“Nightmares are more convincing than dreams.”
My nana once told me that. Six-year-old me laughed it off. How could they be, when I awaited nighttime to fly and save the world and eat candy? When no nightmares ever plagued my mind, and if my teddy bear did die in Dreamland (ah, the tragedies of elementary school), a night spent cuddling in my parent’s bed vanished the nightmare from my mind?
She’d laugh at that too and say, “Okay, sweetie, good for you. But in the end, fear invokes more powerful emotions than happiness.”
But times changed. Night held more secrets now.
And finally, over a dozen years later, I believed her, when new horrid dreams snuck up on me and I remembered them vividly, letting the good ones slip down the drain. When any rare whisp of a happy dream was replaced in my memory almost immediately.
As I liked to say, swallowed by the nightmares.
The nightmares started two months ago.
Buildings burning. Helicopters crashing. Cars ramming into me as I toppled off the high parking lot, down, down, down to a place of inky suffering and ancient secrets.
And it felt so real. Like déjà vu. I’d been here before, a long time ago, in another life. And now I recalled this horrid scene over and over and over again with frightening realization.
Screams, glass breaking, in a red car, hurling off the top level and falling.
Falling, always falling.
I never got to the pit. Never finished the fall. Right before I met my end, I’d always awaken, palms bleeding with crescent prints from my fingernails digging into my skin. Panting. Gasping for air. Sweating.
So I’d get water, turn over my pillow, and try to go back to bed.
But that didn’t work.
And my sleep pattern changed. Go to sleep. Nightmare. Wake up past midnight, knit, take a walk, gulp some fresh air, whatever. Stall returning to hazy Dreamland. Then go back to bed and try to sleep till morning, other patchwork quilts of a nightmarish, blurry past hunting my mind as I squeezed my eyes shut.
But there was one young character who appeared in all of the repetitive dreams. She had a shock of fluffy black hair, waves highlighted with silver, tumbling to her waist. Her eyes were an iridescent mix, her left amber, her right a startling blue. A warm smile. She wore all black decked with gold rings and bracelets. And every night she screamed my name through the swirling dust.
“Aeliya! Aeliya! Aeliya!”
My name sounded so musical in her clear voice, but it was infused with terror. Or, more so, urgency. Like this girl was always trying to get to me, to tell me something important, but every time she got close, the dream would end. She’d be running after me as I stumbled to escape from the fiery red car, extending a hand. I’d try to take it, looking up at her with pleading eyes, but then the car would topple and I’d fall, fall, fall, away from the mysterious teenage girl and her black hair, away from reality towards the pit I’d never reach.
I was going to the grocery store when I met her.
Really. The most anticlimactic grocery trip at 7 a.m. because I wanted chocolate. My golden hair was tied up in a messy bun, no makeup, ratty gray sweatshirt and such big circles under my eyes they looked like bruises.
I walked into Hannaford half-asleep, walked out half-asleep with a bag of groceries, keeping my head down. Step by step by step, hoping I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone in public.
Then someone bumped into me.
“Eeek!” I stumbled forward, catching myself before I face planted but letting go of the grocery bag. Chocolate almonds and bananas spilled across the parking lot, and as a broke college student, that rubbed me the wrong way.
I turned around and scowled. “Hey-”
But then I saw the person.
A girl. With bushy, flowing black hair and multicolored eyes. A concerned expression on her face which quickly melted to elation.
She wasn’t a girl. She was the girl.
And I screamed.
You best bet I took off running, leaving my $30 of groceries on the pavement, hair streaming out of my bun. I didn’t have a place in mind, just away.
So I ran. I ran and ran and ran as the winds picked up, a few plump raindrops falling down. I whirled past the dog park, Costco, a hair salon. And when I glanced behind me, in the distance was the girl from my dream. She hadn’t, I don’t know, evaporated yet.
She was real.
And once my straight-up surprise and fear melted to a more logical semi-calmness and confusion, I thought as I ran.
The girl in my nightmares was here, in real life.
Which could mean two things. The nightmares were actually real life. Or this “real life” was actually a nightmare.
Both sounded terrifying. Static raced through my mind, electric, sneaky, confused.
If my past dreams were real, I would have died ten times over. So I remembered another thing Nana had said: “If you’re not sure you’re dreaming, find a clock. There aren’t any clocks in dreams.”
So I slowed down to a jog, taking deep breaths. My body was in questionable shape after almost no sleep lately. I ducked into a Trader Joes. Even in the morning, the place was bustling, so I swerved past isles of cheese sticks and freeze-dried fruit to arrive at the back of the store.
There they were. Twin bathrooms wedged between an aisle of postcards, and above them, a clock reading 7:17.
I swallowed another scream, mind racing. Without thinking, I rushed into the bathroom and locked the door to a stall, letting my hair spill across my shoulders. Ragged breaths and swarming thoughts.
And sure, maybe you think I’m overreacting. But you try being plagued by nightmares for as long as you can remember and a character from them pops out of nowhere on a snack trip.
