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And Then She Woke Up

                Ashleen was in a dream. It was her dream that she was in, so, in other words, she was dreaming. She didn’t know how long it had taken her to realize she was in a dream because up until that point, everything had been vague and hazy, but once it clicked, once she was like, “Oh, this is a dream,” that awareness made everything snap into focus and she could examine her dream and interact with her dream and consider her dream as if she were awake. This, Ashleen supposed, was probably a lot like lucid dreaming, although she didn’t seem to be able to consciously control the dream, which was a bummer. Maybe she’d gain the ability to control her dreams with time and practice. Maybe it was too much to expect complete control during her very first lucid dream.

                In her awake life – her real life – Ashleen was single, childless, and lived with two roommates. But in her dream, she was married to a man named Rory. Also in her dream, she had a 9-year-old son named Alexander and a 7-year-old daughter named Tisha. Ashleen did not like either of her children’s names, so she concluded that Rory must have named them, although since Rory only existed in Ashleen’s dream, that meant that he was a product of her own sleeping mind, which meant that Ashleen was the ultimate source of her kids’ unappealing names, which meant what? That she had dreamed herself a romantic partner who didn’t consider her opinions during the naming of their children? Or did it mean that she had dreamed a version of herself with different taste than her real self? Although, here she was in the dream disliking her children’s names just like her awake self would have, so how different could they be?

                “Hey, honey,” said Rory. He came into the kitchen from the garage. He was not attractive, not at all Ashleen’s type. His posture wasn’t good and his facial features were too small for his big head. Ashleen and Rory had met at a pep rally for their university’s basketball team, dated for a few years, and then gotten married on a cruise ship. Ashleen knew that these facts were nothing that she had experienced. It was all just background information provided by her dream. Still, she remembered individual moments from the events of her dreamed history with Rory as if she had experienced them. She was very impressed with her own dream’s attention to detail.

                “Hello,” said Ashleen. She stood in front of an open cupboard, making room for a new set of drinking glasses. The box of new glasses rested on the counter nearby.

                “More new drinking glasses?” asked Rory. If this were real life, Ashleen would have taken the inflection of the question as a criticism and would have been offended, but in the dream, it didn’t seem worth fighting about. Why argue with a dream? What would be the point?

                “We can always use more glasses,” said Ashleen. It seemed like an innocuous response, but Rory wasn’t having it.

                “That’s what you always say,” said Rory. “But I would guess that we’ve actually used, what, like, 10 percent of the glasses you’ve bought in the last few years?”

                “Well, we should make a concerted effort to use more of them, then,” said Ashleen. This was an amusing argument to be dreaming. She couldn’t wait to wake up and tell her roommates about it. She hoped she wouldn’t forget the details, the specific phrasing of Rory’s accusations. She wondered how her roommates would interpret it. She turned to look Rory in the eye, hoping that would help her recall the dream’s particulars when she woke up, which would happen soon. Her dreams rarely lasted much beyond a short interaction, a brief sequence of events.

                “Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Rory. He took a step back, his wide brow furrowing.           

                “No reason,” said Ashleen.

                Rory looked around the kitchen, taking in the pig-shaped clock on the wall over the doorway leading to the living room, the mint green refrigerator, the vase of artificial flowers next to the sink. “What’s different?” he asked.

                “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Ashleen. She really didn’t. Was her dream taking an unsettling turn?

                “Something seems different,” said Rory. “Something doesn’t feel right.” He sounded nervous, almost frightened. He gave Ashleen one last appraising look and walked out of the kitchen. A few moments later, Ashleen heard his footsteps going upstairs.

                Now that she was again alone in the kitchen and the action seemed to be over, Ashleen assumed that she would wake up. She sat down at the kitchen table to wait, flipping through a landscaping catalogue and marveling at the products and copy the dream had conjured from her subconscious. She knew she could never write an evocative description of a new kind of mulch while awake, but her sleeping brain had done a beautiful job of it. On a whim, Ashleen got her credit card out of her purse, called the number on the back of the catalogue, and ordered the mulch. The man from the landscaping products company told her the mulch would arrive in less than a week. Ashleen shook her head, chuckled, and hung up.

                Since she was still in the dream and the dream hadn’t presented her with any pressing goals or tasks to accomplish, Ashleen walked through the living room to the front door, opened it, and stepped out onto the porch. Like everything else Ashleen had so far encountered in the dream, the neighborhood was both strange and familiar. It bore little resemblance to Ashleen’s real-life neighborhood in Multioak, but she also knew that she would have no trouble navigating it by car or by bike or on foot, that she knew who lived in the other houses, what day trash day was, that the stump in the yard across the street was all that remained of small oak tree that Kevin Boval had cut down in a fit of overreaction after some kids lightly TP’d it after mistaking his home for the home of one of their teachers, Mrs. Reeze, who had actually lived three houses down, although both she and Kevin Boval had moved away since. And, of course, neither of them had actually moved away or lived in those houses or even existed at all because they were merely figments of Ashleen’s dream included to make the whole experience seem more realistic, she supposed, or for some other reason that she hadn’t yet figured out.

