The next day, things didn’t seem so bad. In the soft glow of the morning sun, the orchard was once more a cosy, inviting place, though Lemon Dreams still felt a pang of dread rising in her stomach as she pushed away the hastily erected barricade of the previous night and crept into the garden.
A solitary butterfly flapped its way across the treetops, and a gust of refreshing air wafted across Lemon Dreams’ face. She swallowed hard, sniffing the air and then breaking into a grin. Her orchard felt like home again, a warm, safe place where she could relax in the beauty of nature. There was no sign of the… thing that had been there the night before. The trees stood tall as they always had.
Perhaps it had all been a dream?
Lemon Dreams took a few more tentative steps into the orchard, peering round the trees in case there was anything lurking there. “Hello?” she called quietly, and then in a more confident register, “hello?”
There was no reply. Lemon Dreams felt her confidence grow, and she trotted through the orchard, peering up at every treetop and flashing a reassuring smile at each one. “You’re right guys, I was just being silly, imagining things that weren’t there!” The trees rustled in agreement as Lemon Dreams came to a stop in the middle of the orchard, settling down on her hind legs and letting the peace and solitude wash over her. “There’s nothing here apart from me and you. Nothing to worry about, nothing to disturb us.”
A sharp banging from the front door shattered the silence, and caused Lemon Dreams to leap in the air with a shriek of fright. She skidded about in the grass for a moment in disorientation, teeth chattering in fear as if at any moment that apparition would flash in front of her eyes. There was nothing behind her, no spectral figure lurking at her back. Instead, there was just another round of banging on the door.
Lemon Dreams raced back into the house, and pressed her ear against the front door with a suspicious frown. She felt the vibration of several sharp knocks through the wood. “Hello?” she called out. “Hello, who is that? Are you a ghost?”
“Mpph mmp-mmph!” came a muffled call from the other side.
“That… is not helpful,” Lemon Dreams mumbled to herself as she stared at the door, as if with enough effort she could peer through it. If it was a ghost on the other side, it didn’t sound scary, unless it was mumbling because its mouth was full with devouring ponies. She was safe in her home, she was sure of that, but if she opened her door and let something in…
Another sharp rapping at the door interrupted her line of thought. She almost kicked herself as a wave of relief washed over her, and she realised the important point she had been missing – ghosts didn’t need to knock!
“Hang on, hang on!” Lemon Dreams unlatched the heavy chain that hung across the doorway, and slid back the three bolts that secured the door. Security was always an important concern, it blew her mind whenever she was out and about in Ponyville to see all those ponies leaving their houses wide open without a care in the world.
For her efforts, she was greeted by the sight of Carrot Top sitting on her doorstep, a happy vacant smile in her face and a large yellow envelope stuffed in her mouth. “Mpph mph!” Carrot Top made several nonsensical merry-sounding noises, her voice completely muffled by the envelope.
Lemon Dreams was about to slowly close the door on her and pretend nothing had happened when Carrot Top spat out the envelope at Lemon Dreams’ hooves. “I tried to catch you yesterday, but I guess you didn’t’ see me!” Carrot Top wiped her mouth to get rid of the papery taste of the envelope. “This is for you!”
Lemon Dreams stared at the envelope uncertainly, before giving it a slight poke as if it were about to explode. “What is it?”
“It’s a birthday card!” Carrot Top beamed. “For you,” she added helpfully, when met with a quizzical gaze from Lemon Dreams.
“It’s not my birthday.” Lemon Dreams scuffed the card across the doorstep back to Carrot Top. “That’s very thoughtful of you, but only ponies have birthdays.” She frowned. There was something in what Carrot Top had said, something familiar, something clawing desperately at her mind for her to remember. She shook her head. It wasn’t important.
“Oh yes, I mean, it’s not today, it’s tomorrow! But I’m out of town tomorrow, and I just thought…” Carrot Top tilted her head and gave a quick gasp. “It’s the yearly Canterlot Farmer’s Conference tomorrow, you can come, if you like! I’m sure you’ve got plans, but I’ve heard all about your lemon orchard, and…”
“No.” Lemon Dreams cut Carrot Top off curtly, moving to block any view of the orchard from the front door. “I-I’m going to spend tomorrow with my lemons, just like every day. I’m happy, Carrot Top, stop trying to change things!”
“I never said you weren’t…” Carrot Top stepped away from the door and turned to leave. “Look, Lemon Dreams, there’s more to life than…” she struggled to find the correct word “…lemons.” She gave a little smile. “Anyway, watch out. There’s a storm coming.”
