Third Place Winner: Reality Dust by Abigail E.
Y'all. I couldn't help myself. Abigail's story was so unique and intriguing, with such an interesting twist on this prompt. I just knew y'all would love the mystical, sci-fi twist as much as I did!
“Breathe.” I exhale. Inhale. “Just breathe, Casey. You're fine. The world is fine. Everything is fine.” I hide my face in my hands, trying to focus on the rattle of the train around me. Familiar sounds. Real sounds. That is what reality is.
Reality is the smell of dust, and the howl of wind, and the feel of the clothes against my skin. Reality is the sound of the woman crying in the next compartment over. Reality is the small metal box in my pocket, digging into my stomach as I curl around it.
My heart rate slows. My breathing steadies. My hand moves into my pocket and clutches the box in my hand. This box is the only thing that connects me to reality.
Rule number 1: Protect the box at any cost.
I slowly lift my face to look at the train around me. Everything is normal. The train is not melting. The world is not on fire. The people are not screaming. A few of them give me curious looks, and I flicker a faint smile at them. Everything is fine.
“Miss…” A little boy approaches me timidly. “Are you alright?”
“Of course, I am.” I smile with more sincerity. “Is there something you need…?”
The boy looks down. “I…um…lost my parents.”
The faintest of ripples passes through the train cars, briefly disturbing the scene. This feels familiar. Like I’ve done this before-
My thoughts slip away.
“I think I heard them looking for you.” I stand on trembling legs and take his hand, leading him to the next compartment.
My reflection twitches in the window and I immediately duck my head back down. Don’t think about what you saw too closely.
Rule number 2: Don’t look at your reflection.
The boy gasps and immediately darts inside. The woman stops crying on the man’s shoulder. They are too distracted to notice me leaving.
My heart aches. My parents…I know I saw them get on this train. So why aren’t they here?
An idea occurs to me. Well, that’s silly- they’re in the dining car, of course.
I keep my gaze down as I open the door to my compartment and step inside. It takes far more energy than it should. I collapse into my seat and curl up, shivering.
I just have to keep going. Just have to reach the destination…I’ll surely meet my parents there. I reach for my neck…then pause…confusion reigning. What was I reaching for…it can’t be important?
Fatigue presses its fingers against my eyelids, and I feebly try to resist it. Sleep is an enemy- things always fall apart when I sleep-
Sleep catches me anyway.
I’m slammed into my seat, and my eyes flash open, fear already pulsing in my veins. I instantly jam my hand into my pocket and clutch the box. It takes one second to realize that it’s there. It takes two seconds to realize that the train isn’t moving. It takes three seconds to examine the man pinning my shoulders to the seat behind me.
“Give me the box-”
Four seconds to pop the lid of the box open.
Five seconds to take a pinch of the dust, six seconds to fling it in his face.
One second to close my eyes and the box as he recoils.
I don’t know what he sees in that moment, but the look of devastation on his face almost makes me feel sorry for him. Almost.
And then he vanishes in an explosion of dust.
I put a hand over my heart, focusing on breathing. Since when was I able to do that- I glance out the window.
My parents are in the crowd outside.
I lurch to my feet and start to run through the train. “Wait!” I scream after them.
“Fog! Are you alright?”
Hands swipe at me as I blearily open my eyes. The world is sliding and fuzzing around the edges. Casey had really nailed me this time. I hadn’t had time to get a word in edgewise. To explain. She had just shoved me out of her brain. Again.
“Fine.” I grunt. “I lost her again.”
Conner sighs even as he helps me to stand. “We have to get the box from her, Fog. It’s incredibly dangerous-”
“I already know all that.” I huff painfully, forcing my eyes up to his face. “Her parents never should have messed with it. But they did. And now it’s up to us to fix it all. We need to find her reality anchor, or all of this is pointless!”
I lost them. How could I have lost them?
I look back and forth, but the crowd shows no sign of my father’s silly adventuring hat.
I start walking determinedly. They have to be here. I’m just not seeing them.
I rub my thumb over the box nervously, trying to make a plan.
The world shifts in the corner of my vision, people vanish. My eyes are playing tricks on me again, making the world move. It makes me feel sick.
Again, I reach for my neck, and again I find nothing there.
Something isn’t right here-
I see my father’s hat out of the corner of my eye and whirl.
There they are, leaving the station at a brisk walk.
I race after them, ignoring how the people of the station flicker in my vision.
I burst onto the sidewalk and pursue my parents as quickly as I can. But no matter how fast I run I never seem to be getting closer.
I shout, but they don’t hear.
They disappear through a revolving door.
I slam into it thirty seconds later but the door sticks and won’t move. I pound my fist in the glass. It has a grainy texture to it.
I realize my mistake one moment later.