                Ashleen sat on a plastic chair on the front porch and watched the lazy dream afternoon sustain itself around her. It was fascinating. It was also relaxing, at first, but the more time that passed, the more Ashleen wondered why she hadn’t woken up yet. She was aware that time passed differently in dreams, that everything that had happened in this dream so far might have only taken up a few seconds of real time, but she’d never had a dream with so much down time before. She’d never had a dream that consisted of an unbroken stream of moments instead of continually skipping ahead to whatever events the dream deemed important. Unless the dream was skipping ahead and her memories of sitting on the porch all afternoon had been implanted by the dream, similar to her memories of meeting Rory at the pep rally, their wedding on the cruise ship, the births of her two children – one in the car on the way to the hospital, the other in the hospital elevator while a burn patient shouted constructive criticism at the delivering doctor. Maybe the memory of her earlier conversation with Rory was an implanted memory too, something she hadn’t experienced in the dream, but which this dream version of herself remembered as if she had. Ashleen didn’t know how to go about getting to the bottom of any of this, but it didn’t bother her. Dreams weren’t supposed to make sense. Or, at the very least, they were supposed to be open to multiple interpretations. The one thing that bothered her was that she felt time passing at what seemed like a normal speed, so regardless of how much time was actually passing outside of the dream, inside of the dream, Ashleen was being forced to live each one of these moments as if they were real, which had some potentially disturbing implications.

                Ashleen didn’t want to consider these implications, and she was saved from doing so by the appearance of her children on the sidewalk in front of the house. They were walking home from school together, both wearing backpacks, their faces a believable blend of Ashleen’s and Rory’s. They wore their jackets despite the warmth. Alexander walked in such a way that his shoes slapped on the pavement. Tisha’s pink jeans had a rip in the left knee that Ashleen recognized as new.

                “Hi, mom,” called Alexander.

                “Hey, guys,” said Ashleen. She rose to her feet and stood with her hands on her hips, a proud mother mostly proud of her own brain’s ability to present her with such believable children.

                “What’s for dinner?” asked Tisha.

                “Um, I don’t know?” said Ashleen.

                “You aren’t making anything?” asked Alexander. “Isn’t today supposed to be a Mommeal?”

                It was only then that Ashleen realized that she should have been taking steps toward preparing dinner for her family. It was what the dream version of herself usually did with the latter part of her afternoon and the early part of her evening on Tuesdays, and it was Tuesday. Tuesdays were for Mommeals. She wondered why her subconscious had cooked up something like that. But she had been too caught up in contemplating the nature of her dream to perform the ritual. “We’re going out to eat,” said Ashleen. “Wherever you guys want to go.”

                “We want Gilby’s,” said Alexander. “Right, Tisha?”

                Tisha nodded.

                “All right,” said Ashleen. “Gilby’s it is.” The real Multioak had no restaurant called “Gilby’s,” but Ashleen’s dream Multioak had a whole chain of Gilby’s restaurants that her kids loved. Gilby’s was not at all good, but Ashleen figured she owed them for not making a Mommeal, and although her dream self was familiar enough with Gilby’s, Ashleen was curious to check it out in her current state of awareness. If she didn’t wake up first.

                Rory was not pleased to hear that Ashleen had promised the kids Gilby’s. “That place is bad. It’s not clean. And it’s unhealthy. Why didn’t you make the Mommeal?” He sat on the edge of the bed in his and Ashleen’s bedroom to put on his sneakers.

                “I forgot,” said Ashleen. “Time got away from me.”

                “You’ve never forgotten before,” said Rory. “I knew something was different. Something’s going on with you.”

                “Look,” said Ashleen. “Don’t get so worked up. It doesn’t matter, I promise you.”

                “What doesn’t matter?” asked Rory. One of his shoes was tied, one was not.

                “All of this,” said Ashleen. “Everything.”

                “This isn’t like you,” said Rory. “You’re acting completely different today.”

                “Rory, listen,” said Ashleen. “Today is all there’s ever been. Right? Your memories of how I ‘usually’ act aren’t real.”

                Rory looked worried. He made no move toward tying the other shoe. “Are you sick?” he asked.

                “I’m dreaming all of this,” said Ashleen. “I’m asleep right now. And you and the kids and this house and Mommeals and Gilby’s and Ken Boval’s stump and the mulch I ordered from the catalogue in the kitchen are all just details of the dream. Maybe all these details mean something and maybe they don’t, but that’s why I don’t care if the kids eat Gilby’s tonight. Or for every meal. When I wake up – which could happen at any moment – you’ll all be gone.”

                Rory gave Ashleen a sober look. “You need to see Dr. Parkledge again. Tomorrow.”

                Ashleen laughed. The idea of her own brain creating a character in her dream that would question her sanity for recognizing that she was in a dream was funny to her.

                “None of this is funny,” said Rory. “And you need to cancel that mulch order. We have no use for mulch.”

                Ashleen drove the family van to Gilby’s. Rory sat in the front passenger seat while Alexander and Tisha sat on the bench seat all the way in the back. There was a strained hush in the van. Ashleen noticed it, but it didn’t make her uncomfortable. Why should she stress out about her dream family feeling awkward?

                As she pulled into the Gilby’s parking lot, Alexander asked, “Mom, do you think you’re dreaming us again?”

                “Alexander, please,” said Rory.

                “Why do you ask?” asked Ashleen.

                “I heard dad on the phone to Dr. Parkledge right before we left,” said Alexander.

                Ashleen was astonished to realize that she remembered previous periods in her life – in her dreamed life – when she had thought she was dreaming the world around her and all the people in it. When she was a kid, it had happened a few times, and her parents – who were not the same parents she had in real life, for some reason – had sent her to a therapist. Rory had been aware of these episodes when he married her, and had taken over the duties of making sure she got to her therapist as quickly as possible when the symptoms began to appear again. Of course, this was all just more bizarrely meta backstory content inserted into Ashleen’s dream by her mind.

