“If we’re on some sort of Arctic expedition,” Elizabeth began, “why aren’t we cold?” She looked down at her dirty jeans and short-sleeved shirt.
“And why don’t we need lights in this god-forsaken cave?” Alyssa questioned.
“This isn’t real,” Lindsey replied.
“Yeah, right. We’re really on some beach in Mexico right now,” Elizabeth scoffed. She climbed up a steep slope, cursing as she bumped her knee on a protruding rock.
Alyssa sighed. “Mexico sounds nice. Sunlight, not this strange ambient light emanating from nowhere. Sand beneath our feet, not this gravel crap that keeps getting in my shoes.”
“Sorry about the gravel,” apologized Lindsey.
“It’s not your fault,” Elizabeth said. “If she wore boots like us instead of tennis shoes, she’d be gravel-free.”
“It is my fault. I’m the one making this all up.”
“You made up a temperate Arctic cave with mystical light that we’re stuck going through, one of us with inappropriate footwear?” Elizabeth made no attempt to mask her skepticism.
“Not on purpose! I’m dreaming.”
“You’re drunk, Lindsey,” Alyssa said. “What’s in your water bottle? Vodka? Gin?”
Lindsey looked around for her water bottle, determined to prove to Alyssa that she was completely sober. She wasn’t carrying one. In fact, none of them carried anything.
“Where’s our stuff?”
“Linds, we don’t have any stuff.”
“We should have stuff,” Lindsey protested. “We’re exploring a cave. Who does that without gear?”
“We do, apparently.” Alyssa shrugged, not bothered in the least.
“That’s stupid,” Lindsey said stubbornly.
Elizabeth looked at her impatiently. “This isn’t real,” she mocked. “I’m dreaming. That’s why none of this makes sense. What happened to that explanation, huh?”
“The other stuff is weird. I’d like to think that we didn’t become idiots when I fell asleep.”
“You’re not asleep; you’re delusional.”
“That, my dear Alyssa, is a beautiful explanation,” Elizabeth commended. “Now, can we find a way out of this place?”
Time passed but stood still as they forged ahead, rotating out who lead by some unspoken schedule. They came to a fork. Alyssa started toward the right.
“Left,” Lindsey called from the back.
“It’s my dream, and left seems like a good idea.”
“If we die,” Elizabeth grumbled, “it’s your fault for taking us to the left.”
“Have you seen anything so far that could kill you?” Lindsey inquired smugly.
“Well, let’s see,” Elizabeth pondered, “we could walk off a cliff, or be crushed by a cave-in, or die of hunger or thirst or exhaustion or hypothermia when the Arctic finds its way in here.”
“She wouldn’t let us die,” Alyssa chimed in, leading them down the left path.
“Don't tell me you’re starting to believe in this ‘it’s not real’ nonsense.”
“I’m just saying that explains the weird stuff better than anything you’ve come up with.”
Alyssa led them forward. No one complained about sore feet or tired legs, for they didn’t have those ailments. They reached what some might refer to as a small cavern. The girls, however, thought it more akin to a bubble than a stone room.
“Where do we go from here, wise-one?” Elizabeth said, staring at the dead end in front of them.
“I’m siding with Lizzie on this now. Either you’re a horrible person for leading us here or you really are just nuts.”
“We dig,” Lindsey said simply, pushing her way to the front.
“May I please have your imaginary shovel so that I can tunnel through this solid rock?”
“You don’t need an imaginary shovel.”
“She needs a real shovel!” Alyssa rebutted.
“Do you really think a shovel, of any kind, is going to help?” Lindsey asked. “Watch this.”
She made a swimming motion, and the rock followed the motion of her fingertips, opening up a passageway. Elizabeth and Alyssa stared at her. This was not possible. Maybe the weird light was some sort of hallucinogenic, luminescent fungus or something. Lindsey stopped abruptly at the sound of chink, chink, chink coming from the other side of the rock. All three girls backed up.
“Is this the part where we die?” Alyssa asked fearfully. Lindsey shrugged; Elizabeth nodded.
The tip of a pickaxe poked through, and the rock crumbled away, revealing a passage on the other side. Three boys stood there, looking proud of the opening they had made. Pete, Will, and Jimmy were the other half of the expedition. The two teams has started on opposite sides looking for, well, not really looking for anything. They’d just been dropped in the midst of this adventure.
The reunion was short-lived as the girls were anxious to follow the boys’ trail to the outside. They suggested the boys turn around since there was no actual endgame. The boys, however, were anxious to adventure on, following the path the girls had taken.
“It’s not easy,” Lindsey warned.
“Very confusing,” Alyssa added.
“I’d go as far as taxing,” Elizabeth tacked on.
