I wake up alone.
The mattress beside me is warm and the sheets are crumpled, the scene of a quick getaway. The room is dark but daylight peeks through the imperfections of my blinds, giving dust-motes a stage upon which to dance. I want to enjoy the moment, but it feels like someone has spooned out my insides.
I stumble out of bed and make my way to the bathroom, leaving sweaty handprints on the walls. I flick up the lid of the toilet seat and it hits the tank with a clunk. I double over the bowl and wait for the heaving to begin. Nothing comes. Habit compels me to flush, and I smell the cloying, artificial scent of lavender that emanates from the plastic doodad attached beneath the seat.
My phone chirps a familiar sound, one that causes a flutter of excitement throughout my body. With one hand on my stomach like an expectant mother, I quick-step to my bedside table and unplug my phone. The movement causes its screen to glow, and I tap on the most recent email.
The sender is mellon_collie using an online email service. I already don’t like my newest client. Their username has too many personal clues. They’re a Smashing Pumpkins fan. They enjoy 90s alternative rock. They own that album. They’re most likely a Generation X.
To spite myself, I open the email. The code phrase is the only thing in the message.
I have ten thousand reasons to leave.
My phone highlights my satisfied smile in the dark, like a teller of ghost stories.
I arrange a place and time to meet. I choose a public park at ten in the morning. It’s a popular location for joggers and mothers with strollers. Sometimes the two even combine. I sit on a park bench with the sun at my back, facing a fountain. Tourists wanting a good photo won’t aim the camera my way.
Because I don’t have a baby, I’m dressed as a jogger. A water bottle at my side complements my leggings and zip-up hoodie. Wearing sunglasses and with my dark hair pulled back into a high ponytail, I’m barely noticed. I see my client long before she sees me.
I should get up and jog away, leaving her clueless and abandoned. Against my self-interest, I wait until she notices me. My water bottle’s green and white stripes are distinctive, and she knows to look for it.
She makes her way over as I sit upright and I wonder how the hell she even found me. This woman, this mellon_collie, isn’t the hardened criminal I usually deal with. She’s the kind of person who would adopt a pet from the animal shelter.
She is unconventionally bad at being discreet. Wearing a polka dot scarf over her hair and oversized shades on her face, she looks like something out of a retro movie; something starring Monroe or Hepburn. When she sits beside me, she places a giant handbag on the seat between us and rifles through it while talking. Maybe she saw this in a movie. It must’ve been a comedy.
“I’m the one who sent you the email,” she says.
I reach into the pocket of my hoodie and pull out a folded note. It’s small, half the size of a post-it. On it are the details of a bank account to a burner business I have.
“Take this.” I hold out the note and she snatches it from between my fingers. When she looks at it, I give her the rest of my instructions. “After you give me your ten thousand reasons, I’ll send you an address where we can meet up.”
“And you’ll help me disappear?” Her tone is soft and hopeful, and I frown at her while she buries my note deep inside her bag.
“Nobody will ever find you,” I promise. I pull my feet in to stand, but she puts a hand on my arm, stopping me.
“I… I can only give you four thousand dollars,” she whispers.
“You said you had ten thousand reasons.” My voice is firm. The terms are non-negotiable.
“I do!” A furtive glance has her dropping her voice even though nobody looked our way. “I have reasons, actual reasons for leaving. My husband, he’ll end up killing me if I stay. He’ll hunt me down if I leave.”
I’m horrified. This is why she wanted my help? She doesn’t want to go where I’d be taking her; she doesn’t have any idea what she’s really asking. Knowing her reason means I wouldn’t help her even if she had the money. She needs to know I’m a closed door.
“That’s only one reason,” I say coldly. “I’m not a charity.”
“But I can’t ask anyone else for help. I need you. He’s a cop.”
Her last word causes chills to travel down my arms and legs, yet my face feels hot. I become hyperaware of my breathing. This woman is a threat to my lifestyle, and I need to get away from her. I surge to my feet and walk away like a robot that needs oiling in its joints.
“Please!” she cries at my back, a forlorn bleating from a dying lamb. I cannot save her, and she has put me in jeopardy. My mouth is so dry that when I swallow, I can hear a click. I want to clear my throat but that’ll make me conspicuous. Won’t it? I break into a jog to take me as far away from the woman as possible.
After a shower, I feel better. Towelling myself dry, I can hear my phone chime the arrival of an email. I take my time before going to it, positive about who the email is from. When I check my phone, I see I’m right. I was right about her being a Gen X, too.