                “I am dreaming you,” said Ashleen. She parked the van, unbuckled her seatbelt, and turned to face her kids in the back. “I don’t expect you to believe me because apparently I’m dreaming you all to be very skeptical of what I’m saying, but I don’t see the point of lying to you. Why lie to dreams?”

                “First of all,” said Rory. “Kids, you shouldn’t lie to anyone. It’s not more acceptable to lie to real people than it is to lie to dreams. And second of all, Ashleen, please, you’re scaring Tisha.”

                “I’m not scared,” said Tisha. “I’m hungry. I want chickens’ fingers.”

                Ashleen laughed. Not because Tisha had said the name of the food item wrong, but because she had said it right, because in the dream, “chickens’ fingers” was the correct way to say it. “OK, Tisha,” said Ashleen. “Let’s go get some chickens’ fingers.”

                “But I do have one question,” said Tisha. “If you’re dreaming us, what will happen to me when you wake up?”

                “I guess you’ll just go away,” said Ashleen.

                “Ashleen, please,” said Rory.

                “Go away where?” asked Tisha. Now she did look a little scared.

                “You’ll disappear, I guess,” said Ashleen. “Or you’ll go back into my subconscious. Maybe you’ll still exist in a way as long as I remember this dream. Which I probably will for a long time, because it’s very, very vivid, but then again, who knows? Sometimes dreams are so vivid while you’re in them, and then you wake up, and they’re completely gone within minutes.”

                Now Alexander looked frightened too. Rory looked disturbed. Tisha started to cry. “I don’t want to disappear,” she said.

                Ashleen was surprised to find herself feeling a little guilty. On one hand, it didn’t make sense to worry about hurting the feelings of a person who was not real. On the other hand, it was not fun to watch a small girl cry, even if that girl was not real. And, like, maybe Tisha was actually the image for some part of Ashleen’s own psyche? Maybe by being more gentle with Tisha, Ashleen would actually be practicing a little self-help. “Tisha, listen,” said Ashleen. “I don’t really know what I’m talking about, OK? I don’t know anything about dreams. I know I’m dreaming right now, but that’s it. How would I know what will happen to you when I wake up? I was just guessing, and those guesses weren’t even based on anything. They were just speculation.”

                “So I won’t disappear?” asked Tisha.

                “No one’s going to disappear,” said Rory. “This isn’t anyone’s dream. This is real life.”

                “Um, it is a dream,” said Ashleen. “It’s my dream. That said, I do feel hungry like in real life, so let’s eat so I can get some Gilby’s in me while I have the chance. When I wake up, I’ll never be able to taste it again.”

                That night as Ashleen lay in bed next to Rory, she was surprised to find herself feeling sleepy. People don’t sleep in dreams, do they? She’d heard of dreams within dreams where people dreamed they woke up from a dream only to find themselves still dreaming. But she’d never heard of anyone going to sleep in a dream. This was probably a sign that she was about to wake up. She would drift off here in her dreamed bed, and then wake up in the real world. Rory snored next to Ashleen, so she knew he wouldn’t hear her when, right before she nodded off, she whispered, “And then she woke up.”


                The next morning when Ashleen woke up, she hadn’t woken up. She woke up in the dream, but not in the real world. This puzzled her. If she wasn’t going to wake up as a result of going to sleep in the dream, then when was she going to wake up? Not sure what else to do, Ashleen helped Rory get the kids ready for school, sent them on their way, and then saw Rory off to work as well. As he headed out the kitchen door to the garage, he stopped and said, “Your appointment is at one, Ashleen. You’re going, right? You promise?”

                “Sure, yes,” said Ashleen. “I’ll go. I’m curious.”

                “Curious about what?” asked Rory.

                “Well, I have my implanted memories of previous therapy sessions with Dr. Parkledge,” said Ashleen. “But I’ve never actually experienced therapy in real life. So I’m curious to see what my subconscious thinks it’s like. It’ll probably be a lot like the sessions I’ve seen on TV.”

                “OK,” said Rory. “Whatever. As long as you go.” He went to work.

                Having mentioned TV, Ashleen thought it might be fun to see what sort of programming her sleeping brain could come up with, so she spent the rest of her morning in the living room flipping channels and marveling at the believability of the cartoons, the talk shows, the infomercials, the edited-for-time-and-content movies. But, of course, she would find them believable, wouldn’t she? After all, her brain was feeding her own conceptions of things back to her, so why wouldn’t she, of all people, find them believable? At 12:30, after making and eating a sandwich, Ashleen went to her therapy session.

                Dr. Parkledge’s office – like her house, like her neighborhood, like Gilby’s – was simultaneously familiar and new. Ashleen was experiencing for the first time something that she remembered experiencing many times before, though she knew she hadn’t. The office was on the third floor of a four-story building in downtown Multioak. When Ashleen walked into the waiting room, there were no other patients present. Gray upholstered chairs lined two walls. A low table in the middle of the room held two neat piles of magazines. The young receptionist sat behind a huge desk that took up half of the available space. She smiled when she saw Ashleen and said, “Oh! A little early today!”

                “Hi, Ruth,” said Ashleen, recalling now that her dream self was usually at least ten minutes late for her sessions. “I had a slow morning.”

                “Take a seat,” said Ruth. “I’ll tell Dr. Parkledge you’re here.” She stood and went into Dr. Parkledge’s office, closing the door quietly behind her.