Lemon Dreams peered up at the bright blue sky and then back down at Carrot Top. “Wait, what? Is that supposed to be some sort of metaphor or euphemism or something? That you think if I don’t be like everyone else I’m going to ruin my life or have something awful happen?” She stamped a hoof down firmly. “I’m not stupid, you know! Can’t you all accept that I’m happy to live my own life?”
“Uh, no, I mean literally.” Carrot Top frowned, shrinking back from Lemon Dreams’ sudden outburst. “There’s literally a storm coming. Tonight. Because of the heatwave, the pegasus ponies are going to go all-out on a storm. Which is why you should be careful if you wanted to spend tomorrow in your orchard… and… stuff…”
Carrot Top eventually stopped trying to speak, and turned to slink off. Lemon Dreams watched her with a stony silence as she departed, before picking up the envelope and throwing it unopened into the cupboard full of letters that sat by her front door. It was going to be a good day; nothing anyone could say or do would stop that. The sun was still shining, the air was crisp, and she was alone and safe, with no-one to disturb her sanctuary.
She bolted shut the front door and knew she was safe again. The outside world couldn’t get in, it couldn’t interfere with her happiness. With a renewed vigour in her heart, she almost danced into her orchard. “Good morning my friends!” Lemon Dreams called out to her trees as she breathed the citrus-smelling air in deeply, closing her eyes to better relish the delightful aromas. “And how are you all this lovely day…”
She opened her eyes to take in the beauty of her trees, and her voice died in her throat. She froze to the spot, every muscle in her body seizing in a primal fright as she took in the sight.
Standing in the middle of the lemon trees was a small yellow filly, flickering like a mirage, its bright orange mane waving in the air as if blown by an invisible wind. Silent. Watching her.
Lemon Dreams flashed back to the night before. She reared up as a strange choking panic overtook her, squirming as she frantically willed her legs to work again. “L-leave me alone!” she screamed at the small apparition. “What are you? What do you want?”
There was no answer from the pony. As soon as she was able, in a frantic twisting of terrified limbs, Lemon Dreams bolted for the safety of the house.
Lucid Light was the best psychiatrist in Ponyville. In fact, he was the only psychiatrist, which meant that he was also the worst in Ponyville, but he tended to downplay that detail. As Ponyville’s chief source of sanity, he was used to a constant influx of customers, each with their own niggling problems to overcome. His office was covered in a haphazard collection of certificates and knick-knacks, trophies to remind himself of his good deeds and various complicated cases that he had solved. After so many years in the business, nothing surprised him anymore.
Lucid Light sat behind his desk, brow furrowed as he struggled to process the question that had just been posed to him. His gaze awkwardly wandered over the mess that was his desk in an attempt to avoid eye contact with his client.
“So, uh…” he started again, crouching forwards in his chair somewhat uncomfortably as he struggled with the situation. “You want to know if you’re mad?”
“Yes!” Lemon Dreams nodded firmly from underneath her dishevelled mane, eyes twitching slightly from lack of sleep.
“Okay.” Lucid Light‘s lips curled into a stiff frown. “And you still think you’re a lemon?”
“And… you want to know if you’re mad? Look…” Lucid Light started to scratch his neck nervously. “ You realise that this isn’t free, right? I have a tiered charging system, and I’d hate to think that you were using my services if it wasn’t… necessary.” He put on his biggest, most beaming smile and started to leaf through his appointment book to see who was booked in next. “Let’s just say you popped in to say hi, and chalk this up to experience. I don’t think there’s anything I need to do here.”
Lemon Dreams’ hoof thumped down onto the desk, snagging the page just as Lucid Light was turning it. “No!” She swallowed hard before slowly sitting back down, breathing heavily to calm her nerves as silence reigned in the room. “No,” she whispered again. “I know what you think about the lemon thing. I know, and that’s fine. It’s just…” She sunk lower into the chair as if it would protect her. “I think I saw a ghost.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Lucid’s reply was snapped back almost automatically, and he instantly regretted it as Lemon Dreams visibly crumpled in front of him. He closed his appointment book with a loud thump and pushed it to one side, giving a much warmer smile. “What I mean to say is, you shouldn’t leap to conclusions. Are you sure it wasn’t just another pony? Maybe a pale one? Or a magical image cast by a unicorn? Or marsh ga – ”
“It was a ghost!” Lemon Dreams cut across him, her eyes watering in desperation. “A little filly ghost standing in my orchard – my orchard! It keeps coming back and staring at me, and I get so scared!” As she talked she began to grind her forehooves into her mane, causing her hair to tangle into an even more undignified mess. “I just need to know that I’m not mad, and that it’s real and someone can do something about it. I don’t want to be mad.” Her voice dipped to a hoarse croak. “Not like this.”