Yeah. It wasn’t pretty.
But luckily Aeliya Adele was pretty logical, and though having a hot head meant it was hard to keep a cool train of thought, I was determined to stop running around half-crying. So I stayed in that bathroom for a solid five minutes thinking about what would happen if I walked out and saw the Dream Girl again.
Here’s the thing. The world she came from was horrific. But she, herself? She was a warm presence, a flame flicking in darkness. She was the girl a little younger than me who so desperately wanted to see me, to save me, to tell me something. Of course I always died so she never got the chance.
And now, she was here.
(A place where I hopefully wouldn’t die at the end of the story, but I was crossing my toes just to be safe.)
So the next action was simple: Meet the nice girl.
Hear what she had to say.
Maybe get an explanation.
And hope, just hope, the rest of my nightmares didn’t come to life with her.
And so, I marched out of the bathroom, out of the store, and into the cool, cloudy morning, where my confidence practically drained away.
There she was.
“Aeliya!” the girl exclaimed, black hair flowing in the breeze as she rushed forward and gave me a tackle-hug. As a germaphobe, her literally squeezing me didn’t quite unknot the tangle my stomach was in. “I’m so happy I found you!”
I swallowed, cautiously hugged back, and when she pulled away, I took in her face. Olive-tan skin. Full lips, smiling. Wide nose framed by her captivating eyes, which studied me. She looked maybe sixteen or seventeen.
After a moment of silence, I gave an awkward laugh, backing up. I still didn’t feel very safe. “Sorry, this is—this is awkward. Who are you?”
Her smile melted. She now spoke with urgency. “I’m Rani. I'm here to protect you, to inform you. I’m from above.”
I decided to circle back to her previous words later, which sent a fresh round of goosebumps down my skin. Around us people streamed out of the Trader Joe’s, though the roads were still almost empty. The perks of having a small town in Maine. “Above what?”
I blinked at her. “So, you’re what? An angel?”
“Far from. All you need to know is that I’m good.”
“As opposed to…” I prompted.
“Bad. And she’s here for you too. She sent the nightmares. She’s here to trick you, to kill you, but something worse, to—”
A new voice—or rather, a new speaker, because she sounded exactly like Rani—shoved me to the side. I crumpled to the ground, landing on the damp pavement of the street. From the corner of my eye, I saw Rani—a second Rani, a girl who appeared exactly the girl from my nightmares as well—jump over me and tackle Rani #1. They both thudded to the ground, toppling over each other on the floor until I wasn’t sure who was which. I ripped my eyes away from the brawl for a moment because I was in the gosh darn street.
“Are you okay?”
A stream of help from the people on the sidewalk overwhelmed me, a dozen people helping me up and muttering with concern. Another perk of a small town, I guess: people looked out for each other.
“Thanks,” I said, brushing off my clothes, then turned back to the Rani’s.
The people didn’t seem to have noticed them, but the crowd kept a wide berth of the identical teens nonetheless. I had no idea who was the original girl from my dream now, but as they both edged forward, Rani #2 said, “Here, watch out. I’m going to make an invisibility shield. The people can’t see us anyway but you don’t want to be seen talking with air, do you?”
Before I could process what she said, a dome of sky blue appeared over us, the wave of energy causing me to stumble again. This time I looked up and saw both Rani #1 and Rani #2 offer me a hand.
I let them both help me up. Rani #1 squealed, “Gosh, so sorry about that. Are you okay?”
Rani #2 huffed. “Give it a break. Your act isn’t fooling anyone.”
They both turned to me with those luminous eyes.
“She’s impersonating me,” Rani #2 explained.
“No, I’m not!” Rani #1 said. “Stop trying to confuse her!”
They bickered for a bit then Rani #1 turned to me. “Aeliya, I’m your friend. I want to help you. To explain to you.”
“No, I’m your friend,” Rani #2 promised.
Rani #1 cut in, “I explained some stuff to you a few minutes ago, remember?”
“It was me who did that!” Rani #2 said.
Then they both turned to me again and spoke in unison: “I’m good. She’s bad. Trust me.”
As they sputtered at each other for a bit, I felt my head whirl. I just wanted some chocolate. Now the two supposedly good people from my nightmares were arguing over who was legit and who was trying to trick me. And I knew I would have to choose who to follow.
Right then, I was leaning towards Rani #2. My heart wanted Rani #1 in that moment—she seemed nicer, at least, more like the squealing girl I originally met—but my mind insisted Rani #2 seemed more down-to-earth, though possible that was bad if she was supposed to come from above the earth.
But I hadn’t made my choice yet, because the Rani’s weren’t done talking.
(And remember I was freaking out during all of this. I was panting, soaked with sweat through the cool air, pedestrians acting as thought I was invisible—which I guess I was. My nightmares came to life, kinda, and when I thought I got lucky and only encountered the good part—one of them was evil. Great.)
