Where does the dream end and reality begin?
Lycia awoke with a jolt. Her heart pounded in synch with the harsh buzz of the alarm clock, expelling her from an already fading dream. She fumbled blindly for the clock and slammed her hand down on it, swearing as the fuzzy green numbers came into focus. It was five in the morning.
Lycia listened to the sound of rain pattering softly on the roof. She sat up and kicked the sheets off her legs, rubbing the grit from her eyes as she looked around. She was in her mother’s bedroom. Lycia did not know why she had slept there. She searched her memory for a reason, but came up against a wall of fog. Her mind was blank.
Lycia looked over at her mother, who was sleeping soundly beside her. “Mom,” Lycia murmured. “Your alarm.”
Her mother didn’t stir.
“Are you going to work?” Lycia asked. She frowned when she received no response. Sometimes it felt as though she had spent all seventeen years of her life fighting to get her mother’s attention. She tried to recall a time when she was younger, when she had clung to her mother’s hand in the big, wide world, or curled up in her mother’s arms, protected and loved. No such recollections came to her, and she was disturbed by the murkiness of her own memory.
“Mom,” she repeated, “your alarm went off. Are you going to work?”
Her mother remained motionless beneath the covers.
“Not like you to be unenthusiastic about work,” Lycia remarked. It felt like every second week meant a new house, a new town. Her mother’s precious career had dragged them from one place to another so many times that the past had become a blur.
Is this just another stop? I hardly remember the move this time.
“Going in late then? I guess you’ll be staying late, too.”
Her mother always stayed late. Her job was her life, her baby. Lycia was the work.
“Fine,” Lycia said. “I’ll go and get ready for school.”
The floorboards sapped the warmth from her body as she staggered out into the gray hallway. The house was dark and empty. The air had the crisp, cool feeling of a world yet to wake up. Lycia contemplated going back to sleep in her own bed, but knew she shouldn’t.
Best to get this day over and done with, and then it will be just another clouded memory. It will be nothing at all.
She prepared for the day as slowly as possible, killing time in her bedroom, delaying the inevitable walk to school. Like the rest of the house, her room was colorless and unadorned. Throwing on a black t-shirt and jeans, she examined herself in the mirror that hung on the inside of her wardrobe door. Her slim stature lacked the feminine curves of other girls her age. Her face was plain and expressionless. Her eyes were small and gray, her lips thin and pale. It was the kind of face that would have gone unnoticed in a crowd had it not been for her vibrant shock of red hair. She dressed herself in chunky leather boots and a wide belt dripping with chains, augmenting the permanent air of hostility that she had cultivated to keep people at a distance. She had always formed barriers between herself and others, and she had no intention of changing in this new town. What was it called again? Somewhere in her drowsy head the name came to mind.
Lycia could hear the rain growing heavier outside. She took one last disdainful glance at her reflection and adjusted the silver clasp of the thick leather band that always adorned her left wrist. She pulled on a black leather jacket and threw her schoolbag over one shoulder.
Lycia opened the door into an ugly world. She walked down a cracked and crumbling sidewalk and onto a derelict road. The rain came down so hard that it stung her face, and she had to blink rapidly to keep it out of her eyes. Her surroundings had a sickly green hue to them; the combined effect of a weakened sun straining through the cloak of fog, and the fine coat of mold that stained almost everything. Lycia walked onward, soaked to the skin, heading to the center of the town in search of her new school.
Greenwood stretched out around her in all its decaying glory. Rows of identical box-like houses lined its streets. Beyond the houses, Lycia could see the jagged roofs of warehouses forming a barrier around the town. Dark clouds hung low and dense in the sky, like a ceiling threatening to collapse and crush everything below. Lycia’s chest tightened. She felt as if the town was closing in around her, trapping her. She shrugged off the sensation and continued up the street, scanning the houses ahead for some sign of life. There was nothing. There were no lights on inside, no cars in the carports, no dogs in the yards. The houses were empty, silent and dark.
Just when Lycia was starting to think Greenwood was a ghost town, she heard faint voices on the wind. As she followed the sound, a massive concrete cube emerged from the gloom. It looked more like a fortress than a school. She pushed the iron gates open and entered a garden of black, leafless shrubs and slick mud. Despite the laughter and chattering emanating from the building, there was nobody in sight. Lycia felt unnerved. Her gaze wandered upward, searching the windows of the higher floor for signs of life. A dark figure stood behind one of the filthy panes of glass. The silhouette raised a hand and waved slowly. Lycia shivered and ducked inside the school.
The smell of adolescent sweat hit Lycia’s nostrils as she entered the corridors. A line of fluorescent lights cut through the low-set ceiling like white lines down the middle of a road. Everything radiated with sterile, artificial light. The walls were lined with rusty, dented lockers, punctuated by the occasional blue door. Lycia picked a door and pressed her nose against the small square window embedded in it. The glass had a mottled effect, and Lycia could only just make out the vague forms of students on the other side. They were sitting in neat rows, bent over their desks, all seemingly engrossed in their schoolwork. Lycia peered through the glass in other doors and found similar scenes of motionless students, totally focused on their work. She tried to get a glimpse of a teacher, but the windows were too small for her to see the front of the classrooms.
