I board the limited express at midnight, indifferent to its destination. Old memories swimming in my mind replay themselves in fragile, multicolored bubbles, eventually forming a thick fog that threatens to consume me. It took all my consciousness just to not think about it. Instead, I slouch, and start to observe my gradually shrinking shadow, the same one that seemed so long and mighty moments ago. As the pitiful figure becomes smaller and smaller, the world inflates, getting larger and larger. I wonder if it would ever pop, like a tiny balloon?
I look down at my pale wrists, instantly recognizing the considerate memento my past life has left me. The pink, itchy marks are growing fainter, to my relief. I hope they disappear soon. Iron chains, indestructible ones, that once bounded my hands caused them. The metal devils were always rusting and they never cared when I complained that I was developing a rash. As I dig my fingernails into area where the chains would have been, familiar sensations slowly creep into my skin, scaring me. I shake myself, and then quickly divert my attention to rubbing the area below the chain marks, on my right arm, trying to erase the numbers “#00-1564,” etched into my flesh. These casually generated digits kept me sane a long time ago, but now, they’re nothing but inconvenient reminders of what could’ve been. But, the harder I try to smear the numbers off, the more distinct they became. Surely, I must be going mad.
Giving up on the seemingly impossible task, I quickly locate a seat nearby instead as the doors behind me snap shut quickly and silently. Mechanical entryways like these, in truth, are sinister contraptions. They appear all shiny and polished on the surface, but don’t be fooled. The luster is actually a sugar coating to attract their prey. If they do finally catch you, they will take something away from you. It can be the tail of a brand new shirt or even the golden strands of a little girl’s hair. For me, it was a little something called courage.
The seat that I try to derive comfort from is icy cold, as if unoccupied for a long time. The lonesome feeling is quite similar to ones of soundless beds in empty hospital wards, hollow and waiting for no one. I recall images of the flimsy barbed wire that used to surround the white building. Even though there’s no wind, it was rattling. Always, always rattling. Perhaps, it was trying to offer some sort of companionship to the lonely place. Or maybe it was gloating. I don’t really want to know.
The soles of my feet start to vibrate as the conductor sounds the departure melody. The ringing hangs in the chilly air, reverberating for a few split moments before everything falls to silence again. My chest begins stirring with a strange noise.
I need a distraction.
Looking around, however, I soon discover how empty the train car really is. The only other passengers are an old couple who are fast asleep and a little child who seems a bit preoccupied at the moment. I decide to focus on the latter, as he was doing something much more intriguing. The kid, probably around nine or ten years of age, was sitting on the train floor and spray-painting on the walls, the floors, the seats – everywhere. The aerosol cans he used ranged all the way from a rosy magenta to a gentle cerulean. Although he only created abrupt blasts of color, a wave of calm washes over me. Oh look, there’s a bright smiley face next to the blasted sliding doors. How nice.
Before I realized it, I was approaching him.
“That’s definitely vandalism.” Yeah, I’m a great conversation starter.
The boy raises his head up to look at me. He seems to not notice anything odd about my appearance. That’s what I like about kids; they never know what’s good for them.
“It’s alright. This is for a good cause. I’m telling my world,” he answers.
What’s that supposed to mean? I sit down next to him, suddenly very interested. “Is that so?”
He suddenly frowns, “Mother told me to not speak to strangers.” It’s like he just remembered the fact. Regardless, he continues, “But to be honest, I don’t actually mind. You can’t take what adults say seriously all the time. Sure, you have to listen sometimes, so you won’t get scolded. But, you shouldn’t listen all the time. I cross the street when the light is green and all that, but I don’t always eat all the red carrots in my soup. It’s like that. Do you know what I mean?”
“I guess?” On the contrary, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Childish blasphemy, I suppose.
The boy seems to be satisfied anyways. “Oh,” he smiles. “You’re the good kind of adult.”
“Huh? Because I agree with you?”
“No, no,” he shakes his head. “Because you understand. There are grown-ups who never take children seriously. You have to be at least thirty-five before they even start listening to what you have to say. That’s the bad kind of adult.”
I was silent for a long time, unsure of what to say. The train car was so quiet that you can really hear a pin drop. The ignorant snores of the old couple sound like atomic bombs. Jealous of their stolen glory, the ugly rattling noises of the wire return, a bit more flamboyant and twice as pitiful this time. “Shut up,” I tell it.
Fortunately, the kid ignores my strange remark. His mind seems to be wandering elsewhere, as he suddenly asks me, “By the way, mister, do you know what a sky looks like?”
“A sky?” I frown, confused at this abrupt question and taken back by how obvious the answer seems to be. “Isn’t it just a large mass of blue? Oh, and with patches of white condensed air too.”
“Yeah, but that’s a general, boring sky. I want to know what the sky really looks like.”
