“The Color of Dreams”
by Donny’s Boy
Synopsis: I am being stalked by a crazy girl with wild pink hair and laughing blue eyes. She says she knows me. She says we’re best friends. And sometimes ... sometimes I think she just might be right.
Maybe I’m going crazy too.
“But listen to the color of your dreams.
It is not leaving ... it is not leaving.”
--The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”
“You’ll only have one chance. You do realize that, don’t you? When I send you there, you’ll have no memories of the happy little life you lived before--and if you fail, then you’ll be trapped right there with her. Forever.”
She shuddered a bit at that last word but nodded. “I understand. At least, I think I understand.”
“Do you really?” He sounded amused. “But I suppose that’s beside the point. Even if you do happen to understand, you’ll still fail. They’ve all failed, you know.”
“Maybe, but then again, maybe not. I have a pretty good reason to do this.”
“They all have good reasons. But please tell me, my little pony, what is your reason? Why do you seek that which is, they claim, impossible?”
“Because … because I love her. Because I want to get her back.”
He laughed. It wasn’t a nice sound in the least. “Ah, love! True love! Oh, bah, that’s what they all say. I’m disappointed in you. You are precisely like the others.”
But her eyes burned with determination and with fire as she replied, “No, I’m not. None of the others were in love with her.”
I wake up from a dream about ponies.
That’s how I always wake up. I never remember the dream that well, just fragments--splashes of color, almost painfully bright, as well as vague shapes and indistinct sounds--but I always remember that there are ponies. It’s a weird thing to dream about. Kind of makes me wonder if I’m crazy.
Sunlight, pale and gray, is filtering in from the closed blinds in my bedroom. I can see tiny bits of dust dancing in the light, silent and solitary.
I roll out of bed so that I can stagger over to my dresser. At least, I think it’s my dresser. Surely this has to be my apartment, but the walls look oddly bare and nothing feels familiar. But why would I wake up here if it wasn’t my apartment? That’s crazy. So, it’s got to be my apartment. From the dresser I take out a t-shirt, which I quickly pull over my head, and a pair of tattered old jeans. I cinch the jeans around my waist with a belt, then put on some sneakers.
I don’t bother to look in the mirror to brush my hair. Not anymore. I always look the same, and I’ve gotten tired of how creepy that face in the mirror appears. Almost like it’s a stranger and not me at all. Instead of stopping by the mirror, I just grab my keys from a hook by the front door and head downstairs.
The girl is waiting for me right outside my apartment building. Just like always.
“Hi, there! Good morning--or, really, I should say, good afternoon!” she chirps, smiling much too wide. Her eyes, which burn as brightly as the sun, somehow seem to smile too. She looks the same as she does every morning--frizzy pink hair, soft chubby face, pink shirt, black pants. And her eyes. Those crazy, smiling eyes, as wide and as blue as the sky.
“Hey. ‘Sup?” I’ve given up telling her to get lost. She never does. “So, you remember your name yet?”
She falls into place walking beside me, keeping up easily, as I continue down the street. “Nope! How ‘bout you?”
“I never said I couldn’t remember my name.”
“Huh. I guess that’s true. But you’ve never told me your name, and why wouldn’t you tell me your name if you knew it?”
I shoot her a side-eyed glare without turning my head. “You ever think that maybe it’s ‘cause I don’t like you?”
“That’s silly! Of course you like me. We’re bestest best friends.”
“We are not friends!” I shouldn’t stop walking, and I shouldn’t take the bait, but I do. I turn to face her, and she’s still smiling away. “No, look, really. We aren’t friends. I don’t even know you.”
The laughter in her eyes doesn’t flicker and doesn’t fade. It doesn’t falter in the least. “But I know we know each other. Just like I know we’re friends.” She lifts a hand and taps her chest. “I can feel it. Right here.”
“You’re crazy. You know that, right?” Turning away, I start walking again. I don’t know where exactly I’m going, but I never do. The important thing is to just keep moving. “You’re totally crazy, and I’m just as crazy for wasting my time trying to talk reason to you.”
As soon as I'm moving again, she’s right back by my side, matching me step for step, which doesn’t surprise me at all. For several blocks, she doesn’t say a word. On either side of us tower tall buildings, all metal and glass and gray concrete, and they make me feel strangely small. I don’t like it, that small feeling, and I don’t like aimless walking. I wish I had somewhere to go. I wish I knew where I wanted to go. Some birds pass by overhead--pigeons, most likely--and I envy them their freedom, their ability to go wherever they want whenever they want.
And I suddenly wish that the crazy girl with the blue eyes will decide to stay, even though I’ve given her every reason to want to leave. I feel a little less small, a little less lost, with her walking beside me. I’m not sure why.
When she finally speaks again, her voice is a lot quieter than usual. “Did you have any dreams about ponies last night?”
