I’ve been having this dream lately. I’m leaning against a tree, staring out at the ocean. The sun shines brightly in the sky, and there’s a little girl farther down playing in the sand.
Her loose curls ruffle in the wind as if to dance to the song her laughter creates. She runs and jumps, and she twirls until she falls. I watch with a small smile on my face, it has been so long since I’ve seen such happiness.
Then I wake up. To the deafening noise of the train outside, and the faint smell of burnt popcorn. My roommates are long gone, off to their jobs at whatever small store they are holed up in for the present moment, and I must do the same. I put on some jeans and my company shirt that says “How can I make you happy?” praying I have enough energy to last my shift. Every day it’s the same, a lonely endless cycle of wake up, work, eat, work, sleep. Today was no different. I smiled with no joy behind my grin as I watched countless people come in and out of the door, each with more happiness than the last.
That night it was the same dream, every night for the last few weeks it’s been the same. The dream lasts but a moment, yet feels to last forever. I want to hold on to it. That peaceful bliss in the air, and that joy of a child who has yet to feel hatred and pain.
The next day I went to work, I made people happy, and I came home to an empty apartment while my roommates were out drinking. Empty home, empty pantry, empty rooms, so many things empty. I feel it echo in my chest, a space where my heart would be if I had any way to feel it. I look forward to sleep now, for those few moments of peace when the world is long forgotten. But tonight the dream changed.
I sit against the tree and watch the little girl play, she draws hearts in the sand and squeals when the waves wash them away. I recognize that laugh. Unlike before when she seemed unable to notice me, tonight she approached me. She dragged a stick behind her, leaving a line in the sand from me to her canvas of doodles.
“Come and play!” she reaches out her hand to me, and I give her a small smile.
“I much prefer it up here, but thank you little one.”
“But how can you play in the waves if you choose to stay up here?”
I shake my head in silent laughter, “What is your name, little one, I should at least like to know my playmate's name before I leave my place of rest.” She beams and sits down in the grass beside me.
“My family calls me Lia, so you shall call me that as well!”
“What a beautiful name, tell me, Lia. How did you come to have that name?”
Her giggle seems to make the sparrows sing, “What an odd question, I’ve never thought of that before! I don’t know! It’s a name I have had for as long as I can remember…my father gave it to me,” she looks at the sky and it seems as though her smile falters for a moment. Though in the blink of an eye, she laughs as if nothing is wrong. “What’s your name? You ask questions about mine, without giving me a name with which to address you!”
I can’t help but laugh at her observation, “You are absolutely right, my name is Delia.”
Her smile fades, replaced by a curious expression, “You can’t be Delia.”
“Why not?” I ask with a chuckle.
“Because I am Delia!” She huffs as if all the common knowledge in the world would seem ridiculous compared to such an obvious fact.
“Is it now? But you just said your name was Lia.”
“No. My name is Delia, my parents call me Lia. Therefore you can’t be Delia, for I am already her. And you can’t be me!”
She seems adamant about this, but it’s too amusing for me to properly take it seriously, “But I am Delia! How can I prove it to you, other than my word?”
“If you are Delia, and I am Delia we must share the same birthmark.”
“Little one, two people can have the same name. Two names do not make one person.”
“Give me your left arm.” She reaches for my arm and seems to examine my wrist, “See here! That mark on your hand, I have it too!” Lia puts her arm against mine and points at the matching birthmark we both seem to bear.
“How strange-” but before I could finish, Lia ran off into the trees behind me. Returning moments later with something clutched in her hand.
“Does this mean anything to you?” She holds out the item and reveals a small red rose.
My blood runs cold as I stare at the flower in disbelief, “How did you know about that?”
“I have always loved the rose, but could never explain why. It has always had a meaning to me, one I couldn’t explain. Some connection…” she trailed off twirling the flower between her tiny fingers.
She was right, it had a connection. Since I was little it had a connection. As I grew older, this meaning only grew stronger as I found the rose in more moments of my life. “Lia, what do you love more than anything?”
The girl thought for a moment before replying, “I couldn’t possibly decide.”
“Likewise,” I replied, staring at her wrist. There was something so familiar about her, but we couldn’t be the same.
I stared into her eyes, searching for anything to tell me I was right. But the more I looked the more familiar her face became. The more I saw her face in my memories. Until finally, everything clicked into place. We were the same, the same soul so many years apart. One pure of heart, untouched by society. The other empty and broken, unsure if they deserve to be fixed.
“I was right, wasn’t I,” Lia breaks the silence, “we are the same?”
“Yes little one, it seems we are.”
The next day, all I could think about was the conversation I had with myself. This younger version of me brought into my dreams for reasons I could not fathom. Everything passed in a blur, all I could think about was my next meeting with her.
That night the dream began as it always had, but this time the girl noticed me sooner. She skipped over to my spot against the tree and plopped down at my feet.
“I’m thrilled you’re here! I have so much I want to ask you! I was worried you wouldn’t come…but since you did there are many things I wish to know.”