But the boys paid no heed to their warnings. Shrugging, Lindsey led the girls out of their subterranean trek. With no shortage of irony, they emerged not in the freezing Arctic but in Mexico.
“It’s not exactly a beach,” Elizabeth grumbled, scuffing her toe in the reddish desert sand.
The sun was scorching, but the girls were untouched by its heat. They walked north, unconsciously committing to make it to San Francisco. The dusty desert slowly turned into a dirt road into a highway on-ramp.
They stopped to get their bearings with the awe of people who had been isolated for so long that civilization was overwhelming, though they had barely been gone from the real world at all. An almost ordinary man stopped to speak to them. He was dressed in the sort of way you’d expect to see someone in the supermarket, but oddly he was also wearing a top hat. Lindsey felt an uneasy tug in her gut and tried to shuffle her friends way from Mr. Top Hat. Outwardly he seemed harmless, even to Lindsey, if she wanted to be objective about it. She, however, did not feel like being objective.
“Where are you ladies headed? You look like you could use directions,” he said helpfully.
“San Francisco,” Alyssa replied openly.
“Ah, then you’ll want to take I-40 toward Oklahoma City.” He pointed to the right as he spoke. Elizabeth and Lindsey exchanged glances. Right was east, and both knew that they needed to head to the west coast.
Alyssa thanked the man, and her two companions kept up a façade of gratefulness until Mr. Top Hat had departed. They hurried off to the left and ducked into a convenience store. A convenience tent, rather. Strange posters that looked like shooting targets were tacked to the canvas walls. In the center was an ice chest full of drinks, twenty-five cents apiece. The girls were quite glad as they were scraping through pockets for change. For the first time since they had appeared in that warm, Arctic cave, they were all dreadfully thirsty.
Elizabeth chose a soda, and Alyssa chose a bottled smoothie drink. Lindsey grabbed a water bottle that shrunk to half size as she removed it from the cooler. The girls were a bit miffed at the deception.
At Lindsey’s insistence, they moved on. Despite her assertions that none of it was real, she was awfully determined to proceed. Something waited for them at the end, but she didn’t know what.
The girls walked and walked until the ground lurched under their feet. They were… on a train?Alyssa looked around warily.
“Now this is the life, ladies,” Lindsey said, sitting down and stretching her legs out.
“How did we get on this train?” Alyssa asked.
“We walked onto it.” Lindsey shrugged. She was not bothered in the least by the lack of continuity in their journey.
“We walked onto a train without walking to a train station or on a train platform or through a train door.” Elizabeth’s skepticism was back in full force. She was beginning to think that Lindsey wasn’t the only crazy one. She was living the crazy right along with her.
“Alright then,” Lindsey said, “you can step right back off this train and walk to San Fran.”
Elizabeth and Alyssa conferred in whispers, then took seats on either side of Lindsey. The train had no motion. There was no natural sway to the cars. If scenery hadn’t been flashing by the windows, they would have sworn they were stationary. Slowly Lindsey drifted off to sleep.
She awoke slumped over a desk. She sat up, looking around. Somewhat dazed, she recognized her classroom and classmates. How long had she been asleep? She shook her head to clear the cobwebs.
“Where’s Pete?” her favorite teacher, Mrs. Holder, asked her with a frown. Lindsey gave her a confused look. Pete sat three desks behind her. It was an assigned seat. And why was Mrs. Holder cross with her?
“He’s behind me,” Lindsey said, turning around. But Pete’s chair was empty. Lindsey shivered. It couldn’t be.
“You left him,” Mrs. Holder accused.
“No! It wasn’t my fault,” Lindsey exclaimed. “He wouldn’t listen. He didn’t want to come back with us.”
“You could have made him, Lindsey,” Elise said from across the room.
Could she have? It was her dream. Wasn’t it? No, how would he be missing after she woke up? It was all impossible. The lights in the dark. Swimming away the rock. The Arctic being connected to Mexico. The changing water bottles. The train. She had to have been dreaming.
“It wasn’t real,” Lindsey proclaimed, sure that her subconscious was still leading the way.
“If it wasn’t real,” Mrs. Holder said, “explain where Pete is.”
“This isn’t real, either.”
The class laughed. Lindsey turned in a circle, looking for anything that was impossible. She desperately wished Alyssa and Elizabeth were in class with her. They’d tell everyone.
It’s not real; Pete is fine, she told herself as she got her laptop out. It’s not real; Pete is fine, she told herself as she typed notes about volcanoes. It’s not real; Pete is fine, she told herself as she watched the second hand on the clock tick away. Wait! It was running backward! She breathed a sigh of relief. She blinked, and the second hand moved clockwise once again. Had she imagined it? The whole situation was infuriating.
The laptop gave a tiny beep. A message popped up in the corner. It contained a single word: Alive.