Immediately I whirl around to look at her. She looks back at me with an expectant expression on her face, but I can’t say a word. I just stare at her while the blood roars through my veins. With as many times as we’ve gone on this walk, with as many conversations we’ve had, this is the first time she’s asked me anything like this.
She gives me a sympathetic smile. “I dream about ponies, too. Every night.”
“I don’t dream about ponies,” I spit out, louder than I’d meant to. It’s almost a snarl. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t think we belong here.”
“Oh, really? Then where do we belong? Huh? Tell me.” I hold out my hands, palms up. “Where do we belong, if this isn’t it?”
That smile of hers finally wobbles, just a tiny bit. “I … I don’t know.”
“Thought not,” I say, nodding in satisfaction at finally having gotten the upper hand.
She doesn’t reply. She just stands there and looks at me.
And just like that, I feel like the world’s biggest jerk, without really knowing why. I’m right, after all. I’m totally and completely right, and we both know it. So why should I be the jerk? I shouldn’t. I’m not. But she’s still looking at me, with those sad blue eyes, and I feel like the jerkiest jerk who ever did jerky things.
Sighing, I give up and give in. “C’mon.”
She cocks her head.
“I’m hungry. Let’s go get some breakfast. Or lunch, I guess.”
She doesn’t have to be asked twice. In an instant, she’s all smiles again, and she lopes along beside me as I start heading towards a diner that I've spotted across the street. The building is small and squat, a dingy brown, but the promise of food makes it as beautiful as any palace. Once inside, I grab a booth in the back. The girl slides into the booth on the opposite side of the table from me, and I have to admit I’m pleasantly surprised she didn’t try to sit right beside me.
I quirk an eyebrow in her direction as soon as we’re seated. “You’re paying, right?”
“Yeppers!” She nods energetically, sending her wavy hair bouncing. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head! Your auntie’s got it all taken care of.”
“I don’t even have words for how not my aunt you are,” I retort, but even as I’m saying it, I can feel a grin tugging at the corners of my mouth. The truth is, my stomach is growling fairly loud by now, and if it wasn’t for the crazy girl, there’s no way I would be able to get a bite to eat.
I never have any money, and she never runs out of money. I don’t know how or why that’s the case, but it is. She just reaches into her pants pocket, and there’s always cash. It’s almost magic. Not that I’ll ever actually tell her that.
She’s bought me lunch every day for as long as I can remember--which has only been just a few weeks, true, but still. Maybe that’s why I haven’t called the cops on this girl yet. At least, that’s what I tell myself. The only alternative--that some secret part of me doesn’t completely hate this girl--is too depressing to consider.
Eventually, the waitress, an older woman with a pinched face, comes by our table and gives the both of us a disdainful look. We’re both pretty scruffy, I guess, and the fact that we both have dyed hair probably doesn’t help matters, either. But the waitress takes our order regardless--hashbrowns with hot sauce for me, oatmeal with a side of chocolate syrup for the crazy girl--and, relaxing a bit, I lean back in the booth in pleasant anticipation of the meal to come.
“You’re smiling,” the girl tells me, in a soft voice. “I like it when you smile--I wish you did it more. You don’t smile enough.”
“I’d probably smile more if you stopped stalking me.” But there’s no real irritation or anger to what I’m saying, not like before, because my mouth is watering at the thought of delicious, crispy hashbrowns. It’s hard to stay angry when you’re about to eat hashbrowns.
She crinkles her nose at me. “Don’t be silly. I’m not stalking you. I’m hanging out with you.”
There’s no good response to that, really, so I simply roll my eyes.
Soon enough the waitress comes by with our food. We dig right in, and for several minutes the only sounds at our table are from each of us eating. But then she finishes eating, finishing first just as she always does, and begins cheerfully babbling at me about her plans for the day. Something about going to the zoo and seeing the alligator exhibit … to be honest, I’m not really paying that much attention.
I have no intentions of going to the zoo, I know that much. Maybe after lunch I’ll ditch the girl and head down to the unemployment office again. I don’t like going there--they just keep trying to give me psychiatric evaluations instead of finding me a job so I can pay my rent--but it’s better than just wandering the streets all day long.
After I finish my hashbrowns, the stink-eyed waitress comes by almost immediately to collect our plates and to give us another glare, and we take the hint to get going. The girl slaps down a large wad of bills as we head out the door, and I just silently shake my head. She always overtips, but there’s no use trying to argue with her. It’s like arguing with the wind.
Once we’re safely outside, I stand there looking at her, and she stands there looking back at me. I’m not sure what to say. I should thank her for the meal, I suppose, but I don’t really feel like doing anything even remotely like that. Then, she squints at me, with a thoughtful expression that’s actually kind of hilarious, and slowly reaches out with a hand like a little kid might reach towards a hot stove.