I can see my eyes reflecting in the glass. And in the reflection, I’m wearing a necklace.
My brain doesn’t process the image, and everything bursts into dust.
“Got her!” Conner crows triumphantly.
I nearly drop my mug of coffee.
“Where?” I peer over Conner’s shoulder at a computer screen filled with highly complex graphics. A model of a brain rotates on the screen, flashing different colors.
“Her brain patterns just spiked; something must have triggered her brain’s natural defenses.” Conner points to a glowing section of the model. “Shall I send you in?”
I pause. “What we're doing isn’t working. She’ll just nail me with the dust like she did the last twenty times. We need her reality anchor.”
Conner thinks. Glances over at the stasis tube in the corner.
“How are we going to do that?”
I set down my mug of coffee. I’ve only known Casey for two excruciatingly long days. And now I’m supposed to find something deeply meaningful to her. Something that grounds her to the truth no matter what she wants to believe.
I don’t get paid enough for this.
Something’s very wrong, everything is dust-
I clutch the box tighter.
The world shifts. Everything is normal. The revolving door is replaced by an automatic door that swishes open quietly. My head pulses with a headache.
I walk forward into the lobby of an incredibly familiar hotel. We stayed in room 246, didn’t we?
My thoughts scatter again. No, we haven’t stayed there yet. Why aren’t they in the lobby?
I don’t bother trying to talk to the woman behind the check-in desk. I just go to the elevator, select the correct floor and start traveling up.
Then I walk on the boring patterned carpet all hotels have. I open the door to room 246.
Why aren’t they here? They’re supposed to be here!
I close my eyes, fingernails digging into the box. Fatigue crushes me. It felt like I had been running for years. This box could fix everything. My parents were here-
“Casey,” the man says again.
“Just leave me alone.” I rasp. Without the door I would have already collapsed on the floor.
“I can’t, Casey.” The voice is soothing and calm. “I’m trying to help you; you just can’t see it yet.”
I slowly open the box, every movement exhausting.
“Please don’t.” The man’s voice carries an edge this time.
I pinch the dust in-between my fingers.
“Just look at me first, alright?”
I lift my tired eyes.
His eyes are soft. “You need to tell me if you feel like you're forgetting something.”
My hand almost immediately darts to my neck. I shake my head.
He looks disappointed. “All you’re seeing right now is a lie…the box is doing this to you. Give me the box and all this will stop, alright?”
Tears are falling down my cheeks. “What if,” I snarl. “I don’t want it to?” My parents are here. They have to be. I throw the dust at him and sag down to the ground sobbing.
I just want to find my parents.
I slam my hand down on the table so hard that my mug of cold coffee falls of and shatters on the floor. I pull the electrodes from my forehead.
“Fog are you-” Conner starts.
“No!” I yell rubbing my temples. “That didn’t work either!” I found myself staring at the stasis tube in the corner again. “How much time do we have?” She had told me nothing. If she didn’t tell me anything about her, how exactly was I going to find her reality anchor?
Conner opens his mouth and hesitates.
“…It’s progressing faster.”
I stand up, moving to brush dust from my clothes. But it’s not there. I just thought it was.
I stride to the tube.
“I don’t think-”
“I have to see.” I peer through the glass at Casey’s face underneath. I grimace. Her body seems to be…crumbling. Turning to dust, as the parasite bonds with her. The box is clutched in her hands, and dust spills from its cracks, feeding on her. Anger boils in me.
That box is possessing her, and she won’t let it go. And she has to let it go, because if we try to take it from her that would kill her too. The illusions are just a distraction to keep her mind busy.
“How long do I have?” I ask in an iron voice.
Conner sighs. “A few hours at best. Then she’ll be bonded too far, and we won’t be able to save her.”
I press my eyes closed. Then open them again looking at her face again. Something glints around her neck.
I inhale sharply. Her hand darting up to her neck-
Bless Casey’s mind for that single motion. “I found it, Conner, quick! Get this tube open-” I shout, relief filling me.
That’s the problem with this job. It always gets personal so quickly. Being in someone else’s mind, you learn things you never thought you would want to know.
I want to save this girl's life and recover the artifact…but I took this job for the people. I can’t lose someone else.
Everything is stretched to the breaking point. Words swirl like the dust, memories and thoughts jumbling, past, present and future conflicting, until nothing makes sense anymore. I can feel so much more, like my body is expanding, every grain of dust becoming an extension of myself.
Friend enemy, up down, safe dangerous, reflections-
If you just give me the box, I can make it stop.
That would mean giving up. I try to force my eyes open, to look harder…but I can’t.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Conner mumbles nervously.
“Hand me the goggles.” I answer.
