Jack finished his work early that night. After dinner, his family usually had a ritual of some family television time together. Jack wanted to play a few minutes of the show on the Himalayan Mountain Range that he had recorded the day before, so he could refresh his memory with all the details of the area he had seen in the dream. But his younger sister wanted to watch the new episode of her favorite show, so he had to wait awhile as a couple of turtle warriors performed fairly impressive stunts to save a teenage witch from an evil orangutan that was controlled by a mad scientist.
As he waited impatiently for his turn, he thought through his strategy. He would watch a few minutes of that program on the Himalayas, give himself a little time to think about it before going to bed, and then hope to be in the right frame of mind to repeat the dream experience from the previous night. When he finally got a chance to play the recording, his sister protested, but his mother backed him up because she always loved it when her children showed interest in educational TV.
It was all going as planned.
Selenia had a busy family. She, her twin sister, and parents had dinner together. Then each of them went their own way in their large suburban home, finishing up remaining work and winding down for the day. She hadn’t recorded the TV show from the previous day, so she decided to just lie in bed thinking of all the details she could remember from that show. She glanced in the mirror to see if she looked presentable, good enough to meet people in her dreams. It then struck her how absurd that sounded, and hopped into bed with a chuckle. The yellow lilies in front of her dressing mirror reminded her of the previous night’s dream and the abundance of colorful flowers she had noticed in the mountains at the beginning of their journey. She settled down in bed and jumped on that train of thought, which promised to take her back into the depths of the dream.
Things were not going as smoothly for Eddie. His mother was home from the Chinese restaurant their family operated in the strip mall close to where they lived, and she had brought with her some dinner for him from the restaurant. His father was going to come much later after closing shop for the day. Eddie was an only child and had no siblings, other than the imaginary one he occasionally made up to entertain himself. His father was of Chinese descent and his mother of English lineage, but having lived in Iowa for so many years they were more Iowans than anything else.
“Mom, can I just have some pasta for dinner tonight?” Eddie asked. “I don’t feel like having the restaurant food again.”
“Eddie, I don’t have the energy to cook right now,” his mother said. “Can you just eat this tonight? I promise I’ll make pasta for you tomorrow.”
“Mo-om,” Eddie complained in a sing-song voice. But he knew he didn’t have much of a choice and would just have to eat what was there.
After dinner, Eddie still had some more homework to finish and a Biology test to prepare for. When all was done, he sank into his bed and thought of the conversation he had with Jack and Selenia.
That Selenia has quite an attitude.
He tried to recall what he had seen on the Himalayan show the previous day. His mind was so full of Biology at that moment that he was afraid if he fell asleep without switching his thoughts, he might end up in the small intestine of a pig instead of on a bus in the Himalayas. He lay in bed jogging up his memory of the mountains.
This is going to be so cool. Meeting real world people in a dream! This is crazy. No one will ever believe me if I tell them. But I don’t even know if it will happen again tonight.
Eddie still had half an hour before 11 p.m. and strangely, he wasn’t sleepy at all. That was usually the time when he would have been deep in slumber.
I think I’d better start getting drowsy now.
Twenty minutes later, he was still wide-awake with no hint of drowsiness.
Ten minutes. Gosh, I have only ten minutes to fall asleep. Come on, come on, you can do it.
The more he thought about it, the more alert he became.
No, no, no. This isn’t working. What am I going to do now?
The bus continued winding up the mountains. Jack admired again how well the driver was able to maneuver the bus on those narrow hairpin curves. The previous day he had thought the performance was like a well-rehearsed ice skating routine, but the effortlessness with which the driver went about it made him feel a more apt comparison might be to the natural and graceful slither of a snake. As he entertained those complimentary thoughts, the bus suddenly screeched to a halt, and he saw the big frame of the driver jump out of the door in the front and disappear. The ageless…no, forty-two-year-old…tour guide got up and announced loudly to his captive audience that it was time to take a break.