I freeze completely as she runs her fingers through my hair. Her touch is gentle, unspeakably gentle, and I want so badly to make her stop touching me, almost as much as I need her to never, ever stop. As she plays with my hair, a few multi-colored strands from my bangs fall down into my line of sight.
“I think I’ll call you Rainbow,” she says in a lazy, offhand way, her fingers still tangled in my hair.
And then … pain.
It’s like I’ve just been punched right in the chest. That name … that name … it’s as though my entire body’s been doused in gasoline and someone’s dropped a match. I stagger backwards, away from the crazy girl, away from her horribly soft touch.
“Don’t call me that!”
“Because, I … I ... just stop it!”
“Well, you won’t tell me your name--or, really, I think it’s more that you won’t tell me that you can’t remember your name, but I know I’m not supposed to know that.” She grins a bit. “But anyways, I need something to call you, right?”
“Get out of here, you crazy idiot!” The words are a scream, desperate, ragged. I’m trembling all over, and I feel like I might shake into a million tiny pieces that no one will be able to put back together. “Go away! Leave me alone, for once!”
Her eyes just break. In an instant, they’re filled to the brim with watery tears, and there’s such shock and betrayal there. Like this girl can’t believe that I’ve finally told her off. My stomach gives a vicious twist--those eyes look so wrong with tears in them, so wrong without the laughter, without the smiles.
Those eyes are meant to smile.
Quickly I turn on my heel, before I can start feeling bad, before I can change my mind, and I walk away. She doesn’t follow. I start walking faster and faster, and soon I’m full out running. I shove people out of my way as I race down the sideways and ignore the nasty looks I get in response.
All around me the buildings loom as tall and as soulless as ever, crushing down on me, caging me in, as I run through the gray city streets. I’m suddenly struck with the idea to climb the tallest building I can find and take a flying leap, even though that’s a crazy thing to want to do. But I want to do it anyway. I want to feel the wind whip through my hair, feel the air rush past me. I want to escape. I want to fly.
But that’s a crazy thing to want. People can’t fly.
I can’t shake the nagging feeling, though, that I’m supposed to fly. Every urge I possess is screaming at me to jump, to soar, to spread my wings--wings I don’t have. It’s crazy. I’m crazy. Almost as crazy as that girl.
No. Not crazy like that girl. I am nothing like that girl.
“So, um, how will I know what to do, if I won’t remember anything? How am I supposed to get her back?”
“Oh, it’s simplicity itself, my dear. All you must do is share a kiss with her--just one brief little kiss! Romantic, isn’t it? Only then will you both be able to return to where you were before.”
“I guess that’s not so hard to--”
“There is one teeny tiny little catch, though,” he interrupted in a casual sort of way, his voice full of malignant mirth. “It must be true love’s true kiss. That is to say, if she doesn’t love you back ... it won’t work.”
“She … she loves me.” Her words were hesitant, though. Uncertain. “I know she loves me.”
“Does she, indeed? Either way, that part of the equation, fortunately, isn’t my problem. It’s yours.” He chuckled. “The details are non-negotiable, my dear. Do you accept my offer--which, I must say, is a rather generous one?”
She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I accept.”
“Excellent, excellent! The payment, then?”
She gulped nervously before taking a step forward. A golden necklace, with a glittering gem set in its center, was dropped at his feet. It hit the grass with a nearly inaudible thud.
As soon as the necklace touched the ground, his chuckle deepened into a full-throated laugh. “A fine payment, indeed! Well worth what I’m about to give you in return.” With a small flash of smoke and light, a small vial appeared before her, its contents glowing an eerie white. “Drink of this elixir, my little Element, and you will journey to where your oh-so-precious beloved waits for you.”
With a deep breath, she grabbed the vial between both hooves.
For some reason, it doesn’t hurt quite as much as it did before.
My running slows down to a jog. Then my jog becomes a trot, which in turn becomes something more like an amble. Finally, I come to a dead halt. People are still giving me weird looks, but now it’s probably for a different reason. I lean against a nearby building and close my eyes, breathing a bit heavily from all the running. Maybe I really am crazy. Maybe me and the crazy girl, maybe we’re more alike than I’ve been willing to admit.
I sigh. It is deep and heartfelt, my sigh, because I am acutely aware that I am about to do something completely and unforgivably stupid.
Opening my eyes and pushing away from the building, I head back down the street, towards downtown. It’s a bit of a hike to get where I’m going, but I reach my destination in good time--I’m no slow-poke, after all. Once I’ve arrived, I stand outside the black, wrought-iron gates and let out another heavy sigh. This is still completely stupid. But I’m already here, so I might as well follow through.
