I’m in a desert. All above and around, bright stars crowd the night sky for space. The Milky Way spreads wide and from my micro, micro lens of me in this sea of sand and buried streams, the cloudy galaxy appears like a festive bow, wrapping the world in white, blue, purple, and dark red.
Before me, it’s flat. Behind me, it’s flat. To either side, there’s nothing but dark mileage and offsets of obsidian, a mountain range perhaps? There are no plants in this flat valley. No awkwardly armed cacti, no poodle dog bush, no cluster of thorns sheltering generations of thick skinned reptiles.
And there is no wind. The hair on my arms remain still, my sweat beads down my back with no release of heat or wind to force it cold. I feel nothing but absence; an absent desert, absent of sand strung on the wind, animals skuttering for food, lingering heat and incoming chill.
This is no normal desert. But an empty void, a legacy of nightmares.
And then a single, beige candle rises from the ground, grains of sand collect to make a perfect circle encompassing the base. The candle is tall, up to my chest, and it is particularly thin like the width of a human finger, delicate and wispy. I exhale over the candle and at the slightest pressure, a flame comes to life.
It vibrates and flickers, but there’s more. It shows me colors and watery images like cast from an antique projector screen. There were children, blonde and brunette girls doing cartwheels, fairy tales, a small boy with glasses and a cowlick in his hair. There were large wooden forts with a fireman poles, erected atop multicolored pebbles. My elementary school.
Then the image changed. There were colorful classrooms with pots of fake, plastic plants, world maps, copper smelling lockers, and paper folders—green for science, red for math. All these scenes were my adolescence. The angles exactly from my designated desk, from my small height, from little imperfect hands turning the locker code 4612.
My friend at the time shared this locker with me. Then we slowly stopped being friends and she stole my flower magnets.
Then I was driving. My hair was shorter and I knew more about dying. I was playing with my dogs in the front yard. I was eating on my high school’s soccer field with a circle of friends, all whom I haven’t seen in years, but I believe are all still alive. I was dating now. I was secretly getting drunk not because of the stolen, thumb’s amount of vodka from my parent’s liquor cabinets, but because I was only thirteen and it was a stolen amount of vodka from my parent’s liquor cabinets. I was in college, student watching in front of the main library. It was sunny out and each student swelled through the quad then dwindled, like waves. There were those who unnecessarily wore scrubs to appear important. There were the skateboarders who were always so stick skinny, riding away with one final image of a baggy shirt undulating in the wind. And there were the nondescripts: just walking dogs, just eating sub sandwiches on the red brick walls, and just watching others.
Through the flickering flame and the images of my life, dark eyes were watching me.
“It gets more boring after this,” she whispers. The speaker leans back from the flame and when illuminated… I only see myself. She’s styled my hair back in a long, thick braid. She wears no makeup, but puffs out her chest like she doesn’t have to. Both her shirt and pants are pitch black, flushing her into my dream’s background where night and desert have kissed.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I’m you.” She says with a duh attitude.
“Yes. The you right now, asleep in bed.”
“I’m the me right now, asleep in bed.”
She squints her eyes and nods in little, patient movements like she’s weighing the sense in what I’ve said. Her hands, clasped together, are wound tight.
“That’s true, yes. But there’s dreaming you right now, asleep in bed, and there’s dreaming me right now, whose come to walk you through your initiation.”
“Though you’re still me.” I say.
“Yes, smarter and prettier,” she beams, her smile half charming half terrifying in the candlelight.
“That still makes me—“
“Yes, yes the joke’s over! Jeez, you’re ruining it.”
She closes her eyes and breaths, then starts again.
“Look, I’m here to walk you through your candle. This thing, right between us.” She cups her hands around the flame like one would around a magical rose. The moving images are replaying now “Everything we’ve done up to this point is here, burning away at a slow, consistent pace until we burn our way here.” She moves down the candle’s height until she’s crouched on her knees, her fingers hovering over the thin circle of sand.
“When we die?”
“And do you know… uhm, like, what happens to us?”
“Do you know?” She asks this accusatorially, like if I somehow know, I’m going to be punished. We must have died horribly and unnatural.
A plane crash. A bloody shark incident. Alone.