                Ashleen sat down and picked up a magazine called Mazes Twice Monthly. On every page was a maze which someone had attempted and failed to solve with a thick red marker.

                Ruth came back into the waiting room and said, “Go right in, Ashleen, he’s ready for you.”

                Dr. Parkledge’s office had no windows. His desk was tiny, as if in deliberate contrast with the receptionist’s desk. The carpet on the floor was deep and deep red. In the middle of the room was a metal folding chair facing a chaise lounge with a gaudy floral print. Dr. Parkledge sat down on the chaise lounge and motioned for Ashleen to sit in the folding chair. Ashleen knew that Dr. Parkledge considered physical comfort to be a hindrance to self-reflection. Conversely, he considered physical comfort to be a boon to the contemplation of other peoples’ problems.

                “Rory tells me you believe you’re in a dream again,” said Dr. Parkledge. He was a fat man in his late 30s. The lenses of his glasses were tinted yellow. His black hair was parted in the middle and obscured the top halves of his ears. He wore a plain blue t-shirt tucked into white jeans and a darker blue sport coat.

                “Yes,” said Ashleen. “This is all my dream.”

                “OK,” said Dr. Parkledge. “So when did you again start to suspect that you were in a dream?”

                “When the dream started,” said Ashleen.

                “Which was when?”

                “I don’t know,” said Ashleen. “Sometime after I went to sleep, I guess.”

                Dr. Parkledge had no recording device running that Ashleen could see, no pen and paper. “When you went to sleep last night?” he asked. “Rory called me long before that to set up this appointment.”

                “No, no,” said Ashleen. “When I went to sleep in the real world. I’m still asleep, that’s why I’m here, that’s why you exist, that’s why Ruth exists, that’s why Gilby’s exists, etcetera.”

                Dr. Parkledge’s cool exterior cracked for a moment when Ashleen mentioned Gilby’s, but he let it pass. “Ashleen, this is not a dream. This is your life. You’re having another episode wherein you believe that your life is a dream. This is something that you’ve experienced many times before, and now you’re experiencing it again.”

                “No, this has never happened to me before,” said Ashleen. “Those ‘previous episodes’ are just backstory provided to both of us by the dream.”

                “So I’m not real,” said Dr. Parkledge. “You’re dreaming me.”

                “Yes,” said Ashleen.

                “Why would you dream up a therapist to argue with you about whether or not you’re in a dream?”

                “I don’t know,” said Ashleen. “I’m no good at interpreting dreams. I’ll think about it more when I wake up. I’ll ask my roommates. Maybe they’ll have some insights.”

                “What proof do you have that this is a dream?” asked Dr. Parkledge.

                “I just know it is,” said Ashleen. “I can tell. I know what my real life is, and I know that this isn’t it. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

                “But how do you know that this ‘real life’ you refer to isn’t a dream?” asked Dr. Parkledge.

                “Because I can tell!” said Ashleen. “It’s not hard to tell when you’re in your real life. Sometimes in dreams, you think what’s happening is real, but when you’re in real life, you never truly think you might be dreaming unless, I don’t know, you’re really sick or on drugs or something.”

                “OK,” said Dr. Parkledge. “OK, OK, OK.” Ashleen could tell he thought he was about to spring his trap. He suppressed a smile, then said, “Then what do you say to this: I know that this is my real life. I can tell that I’m not dreaming this.”

                Ashleen laughed. “You’re right. You’re not dreaming this. I’m dreaming this. You are my dream. Dreams can’t dream. This is as close to a real life as you’re ever going to have.”

                “But why should I prioritize your experience over mine?” asked Dr. Parkledge. “Why should I accept your judgment when it directly contradicts my own?”

                “Because I’m right,” said Ashleen. “Look, I’m not really that interested in having an argument with my own mind about this. Is there anything more boring than a protracted investigation into whether someone is dreaming or not? No. It sucks. It’s boring. I’m not going to spend time in my dream or in my real life trying to prove that both are what I already know them to be.”

                “So tell me this,” said Dr. Parkledge. “Has anything happened so far in what you believe to be your dream that you would call ‘dreamlike?’”

                “Uh, yes,” said Ashleen. “I have a totally different personal history in here, I have a husband, I have kids, I have a totally different house, Multioak looks nothing like the real Multioak, none of the TV shows I watched this morning actually exist, none of the magazines in your waiting room actually exist.”

                “Husbands are dreamlike?” asked Dr. Parkledge. “The magazines in my waiting room are dreamlike?”

                “Yes, those specific ones are,” said Ashleen.

                “Let’s take a different approach,” said Dr. Parkledge. “Think back to what you think of as your ‘real life.’ Has anything dreamlike ever happened there?”

                “Yes,” said Ashleen. The incident leapt to the front of her mind. It had nagged at her to varying degrees for the last 16 years of her life. Maybe finally dealing with the incident was what this dream was about? Maybe that’s why this was happening to her? She decided to go with it.