There’s a large map posted not too far past the entrance, fortunately. I step up and give the map a quick once-over. Monkeys, leopards, zebras, eagles … ah, there it is. The reptile house. Bingo.
It’s on the other side of the zoo, of course, because why would anything ever be easy for me? I shove my hands in my pants’ pockets and start following the winding, gravel path that leads down to where the map has promised I’ll find the reptile exhibits. I pass by the eagle enclosure on the way, and I can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for the poor birds, all cooped up in a cage. It’s sad. They’re meant to be free. They’re meant to fly.
As I pass by the leopards, I notice something weird--the closer I get to the reptile house, the more agitated the other visitors seem to be. In fact, there seems to be an awful lot of yelling and shouting and commotion coming from farther down the path. And instantly I know--as surely as I know that tonight I’m going to dream about ponies again--that the crazy girl has something to do with all of this.
I’m running now, though I barely even realize it. I’m weaving through the clumps of people, dashing and dodging, my eyes locked on the large concrete building standing at the end of the path. There’s a large, murmuring crowd in front of the reptile house, and I have to actually shove my way through to get to the front. Once I do, a burly zookeeper immediately steps in front of my way.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he says, not sounding sorry at all. “Bit of a situation in the reptile house right now. It’s off limits to the public.”
It takes all of my willpower to not growl right in this guy’s face. “What situation? What’s going on?”
He lifts his chin a bit. “I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Some girl’s in there,” pipes up a small boy at the front of the crowd. “She fell into the alligator pit!”
My stomach gives a lurch. Wheeling around, I stare right into the boy’s eyes. “The girl,” I begin, my throat feeling unbearably dry and scratchy as the words leave my mouth. “Did she have pink hair?”
“Y-yeah!” The boy stares at me with naked amazement. “How’d you know that?”
Right. Of course. Of course. That stupid, crazy, ridiculous …
No, no, no--no time for all that now. Action now, thinking later. Taking a deep breath, I clench my right hand into a fist and then whip back around, catching the zookeeper right on the chin with a well-aimed punch. He doesn’t go all the way down, as I’d hoped he would, but he does stagger back a few paces. It’ll have to be good enough.
I bolt past the man while he’s still dazed, running for the front doors of the reptile house for all I’m worth. I can hear a shout from behind--a shout I’m pretty sure is meant for me--but I ignore it with practiced ease. Once I’m inside the building, it’s fortunately not very hard to figure out where the alligators are. It’s where all the other zookeepers are clustered, yelling and rushing around.
“Hey! You can’t be in here!”
Glancing over my shoulder, I spot the guy I decked, looking just about as angry as I’ve ever seen a person look. But that will have to wait. Action now, apologies later.
Scowling, I barrel forwards, towards the cluster of zoo personnel, toward the alligator pit, my mind racing and trying to assemble a hasty game plan. The glass walls around the pit are pretty high, almost as high as I am tall, and that means they’re too high for me to jump. Then, for the first time in a long time, I catch a lucky break.
One of the zookeepers kneels down, to pick up something that looks an awful lot like a tranquilizer gun.
Some of the other employees have noticed me by now, but they’re too surprised to react fast enough to stop me. I take a running leap, land right on the kneeling zookeeper’s back, and then push off again. Almost involuntarily I grin as my hands grab on to the top of the wall of glass, and quickly I swing one of my legs up over the wall. A split-second later, I’ve dropped down into the alligator pit, and the wind gets knocked out of my lungs as I hit the concrete below.
Blinking away the pain, I push myself up onto my hands and knees. Happily, none of the half dozen alligators are paying me any attention. Sadly, the reason they aren’t is because they’re all surrounding the crazy pink-haired girl, who’s lying in a heap by the wall opposite where I’ve landed. There’s a glint of something metallic, and I realize--there’s a needle sticking out of her arm. These morons must have hit her with the tranquilizers by mistake.
I frown. If they loaded it up with enough tranquilizers to take down a full-grown alligator, then that might mean … no. No, there’s no time to worry about that. Action now, worry later.
Shakily I get back on my feet. I can hear the zookeepers above, still shouting, still completely unworthy of my attention. I glance around the enclosure, trying to find a way out, and spot that there’s a ladder on one of the side walls.
Here goes nothing.
I rush forward and jump onto the back of the nearest alligator, then onto the next nearest. It’s like hopscotch almost, except with lots and lots of sharp, shiny teeth. Just two more hops, and then I’ve touched down right next to the girl. Kneeling, I scoop her up and hold her close against my chest, then quickly stand again. I’m surprised at how light she feels in my arms. Her breath falls soft and gentle against my neck--and that means she’s still breathing, she’s still alive. My sense of relief is so strong that my knees almost buckle on me right then and there.
But the alligators are watching me, creeping closer, jaws open and wide. Action now, buckling later.