“Settle down little one, take it one at a time. What would you like to ask me?”
“What is life like now?” She peered up at me, eagerly waiting for my response.
I hesitated, how do you tell a child, one whose dreams still soar high, that they are a failure? I couldn’t break her heart, so I twisted some things around.
“Well, we graduated college. Our parents were so proud of us…we live with a few people who are known for being incredibly fun. We work in a place centered around happiness, and meet many new people every day!”
“Were?” She asks.
“You said our parents were proud of us, are they not anymore?”
“Of course they are! We just haven’t spoken to them in a while…that’s all.”
“Did we get into a fight?”
“No no no- you know what? Doesn’t matter! Next question!”
“Are we happy?”
I hesitated again, these were not the questions I’d expected. Nor were they the ones I was prepared to answer. “Why shouldn’t we be?! We have a stable job, a roof over our heads, and food on our table!” I put on the most genuine-looking smile I could muster, but she saw right through it.
“You’re avoiding the question, we aren’t happy…are we?” She looks at the grass, and begins to twirl it in her fingers, “If we are not happy, do we at least have something good?”
“Of course we do!”
“Like what?” Her demeanor has shifted into that of melancholy.
“We have our whole future ahead of us! One ready for us to grow and learn, and we can do anything we want!”
“Does someone finally love us?” She asks so quietly I barely hear it.
I smiled at her, remembering that pain that never seemed to go away. “Oh yes, someone loves us more than the stars in the sky. They care about us more than anyone ever has before-” my voice cracked as tears filled my eyes. My heart aches for her, knowing that all this hope she has will never come to pass. “Someone loves us so much tha-”
“Liar.” She yanks the grass out of the ground, “Don’t lie to me, Delia.”
“I speak the truth!”
“Liar! If you spoke the truth you’d cry tears of joy! But all I see is pain. Tell. Me. The. Truth!”
“Liar!” Her face is scrunched as she squeezes the grass in her little fist.
“Fine! Fine, you want the truth? Here’s the truth! We live in a closet-sized apartment with people who couldn’t give two shits whether we lived to see tomorrow. Our job is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking, dead-end. I have failed my parents, I have failed myself, I have failed everybody and there is no future for me no matter what I do. I am stuck here, and I hate myself for it,” my anger had risen. I couldn’t even look at her anymore, but now that I was finally feeling something for the first time in months I couldn’t bring myself to stop, “I hate who I have become, I hate that I ever thought I could be something. I should have known I was a failure from the start. At least if I had changed something then, I’d be miserable but not broken. But no, I was blind and I was stupid as it seems I will always be. I see a hopeless future, a forgotten past, and the quickly losing will to live on to see another day,” tears stream down my face to the point I can barely see, “so there! That’s your truth, I hope it’s everything you had hoped for!”
There’s a moment of silence, I still can’t bring myself to look at her.
“I’m a failure?” her voice wavers as she speaks.
“What?” My eyes clear enough for me to see her hugging her knees, a tear streaks down her face.
“I’m a failure.”
“No no no, not you Lia,” my heart breaks with that sentence, “I was talking about me. I’m so sorry, I got caught up and wasn’t thinking about what I was saying. I shouldn’t have told you that, I was talking about me, Lia, nothing you need to worry about. You have your whole life ahead of you, nothing is over yet.”
She tilts her head upward, just enough to look at me. Her small brown eyes glisten with tears, “But I am you, and it seems my life is over before it’s even begun.”
The next few weeks followed the same pattern. Every day, suffocating loneliness. And every night I witness the lost soul of my youth whose very heart I have managed to destroy.
The dream is different now. I am still on the beach, but the sun refuses to shine. Hidden instead behind a thick layer of clouds, casting a vast shadow on the world. The girl, rather than playing in the waves, sits on the sand and stares vacantly into the horizon. I am still against the tree, but neither of us moves. Every night, it’s the same thing. Both of us staring into the open, hoping for something to save us.
My heart aches for what I have done, wishing I could undo the damage I have inflicted. But it’s too late, every dream I see her fade away more and more. I worry she will soon be nothing but a ghost to haunt my dreams, the shadow of my childhood whose greatest enemy was myself.
During the day I become more distant than I already had been. I’ve stopped smiling at people and stopped pretending to care. My manager asks me if I’m alright, but I barely answer. How could I? How could I explain to someone that I am slowly killing this little girl? Would I still be suffocating in this regret had I avoided the conversation altogether? Was there any way I could have saved us both from this pain?
Every night it’s the same, but I fear the end is approaching.
That very night the dream changed. The sun was still in hiding and I was still at the tree, but Lia was gone. I looked around for her but saw no sign. For the first time in all these dreams, I was able to stand, I walked down to where she always sat hoping she hadn’t already left me forever.
Then I noticed footprints in the sand. Leading away from where I currently stood, into the forest. There was a faint outline of the stick she had dragged behind her, but it was being washed away by the tide. Along with my guide to her.
I quickly followed the prints into the trees, calling out her name as I did. Already fearing the worst, it was still gut-wrenching when I heard no reply.