“I want to explain a bit more,” announced Rani #2. “Hi, Aeliya. I know this must be a little confusing for you, but one of us is a nightmare. And one is a dream.”
“It’s your choice to choose who to follow,” said Rani #1. “I only have your best interests in mind.”
“You need to believe me,” pressed Rani #2. “She’s faking it! Aeliya, you need to listen. I need to protect you.”
“From what? You?” Rani #1 snorted. She turned back to me and grabbed my hands, eyes sparkling, but with something deeper, like she held a secret. Good or bad, I didn’t know. “I’ve followed you in every nightmare, Aeliya. Tried to calm the waters she sent.”
“I’ve tried to find you,” said Rani #2. “I love you, Aeliya. Please.”
I was taken aback by both of them. My impressions switched. Now my heart held a spark with Rani #2, who seemed more real and compassionate. But my mind favored Rani #1, who seemed invested in her facts, speaking them like she believed with all her heart. I turned to Rani #1’s endless, glittering eyes. “So I have to choose one of you?”
“Yes. Pick well, Aeliya,” Rani #2 said, swallowing.
I took a deep breath. I still had a feeling and a thought of who to pick, but the options clashed. A path for my heart, a path for my brain, one which held good unknown and the other uncertainties with undertones whispering, This is the stuff your nightmares are made of, literally. And while some blindly followed their instincts, I favored logic. And so I turned to Rani #1, who took my hands, mouth twisting into a smile. “I choose you,” I murmured.
I turned to Rani #2, trying to muster more courage. “I choose Rani #1,” I said, loudly and clearly.
Rani #2’s eyes widened, taking a sharp breath. “No, Aeli—”
But her words were cut off, as though she couldn’t speak. Her eyes darted widely, hands clamping over her lips. And maybe I was imagining it, but her feet seemed fainter, as though the fraudulent monster from the basement of the earth was fading away.
Serves you right, I spat in my mind, smiling at Rani #1, hoping, knowing I made the right choice.
She beamed back warmly, then it grew into a grin, and at some point her smile went from compassionate to maniacal. Something was off, tingles shooting down my spine like iced fireworks. “Ah, Aeliya, Aeliya, Aeliya, thank you for following your brain…”
That’s when I knew something was off. My name, repeated thrice, like in the dream, but Rani #1 didn’t sound like the girl from my nightmares at all.
I glanced back. Rani #2 was still speechless (literally—she couldn’t talk), almost halfway gone already, her thighs fading away as I spoke with the chosen Rani. Then I turned back towards Rani #1: “What’s happening to her?” Then, a little more forcefully. “Let her go.”
“From what?” She tutted, pulling back a strand of silver hair. “You condemned her to this when you picked me. Come on, don’t dwell on creatures of h…well, you know the rhyme.”
She giggled to herself.
“So she is evil.”
“Oh, gosh, yes, a pain in the butt. C’mon, Aeliya. I’m taking you to where fate awaits.”
She giggled at her own little rhyme again and lifted her hands. The shield melted into a bubble as we lifted off the ground, but then started sinking, down into the earth, the bubble shoving through cement yet leaving no trace with ease.
And that was the final straw for my lingering thought: sometimes logic leads you astray. Ice poured through my body. Oh no, oh no, oh no…
My body started evaporating, tingling, then buzzing, like parts of me were being scattered elsewhere. The same thing happened to Rani #1, splotches of her missing, who clarified, “We’re teleporting. Slowly.”
Rani #2 continued vanishing, just her bobbing head now.
And as my body disintegrated, heading towards somewhere with the girl from my dreams I picked in hope she was actually the one, Rani #1 let out a high pitched cackle.
The sound shot through my head as black started to cloud my vision, and I heard Rani #1 singsong the lyrics,
“You see the ghosts in the ghost town
The footprints of the things that went down
Years and years ago
Stay true to home
Now you’re broke
So you stay with the ghosts…”
I realized it as part of the chorus of the song “Ghosttown”, a pop hit by Samara A. from a few years ago. The song talked about a person who was unable to let go after their life went downhill, clinging onto ancient scraps of good since swallowed by horrors.
More realization jolted through me.
Was that a comparison to now?
Me hoping this girl was the good in a sea of bad?
Holding so desperately to something that wasn’t there?
Could that mean-
But that meant-
It did, as I knew with frightening certainty.
Time seemed to speed up, sweat caking my rapidly leaving body as another cackle came from Rani #1. I stole a last wild glance at Rani #2–only her eyes were left, those unforgettable eyes, iridescent amber and warm blue, pleading and compassionate like the girl in my dreams.
And I tried to say sorry as best as I could, but the words didn’t come out as Rani #1 finished teleporting—disappearing from the bubble—and I was almost gone. And at that moment, eyes locking with the true Rani’s who had the best intentions for me all along, I thought back to what Nana had said a long time ago, the words ringing true now that I had fallen for the illusions of darkness:
“Nightmares are more convincing than dreams.”