Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

Her Dream Man

by Jessica Wang

Author Bio

Jessica Wang recently completed her sophomore year at Henry M. Gunn High School. A resident of Palo Alto, she fell in love with writing at a young age and has been spinning stories ever since. At Gunn, she proudly writes and serves as a Forum Section Editor for the student newspaper The Oracle. She also founded and currently leads the American Sign Language club. Outside of writing, she enjoys reading, exploring music, running, and folding tiny paper cranes.

Inspiration

The dream man came to me in those delicate moments before sleep, when time seems to stretch. Much like his fantastical world, he was surreal, mysterious and very much alive. I began to conjure adventures and explore the reaches of his lush land, creating storylines for our little protagonist. However, a key question that remained was the dream man's identity and what he meant to the story. This fell into place in a flash of inspiration. Seen through the eyes of an innocent, "Her Dream Man" is reality interwoven with imagination.

In the space between reality and dreaming, the little girl flew to a place beyond Earth. It was always the same place. She would close her eyes and soar past the stars to another bed with a pillow of clouds and a blanket soft as lamb's ears. The hubbub of life would vanish, leaving behind only the chuckle of water. That would be the Tumbling Falls, she thought with a secret smile, flowing past the mouth of the cave; and now, she could feel the fresh air stir her hair.

He was there immediately. The little girl called him her dream man. Not quite opaque yet still present, he existed as a phantom of a person, a blurry semblance with kind features. Once, she had asked him if he was the Sandman. He had only regarded her with amusement.

"Just tell me who you are," she had begged. No matter how hard she tried, she would forget his face, his stature, and the sound of his voice the moment she awoke. Like a dream, it all evaporated in an instant, and she was left grasping at...nothing. If the world was a mystery, then the dream man was its greatest enigma.

She had a dreadful fear that she would forget him altogether. That would be the most terrible deed of all.

Each morning, while she cleared the drowsiness from her head, he would prepare her custom breakfast order: Cheerios and corn flakes and all sorts of crazy mixtures of cereal, delivered just as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. They would share breakfast side by side at the cave's edge, watching the morning light play through the flowing liquid of the waterfall. In those moments, they were the only two beings awake in the whole wide world.

Her favorite part was when the land awoke. As the horizon blushed to greet the sun, she would part the curtain of water to reveal the world below.

It was an exotic realm, a vast swath of land covered in verdant forest, strawberry flowers, and climbing vines. As if on cue, the creatures of the land would raise their heads from slumber, uttering a symphony of purrs, chirps, croaks, and song.

But although it was her heaven, the little girl could never stay for long. It was a transient train stop on the way to dreaming; it was her perfectly untouchable utopia, or so she believed.

 

One morning, the land beyond the mountain range bordering her magical forest caught her eye. It had been perfectly sunny before, yet now it lay alarmingly lifeless.

She gasped and grabbed the dream man's arm, pointing.

"There, do you see it?" she cried. "That dying region! That— that sickness on the land!"

"I see it," he said reassuringly. "Don't worry."

"But we have to fix it! What if it spreads?"

"There's nothing we can do," he insisted.

"There must be," the little girl declared.

Guided by intuition, she dove into the Tumbling Falls, racing fearlessly toward the expansive pool below. Its waters enveloped her like the warmest embrace. Under the glassy surface, iridescent crystals lined its sides, scattering rainbows in the water.

Every determined stroke propelled her deeper. At once, she spied a brightly-lit crevice harboring the most precious gems, but her eyes were drawn to only one. Nestled among the rest, radiant as ever, lay the Heartstone, the core of her wondrous land. It came loose at her touch, and she hugged it to her chest as the swirling current carried her back to the surface.

The dream man was waiting for her at the side of the pool.

"We will heal the poisoned land," she announced.

As her feet touched the grass, flowers unfurled all around and angled their faces upwards in curiosity. As one, they swayed their approval, releasing the comforting scent of rosemary and cedar. She paused to breathe in wonder, the Heartstone cradled in her arms.

"Let's go," she said finally.

Hand in hand, the little girl and her dream man left the cave and the Tumbling Falls behind.

 

The new region they entered was bizarre yet not unfamiliar.

"It's Scribble Forest!" she exclaimed.

Up close, the trees were made of thick, scrawling scribbles. A few stood out with neat, expert shading like real trees, but the rainbow and lopsided trees far outnumbered them. On the ground, masses of tangled curls formed bushes, and the flowers were sprightly splots in varying shapes: hearts, dots, stars. The little girl recognized it proudly as her remarkable handiwork.

"Where are we going?" asked the dream man as they set along a wiggly hand-drawn path.

"The right way, I'm certain," the little girl said adamantly.

It wasn't long before she became dizzy from following all of the nonsensical loops and zigzags. At some point, the dream man scooped her into his arms, continuing with loping strides.

Resting against his shoulder, the little girl gazed at the teddy bear-shaped constellations shining in the velvet sky. If only she could stretch time in her ephemeral fantasy. She and her dream man could spend forever traipsing through every corner of the land.

"Wait," the little girl said, feeling dreams beckon. "When I return, I'll be here, right? We won't have to start over?"

"Of course," he promised.

As she let herself drift away, she heard him murmur gently, Goodnight.

 

She awoke in a cubbyhole surrounded by blankets and books. Across the treehouse, the dream man was cooking her favorite breakfast: corn pancakes. She inhaled blissfully; he had made them with just enough charred to balance the sweetness.