“I was 10 years old,” said Ashleen. “It was a Saturday afternoon and my mom and I were the only ones at home. I was playing on the floor of my bedroom with my door open. Just outside of my bedroom door, there was a closet. I could see the closet door from where I was on the floor of my room. As I was playing, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and saw my mom watching me. She had a loving look in her eyes, she looked very proud of me. When she saw me look at her, she gave me a little wave, then turned, opened the closet door, stepped into the closet, and closed the door behind her. I was shocked because I couldn’t think of any reason that my mom would have for going all the way into the closet, but I thought maybe it was some kind of game she wanted to play with me, so I got up and went to the closet and opened it up, but she wasn’t in there. It was just a normal closet with some junk in it, a vacuum cleaner, a box of giftwrap. I was confused, then disturbed. I heard movement down the hall in the kitchen, so I went to see who it was, and it was my mom. She was in there filling ice cube trays at the sink. I just stood there and stared at her, and she must have felt me staring because she turned and looked at me and asked me what was wrong, but I just shrugged and said ‘nothing’ and went back to my room. I tried my best to go back to playing so I could forget about what I’d just seen, but it didn’t work. And I’ve never forgotten about it. I know I saw it, but I also know it couldn’t have happened, that something was wrong.”

                “You see?” said Dr. Parkledge. “That kind of thing could only happen in a dream. Don’t you see how that experience shows that the other life – the one you think of as your real life – is the dream?”

                “No,” said Ashleen. “This is the dream.”

                “But has anything like that happened to you here, in what you think of as the dream? Has anything impossible happened, anything so strange, so unreal?”

                “It’s all unreal,” said Ashleen. “It’s all strange.”

                “You know what I mean,” said Dr. Parkledge.

                “Yes, I know what you mean,” said Ashleen. “But this is so, so, so tedious.” She stood up. “I’m going to consider my curiosity satisfied. I will not be coming back for any more sessions.”

                “That would be a mistake,” said Dr. Parkledge. He did not stand up. He looked at Ashleen with a sort of stern disappointment that did not work on her because she could not care less about disappointing a dream.

                “And then she woke up,” said Ashleen.


                That evening, when Ashleen told Rory that she still believed that she was in a dream and that she would not be seeing Dr. Parkledge anymore, he got upset. “So we just have to live with this? Me, Alexander, and Tisha all just have to put up with you believing that this is all a dream, that we’re all just a product of your subconscious, as is everyone and everything that we care about? That we have no control over anything we say or do, that nothing we say or do or experience or feel has any meaning?”

                “Sure, it has meaning,” said Ashleen. “But only for me.”

                “I’m your real husband,” said Rory. “I’m not your dream husband.”

                “You can say that again,” said Ashleen. She laughed.

                “I want a divorce,” said Rory.

                “That’s fine,” said Ashleen.

                That night in bed, she heard Rory crying softly, but trying to hide it from her. She didn’t comment on it. Instead, she got up and went to the kitchen for a drink of something. But on the way to the kitchen, it occurred to her that since this was only a dream, she could try cigarettes without worrying about the long-term health risks, so she drove to a nearby convenience store in her slippers, and purchased a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She got back into the car, rolled down the window, and smoked a cigarette in the convenience store parking lot. She knew she was only finding out what her own brain thought smoking a cigarette was like, but in a way, that was probably better than real cigarettes because she had always been drawn to them despite knowing they were bad for her, so her brain was basing this dreamed experience of smoking a cigarette on her instinctive positive impression of cigarettes.

                The cigarette tasted nice and Ashleen felt cool sitting in the car in the parking lot in her pajamas and slippers, eyes narrowed, observing the low-level activity all around her in this corner of her dream. As she lit her second cigarette, Ashleen saw a man in a heavy coat walk up to the front door of the convenience store, lean forward so that his forehead rested against the glass, transform into a statue of ice, topple backward, shatter on the pavement, and then melt into a puddle. Two other men in the parking lot wandered over to the puddle, got down on their hands and knees, and lapped at it with their tongues like nervous deer at a stream in the woods, pausing every few seconds to look around as if a predator might be lurking nearby, eager to take advantage of their own eagerness to get a drink.

                Ashleen was not disturbed in the slightest. Why should she be? She was in a dream. Anything could happen in a dream. Was what she had just witnessed objectively weirder than the event from her childhood when she saw her mom walk into the closet? She supposed so. But that had happened in real life. There was no explanation for it and there never would or could be. She would always have to live with the doubt and confusion that incident had allowed into her life. Even if she ever forgot the incident itself, the doubt and confusion would remain. But this? This scene in the convenience store parking lot? How could it possibly harm her in any way? It was just a dream. And sure, she could go back to Dr. Parkledge’s office tomorrow and tell him all about what she’d just witnessed, but why bother? It hadn’t confirmed to her that she was in a dream. She already knew that. And why go out of her way to convince someone who wasn’t real? Even if she could make him believe her, it would be such a boring conversation. The quest to distinguish dream from reality was the worst of all possible quests, and Ashleen would not participate in it in any way. Besides, she felt sure she’d wake up before tomorrow dawned in her dream.

                As Ashleen drove home from the convenience store, a dump truck blew through a red light and smashed into her car. As she saw the truck bearing down on her, Ashleen smiled to herself. Of course. Of course. “And then she woke up,” she said to herself, right before impact.


                Miraculously, despite the car around her being annihilated, Ashleen escaped from the accident with only a few broken bones. The doctors at the hospital told her how lucky she was, but she did not feel lucky because she was still in the dream. How had this situation which should have spelled certain death not resulted in her waking from the dream? What was going on with her real self? Had she been drugged? Was she in a coma?

                Ashleen was released from Multioak General Hospital, which looked nothing like the real one beyond the general characteristics shared by all hospitals, after two days. She and Rory got divorced. Ashleen moved into an apartment on the other side of Multioak, closer to where Dalcette would have been if it had existed in this dream, which it did not. In its place, there was a small town called “Hot Water.” The town sign said, “Now you’re in Hot Water!” It was only a twenty minute drive to Hot Water from Ashleen’s apartment, so she sometimes went there to eat at a diner called “Seated Eating.”