“There’sh tea in that shack there and maybe some shnacks if he hashn’t run out of them yet,” he added in his peculiar accent. “Thirty minutesh and then we go back. Don’t missh the buhsh or you’ll have to shtay here till I come back with the nexht group tomorrow.” He laughed, as if amused by the thought. “By the way, there’sh a shmall cave down that path there,” he continued, pointing to a narrow path between the bushes next to the shack. “It’sh a five-minute walk down that path. Nothing much for me to show, jusht a mountain cave and not even a very deep one. You can take a walk down there if you are intereshted, but be sure to come back in thirty minutesh.”
Everybody got up, stretching their legs and backs within the confines of the limited space around them. Though the driver had made it seem effortless, Jack realized it had been a tedious ride and he saw a big rush as everyone tried to get off the bus. He decided to wait a few minutes in his seat, letting the eager crowd exit first. As he sat there, the conversation he had with Selenia and Eddie in the real world came to his mind. He looked around the packed bus for them but didn’t see either of them. He noticed the tall, athletic brown-haired guy he had seen the other day, sitting by one of the windows and gazing outside, apparently in no rush to go out either.
Just then, he spotted Selenia. She was getting down the steps of the bus. He quickly got up from his seat and tried to make his way through the crowd, in an attempt to reach her. After a little bit of pushing and shoving, when he finally got off the bus he saw that she was already some distance away, walking toward the shack. He ran after her and she turned on hearing his footsteps.
He hesitated on seeing the puzzled look in her green eyes, which moved rapidly as she studied him intently. It didn’t seem like she recognized him.
She stared at him silently for a few seconds and then said, “Do I know you?”
Unsure if it was all actually happening or if he was merely imagining it, he debated in his mind if he should try explaining to her how he knew her name.
Her puzzled look intensified as she noticed him struggling with his thoughts.
“Probably not,” he said, deciding not to complicate the situation. “I think I might’ve just heard your name when someone was calling you. By the way, I’m Jack.” He extended his hand.
She responded with a brief handshake and a smile that was more of a muscle contraction, but said nothing. They stood there in silence for a few seconds, as Jack tried to think of something to say.
“I should get going,” Selenia said.
“Are you going to the shack for some tea?” Jack asked.
“No, I don’t care much for tea and I’m certainly not hungry for any shnacks that guy may have left over,” she said with a smile, imitating the tour guide’s accent. She then put on her gloves and cap, adjusting her long brown hair as she did so, and added, “I’m actually thinking of exploring that cave.”
“Mind if I come along?”
“No. In fact, I think I would like that very much,” she said with a grin. “Even though I like to believe I’m brave, I don’t like the look of that path. I’m guessing not many people go down there after the grueling ride up the mountain.”
“Yeah, it sure doesn’t look inviting, but it still beats the shack with the questionable snacks.”
They both laughed and started in the direction of the path. Jack suddenly remembered about Eddie and turned around, scanning the area around the bus for him. But Eddie was not there. The bus was empty by then and everyone was making a beeline for the shack.
Did he not make it to the dream? Maybe we should wait for him, Jack thought. But if he wasn’t on this bus, then how will he get here?
Seeing Jack hesitate, Selenia asked, “Shall we go or have you changed your mind?”
“No change. Just looking for someone I had met yesterday. It doesn’t look like he’s here. Okay, let’s go.”
As they walked toward the path, Jack realized the air was much colder than he had initially felt on getting down from the warmth of the bus, and decided it was a good idea for him to put on his gloves and cap as well.
The path was just a narrow opening in the dense vegetation that covered most of the area around them. After the first ten feet, it was barely visible, confirming their guess that not many people had ventured that way. The growth was so heavy in places that it seemed like they were walking through thick shrubbery in an unexplored area. Despite the sun, there was still quite a bit of dew on the leaves, making their clothes wet where they happened to brush against it.
Jack took the lead and Selenia walked right behind him, following him step by step, placing her feet exactly in the spots where he had stepped.
“I hope we don’t get lost,” she said. “There isn’t much of a path here to follow.”
Jack looked at his watch to check the time, making a mental note that if they didn’t find anything in ten minutes, it would be best to turn around.
“Are you setting a five-minute mental timer too?” Selenia asked.