I shake my head, as nervous as a mouse before a striking snake. I don’t know! I don’t know anything! She huffs loudly, putting her chest into it, and if my precariously thin candle weren’t between our bodies, I’m sure she would’ve shoved me.
“If you don’t know how we die, then I don’t know how we die. Get with the program, dummy.” She’s got her hands on her hips, but not raised like she’s going to knock me out. Every breath in my crowded lungs bursts forward. My flame oppressively topples under my sigh, but remains unextinguished.
“Listen, I’m on your side. This is your life—our life. Literally, it’s a wax stripper pole burning away! What more do you need to fear our fleeting existence? Should I conjure a hundred snakes to start chasing you, knock out all your teeth which you’ll be convinced are really missing? This is a big deal.”
“Okay, well what do you want from me?”
“Your initiation. Your dramatic, psychological entrance into life. You’re almost thirty now. You hate your job. You hate your coworkers. You hate—“
“My job’s fine!”
“Don’t lie to me.” She crosses her arms. “You need to start asking yourself, is our flame, our life, worth this candle? Is the you in the burn, in this tiny little light, is it enough for you?” She watches me, but whatever answer she expects to get goes dead in the silence.
She swings her arms out to the valley and coarse sand cuts across my cheeks. In a blink, the whole setting fills with more beige candles. Some are as tall as skyscrapers. Some have burning flames like exploding buildings and driftwood pyres on the beach. Some are incredibly tiny and wrinkled, sloping over like they had the agenda, the potential, to grow the heights of prickly pears but fell short and sideways to the wind. Some are fat, like massive, wealthy gobs of wax.
Why is ours so skinny? I think to myself.
Again, her voice cuts through the space, more harsh than I’ve ever spoken.
“What have we done that would make our candles fat?” She asks.
I look away, no sarcastic quip ready on my lips. That’s when I noticed around every other candle, stood shadow like figures. All were in pairs of two.
I look to my pair. She was right. I was almost thirty with no lifelong friends, no kids or pets to spoil, and I worked as a technical writer writing maintenance instructions for Japanese bidets. I don’t send angry emails to my local officials. I’ve never saved a life or jumped off or out of anything. I have to YouTube how to do my taxes. Every season. I’ve never been in real pain. I’ve never truly experienced loss.
Instead, I help people install machines that help clean their butts.
“Stop, I said don’t panic, remember? I can feel your downward spiral,” the mirror image of me whispers like the tumble of storms over dunes.
She seems taller. Her dark hair and skin radiates from our flame’s light. In fact, the billions of flames in the entire desert seem to lean in to her voice. She steps around our thin candle.
“I brought you here tonight to show you the length of our current path. Our candle is tall, but it’s thin and shallow. I know you want more because I want more. I am your tension and I’m tired of stalling. So do something about it.”
She hooks her nails into my shoulders and for what I thought was the pretenses of an embrace, she pushes me away, so hard I stumble backwards. My feet trip over complacency and I’m flying helplessly backwards and down. My trembling body is horizontal. My hair whips my face and my ears pop. My stomach is simultaneously dropping out of my feet and flying up and out my throat. I am a lead weight, sinking down a black abyss. The other me watches from above.
She waves as I plummet to my death.
It was a slow, painful day in the office. I watch the clock on my screen monitor, my chin resting in my hands. Someone’s running the office sink, behind me. The sinking, stomach-overcrowding-my-throat feeling from this morning rips up my spine and I shudder.
Breathe, dummy. Breathe, or you’re going to throw up. Breathe, or—a high-pitched whine shoots down the hall. I tense, afraid of that wild woman from my dreams, but I relax. It's just one of the guys coming from the men’s bathroom. We only have three men in the office: Matt, Darius, and Ernie.
The rolling chair beside me barrels into the trash bin and paper napkins and plasticware explode across the stained carpet.
“Emily, heyyyyyy.” An unfamiliar looking woman is righting her balance with one hand and stabilizing a large binder in the other. She seems a bit breathless, but nonetheless delighted to have caught up to me. I look around the office, a glorified glass habitat for snails and blush painted rocks.
“You’ll never guess what I’m about to ask you,” she bounces in the chair, emphasizing its squeakiness.
“You’re right. What is it?”