                She never got a job, but her credit card always worked whenever she used it, so she appreciated that convenience provided by her dream. If it was going to take so long to wake up, at least she didn’t have to spend huge chunks of her time doing something as pointless as going to work. Not that everything else she did wasn’t inherently pointless considering the circumstances, but answering phones or waiting tables or fixing cars for rent money so she wouldn’t have to have a dream that felt like literal years wherein she was homeless would have been extra awful.

                Ashleen spent a lot of time reading novels, watching movies, watching TV. She liked all of these things in real life too, but knowing that her brain had somehow produced everything she read or saw was the closest she could come to feeling real stimulation in her dream. Sometimes she would encounter something so good that she would tell herself that when she woke up, she would start writing a book or a screenplay since she clearly had serious talent packed away somewhere inside of her. But sometimes she would read or see something really bad and decide that it might be best not to throw herself into creative pursuits when she woke up because she might only succeed in embarrassing herself. Like, maybe the talent was too well hidden and only her subconscious could access it. But good or bad, she was always fascinated with her own mind’s capacity for surprising her with an unexpected line or a plot twist. She even had to use a dictionary on occasion to look up words she encountered in certain books. How that worked, she had no idea.

                Her dream life outside of the art she consumed was typically less interesting. Once Ashleen got used to the high level of detail and confirmed that pretty much all of the elements of real life were accounted for, but that they were just arranged differently than they were in her real life, Ashleen felt less and less compelled to examine them. Encountering the people who populated her dream life had some initial appeal until Ashleen realized that there was no material difference between the people walking around outside of her apartment and the characters in the books, movies, and TV shows. They were all equally made up by her own subconscious, but she didn’t have to interact with the characters in the books, movies, and TV shows. She didn’t have to argue with them, answer their questions, repeat herself when they misheard her, or deal with their reactions to what they improperly perceived to be her rudeness. Ashleen did not think it possible to be rude to a dream.

                She liked her kids, though. She knew they were only dreams, but still, she liked them. After the divorce, they had made an effort to stay in her life. They had begged Rory to be able to see Ashleen regularly, so they came and stayed with her at her apartment every other weekend. Rory explained to her that he’d decided that the kids having a mother who believed she was dreaming their existence was better than not having a mother at all. And the fact that she was dreaming the lives of her children didn’t come up much when they stayed over. It was not a subject that any of them enjoyed discussing.

Mostly, the three of them – Ashleen, Alexander, and Tisha – just marathoned movies and ate junk food together. Ashleen went from not minding their visits to enjoying their visits to looking forward to their visits. She wondered if this was because of a maternal instinct, if the mere fact that these dreams were functioning in the roles of her children was enough to trigger Ashleen’s affection toward them. And, like, she had birthed them. Not in the car on the way to the hospital or in the elevator at the hospital like her ready-made memories tried to tell her, but still, the kids had come from her. And while everyone else in her dream had too, these were the only two people in her dream who acted like they’d come from her, these were the only two people in her dream who thought of themselves as products of Ashleen. And wasn’t it true that in her real life, Ashleen had felt affection for fictional characters, even characters that she only got to know over the period of an hour and a half? Sometimes even less, in the cases of guest characters on TV shows who only appeared in one episode. So why wouldn’t it be possible, even likely, for her to feel affection for her dreamed kids, who she spent hours and hours and hours of pleasant time with, and who were also manifestations of elements found in the depths of her brain or the depths of her heart or – why not? – the depths of her soul?

Once, when Alexander was 18 and Tisha was 16, the kids came over for a longer weekend than usual because Multioak High School had Monday off for a holiday that did not exist in the real world called “Defenders Days.” It had been established to commemorate a time in the history that Ashleen had dreamed for Multioak wherein early settlers had successfully driven the members of a new, growing religion out of town, thereby saving young Multioak from being overrun by obnoxious fanatics. Ashleen had not dreamed many specifics about the offending religion, so at school, the students were taught that the tenets of the religion had been “lost to time.”

The third movie that Ashleen, Alexander, and Tisha watched on the Friday night of that long weekend was called Evilborne. Ashleen loved the movie right up to the very end, at which point it was revealed that the entire second half had all been a dream that the main character was having.

“Well,” said Ashleen. She got up to eject the movie and choose the next one. “That was a disappointment.”

“You didn’t like it?” asked Tisha.

“No,” said Ashleen. “That ending was such a cop-out. I’m embarrassed. Sorry, guys.”

                “How was it a cop-out?” asked Alexander. “I thought it was cool. I was really surprised.”

                “Yeah, I’m still trying to think through it,” said Tisha.

                “OK, first of all, it ended two minutes ago,” said Ashleen. “So it isn’t that amazing that you’re ‘still trying to think through it,’ Tisha. And second of all, Alexander, it’s a cop-out because it means that most of what we watched, the whole climax, didn’t matter. There were never any real stakes. The main character wasn’t in any danger, there couldn’t be any long-term consequences for his decisions, nothing. If we had known he was dreaming all that stuff, we would have been bored to tears.”

                “I wouldn’t have been bored,” said Tisha. “It was still interesting. Like, the effects were still cool, there were creative ideas, the jokes were still funny. Knowing that it was a dream wouldn’t have changed any of that.”