“More like a ten-minute timer,” Jack said, realizing how similar their thinking was in some ways.
After five minutes of walking, they looked around but saw no sign of the promised cave. They glanced at each other and Jack could guess the question that was likely on Selenia’s mind as well.
“Should we turn around now?” Jack said.
“Let’s walk a little more. I’m not ready to give up yet.”
Just then, they heard a rustle behind them, as if someone was coming down the same path. They glanced around but saw no one.
“Sounded like a small animal,” Jack said, and Selenia shrugged.
After another five minutes of walking, there was still no sign of the cave.
“All right, I think I’m ready to give up now,” Selenia said. “The tour guide had said it was about a five-minute walk to the cave, and we’ve been walking for ten. Maybe we’re on a wrong track.”
Jack paused and glanced back at her.
“But what if we’re just a minute away from the cave? We’ll never find out if we stop now.”
“And what if we’re not? I don’t think it’s a good idea to miss the bus for this. It’s definitely not my kind of place for a night out.”
Jack nodded, admitting she was right. They turned around and started walking back in the direction they had come, with Selenia now in the lead. With no real path to guide them, Jack knew they had to be careful, lest they veered away from where the shack was.
“You see that bush over there, with that unusual shape?” Jack said. “I had noticed that on our way here earlier. Just keep walking in that direction. Hopefully we’ll see more clues to keep us on track.”
“Ouch.” Selenia stopped suddenly, wincing in pain.
“I think I hit my foot on a rock or something. I can’t tell with all the creepers.”
“It’s a rock,” Jack said, moving some of the foliage with his shoes. “There’s actually a whole pile of rocks to our left, under those leaves. We better watch our step.”
“That’s not a pile. It’s too symmetrical to be a pile. Looks more like a small structure of some kind.”
“Yeah, it does look like some kind of mini pyramid.”
Jack tried to pull aside the creepers. The rocks were piled neatly, as if done deliberately. But they were loose, with nothing binding them to each other. Just then, they heard a rustle again a little distance behind them, but saw nothing when they looked around.
“The same animal?” Selenia suggested.
“Do you think someone might have built this? But why would anyone do that here?”
Jack didn’t respond. He was busy moving the rocks.
“It’s hollow inside,” he said. “Maybe it was built to cover something.”
“You mean like to hide something?”
“Could be, or maybe just to protect it.”
“If there is something under that pyramid, it can’t be too big.”
Together, Jack and Selenia moved a few more rocks and suddenly the whole structure collapsed.
“Shoot,” Jack said. “This is not good. We don’t have much time left now to check this out.”
“Let’s hurry then. Maybe we should focus on the rocks in the center. This thing is so symmetrical that if there is anything inside, it will probably be in the middle.”
“Applied probability?” Jack asked with a smile, as he proceeded to follow Selenia’s suggestion.
“No, applied common sense,” Selenia responded, smiling back. “And we better start walking in a minute if we want to make it to the bus on time.”
“Wait, I see something. What’s that brown thing sticking out from under that rock?” Jack said.
“I think it’s just dry leaves”
“No, no, it’s something else. Help me with these rocks here.”
They quickly moved the rocks in that area and could clearly see one end of something that looked like a rolled parchment. With a little bit of tugging, Jack managed to pull it free from under the rocks. It was some kind of a small scroll, browned with time but still very sturdy. They glanced at each other, excitement showing in their eyes, and Selenia stepped closer to look at it.
Jack unrolled it carefully, his heart pounding. On the rough brown surface were black markings that looked like pictograms.
“Maybe a message of some kind,” Jack said.
But he knew they would have to put off their curiosity for a bit, because they were by then pretty much out of time. If they didn’t make a dash for the bus right away, he knew they would have a whole night to contend with in that beautiful but ominous-looking place, and the scroll wouldn’t be enough justification for it.
Just then, Jack felt the wind pick up and suddenly the bright daylight was displaced by a shadowy dimness. He looked up and saw dark clouds moving in rapidly, eclipsing the sun.
“Let’s get back to the bus first, we can check the scroll out later,” he said.