Lycia didn’t know which room she was supposed to be in, and she was reluctant to enter any of the rooms to ask. She didn’t want anyone to know that she was lost, that she was anxious. She thought about the waving figure. Maybe they knew where she was supposed to be.
Finding a way to the second floor was much more difficult than Lycia had expected. From the outside, the building looked like a perfect cube, but on the inside it appeared to discard all logical structure. The corridors seemed to stretch on for miles in some places, and there were far too many corners and curves in others. Lycia felt like she had entered a labyrinth.
Lycia opened a door expecting to find a stairwell and instead ended up ankle-deep in water. She had stepped into an open courtyard in the center of the building. The rain had turned it into a wading pool. Dead trees dotted the perimeter, and in one corner stood a canteen, its gray shutters rolled halfway down. On the far side of the courtyard were a set of metal stairs. Conceding that her socks were already as wet as they could possibly be, Lycia splashed her way across the courtyard.
The second floor looked identical to the first, but with red classroom doors instead of blue. Lycia had completely lost her bearings and had no way of knowing where the waving figure had been. She was on the verge of giving up when the tuneless chime of the school bell echoed through the corridors.
Students poured out of the rooms, laughing and jostling with one another. Lycia stared open-mouthed at them. The students stopped dead and stared back, looking equally horrified.
“What the fuck?” Lycia whispered.
The first girl that Lycia noticed had a pretty face caked in powdery make-up and golden hair swept back in a high pony-tail. She wore a tight, white blouse, her chest obnoxiously thrust forward. Her tartan skirt rode up dangerously high on her thighs. She was beautiful, but her appearance was so flawless that it became unnatural, like a plastic doll brought to life. Even her movements were stilted, as if being manipulated with invisible strings.
But this one girl wasn’t what caused the shock and terror that cut through Lycia. It was the girls behind her, and the girls behind them, and every other girl all the way down the corridor. Every single one of them looked identical to the first.
The boys were homogenous as well. They were all dressed in rumpled white shirts and baggy gray trousers that hung low on their hips. They had arrogant, wide-mouthed faces with smatterings of acne and sparse stubble, and curly blond hair that sat on their large heads like woolly halos. While the girls’ eyes were wide and unthinking, there was a twist of cruelty in the gaze of each and every boy. Lycia felt an instant hatred mingle with her confusion and fear.
After a period of panicked whispering, the students regained their composure and continued on their way, doing their best not to look in Lycia’s direction. Lycia backed up against the lockers, watching the students hurry past in both directions. They clung to the opposite wall, giving her dark glances as they went by.
Lycia was about to make a run for the stairs when she noticed two girls walking toward her, looking apprehensive.
“You new?” one of them said, chewing on a lollypop stick and cocking her head to the side like a dog. It wasn’t really a question; more a statement made to help the girl get her head around the concept.
“What’s your name?” the other asked.
“Lycia,” she said warily.
“I’m Chelsea,” said the girl on the right.
“I’m Amy,” said the girl on the left.
Lycia looked between the two girls. Apart from a slight difference in eye color—Chelsea’s were hazel and Amy’s green—they were identical.
“Why is your hair red?” asked Chelsea.
“Why is your hair short?” asked Amy.
“Why do your clothes look like boy clothes?”
“Did you forget to put your makeup on or something?”
“What is wrong with you?” the two girls asked in unison, giggling.
Lycia folded her arms. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Chelsea and Amy exchanged glances and then broke into high-pitched laughter.
“Did one of you wave to me from the window?” Lycia asked, ignoring their hysterics.
Chelsea and Amy stopped laughing. They looked nervously at each other.
“Why would we do that?” Chelsea asked, her tone defensive and confused.
“Whatever,” the girls muttered, rolling their eyes. They turned and walked away, whispering, “Not another freak!”
Lycia gave up on finding her classroom, or the waving silhouette. She had seen enough for one day. She navigated the corridors back to the school’s entrance and left. She wandered the moldering streets of Greenwood for quite some time as she tried to find her house. Everything looked so similar that she didn’t even know where to start. The walls of every house were covered in chips and cracks. Doors and windows hung limply from broken hinges. The pointed black roofs were missing so many tiles that the gray sky behind them appeared checkered. There were few street signs, and the ones that remained were so rusted that Lycia couldn’t read them. She tried using vague landmarks to orientate herself; a dead tree, a collapsed house, a flickering streetlight. She wished that she had thought to count the blocks between her house and the school, and made a mental note to herself to count them next time. That is, if she ever went back to that school again.
Eventually, Lycia found her home. Her mother’s bright red sofa was visible through the front window. Lycia went inside, peeling off her wet jacket and brushing the wet hair from her face.
Lycia’s stomach rumbled. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything all day. She searched the kitchen and found it bare. Her mother obviously hadn’t found the time to buy groceries yet. Hopefully she’d pick some up on her way home from work. Lycia leaned over the kitchen sink and gulped down mouthfuls of water from the faucet, hoping to fool her stomach into feeling full. The rattle of rain on the roof was growing heavier, more violent. Lycia lay back on the red sofa and stared up at the ceiling. She wanted to pretend that her visit to school had never happened. She wanted to pretend that she wasn’t confused and scared. She listened to the rain grow heavier, until it was so loud that it drowned out the questions that kept circling in her mind.