                “Yeah,” said Alexander. “I agree with Tisha. I would have thought that you would love this movie, Mom.”

                “Why?” asked Ashleen. “Because I’m in a dream right now just like the guy in the movie?”

                “Sure,” said Tisha. “If nothing else, it seems like you’d be interested because you think all these movies are coming from your mind, so it seems like you’d interpret Evilborne as your mind’s commentary on your current situation.”

                “Look,” said Ashleen. “I’m not criticizing you guys. But I really think you want to believe the movie was good because if it was, then maybe that validates your existence a little, maybe that means that you have some kind of value even though I’m just dreaming you.”

                Alexander shook his head. “But we don’t think you’re dreaming us, Mom. Only you think that.”

                “Right,” said Ashleen. “So you want me to think the movie is good because you want me to think you matter.”

                “And what’s wrong with that?” asked Tisha.

                “You’re just dreams,” said Ashleen. “Even on the very slim chance that you do matter, it certainly doesn’t matter if I say you matter. Because you can’t actually feel like you matter. You can only say that you feel like you matter. Only real things can feel, and you guys are dreams.”

                Alexander and Tisha, sitting next to each other on Ashleen’s living room couch in their pajama pants and XXL t-shirts, looked at Ashleen, then, with matching facial expressions that, Ashleen was stunned to find, broke her heart. Tears formed in her eyes, then trickled down her face. Her children’s faces turned to shock.

                “I’m sorry,” said Ashleen, wiping her face with the insides of her wrists.

                “You don’t have to apologize for crying,” said Tisha.

                “That’s not what I’m apologizing for,” said Ashleen. She drew a long, shuddering breath and grabbed her pack of cigarettes off of the coffee table. “Smoke break,” she said. “Then we’ll fire up movie number four.”

                Outside on her balcony, snow fell around Ashleen as she smoked. She looked up at the blackness from which the snow came, and said, “And then she woke up.”


                Once the general pattern of Ashleen’s life within her dream was established, it persisted for weeks, then months, then years, then decades. Why didn’t she wake up? She didn’t know. She still thought it was possible that this was all occurring within the span of one night’s sleep; maybe time passed that much differently in a dream, or maybe her theory about the dream beginning in the current moment and all her previous experiences in the dream being nothing more than implanted memories was correct. She didn’t think she was dead, but she could see how someone in similar circumstances to hers might arrive at that conclusion.

                At some point, while Ashleen still expected to wake up eventually, she stopped expecting to wake up soon. But even after she had long since ceased to believe that the wake-up that would return her to her real life was imminent, Ashleen’s final words before she drifted off every night were always “and then she woke up.”

One night, when Ashleen was 64 years old in her dream, an intruder broke into her apartment and shot her in the chest. When the bullet entered her body, Ashleen was certain that she was finally, finally about to wake up. But no, she didn’t wake up. Instead, a neighbor called 911 and she was taken to the hospital where, in the course of caring for her gunshot wound, the doctors discovered that she had advanced lung cancer caused by her many years of smoking.

Ashleen had not anticipated this. The cancer, probably because of the intensity of Ashleen’s real life fear thereof, moved very quickly once it was discovered. Ashleen went into the hospital for the gunshot wound and never left. Her symptoms were exhaustion, a raspy voice, and a weak cough. She was glad that in real life, she’d always been too scared to look up the actual effects of lung cancer. Her main real-life perception of cancer was that it was incurable, so she knew that in the dream, there was nothing to be done and she would not last long.  

The only people to visit her at the hospital were Alexander and Tisha. They had their own lives now. They lived far away in other towns that did not exist in the real world; they’d both gotten married and were now raising kids of their own. Ashleen had made certain to visit them so that she could have dreamed experiences with them, thereby rendering them slightly more real than just an idea of grandchildren.

As the last bit of Ashleen’s dreamed life slipped away, Alexander and Tisha stood by her hospital bed and held her hands.

                “I’m going back to my real life now,” said Ashleen.

                Her kids nodded, tears in their eyes.

                “I won’t say it’s a better place,” said Ashleen. “But it’s real. I’ll have to get used to my decisions mattering again. I’ll have to be polite. I won’t be able to take credit for good books anymore. But I won’t have to take the blame for the bad ones.”

                Her kids smiled, squeezing her hands.

                “But if I ever have kids in real life,” said Ashleen, “I hope they’re exactly like you two.” She was on the very brink of death now, she had the energy for five more words, uttered in the feeblest possible voice. She whispered, “And then she woke up.”


                Ashleen found herself in heaven. But it was not real life heaven. Ashleen was dreaming this heaven. Her dreamed death by lung cancer had not caused her to wake up in real life, it had only caused her to pass on to her dreamed version of heaven, which was not impressive. In fact, it appeared to be a significant step down from even her dreamed version of Multioak, which had been better than the real life Multioak in very few respects, if any. Ashleen had never been to a real heaven with which to compare her dreamed heaven, but she had to imagine that the gap between the two was very, very wide.

She was inside an enormous, beige-colored dome, the ceiling miles above her, the sides miles away in all directions. The floor of the dome was covered with green AstroTurf and divided into rectangles of different dimensions by white, knee-high fences. Inside of these rectangles, groups of three or four peaceful-looking people played croquet. Some wore sweaters. The light in this heaven was insubstantial, inert. It made everything look eternal in a bad way.

“And then she woke up,” said Ashleen, a distinct note of panic appearing in her voice. “And then she woke up.” She stepped over the nearest fence and walked through a croquet game, disrupting a player’s shot.