I stare at him. “You know, you’re a very, very strange child.”
“That goes for the two of us. No one normal can stand me for more than a few minutes.”
Was I supposed to be offended? I suddenly feel so glad. After considering his earlier question carefully, I answer, “The sky is a sorry object. It likes to hide itself behind marshmallow clouds and steal the brilliance of the sun.”
“Why is the sky sorry, then? Isn’t it amazing instead?”
“Because,” he calmly explains in a patient tone. “It is very intelligent. We refer to the sky and not the sun when we say ‘the sunset is so beautiful,’ right? If the sky knows how to take credit for something the sun actually did, then it must be brilliant!”
I crack a smile. “Well then, why did you ask the question if you already know the answer?”
“I don’t know the answer.” The boy gestures to the messy array of colors sprayed everywhere. “You see all this? These are the records of my dreams. I wanted to capture each and every one of them as I remembered them, but the images somehow turn out so unreal. I decided that it was because dreams are like skies. They are both whimsical creatures that change whenever to their likings. So, in order to understand dreams, I asked you about skies.”
“Dreams, did you say?” What chimerical hogwash. I don’t say that to him though. Children are only good for fantasizing, after all. It’s no good if you wake them up too early.
The boy releases a huge sigh. He seems to instantly age fifty years, turning into an old man explaining to his grandchild for the one hundredth time why dragons aren’t real. “Quite the slow one aren’t you, mister? You didn’t know? This train here is a Dream Machine, and–”
“Pardon me?” I burst out laughing, astound by the contrast between the child’s earnest face and the preposterousness of what he is proclaiming.
“Hmph,” he puffs up his cheeks in indignation. “You wouldn’t laugh if you knew about it.”
“Oh, and what’s this that I don’t know about?”
“You have to say ‘please.’”
I chuckle. “Alright, please tell me this deep, dark secret that you’re hiding from me.”
“Okay,” the silly child clears his throat dramatically, as if about to disclose the solutions to all enigmas of the world. “This train here is the only one in the area that runs during midnight. And midnight is the time when people tend to sleep, right?”
I glance at the old couple at the opposite end of the train car. “Apparently.”
“So, the people onboard will all eventually drift into a deep slumber and enter a dream. The train fabricates a unique dream for each individual. That’s why it’s a Dream Machine!”
“…You really expect me to believe that.”
“You can believe what you want. But, you’ll understand when you fall asleep too.”
Yeah, right. “So if this train is really so magical, then why aren’t you dreaming?”
“Oh, I’m special,” he whispers to me. “I’m sort of like a swindler. While the Dream Machine creates dreams in the imagination, I take advantage of it and construct their counterparts in reality. Dreams you can see with your eyes open tend to last a lot longer.”
“But how can you do that?” Then, I get it. “Oh, you mean the graffiti.”
He nods. “Yep. Some people like to keep beautiful things to themselves, to preserve them. I, on the other hand, choose to share them with the world. I’m an artist, after all.”
The kid proceeds to point at paint blotches of black and red near the windows, proudly. “See, this was the time I played croquet with the Queen of Hearts. And boy, was she a sore loser! When I finally got the hedgehog through the wicket, she ordered the Ace of Spades to kill me-” He then catches sight of another picture, a larger splat than the previous one. He gestures to it and beams at me. “And this is my visit to Heidi’s house in the Swiss Alps. Oh, how I loved that fresh mountain air and that absolutely delicious goat milk! Only if her grandfather wasn’t so unpleasant, then I can surely…”
As he goes on and on, I start to notice something. The boy has the voice of a storyteller. He really does. It’s the sort of voice that goes well with sweet birdcalls and murmuring brooks on serene spring days. I can’t really pinpoint what’s so special about it though. Maybe it has something to do with his intonation. Or maybe it’s his expression. When was the last time I’ve seen a look of such pure curiosity and wonder, intertwined with the genuine eagerness for a dream adventure? He really is a swindler.
“…And that’s why I would sometimes bury myself under bundles of blankets on those nights. I was so afraid that the Jabberwocky would do something horrible to me that I couldn’t even sleep. But regardless, I have survived!” The boy finishes with a flourish.
Oh? Didn’t I use to do that too? Under very different circumstances though.
“…Well, I sort of stopped checking for monsters under the bed when I realized they were really inside of me. It’s the same with dreams. They will soon lose their magnificence when reality smacks you right in the face. You’ll learn that soon enough, kid.” That’s right. Don’t be fooled.
“No, I won’t.”
The boy answers, so determined that I didn’t know what to think. “The word ‘reality’ is just an excuse, mister. That’s why I keep saying that you can’t trust grown-ups. They never see. They think they do because they have a few grey hairs here and there. But honestly, they are only looking through empty eye sockets.”
“Oh, really now? Then, how do you suggest that we see?”
“Through your heart.”