My back to the wall, I begin edging along the outside edge of the enclosure. The reptiles track my every move with their horrible, cold eyes, and they slowly move to follow after. Finally I reach the ladder. I shift the girl so that she’s slung over my shoulder and rapidly begin climbing. I can hear shuffling and snapping sounds coming from below--and once I even feel a gust of air as one of the alligators takes a bite at me--but I don’t dare look back, and I don’t dare look down.
The zookeepers are waiting for me at the top of the ladder. They’re reaching down, hands extended, saying words I can’t quite hear over the sound of blood rushing through my ears. But even though I can’t hear them, I know what they want. They want me to hand over the girl to them. And every instinct I possess is telling me not to.
It’s stupid, of course. All of it, everything, my entire sad little life. But the thought of handing them the girl makes my entire chest seize with some emotion I can’t even hope to identify. Still, it’s not like I have much choice. As soon as I’m close enough to the top, two of the zookeepers reach down and grab the girl away from me. A second later, I’ve been snatched off the ladder, too.
The nearest one, a blonde woman with beady eyes, glares right at me. “Do you even know how much trouble that you--”
“She needs a doctor,” I interrupt bluntly, not taking my eyes off the girl. She stirs, ever so slightly, and mumbles something too quiet to make out.
“And she’ll get a doctor, but first we’re going to--”
I can feel my lips pull back from my teeth as my face hardents into a snarl. “She needs a doctor now.”
“You’re gonna go to jail for hitting me!” At that, I glance over and, sure enough, it’s the zookeeper I punched while still outside. “That was assault and battery, lady. I bet that’s a felony or something. I got an uncle who’s a district judge, y’know, and I bet he’ll--”
A sudden yelp cuts him off, and we both turn in time to see the pink-haired girl awake and alert, bright-eyed, and back on her own two feet. She grins maniacally at me. “Heya, Rainbow!”
I just blink back at her and feel even more disoriented than usual.
Then, everything happens all at once.
The girl throws a handful of confetti in the air--how or where she got it, I have no idea--before she ducks down, somehow dancing right out of the grasp of the two zookeepers who’d been holding her. She grabs my hand in hers the moment she’s free. Less than a second later, she’s hauling me across the reptile house, running faster than anyone who’s just been knocked down by tranquilizers has any right to run, and I can hear the zookeepers directly on our heels. She’s giggling the entire time, like a little kid, as though this is the most fun she’s had in her whole life.
There’s a door towards the back, marked Emergency Exit Only, and she shoves me through the door before going through herself. Then she takes my hand again and darts left, and I get pulled along for a few steps before I can find my feet and start running along beside her. I have no idea where she’s leading me. I’m not convinced she knows, either.
There’s shouting coming from behind. It’s hard to tell how close they are, though, hard to tell just how much of a lead we have. But it's best to not look back. Too easy to trip and to fall. Instead, I keep my eyes trained forward as suddenly we veer off the gravel and begin crashing through the smallish trees that have been planted near the edge of the path.
This would all be so much easier if I could fly. I’m not sure where the thought comes from, but once it’s there in my brain, it stays and it beats steadily like a drum: If only I could fly, if only I could fly, if only I could fly ...
Up ahead is a fence, concrete topped with chain-link, that separates the zoo from the city streets beyond. Only once we’ve reached the fenced-off zoo boundary does the girl let go of my hand. She scrambles up the fence faster than I would have ever guessed she’d be able to, and I follow right behind.
As soon as my feet hit the pavement, I’m looking around, trying to figure out a way to escape. From behind I can hear the rattle of chain-link as someone else starts climbing the fence. Then, at last, I see it. I see our salvation.
“C’mon!” I bark at the girl, and now I’m the one grabbing her hand.
I dart across the street with the girl in tow, just in time to hop aboard the city bus that’s about to pull away. The girl reaches into her pocket and pulls out enough money to pay our fare and then--sweating, panting, and gasping for air--we collapse into the nearest available seats.
A bit curious, I peer out the window as the bus shudders to life and begins lumbering away. There are three or four zoo employees running down the street after us, yelling something inaudible and shaking their fists in the air. Grinning, I blow a raspberry at them as they get smaller and smaller as we get farther and farther away. We’ve totally won, and winning feels good.
No, scratch that. Winning feels great.
The girl leans her head against my shoulder. I should probably push her away, but I don’t. Her hair smells nice, at least. Kind of sweet, actually, almost like cake frosting. It’s not entirely unpleasant.
She sighs a happy little sigh. “Hey, Rainbow? Thanks for saving me back there. You were really, really brave.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I mutter in a bland monotone, hoping it comes off suitably nonchalant. “How’re you doing? You got pumped with a lot of tranquilizers. You need to go see a doctor or something?”
“Nah! I’m feeling hunky dory!”