“Hey!” shouted the player. “You’re being rude!”

Ashleen ignored him. She stepped over the next fence she came to and found herself on a narrow path that wound its way between the fences. Not sure which way to follow it, she chose a direction at random. As she walked, some of the croquet players would hail her, telling her they’d just finished a game and had room for one more, but Ashleen would not look at them. She was not going to be a part of this. She had, without even realizing she was doing it, surrendered to her dream life, giving into the seduction of a life lived without the pressure of meeting expectations, contributing to society, doing good, being good, leaving a legacy, and so on. But she was not going to surrender to her dream afterlife.

After walking for a long time, Ashleen found that the path terminated at a kiosk next to a heavy, iron door set into the wall of the dome. Inside the kiosk was St. Peter, sitting on a stool and fiddling with a paperclip. He wore layers of beige, robe-like garments and a silver circlet sat askew on top of his dark, curly hair. His beard was streaked with gray.

Ashleen approached the kiosk and said, “No more of this. I want to wake up.”

“Good for you,” said St. Peter. He fumbled the paperclip off of the counter in front of him, rose from his stool, and shuffled around in a circle while looking at the floor.

“Wake me up,” said Ashleen.

“What makes you think I have that kind of authority?” asked St. Peter. He spotted the paperclip, stooped to retrieve it, and returned to his seat.

“Don’t you let people in and out of here?” asked Ashleen.

“No,” said St. Peter. “This is an information kiosk.”

“So give me some information about how to wake up, then.”

“You’re in heaven,” said St. Peter. “Why would you want to wake up?”

“So you acknowledge that I’m asleep,” said Ashleen.

“I’m just letting you set the terms of the conversation,” said St. Peter.

Ashleen felt the strength draining from her body, replaced by hopelessness. During her dreamed life, she had thought that going to sleep would signal the end of her dream, that being hit by a truck would be the end of her dream, that getting shot would wake her. She had thought that significant personal moments would wake her, that profound realizations would wake her. None of these had woken her, but her hope that the next opportunity would cause her to wake up had never gone away. Because she knew the dream had to end. The dream had to mean something to her, and she could not begin to decipher or interpret it until it ended. The end of the dream was the only way to define the parameters within in which to begin interpreting, but where was the ending? Where could the ending be now that she was in heaven? Was it still years away? Hundreds of years, thousands, millions? What natural stopping point could there be for Ashleen personally in a place with no sleeping, no death, no end? All of heaven’s major selling points were major drawbacks for someone desperate for a conclusion.

St. Peter, initially dismissive, looked at Ashleen with concern. “I’ve never seen someone in heaven look as pale as you do.”

“I don’t feel well,” Ashleen admitted. “I think I might faint.”

St. Peter came out of the kiosk, took Ashleen’s arm, and helped her sit down on the ground. Then she laid back and looked up at the ceiling of the dome, her legs bent at the knee and her feet flat on the ground. Her arms were limp at her sides, hands resting palm up on the prickly AstroTurf.

“Maybe you should talk to God,” said St. Peter.

Ashleen opened her eyes. “I can do that?”

“Let me call Him,” said St. Peter. He pulled his phone out of one of the folds in his robes and stepped around the other side of the kiosk. A moment later he returned and said, “He’s on his way.”

Ashleen sat up. The conclusion. The Alpha and Omega, right? The Beginning and the End, right? The question, of course, was whether or not this was merely Ashleen’s dreamed version of God, a representation of ultimate authority deployed by her subconscious, or if God had really entered her dream in order to rescue her. Either way, it now seemed clear that God’s arrival to the information kiosk was what the entire dream had been building up to, that everything that Ashleen had experienced since finding herself inside her dreamed kitchen loading drinking glasses into a cupboard had been leading her to this moment. It only made sense that Ashleen’s concerns about meaning would be answered by the source of all meaning, that her questions of interpretation would be answered by The Great Interpreter. Was “The Great Interpreter” one of God’s titles? Ashleen wasn’t sure. But the hopelessness that she had succumbed to moments before was gone, replaced by assurance, confidence, a rising sense that the entire dream would, in a matter of moments, be proven to have been worth it, and that when she awoke, she would have brought something invaluable with her from the dream, something that would alter the course of her real life in wonderful, dramatic ways.

Ashleen stood up and smoothed out the rumpled front of her shirt with her hands. “I’m ready,” she said.

St. Peter looked at his phone. “All right, well, He just texted and said He’s on his way, but it’ll be another ten minutes or so before He gets here.”

“Oh,” said Ashleen. “OK, that’s fine.”

And then she woke up.

Discussion Questions

  • Did this story become the very thing I hate?

  • What’s something dreamlike that happened to you in real life that you wish would have happened in a dream instead because the fact that it happened in your real life has brought extra doubt and confusion into your life, and you weren’t exactly looking for more of THAT stuff?

  • Should someone attempt to address the phenomenon of dreaming poetically?

  • Have you ever felt a sense of pride or accomplishment because of the content of one of your dreams? If so, ponder that now for, let’s say, 10 minutes.

  • Assuming we all agree with Ashleen’s assertion that the quest to distinguish dream from reality is the worst possible quest, then what is the second worst possible quest?

  • Have you ever honestly suspected that your real life was a dream? I mean, truly, honestly suspected that? Not just, like, “Oh, isn’t this cool to think about,” but I’m saying, you seriously, actually suspected that? Don’t lie to try to make yourself sound more interesting.