I shouldn’t read the email, I should delete it and continue on with my life. I don’t need to get involved with this tragedy. I end up opening it.
‘Please help me. I can’t go to the police because they’ll cover for him. He’s manipulative and careful and he always covers his tracks. Even our closest friends suspect nothing. I’m trapped with no way out. I’ve sent you four thousand reasons. Please let that be enough.’
Why am I putting myself through this heartache? I reply to her message with four simple words: ‘Don’t contact me again’. I delete her messages and mine before checking my bank account. Yes, there’s her payment, stupid woman. She should’ve kept that money and used it to buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world or to set herself up in a new town in the middle of nowhere. People disappear all the time. She doesn’t need what I’m selling.
It’s a week later when I get a new client. When I meet him, I’m not surprised to see who it is. He’s got his fingers in all kinds of criminal pies. He’s currently in the papers in relation to a killing. The victim has suspected mob ties, so he’ll be an easy target in jail if the court case doesn’t go his way… if he even makes it to court.
His money is in my account and I’m waiting for him to show up. I don’t worry about him knowing where I live, not when I’m going to be helping him disappear. It will be a few hours before he’s supposed to get here, so I pass the time curled up on the sofa with a book. Reading is the best way to keep myself calm before a client arrives, otherwise I will pace and overthink.
A knock at my door surprises me. It’s possibly the client, too anxious about disappearing to wait until our designated meeting time. That’s happened a few times before. When I open the door, there’s a man I don’t recognise on the other side of it.
“Hayley Etheridge?” he says. Hearing my name gives me a peculiar sensation in my stomach, like I’m about to receive bad news. Nobody has said my name in a long time.
“Yeah?” I prompt, wondering if this is perhaps a new building manager. I bought the penthouse using my real identity. It’s better to leave some trace of yourself for tax purposes. If I didn’t exist at all, that would raise suspicions.
He flashes a badge at me and steps forward into my apartment, even though I’m standing in the doorway. I’m forced to yield lest I get pushed back. I don’t want a physical altercation because that might lead to something worse.
Instead of yelling at him to get out, I ask him politely, “What’s going on? Is somebody in trouble?”
I hope it’s not me.
“You could say that.” His smile seems genuine but is not reassuring. Who smiles after forcing their way into a person’s residence?
“Are you here to ask questions?” I prompt, wanting to keep this interaction peaceful. I don’t know who he is or why he’s here yet, so I want him to feel like he has the upper hand, like he’s in control. After dealing with so many criminals, I’ve learnt that challenges only create a hostile environment primed for violence.
“I do have questions,” he says, moving farther into my apartment. He glances at the huge artwork upon the lounge room wall, passes the three-piece leather suite and stops to stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the river. “How does a twenty-four-year-old woman that freelances as an I.T. consultant afford to buy a place like this?” The way he casually drops information makes me realise he’s been investigating me for a while. Was it because he spotted me with a high-profile criminal? I don’t think that’s it. He’s here on his own. A case like that would require a partner.
“I’m good at what I do,” I say, moving beside him. “I’m lucky to have a lot of clients who trust me.”
He has the advantage of knowing who I am, but he doesn’t have details. How could he? I’m pretty sure I know who he is and why he’s here. I wouldn’t call that knowledge an advantage, though.
“Such as?” he asks.
We both know I don’t have I.T. clients.
“I’m sorry, I’ve signed non-disclosure agreements with all of them.”
“And did you sign an NDA with my wife as well?” he asks. I can see his anger beneath the surface, swirling and bubbling. I see it in his posture and the way he’s looking at me.
“Your wife?” I ask, because I don’t have mellon_collie’s name.
“Michelle Ballard,” he grinds. “And don’t play dumb.”
I give him something closer to the truth. “Okay, I don’t work in I.T., but that’s only because my clients would be embarrassed if the truth got out.”
There is vindication in his eyes and a triumphant smile on his face. He got information out of me using intimidation tactics. As long as he feels he’s winning, I can get out of this.
“Tell me,” he says gruffly. He selects my armchair to sit in while I perch on the sofa. I want to run away, but this is the kind of man who would hunt me down. That’s what his wife said.
I hope she’s alright.
The way he glares at me lets me know I should start talking. “I have the ability to take people into my dreams with me.”
“What?” he asks, the question spat out as a statement of incredulity.
“It’s something I’ve always been able to do. Anyone who falls asleep with me shares my dream. I become their spiritual guide.” I give him a sweet smile while I pour it on thick. “There are many people who want to experience genuine psychic phenomena and that’s how I make my money. I charge ten thousand dollars a go.”