Knowing her, that’s probably the truth. Rolling my eyes, I decide to ask, despite my better instincts, “How on earth did you even manage to fall into the alligator pit, anyways?”
“Oh, I didn’t fall in! That’d be silly.” She giggles. “I jumped in.”
Of course she did. Of course. I’m not even surprised by her answer. I feel a stab of worry, over my lack of surprise, over how I’m taking all of this craziness perfectly in stride. Surely that can’t mean anything good. Right? But I decide not to dwell on any of those worries for the time being.
“You wanted to pet the alligators,” I guess out loud, “didn’t you?”
“Just a little bit. They’re really, really cute!”
Instead of mustering up some kind of response to that, I simply shut my eyes. All of a sudden, I’m feeling pretty tired. Exhausted, actually. But I figure that’s forgivable enough. After all, it’s been a busy afternoon. And almost getting eaten by alligators can really take it out of a girl.
“It was my fault, you know. My fault that she’s dead,” she whispered, as she stared down at the vial between her hooves.
“Your fault?” He sounded genuinely intrigued by the revelation. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I was just … I wasn’t paying attention. I never pay attention. She … she shoved me out of the way.” Her gaze was locked on the vial, and finally she lifted it to her lips. “It should have been me, not her. But it’s okay. I’m going to fix everything, and everything’s going to be okay.”
She tilted back her head and took long, deep pulls from the vial. It tasted sweet at first but, after the first swallow, it quickly turned bitter. Then, eyes wide, she coughed and spluttered as the liquid began choking her. “What is this … what’s happening to--”
The rest of her sentence was cut off by a loud, piercing scream.
She could hear his laughs over the screaming. “Oh, dearie, dearie me," he said, clucking his tongue. "Did I neglect to mention that the transformation process would be a painful one? I can be ever so silly and forgetful that way ...”
I wake up from a dream about ponies.
That’s how I always wake up. I never remember the dream that well, just fragments--splashes of color, almost painfully bright, as well as vague shapes and indistinct sounds--but I always remember that there are ponies. It’s a weird thing to dream about. Kind of makes me wonder if I’m crazy.
Sunlight, pale and gray, is filtering in from the windows of the bus. I can see tiny bits of dust dancing in the light, silent and solitary. The girl’s head is still on my shoulder. I can tell that I’ve drooled all over her head in my sleep, but when she senses I’ve awoken and glances up at me, she only smiles.
My back itches and tingles a bit. As though I’m trying to move muscles I don’t actually possess. It’s a strange feeling, which I decide to ignore. Ignore things long enough and eventually they’ll go away.
It’s almost dark by the time we step off the bus, and I don’t recognize the part of town we’re in. It’s a more residential neighborhood, though, I can tell. Here the buildings are mostly brown, rather than the sleek black and sterile gray of downtown. Everything--the buildings, the trees, even the people--seems to exist in a state between being old and truly being decrepit. It’s hauntingly sad, this place, and almost but not quite yet creepy.
We walk in silence for a little ways. I can feel the rips in my pants from when I tumbled into the alligator pit, can feel how they brush up against my bloody, scabbing knees. It hurts a little, with every step I take, but it’s a good kind of hurt. The kind of hurt that makes you feel alive.
When was the last time, I wonder, that I felt as alive as I did this afternoon back at the zoo? I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just that I can’t remember. Maybe it’s both. Maybe, though, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe the important thing is that I felt it at all.
I don’t know.
“You should choose something for us to do tonight.” The girl’s voice is soft, just a ghost on the breeze. “Since I picked going to the zoo for this afternoon. Fair’s fair, you know.”
I laugh at that, though I don’t really understand just why I think it’s so funny. “You’re crazy. You know that? Totally and completely bonkers.”
She giggles in reply. “Maybe! But you still gotta pick something.”
“Anything I want, huh?”
“Absolutely anything in the whole, wide world!”
I stop walking. She continues on a few paces more before she realizes I’m no longer next to her. She turns around with a puzzled little frown.
“You know what I want? What I really want?” I stare right into her big, blue eyes. She doesn’t so much as flinch. “I want to fly.”
She smiles. “Okie dokie lokie,” is all she says.
There’s a tall building just a few blocks away that looks like it’s an apartment building. It’s as brown and as crumbling as everything else in the immediate vicinity, but something about the beaten-up old building speaks to me. I decide not to question it, not to second-guess. It’s better to go with one’s instincts rather than overthink things.
Ignoring my now growling stomach, I head for the apartment building. The girl skips along right beside me, almost hopping, and I feel tempted to ask her just where she’s getting all this energy. But then I realize that if I ask that, she’ll probably actually give me an answer--and I’ve already been through enough punishment for one day.