"I must be really special to you, if you wait day and night for me to arrive," the little girl said with a yawn.

He responded with a mischievous smile and a plate full of mouth-watering pancakes. As they feasted and watched golden birds majestically take flight for their morning concert, the little girl felt a blossoming, overwhelming sense of...contentment.

She descended from the treehouse wistfully but set a determined pace. To her astonishment, they soon reached the mountains. From the cave, the peaks had appeared life-sized and far away, but she had misjudged. In fact, they were only about twice her height.

"How will we climb these?" she wondered aloud.

"We don't have to," the dream man replied, flashing the knowing smile of an architect.

At his touch, a seam appeared in the miniature mountain, wrinkling and breaking the illusion. A hunch forming, the little girl bounded through the gap. The dream man followed, letting the flap fall.

Inside, the mountains transformed into a marvelous hideout: a series of tents made of textured blankets, poles holding up each peak. It was incredibly simple. To the little girl's delight, the dream man produced two flashlights with a fond smile.

A trail lined with luminescent mushrooms led into the darkness. As they walked, she began to notice holes in the tent. They gaped larger and larger, betraying the secretive interior of the mountains. Blinding light streamed in, piercing her eyes.

"It's the sickness!" she realized in horror. "It's eating at the mountains!"

Silence echoed her response. She whirled around. The dream man was progressing slowly after her, bent double. With an exclamation of worry, she ran to support him.

"It's hurting you!"

"It's alright," he said wearily. "I'm just a little tired, that's all."

At the end of the path, the ragged tents fell away to reveal a grim landscape. Sickly flowers clumped around barren, wilted trees; the sky was drained of color. A chaotic river blocked their passage to the damaged land, accompanied by a crooked sign reading: "River of Regret."

"I'll go first," the dream man said. Without hesitating, he swam across the murky river.

On the other side, he reached out to her. The sickness crept up his heels. "See, it's not that bad! You can do it!"

She ventured tentatively into the water. The flow churned, intensifying.

She shrieked as it pulled her under.

Water stung her eyes as the current swept her away. She couldn't find the surface; the current bullied her from all sides. Fighting a growing panic, she kicked away, but she had a sinking sensation that she was only swimming deeper.

Around her, the water darkened like ink.

In front of her loomed a face etched with grief. We don't know how long... She shook her head, closed her eyes, covered her ears. Someone tried to embrace her; she fought free, a rising emotion burning in her chest. We have to stick together. She saw a hand with a phone receiver; on the other side, someone waited. She turned away stubbornly. It's your fault. You're the one pulling away. The water weighed her down...

Then she felt someone carrying her, murmuring Goodnight. The Heartstone! It was slipping from her fingers; she tightened her grasp, and it carried her skyward like a buoy. She shot out of the water, gasping, and knew what she had to do.

In a swift motion, she plunged the Heartstone into the infected land. It pulsed, its light fading as the earth swallowed it. Then, a crystalline sprout shot out, rapidly climbing. It thickened into a trunk, sending out branches and leaves. Its roots delved down to where the sickness lurked, extracting the wicked poison.

All around, the faded flowers straightened and bloomed. The trees grew buds; the sky regained its blue. The Heartstone kept drinking until every last drop of sickness was gone, even as its poisoned leaves stretched desperately towards the sun. At last, it stopped, hardening into a statue of obsidian surrounded by a field of green.

For a moment, it held. The little girl didn't stop believing.

The slightest tremor shook its trunk, and cracks started to web out from its base.

"No!" the little girl wept as the rumble crescendoed into thunder. Between one breath and the next, the tree shattered.

Shards flew out in all directions, and suddenly the dream man was there. He encircled her in his arms, forming a protective shelter as the world shuddered and shook around them.

"Close your eyes," he cried. "Don't look!"

But in spite of his efforts, the destruction was everywhere. In the broken pieces, she saw.

She saw a little girl, curled up at the bedside of her papa.

He was connected by tubes to beeping machines.

She saw the mother, who stopped sleeping, who woke at dawn to wander the halls with an absent frown. She saw the sister, who kept inventing new elixirs, because there was never a problem that she couldn't solve by thinking hard enough. And then there was a little girl, angry and upset, refusing to believe that her papa would abandon her.

She stood in the corner, alone and afraid, forgotten in the commotion. She saw her aunts and uncles swarming the bed, blocking her view, speaking cold, unfamiliar terms. She clutched papers in her hands, covered in scribbled trees.

She clutched memories to her heart, willing herself not to let them go.

She saw him designing elaborate hideouts just for her. She saw him making corn pancakes on the morning of her birthday, letting her curl up under his desk while he worked, carrying her when her legs gave way. She saw him preparing her custom breakfast each morning.

His face was gaunt; his skin like paper wrinkled under her fingers, but when she buried her head in his shoulder, she could detect the faint whiff of rosemary and cedar under the sterile hospital smell. She fell asleep with her little hand engulfed in his.

She saw her papa stroking her hair, saying It's alright. Daddy's just a little tired, that's all. She looked up, glossy eyes wide with uncertainty. Her mother smiled gently, telling her to stay strong. You are his sunshine.

She glimpsed this shattered reality in the fragments around her, glowing with a lucid hope.

The little girl sank to her knees.

"That's not true, is it?" she whispered. "You're here, aren't you?"

He enveloped her in his tender embrace, the scent of rosemary and cedar.

"I'm here," he said. "I'll always be."