I searched and searched, unsure where she could have gone. Until finally I stumbled upon a rose bush. It was covered in vines whose flowers bloomed blood red instead of the cheery color I had remembered.
I was about to leave when I saw a flash of color between the vines. Peering in between them I let out a cry when I saw her. The girl’s skin was cut and torn, her hair was full of leaves and knots. Her sweet little dress was now stained green, brown, and red from the thorns. Tears soaked her face, but her chest was barely moving. The vines were slowly growing thicker around her creating this dome-like prison, from which she was unable to escape.
Without a moment to think, I grabbed at the vines and yanked them until they broke. Pulling and destroying them, until I was able to grab her. My hands were covered in blood from the thorns that had pierced my skin, but I barely noticed. She was shaking when I got to her, and I could tell she was on the verge of death. Needing to get her away from these plants, I rushed her to the beach.
Setting her down in the sand I examined her face for any signs she was okay. But nothing happened. Her breathing was becoming more stable, but she had yet to open her eyes.
I sat with her for what felt like an eternity, waiting for her to come back to me. Until finally a wave crept up the shore and created a halo around her before washing back to the depths. With that, she inhaled sharply and blinked her eyes slowly. I cried and pulled her into a hug. She looked up at me with a sad smile, tears fighting to be released but she was resisting.
“Does someone love us yet?”
I looked at the ground and clenched my eyes shut. I couldn’t bear to look at her while I shook my head no.
She sighed and leaned into me, for the rest of the dream we just sat there. This may be just a dream, but nothing in my life has ever felt so real.
That morning I woke up with a weight in my chest. An unusual shift, from vast emptiness to the feeling of a lead ball living where my heart should be.
Sighing, I got out of bed and pulled on my work clothes. Another day…how disappointing. I just want to be back on the beach with Lia, I want to hold her close and protect her from this life I’m forced to live.
Unfortunately, I had to get through today in order to see her again. So I took a breath and left my apartment.
The walk to work is not a very long one, eight minutes at most. It’s probably the best part of my day, the peaceful quiet with no expectations. When you’re walking the street no one expects you to be happy, no one asks you to care about them. It’s nice.
Yet all I could think about was Lia. This was all my fault, will she even be there when I go back? Will I be able to go back?
I nodded at the old lady on the corner and crossed the street. My head was swimming, will I ever go back? I can’t control this world in my head. What if I never go back?
Suddenly I hear screaming. I look around and people are yelling at me, I don’t know why. I can’t understand them. Then I hear a car horn, and it all makes sense. I look over my shoulder just in time to see the hood of a car coming toward me.
I wish I could tell you I had a moment of peace or fear before, but to be honest it all happened so fast I didn’t have time to think before it all went dark.
What happened after is a blur. I couldn’t open my eyes, I couldn’t move, everything hurt. I could hear sirens around me, people yelling, and felt myself being lifted into the ambulance.
Drifting in and out of consciousness I was barely able to figure out where I was. The ambulance blared, harsh tones were spoken overhead until I drifted back into the deep.
I could hear them, but I still couldn’t move. I couldn’t reach out and say, “I’m still here.”
The nurses and doctors overheard yelling to each other, I heard countless machines beeping. How depressing…even as I die these will be my last moments. Panic and fear, how fitting.
However, I suddenly heard a voice that shocked me, “Where is she?! Is she ok?!” My mother’s voice rang through the room in a shrill cry. I could hear her hold back tears when she saw me, I heard my dad gasp. Why were they here? They said they never wanted to see me again, why had they come? I thought they would be grateful, one less thing to worry about.
Then I felt someone grab my hand, my mom’s smooth fingers felt cool against my own. I felt my dad’s rough palm in my other. I felt something wet on my arm, I didn’t know my dad could cry. He inhaled shakily, “Hey kiddo…how ya doing?” I felt him squeeze my hand tightly.
“Hey sweetie, we’re here…we’re here. It’s ok. Please come back. Please come ba-” her voice cut off as I heard her break down in sobs. “Please, please push through. Come back to us. We love you, and we are so sorry. Please come back.”
My dad clutched my hand in his, and I could feel him shaking. “We are so sorry Delia… don’t leave us. We- we love you more than you will ever know.”
I could feel their grip on my hands loosen as their sobs quieted, I took a deep breath. I didn’t inhale again. Instead, I drifted off into my dreams where Lia was waiting for me.
“Does someone love us yet?”
“Yes….yes it seems they do.” I felt a tear roll down my cheek, and I pulled her close.
As she faded from my arms, my eyes opened to the life I forgot I had. My mother screamed with joy and hugged me harder than she probably intended to. My father sobbed into my hand which he was still holding on to as if it were the only thing giving him life.
“We love you Lia” I heard my mom whisper through her sobs as she held me close. In the back of my head I heard a small whisper of a little girl’s voice, “Thank you”. And with that, I felt her leave. Lia was gone, she had done her job and it was time for me to live my life. But I will never forget her…I will never forget the girl by the sea.