"Did you bring your dreams?" she asked.
I stood frozen at the gate, totally unprepared for that question. I'd been traveling for miles to get here and not once did it occur to me to pack my dreams before embarking on this trip. I hesitated before answering, because I knew that providing the wrong answer would send me back several years. I looked over her shoulder at the tall stone gate with its intricate carvings covered in moss and asked "which ones?" hoping that I could buy some time while she mulled over my response.
The worst thing about this was that I had four separate dreams just the night before while curled up in the train's passageway, none of which made any sense, the last one being of me writing them down.
The gatekeeper leaned forward, gripping her ledger with both hands. "Do you have them or not?"
I rummaged through my bag, pretending to search for them when she bellowed, "Next!" The crowd lunged forward, pushing me aside.
There had to be another way in.
"Maya, remember what we talked about."
"Yes, Miss Pax."
Miss Pax didn't like that I preferred spending my lunch hour sitting under a light post at the far end of the school yard, to picking through the same old goopy mush back at the cafeteria. But mom once told me that we all make choices in life and sometimes you have to stick by them, even if not everybody understands them. This was mine. Besides, the sky, gym and playground all mixed together into a dull, warm gray that made it easy for me to fix my eyes pretty much anywhere and easily fall asleep. Just the other day I dreamt all sorts of things that made me feel good: juicy red raspberries dripping down my chin, the twinkling sound of something Mr. K called a zither, and there was something else, but I can't remember. Anyway, Miss Pax is all grown up, so she wouldn't understand.
"Alright, kids settle down." Miss Pax tried her best to line us up by the door.
We were like horses at the starting gate. The moment the bell rang, we raced out onto the playground. My classmates turned right and the moment Miss Pax stepped back inside, I turned left to enjoy the few extra minutes of peace. It would only be fifteen minutes or so before the courtyard would begin to buzz. I kicked a small pebble out of the way, sat down on a little concrete pad under the light post and took a deep breath before closing my eyes. Just then, I heard singing coming from the other side of the auditorium. It was much too soon for the other kids to be finished stuffing themselves and nobody mentioned an afternoon assembly, so I didn't know who it was, but they sounded nice.
I sat up and saw a tall shadow sliding against the gym wall. It was shaped like someone juggling while riding a bicycle, but the bicycle had only one wheel. He turned the corner and the juggler had the face of a horse, but it wasn't a horse – that would have been weird. He rode toward me and very politely tipped his hat as if to say hello and I couldn't help but wonder whose hat it was, because it was much too small for his giant head. The rest of his outfit seemed to fit well enough, except for his coat tails; they dragged along the ground behind him.
It was awfully impressive that he could tip his hat with one hand and manage to not drop a single chicken. Just one slip up and any of the four could have fallen to the ground, ending the chorus to their song.
Che bella cosa na jurnata 'e sole,
n'aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe' ll'aria fresca pare già na festa...
Che bella cosa na jurnata 'e sole...
The song was in a language I couldn't understand, so I didn't know what it was about, but I'm sure Mr. K would have. It's too bad he isn't around to hear it. I think he would have liked it.
They rode past me, toward the library, disappearing through the double doors.
Birdie, birdie in the sky
Dropped some white stuff in my eye,
I'm a big girl I won't cry,
I'm just glad that cows don't fly.
"Wake up dormouse." Lilith and her trio of witches kicked my foot. Their giggling sounded like a squeaky mattress. The school must have used the same gray crayon used for the buildings, to color our uniforms, because looking up all I saw were four floating heads with eight buckled shoes at my feet.
"What's the matter, Sleepyhead? No one to play with?" the first head said. The others snickered, bobbing up and down. They took turns calling me names, each one applauding the other. Still in a daze, I didn't catch exactly what was said, so when I didn't fire back they finally got bored. I heard something about getting a life as they walked away.
It was obvious that I wouldn't be able to get back at them that day, but I knew that one day, when I was old enough, I'd show them. I was as sure of that as I was of the drifting cloud passing over my head. To some kids it might have looked like a sailboat, while others might say it was in the shape of a goldfish. But the one thing that was perfectly clear was the pilot sitting inside, draped in a purple cape and sporting a macaroni necklace and football helmet; no flamingo had ever looked so grand. Where he was going exactly, I had no idea, but it was in the direction of a tall misty green wall miles away. Only when he waved his pink, feathery arm as if to say "follow me," did I know he noticed me.
"Honey, hurry up or you'll be late." There was a light rap on my door.
When I didn't answer right away, the soft taps turned into a pair of much louder knocks.
I jumped out of bed and saw my clock blinking. "Crap, I'm late."
"Maya, you're late."
"Sorry, Mr. Porter." I plopped my backpack on the floor and sat down.
"Here's your paper, try to do better next time."
C -. How do you get a C- for a paper titled WHERE I'D LIKE TO BE 5 YEARS FROM NOW? According to Mr. Porter's note in the margin - TRY TO BE MORE REALISTIC.
I crammed the paper into my folder and prepared myself for one of those days.
Five periods later, the day went pretty much as expected. Unfortunately, hearing the final bell wasn't as exciting as you might think. Mainly because it was Thursday, which meant dinner would consist of Chicken Piccata, broad noodles and a cherry tomato salad.
"Would you like another breadstick, sweetie?"
"No thanks mom."
Just like every Thursday. Since the day I was born.
"Mmm...darling you've outdone yourself. This is delicious," my Dad said, picking a caper with a prong on his fork and popping it into his mouth. "This beats the gruel they fed us in the army. Why, I remember when..."
And so it begins.