“Well, I’m sorry to say that I’m blind as a bat.”
“I’m helping you see, mister. That’s what I’ve been trying to say all this time.”
The boy gestures at the graffiti.
“Huh? You’re kidding me.”
He continues to smile.
“But what if there’s nothing to see?” It certainly seems like it. What am I supposed to find in messy paint stains hastily done by a child?
“Oh, silly mister. There’s an infinite amount of worlds out there. What do you mean there’s nothing to see?”
“But didn’t you say that only kids-”
“Grown-ups are kids too. They just don’t know it.”
I look at him, dazed, like that last phrase wasn’t in English. It really wasn’t, in a sense. I suddenly remember that annoying fog that gathered itself inside my mind. It’s definitely more condensed now, and even starting to take some sort of shape. But, whenever I try to focus on it, it morphs again. It becomes the tiny shadow of myself that I accidently caught in the beginning of the train ride. It then shifts into an expanding balloon, growing so large that I was afraid it would burst. But, it never did.
The train skids to a stop, and the doors open their jaws with a loud hiss. Where are we? I squint, trying to identify any sign or indication outside the windows, but to no avail. Everything was way too dark to be discernible.
“Well, I have to go now,” the boy slowly gets up, and starts gathering his remaining aerosol cans. “But, I think you should stay on the train for a while,” he adds.
“Where is it going?” My voice sounds hoarse and alien, like a stranger’s. “Where are you going?”
“Find out on your own. The world stops spinning when dreamer starts questioning, you know. As for your other inquiry, well, I’m a traveling artist.” He then offers his hand to me, and grins again. I stare at it, unsure of what it means. Ignoring my hesitation, the kid grabs my right hand anyways and shakes it. He catches sight of those cursed numbers inscribed on my wrists. Or, at least, I think he does. I’m not quite sure, as he doesn’t comment on it. Most people would.
“Goodbye, mister. May God bless you.”
I start to say something dumb like I’m atheist or whatnot, but the kid was already gone. So instead, I return to the original seat I found when I first boarded the train. From there, I start to look at the messy art exhibitions forced onto the walls and floors. I mean really start to look at it. It’s quite funny, actually. Although he boy claims himself to be an artist, he really lacks in the technique department. The most I can make out from the pandemonium of colors was a gigantic, hideous black monster, seeking refuge from the rain under the petals of a tiny flower. For some reason, I start to laugh.
It’s all coming back to me now. My own mother used to read me bedtime stories, way back in time, behind those black cells bars. I wonder why I have forgotten. Even now, I can recount the number of times she would softly caress my hair, then my cheeks, whispering tales that crossed boundaries of the imaginary. Alchemists, dragons, and castles in the sky? Why, of course they’re real. The only difference between that world and this is merely a conceptual matter. Didn’t I, too, used to outsmart thieves with Alibaba, sip jasmine tea with the Mad Hatter, and go on boundless adventures with Peter Pan? The world I saw back then was beautiful, and more dazzling than anything else I can wish for. Why did I forget? Maybe it was because I couldn’t find the tiniest of flowers to hide under when it rained. Maybe it was just that.
My loud, continuous laughter eventually wakes the old couple. They give me a look of pure horror, and immediately dash off the train as fast as their bony legs can carry them. Their faces are so hilarious that I can’t help but laugh even harder. The door finally closes after them, and the train begins to pick up again.
The once dark cityscape outside is growing more and more clear and defined. Dawn was beginning to break through the tips of the pathetic looking buildings. The world blazes crimson, blending with soft hues of amber and mini specks of gold. The boy was right. The sun itself, the source of all this grandeur, isn’t really anything special, only a huge, glorified white orb. Instead, the sky is what’s so furious and beautiful. Funny. I only remember it as only a sad little blue sheet, empty and devoid of life. But, now, that same sheet of paper seems to contain all the sunrises that came and left in this world.
My seat jolts with each bump the train encounters. I quickly grip the bottom of it so I wouldn’t fall off. Is it just me, or did the seat become a tiny bit warmer? We’ve made friends, the seat and I.
Even though it’s true that I don’t believe in an omniscient deity who oversees everything, I soon find myself whispering prayers to a God who doesn’t exist. I beg him,
“Keep the blessing from the kid. I don’t need it. Instead, please, please, please, let me board the Dream Machine again.”
I close my eyes, and start to count sheep: 1, 2, 3…They say that’s the fastest way to fall asleep. 67, 68, 69…To my dismay, the prayer doesn’t seem to be working. 157, 158, 159…Maybe he didn’t hear me. 423, 424, 425…Maybe I need to paint a picture for these things. 1023, 1024, 1025… 1390, 1391, 1392… 1563, 1564. I arrive at the terminal station.
Tongyu Zhou, Age 14, Grade 9, Hunter College High School, Gold Key