When we reach the building, we circle around back, where I find a dumpster sitting below the building’s fire escape. Perfect. Quickly and easily, we scramble on top of the dumpster. The ladder to the fire escape is directly above us, just the tiniest bit out of reach.
I crouch down and link together the fingers of my two hands. Nodding towards the ladder, I tell the girl, “Put your foot in here, and I’ll give you a boost.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she does. I lift her up, and she jumps the rest of the way. She hangs from the bottom rung of the ladder for a few seconds, swaying gently, before she begins rocking back and forth. With all the fluidity and ease of a professional gymnast, she gets her legs up high enough to put them through the rungs of the ladder then lets go with her hands.
She grins at me while hanging upside down. She looks, for all the world, like one of the monkeys from back at the zoo.
Reaching out a hand towards me, she chirps, “C’mon! Now it’s my turn to pull you up!”
“Uh, thanks, but no, thanks.” I cross my arms across my chest and raise an eyebrow. “I’m way too heavy for you. You’ll just end up dropping me--and I’ve already taken enough falls for one day.”
“I won’t drop you.” Her eyes are wide and almost painfully sincere. “Not ever! Never, ever, ever.”
She means it. She means it so much that I’m almost tempted to believe her myself. With a sigh of resignation, I resume my crouching position from before and get ready to jump.
She stretches out both her arms, welcoming, beckoning to me. My muscles coil tightly, like a rattlesnake poised to strike, then all that tension explodes outward as my legs straighten. After I hit the height of the jump, there’s a moment where I’m falling, a moment that lasts only a tiny fraction of time but feels like an eternity. Then two hands clamp onto my forearms, their grip surprisingly strong, and suddenly I’m not falling anymore but dangling in mid-air.
She’s still grinning down at me.
I grin back. “All right, genius, what now? You don’t expect me to just climb up you, right?”
“Don’t be silly!” She rolls her eyes in an exaggerated way. “I’m gonna swing you up, and then you can do a bunch of flips like an acrobat to land on the balcony.”
“Yeah, geez, how silly of me. Of course it’s a better idea for you to pretend like you’re some kind of circus star and throw me into the air.”
“Oh, yay! Glad you like the plan!” she replies breezily, without a trace of sarcasm or self-consciousness. Then, before I can even begin to explain that I was just being a smart-aleck, she starts swinging me back and forth, each swing taking me a bit higher than the last.
“Hey, no, wait! I didn’t actually mean--”
She lets go of my arms, and instinctively I bring my knees up to my chest and curl into a tight ball. Sure enough, I’m flipping end over end through the empty air. Up becomes down becomes up again, and even as my stomach leaps into my throat, a thrill runs straight down my spine.
I’m not flying, true ... but it’s pretty close. And, I have to admit, it feels awesome.
Suddenly I slam into something hard and cold and metal. My arms reach out of their own accord and wrap around the something I’ve just smashed into. It takes me a dazed second or two to realize I’m not plummeting back down to the ground--and a second or two longer to realize I’ve got the fire escape ladder in a near death-grip. Glancing down, I see the girl still swinging back and forth, finally swinging herself up so that she too can grab onto the ladder.
Once she does, we’re facing one another, with only the ladder’s rungs between us. She’s breathing hard from her exertions, and her breath hits my face as little puffs of hot, moist air. I freeze as I realize how close her face is to mine, closer than she’s ever been before. It’s a strange and uncomfortable thing to realize.
I give my head a thorough shake and start climbing up the ladder. From beneath me I can hear the thud of shoes on metal, as she girl starts climbing too. She stays mercifully silent during the entire trek up the fire escape, which is no small thing as the building is at least ten stories high. At last we reach the top and scramble over the uppermost ledge to fall onto the roof in a tired heap.
I just lie there on the roof for a little while, catching my breath and listening as the girl does the same. Then, pulling myself up, I sit with my back to the ledge and lean my head against the cold, hard brick behind me. The girl jumps up a moment later and begins doing somersaults around the empty expanse of roof, her energy seemingly back to full strength, before she tumbles down right next to me with her head falling neatly into my lap. Her crazy, frizzy hair pools beneath her and sticks out in every direction. She looks like she’s just dunked her head into a cotton candy machine, and I can’t help but laugh at the sight.
She laughs right back, without hesitation, her eyes twinkling up at me in the dim light of early evening.
As my laughter trickles off into snickers, I turn my gaze skyward. It’s cloudy, like it always is, and there’s not a hint of moon or stars. “Hey. You wanna know a secret?”
“Oooh! I like secrets!”
I glance back down. “You promise not to tell?”
In an instant, she’s the very picture of solemnity, as she intones, “Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”
“You are so random.” I shake my head. “Okay, so anyways, here’s the secret … I think you were right.”
She beams. “Well, of course I was right!” Then, after a beat of silence, she scrunches up her face in a frown. “Right about what?”