Ten minutes and three bites later, Dad was finally interrupted by my little brother asking to see the same cartoon he'd seen a thousand times. That was my chance to get out of there.
"Mom, may I be excused?"
"What's wrong pumpkin?"
"M'not feeling too well. Must be something I had at lunch."
I could feel mom's concern follow me into the kitchen while I put my plate away, so I moved quickly through the hall and up the stairs and quietly closed the door to my room.
The curtains were left open to let the day's heat in, so I instantly felt the warmth wrap itself around me when I flopped on the bed. Beads of light from the afternoon sun mingled with the tree leaves outside and danced on my ceiling. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a song to match, but for the first time since I can remember, I came up empty. The harder I tried to focus, the hazier my thoughts. A thick fog rolled in, bringing with it a chill. Outside the window, everything appeared blurry, except for some occasional images that disappeared as quickly as they came, like bad reception on a TV. Someone said something, but the sound was muffled and I couldn't tell which direction it came from. I turned away from the window and an image flashed on just beyond the tree in our front yard. It was some sort of stone wall or gate with tiny carvings on the pillars. All around was lush green mossy grass. On the dewy ground laid a boarding pass. I could barely make out the destination, so I leaned out the window to get a better look.
My hand slipped on the damp window sill and I lost my footing and bumped my knee hard on the ledge before tumbling out. It was dark out when the sound of my own gasp woke me up. The clock on my dresser read 12:01 and my heart was thumping hard through my soaked shirt. Was this one of those moments where the road split and I had to make a choice? Would my parents accept it even if they didn't understand?
The pull was magnetic. I scribbled a note, set it on my pillow and then reached for my backpack and replaced my books with spare clothes and anything else I could think of that fit. Normally, the ride to the station was a good twenty minutes, but I pedaled so fast it only took me fifteen. Just long enough to avoid changing my mind.
After wandering through the hall for several minutes, I saw an unkempt man in uniform coming toward me, waving what looked like an oversized chopstick with a rounded handle. "May I help you?" he said with a slight bow. His crumpled bowtie gave him the air of someone who once mattered.
I closed my mouth. "Um, yeah, I need a one way ticket."
"Anywhere?" I said, shrugging.
"Right this way." His soiled glove invited me to follow him to a lone ticket counter with a piece of paper taped to the window: ANYWHERE was written crudely with a black marker.
When I turned to thank him, he was gone. A tap on the glass startled me.
I hesitated. "One please."
"The next train is departing at 12:43."
I looked at my phone. "That's in three minutes."
The clerk remained quiet and pointed in the direction of the platform where the remaining passengers were boarding. He looked back at me and raised his eyebrows.
"Fine, I'll take it."
The late arriving crowd was so large that I had enough time to sprint to a middle car and hop on. Unfortunately, by then all of the seats were taken and the passengers spilled out into the corridor. I did manage to squeeze into a tiny pocket in the gangway and claim a space. It wasn't much, but for the next several hours that was to be my little pad under the light post.
The energy was exhilarating. There were people of all ages, sizes and colors with a look of wonder, hope and fear in their eyes, all jostling for their little space. The shoving and shouting would have been terrifying had it not been for the sense we were all in this together. Falling asleep was out of the question with all the excitement at the start, but eventually the drama died down and the steady rocking of the train cars combined with the dimly lit passageway, lulled us all into a trance.
Outside, a light drizzle intensified. The pitatpat of tiny droplets against the windows soon turned into louder pops of popcorn kernels bouncing off in every direction. The harder the rain fell, the taller the mounds of popcorn surrounding our train. From the outside, we must have looked like we were trapped in a popcorn snow globe.
Not everyone was unsettled by this turn of events. A trio of dancing tacos tapped a perfectly choreographed routine atop an inflatable piano. Following them down the aisle was an elderly, roller skating penguin with the belly of a drum. He rolled up to me and handed me a feathered quill pen.
"Remember to record your dreams, or you won't get in," he said. He then banged on his belly and several sheets of paper flew out, landing at my feet. He cocked his head as if to say what are you waiting for, so I frantically wrote down everything I could see, noting every detail: the sound of the beating drum, the colorful outfits of the dancers, the popcorn smell outside, even the softness of the pink feather on my pen. By the time they disappeared through the other train car, I'd written three pages. It was only when I heard a loud train whistle followed by a booming voice over the loudspeaker, that I stopped writing. We all rubbed the sleep out of our eyes and gathered our things. The morning was clear and bright.
Just a few more yards. I'd come too far to be turned away now. I peeked through the luggage pile to make sure it was safe. The gatekeeper's back was several yards behind me now, so the second the cart stopped, I tumbled out and hid behind a dumpster. The streets were bustling with people and cars were zooming every which way; much like back home during the morning rush hour. In search of a quiet place to gather my thoughts, I climbed a chain link fence and walked through an alley until I came upon a residential neighborhood on the other side of a low beige wall. Walking along, I saw a woman cleaning up after her dog and some kids kicking a ball down the sidewalk. A postman smiled at me from across the street.
Did I make a wrong turn somewhere?
I doubled back to the low beige wall and walked in the other direction, stealing glances into some low-lying windows of a row of apartments. There were families eating breakfast in the kitchen, a boy tying his shoe in a courtyard and a couple kissing goodbye. Several blocks later, it was more of the same: a man changing his tire, a crossing guard standing at the corner, and a glut of other things I won't bore you with here.
Two days of riding the bus around town reminded me of home; shopping malls, tree-lined streets, gas stations and parking lots - where was this magical place where dreams come true? Was I missing something? I guess I'll keep looking. •