The woman easily slides past my remark and pushes my keyboard aside with her giant three-ring binder. She flips to a purple colored tab and wraps her knuckles on the desk. The rapid staccato of her bones tilt my head sideways. Her shiny binder pages display a plethora of office chairs, all the same build, shape, and color.
“We had extra money in the budget, so I’m voting to get the whole office new chairs! Isn’t that exciting?” She asks. Five seconds go by and I still haven't transported a word from my brain to my lips. She carries on, waving a hand. “Rank them all by your preferences and I’ll put your numbers with the others. I’ll compile the top ten in a list and we’ll vote on those.” The woman runs her hand over the laminated pages, smiling like they are the pictures of all her children’s firsts.
“Wow, there must be over a hundred…” I dip my head and my thoughts scurry away.
“Yes, but it’s important, don’t you agree?”
I want to grind out an enthusiastic, “of course!”
I want to push her into the trash she knocked all over the floor and yell, “of course freaking not!”
But I look at her, clench my teeth and nod semi-enthusiastically. She rescues her binder. Her auburn brows have sunk low, skeptical, and she’s turned the rolling chair an inch to the right, half facing me, half to the next person, any person, who may be more appropriately ecstatic over chestnut or burnt umber? Almond or desert sand? Sepia brown or… beaver brown?
“Well Emily, I definitely thought you’d be on team whoo-hoo.”
I hold back a sigh.
“I’m sorry, I know. It’s just, I had a really weird dream last night.”
The woman widens her eyes and closes the binder.
“Do tell,” she whispers. Apparently, we’ve left the bidet headquarters and have escaped to a corner booth for brunch. We’re gossiping about who flirted with who. David with Darius? Jennifer with Ernie whose got arthritis and hemmorhoids?
The woman clears her throat and sniffs.
“Sorry, forget I asked, that’s personal.”
“No, it’s fine—“
“Okay, so what was it? A spicy dream?”
“A what? No, I honestly don’t remember, but I think I was in the dream, like not as myself, but more like as another me. She was bossy and I think she killed me.”
The woman nods deeply. “You know, I have dreams like that too.”
“Really?” I ask, my raised voice catching the attention of my coworkers from bidet catalogues and improving our bidet brand. Was this woman one of the shadows, was she with herself around her own candle?
The woman releases a sigh. “Oh yeah, all the time, but with my mother in law. She’s always yammering at me. Am I treating her daughter right, am I getting her the soup with the grass-fed chicken, do I have a secret savings account?”
“And yes, to all of those!” The woman cackles.
“That sounds awful, really! But… I think my dream was a little different. Less scary, but still incredibly off-putting. I’ve been thinking about it all morning, trying to remember.”
I look through the woman and awkward silence sets in. Her shoulder’s sag and she appears less motivated to chat.
“Well I’m going to leave this with youuu,” she slides her bible-sized binder towards me, “the chairs are behind the magenta but before the sangria. I’ll need your rankings by 4 P.M, you know where to find me.”
But I didn’t and it was already 3:30. I follow her instructions, behind the purple, but before the purple, and suddenly the chairs blur together. I don’t care about these and their… twenty five ergonomic settings? Is this a chair for an office or for NASA?
There must be hundreds of photos, colors, settings, and features. How am I supposed to rank all of these? And what a waste of my time. Don’t we all have better things to do?
I look around. Back where I started before what’s-her-name. Here in this rectangular office, we were devoting our lives to bidets with the soundtrack of squeaky bathroom doors and coffee machines.
Was my candle worth all of this?
I can’t say what made me use the word candle, why that particular object, but it felt right for the question and the question was all the same. Everyone around me, all thirty somethings either pretending to work or standing by the office printer pretending to wait, they seemed… content. Happy with their bidet life and happy in their bidet life. And here I was, vulnerable and naked as the galaxy was about to fall on me. These people brought chips and plasticware to PTA meetings. They chat about new light fixtures for their homes and discounted vacuums. They look like me and I look like them.
Little office chairs spin around my temples, showcasing their ergonomic designs. The office feels suddenly hot. Everything is moving too fast. My palms were clammy and beads of sweat slid down my back with nowhere to go.
Nowhere to go.
I’ve got to get out of here.
This is my worst nightmare.