“Ten thousand?” he repeats. I remember Michelle only sent me four.
“Michelle asked for a discount. It was a slow month, so I allowed it.” The lie comes smoothly and I embellish it with some truth. “She hasn’t come here to go on a dream yet.”
I wonder if he’ll ask for a refund or if he’s curious enough about what I do to go in her place. Honestly, I don’t care which option he chooses if it gets him out of my life. I wonder about the time, if I have long before my client shows. If he comes here while a policeman is in my penthouse, I will lose the bit of control I have.
“Why would Michelle even care about this psychic shit?” he says. His words are rough but I can see doubt in him.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you that every one of my clients have a life-changing experience when they dream with me.”
“What happens if they don’t? Do they get a refund?”
My stomach flops with excitement instead of nerves. My smile brightens with anticipation. “Of course. Nobody has ever asked for a refund, though.” I say this proudly because I’ve never had to return money.
He scoffs but I can see a glimmer of his interest. “How do you do it? Through meditation?”
“No, we both need to be asleep,” I say. “If someone can’t get to sleep, we use sleeping pills.”
“I’m not taking sleeping pills,” he says sharply.
“You don’t have to. Would you like to try falling asleep without them?” I stand and step close to him so I can offer my hand. He looks at me like I’m insane but he takes my hand and stands. His palms are chafed and dry. I dislike touching him but I can’t show fear.
“And what do you do while I’m trying to fall asleep?” he asks. His tone has shifted dramatically, which means he no longer sees me as a threat.
“I’ll be falling asleep beside you,” I say. “I’ll probably end up sleeping first as I’ve had more practise than you.” I laugh softly but it’s true. This will hopefully make him trust me the rest of the way.
“Alright, I’ll try it.”
I lead him to my darkened bedroom.
“We’re doing this on your bed?” he asks through a smile.
“Yes,” I say. I don’t think he believes me, that we’re going to dream together. I think he considers this to be my roundabout way of bribing him with sex. Whatever he thinks doesn’t matter as long as he doesn’t act on it.
I let go of his hand to sit on the bed on my side. When he sits on the opposite side, I lay down atop the covers. He does the same. We go through some breathing exercises together and then we both lie silently, breathing and focussing on nothing but falling asleep.
I can feel myself drift off.
When I open my eyes, I’m in the other world, the place I go to when I sleep. I’m standing on a rocky outcrop on the side of a barren mountain. In the distance, I can see a silvery ocean. Below me on the plains is a herd of large bear-like creatures. After a few minutes of waiting, I sense another presence nearby and I turn and see the policeman.
He is open-mouthed, staring first at me and then at the world I have brought him to.
“This… this is amazing,” he says, then looks up at the sky. “That’s impossible.”
I look up as well, knowing that I will see two faded moons in the violet sky. I don’t know if we’re on another planet in a distant solar system that I access through my dream or if it’s another dimension, but it doesn’t matter.
“Your wife wanted to escape to this place,” I say. He’s barely listening, too interested in what he can see around him. “She wanted me to leave her here to get away from you.”
“She what?” he asks, his brow furrowing. I have his attention now.
“But I couldn’t do that to her. This place, it’s treacherous. She probably wouldn’t have cared, but I couldn’t do that to her. Because I don’t know if this world still exists when I wake up or if it resets itself.”
“Don’t you talk about my wife,” he warns, pointing an accusatory finger my way. I can hear something different in his voice again; he’s scared. I’m sure that’s a new sensation for him.
“See those?” I say, pointing at the herd. “They look placid, but I’ve seen them chase down their prey. You don’t want to be near them, that’s for sure.” I’m doing him a favour, telling him about them, but I don’t think it’ll help in the long run.
I watch as he looks down at them and I wonder if he can see how powerful they are. I liken them to grizzlies, but they’re a bit bigger than that.
“And there’s this thing that burrows under sand. It looks kind of like a cuttlefish except it’s human-sized. I wouldn’t mess with that, either.” I laugh at his expression.
“Why would anyone pay you money to come here?” he asks. “After we wake up, you’re giving my money back.”
I smile at him and move to the edge of the outcrop. It’s a long drop to the ground from here.
“You weren’t listening before, but that’s okay, I can say it more simply. Your wife paid me to escape to this place, because that’s what I really do. I help people disappear. They all end up coming here, to this world. It’s a one-way ticket, buddy. There isn’t any going back, for you.”
I leap off the outcrop while the policeman curses behind me. With the wind roaring in my ears, I am falling to my death, but I never hit the ground.
I wake up, alone.