butterflies. Where am I?
She struggled to open her eyes. The butterflies clamped down harder, weighing her eyelids down, biting into her skin. Meredith tried again, managing to move her eyelids open a few millimeters before they were forced shut again. Meredith squeezed her hands into fists. Stop--
A bolt of electricity shot through Meredith. She gasped, snapping her eyes all the way open, ignoring the legs she felt crack behind her eyelids. She was no longer in her car. The car was nowhere in sight. She was suspended among the white clouds of the heavens.
Meredith looked below her, and her stomach dropped. She could see the ground all too clearly--houses and backyards and the school building, all so far, yes, but also much too close.
Then Meredith looked up, pushing her eyelids back against the onslaught of insects covering her body.
Her brother and her mother were above her in a cloud of brightly colored butterflies, slowly rising into the sky.
"Meredith!" her brother screamed again.
Meredith wanted to weep. "I'm coming, I'm coming!" she cried, flapping her arms. She felt the butterflies adjusting around her, trying to find the best footing.
They were ascending higher and higher. Michael's features were becoming blurrier with every passing second. Her mother's open mouth, braces flashing, became smaller and smaller. "Meredith! Come on!" she cried.
"I'm coming, Mom!" But Meredith wasn't moving. Tears welled in her eyes and finally gushed out onto her cheeks. She could feel small butterfly proboscises caress her skin, trying to lap up the salty liquid. Meredith flapped her arms more, shaking a few butterflies off in the process. She stayed put, while her mother and her brother kept rising. They will make it to Fantasia, Meredith realized, a small bud of hope blossoming.
But I won't, Meredith thought. In an instant, her single hope was crushed flat. I'll be stuck here, wasting away.
"Take me with you!" she screamed, twisting and turning against the butterflies on her skin. "Take me with you!"
Her mother and her brother just watched.
"NO!" Meredith roared. She thrashed against the stifling hold of the butterflies, slapping every inch of open skin, feeling wings and legs and bodies turn to dust under her palms. The butterflies tried to evade her, fluttering away from her arms, but Meredith lashed out, catching them in midair. She crushed them in her fist, then turned to swat more. She needed to be free. She needed to join her family.
"I'm coming, I swear!" she screamed, her voice starting to shred itself--
Suddenly, she was free. The last remaining butterflies, as one organism, left her body and flew skywards, toward the clouds and light.
And Meredith, without the butterflies, began to fall.
She opened her mouth to scream, to cry out, but her voice was rubbed raw. She could only manage to reach a hand toward her family, her brother, her mother, as she fell through clouds and towards land and away from hope. Between wispy clouds, she could barely make out her mother's and Michael's faces. Their eyes were wide, and their mouths were open, but Meredith couldn't hear what they were saying. She was in free fall, her heart was a jackhammer, and nothing could catch her, nothing, nothing, she was going to die, she was going to die--
Meredith's eyes snapped open and she shot up in her bed, her heart still pounding. Her skin was clammy and cold, as if she had raced through a dozen frigid, misty clouds. Her rapid, heavy breathing filled the otherwise quiet room.
It was a dream. It was all a dream, Meredith thought, trying to reassure herself. But she didn't relax her posture. It had all felt so real. These days, her dreams felt more real than reality. As if her unconscious brain was still living in the past, and dragging her down with it.
Meredith put a hand to her forehead. Details of the dream were already slipping away, but she could still recall how she had felt. Tears, screams, panic, despair. Meredith tried to hum, to say a simple, quiet word, and found that her throat felt raw. Did I actually scream? she thought.
She looked around. All the other girls around her were still asleep. They were all just like her: alone, without a home, doomed to spend their childhood in an orphanage rather than playing board games with their family, or laughing with their parents over dinner, or getting a kiss on the forehead at night, when it was time to go to sleep. Meredith had had all of those experiences and more, tucked away in a small corner of her brain, memories she wished not to revisit. She didn't want to be reminded of Michael's mischievous eyes, or her mom's charming, joyful metal smile, or the times they had spent as a family. She didn't want to be reminded of the blue-and-white Volkswagen bug that had crumpled so easily against that other car, of her mother's worried shouts, of her family's lifeless eyes.
But it seemed, as it did every night, Meredith's unconscious mind had other plans.
She rubbed her eyes and her forehead. The details of the dream were gone, and the rest of it was fading fast. Why could she never remember them? Every night, the same process. A dream, an awakening, and then the forgetting. Perhaps if she tried, she could remember what happened. But Meredith wasn't sure she wanted to.
She sighed, then laid back down in her bed, raising the covers to her chin. She took one last look around the room, and allowed herself to wonder what exactly was going on in the other girls' dreams. If they had dreams at all.
Meredith snuggled into the covers and yawned, her heart beating once again at its normal tempo. Goodnight, world, she thought, closing her eyes, readying herself for another cycle of dreams. And hello, family.