I take a deep breath. Okay. Am I really about to admit this? To her, of all people? I really must be crazy. But it feels safe, hiding away, up above the rest of the surrounding buildings, away from everyone and everything else, with the girl’s head heavy and warm against my legs. With the girl’s hair rubbing against my cut-up knees, causing little tingles of pain that I don’t really mind.
“About us not belonging here,” I confess in a quiet, serious tone. “Things just don’t feel right, y’know? I don’t really get why, or how, but … I dunno … I just ….”
“You can feel it?” she suggests with a gentle smile. She gives her chest a single tap. “Right here?”
At that, I look away. “Yeah. Something like that, anyways.”
I stare straight ahead of me, at the smooth expanse of barren, black-topped roof, just as bleak and empty as everything else in this city. Maybe it’s not just the girl who’s been driving me crazy. Maybe it’s this city, this life, this reality. The endless, omnipresent grayness of everything. Sometimes, I feel like this girl and me, we’re the only two splashes of color in the whole entire universe.
I miss the bright, vivid colors from my dreams. I never remember much, but I always remember the colors. That has to mean something.
And I miss flying. It’s not possible to miss such a thing--in fact, it’s pretty much crazy to miss such a thing--but I do, I miss it, more than almost anything. As soon as the thought hits me, my back starts itching again, the feeling growing more and more intense until it transforms into pain.
“Get off me!” Suddenly I’m pushing my palms against the roof, already trying to rise. “You have to get off me! I have to get up.”
She doesn’t protest, doesn’t even pout. Instead, she instantly leaps up and takes a few stumbling steps backward, staring down at me with worried eyes. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
I don’t bother to answer. Instead, I jump to my feet and then up onto the edge of the roof. We’re high enough that I can see blocks upon blocks in any direction, but everything looks the same. Just endless rows of rectangular buildings, lifeless, decomposing, with all the color leached right out of them. Buildings leaning in, always and forever, ready to crash down on top of our heads at any given moment.
But the sky? The sky is different. It’s still colorless, still lifeless, but the sky, at least, is open. No constrictions, no constraints, just a siren song of air and freedom. If only I could fly … I know the pain and the itchiness would go away, I know I’d stop having those terrible dreams, I know I would remember all those things that always linger just outside my grasp.
If only I could fly, I’d finally be free.
Slowly I turn around. She’s still staring at me, still clearly worried. I give her a small half-smile--right now, it’s the best I can do. “Thanks for everything,” I tell her, and I mean it more than I can remember meaning anything. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Then, lifting my arms out to each side, I lean back.
She’s fast. In a flash, her eyes go from worried to panicked, and suddenly she’s grabbing onto me and trying to pull me back. But I’m fast, too, and by the time she reaches me, I’m already most of the way over the edge.
She is looking straight into my eyes, and I can tell she realizes--that I’m already too far over, that she can’t pull hard enough to get us both back onto the roof. She still has a chance to save herself, though. She can release her grip on me, can just let me go, can just let me fall. If she does, she’ll tumble backwards onto the safety of the roof.
She is looking straight into my eyes, and even through the dark, I can see how very, very blue her eyes are. They’re not laughing anymore. They’re determined. She’s determined.
She doesn’t let go.
Instead, she actually leans forward. And then her lips touch mine, lightly, tenderly, like the brush of a feather. My mind only has enough time to register that she tastes unexpectedly like hot sauce before the balance finally tips ...
I'm so sorry, Pinkie.
… and we fall.
There was pain--howling and screaming and pain, pain unlike any she’d ever known. She could feel her limbs being stretched out, could feel her joints being torn out of place and then rearranged, and it hurt too much for her to do anything but lay there on the ground and writhe in agony.
But even through the haze of pain she could hear the sudden, incensed shriek of a certain someone nearby. “Why … why isn’t the stone breaking? Why isn’t the Element working?” His voice turned dark and dangerous. “This is your doing, isn’t it, little pony? You tricked me! But how?”
If she had been able to open her mouth, she might have laughed. She might have laughed right in his smug, ugly face. And after she’d laughed, laughed long and hard, she might have explained that she wasn’t the guardian of the Element of Laughter anymore. Might have told him that she hadn’t laughed--hadn’t so much as cracked a single smile, in fact--since the day the guardian of Loyalty had died.
Had died so that she could live.
This moment right now, listening to her benefactor and adversary vent his rage with curses and screams, was the first time she’d even so much as wanted to smile since that terrible, terrible day. At last she wanted to smile again, because at last she was going to be able to go bring back her Dashie. And with Rainbow Dash, she would be able to bring back her laughter too. To bring back everyone’s laughter.
She just knew it. She knew it as surely as she knew her name was Pinkamena Diane Pie.