“I see.” Lucid hopped from his seat to move towards a large filing cabinet that dominated one side of his office, snatching up a pair of half-moon reading spectacles from the mess that littered his desk as he went. It didn’t take him long to find the file he was looking for; a thick sheaf of papers bound tightly in a dusty manila folder. His only real failure in all his years of practice.
“The mind, Lemon Dreams, is a powerful thing indeed.” He sat back down, propping the folder open at an angle as he turned the pages so that the contents were hidden from his client. “The subconscious works on a whole different level to everything else. We can never know everything about it, but we can try to understand.” He flicked to the end of the folder, staring for a while at the notes on the final page, before looking up. “It’s been a good few years since you were last sat here. Tell me, are you happy?”
“I was.” Lemon Dreams shifted slightly in her chair. “I mean, I am. It’s been such a good life, looking after all my citrus siblings, and – and then this thing comes in and I’ve never been so scared and I don’t know why I’m so scared.” She whispered the last line, before fixing Lucid with a wide-open gaze. “It’s real, isn’t it? I know it’s real, I’m not crazy. Why won’t it go away?”
Lucid turned these words over in his mind carefully before speaking. “I think,” he eventually replied in as careful a manner as he could muster, “you know deep down why you came to me first. Is that right?”
Lemon Dreams fell silent, glancing about everywhere but at him, desperate to avoid eye contact. He could see the wet traces of tears as they tumbled down her cheeks, though she made no move to wipe them away. There was none of that bold defiance in the face of facts that seemed to characterise her daily routine. Instead there was an air of defeat. It brought to Lucid’s mind thoughts of Lemon Dreams as he had first met her, all those years ago.
“Now,” he began again. “I think we should do some word association. You remember that, don’t you?”
Lemon Dreams mutely nodded, daring to look at him again.
“Okay.” Lucid turned back the pages of the folder, eventually finding a yellowed sheet of paper that bore his unmistakable spidery scrawl. “I’ll begin. Remember, don’t think about it, just say the first word that comes into your head.” He cleared his throat loudly. “Family.”
“Lemons,” Lemon Dreams squeaked back.
Lemon Dreams fell silent. Lucid adjusted his spectacles in a manner which he always felt gave a warm, homely air. “Just say the first thing that comes into your head, don’t worry, it can’t be wrong.”
“Orchard,” came the reply finally.
“Good.” Lucid licked his lips as he stared at the paper. Lemon Dreams’ answers were there, exactly the same as they had been when they first met. “Falling.”
“Catching,” Lemon Dreams squeaked back.
Lemon Dreams stared back at him blankly. “Come on,” Lucid encouraged. “The first thing that comes into your head. Sunshine.”
“I…” Lemon Dreams quivered, pressing herself back into her chair as if her failure to answer would elicit some sort of punishment. “I don’t know!”
“It’s fine.” Lucid said in his most gentle tone, turning the page to show that this exercise had run its course. “You’re a brave pony you know, Lemon Dreams. I remember nine months ago, you chased off that pack of timberwolves that were prowling near the town. You weren’t scared then, were you?”
Lemon Dreams shook her head, sniffling as she attempted to regain her composure. “N-no,” she croaked. “They would have attacked my lemon trees. They’re my friends, my family, I’d die before I let anything happen to them!”
“And yet one ghost, one little ghost, a filly, and you’re terrified.” Lucid leaned forwards. “Why is that?”
“Because…” Lemon Dreams’ voice dropped to a whisper as she spoke, her eyes wide as saucers again as she struggled to recall the apparition. “Because it’s the most terrible thing in the world.”
“It’s not a ghost.” Lucid said firmly with as much authority as he could muster. “It’s a sign. From here.” He tapped his own head demonstrably. “We fear things that we don’t understand. But we fear things that we do understand more. Next time you see it, don’t run. Walk out there, confront it. You’ll know what to do, even if you don’t realise.”
Lemon Dreams nodded, unconvinced. “Okay,” she mumbled as she dropped down from her chair and turned to leave. “Thanks.”
Lucid leant back in his chair as he watched her leave, smiling grimly to himself. When he was sure she had gone, he slid out an old photograph from the file, placing it on the desk. “You’re not going to, are you?” he sighed after Lemon Dreams, before turning his attention to the photograph. It showed a small filly smiling happily at the camera. The apparition. The ghost.
The most terrible thing in the world.