Over the years, I’ve had to do some pretty crazy things. But sending my mental self-inside of someone else’s head to try and get rid of a magical parasite? That’s new.
“If you’re there when she dies, you’ll go with her.” Conner warns.
“Good thing she won’t die then.” I tighten my hold on the silvery chain in my hand. I’m betting everything that It’s her reality anchor. And if it’s not…well, I won’t think about that.
I pull on the goggles and reapply the electrodes.
“Send me in.”
I can feel a presence the moment he arrives. Like a searing beacon of change. Painful. I curl around the box, even as I cry. I don’t know why, but the tears just keep coming. Confusion reigns.
Just as I’d been hoping, both the goggles and the necklace come with me. They aren’t really there. But their mental equivalent is. The goggles will protect me from dust. And the necklace…well…it was a hunch. But the best hunch I have.
The illusion of the hotel bursts into dust, shamelessly attacking me, drawing blood, trying to keep me away from the host, trying to tear the necklace from my hand. I can feel it trying to throw me out again.
But this isn’t a physical fight. It’s a mental one. All this happening to me isn’t real.
And that means it’s just my will against its will.
The skin on my arms smooths, blood vanishing. This dust can’t touch me. My real body is far away from here.
The necklace is a heavy weight in my hand.
Through the dust, I can see her body, crumpled on the ground. She barely moves. I drive myself forward.
“No…” I rasp, fighting harder and harder even as the exhaustion grows.
I try to crawl away. But my limbs feel like lead and the fatigue is too great. I can see something flickering in his hand and try to crawl faster. Everything’s dissolving again- a woman’s hand holding the necklace- ‘you use this to remember us by’-a figure lying at the base of the sarcophagus-
“Mom…” I groan. The necklace flashes.
I recoil with a pained scream. But the necklace is drilled in my mind, more solid than everything else.
No- I will not- MY PARENTS ARE ALIVE-
I throw the dust again, trying to form my scattered thoughts to think.
The necklace- my parents- “we found something special this time honey”- “go on home”- hiding in the museum- parents- parents- my thoughts scattered, throwing thousands of distractions.
I catch a glimpse of my parents just down the hall.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” I thrash, fighting towards them.
The dust glances harmlessly from my goggles.
She’s too weak to even fight me. I feel pity in me, my anger flashing away. I kneel by her and clasp the necklace around her white neck.
I scream, dust falling from the sky and slamming into the ground, memories piercing me.
“We found something special at the site, honey. We’re going to examine it for a while. Why don’t you go home, we’ll be here all night.” Mom smiling, something concealed in a yellow plastic bag.
“You’re…not coming home?” I whisper.
“Just for a little bit, sweetheart.” Dad says, ruffling my hair. “We’ll have a pancake breakfast tomorrow to make up for it. Promise.”
But I didn’t go home. I should have gone home.
I hid in the back room of the museum instead, hiding next to sarcophagus and artifacts that needed to be restored before they could be displayed.
I remember hearing them talk about how to open the box. I remember seeing it glint as it opened, both of their hands on the lid, peering inside. I remember them collapsing as grey dust traveled up their fingers in torrents.
I remember trying to rush forward, trying to slam the box closed, fingers curling around it like claws, pulling it from their hands. I remember their bodies jerking and their skin going white.
And then- nothing. Nothing else. My fingers curl around the necklace and I look up at the man.
“Give me the box, Casey. It’s trying to infect you just like it tried to infect your parents. I can help you.” I can see the confusion and pain warring on her face.
“This is all…” She rasps. “This is the last chance I have to- get them back.”
She’s not going to do it, I realize.
Even still, even remembering. After all, who wouldn’t want their parents back? “They’re already gone, Casey. If they didn’t let go of it willingly…the parasite destroyed them. And they wouldn’t want you to die for them.”
She curls tightly around herself, a pitiable shaking ball.
And then she holds out a shaking hand, fingers locked around a silver box.
It hurts. It hurts so much to let go. It takes every ounce of energy to be still to offer away everything I could hope for.
I can see my parents over his shoulder, screaming at me to stop, that they were right there, that if I just hung on a little longer and got to them, I would get to hug them again.
But I do it anyway. There were clues. If only I had looked a little closer. Every time I saw my parents was when I thought too deeply, found some problem with the reality I was in. Every time I questioned, something happened to distract me.
This was all fake.
I’m so tired of everything being fake. He can make it stop.
I set the box in his hand.
I jerk upright almost immediately, surroundings warping to a tube filled with gel. I can feel dust crawling over my skin.
A moment before I can scream, the tube’s lid bursts upright and there the man is once again, electrodes shining on his forehead.
He’s wearing gloves. He gently takes the box from my lap. Dust is streaming to it now, and I can almost hear it screaming. It clicks closed with a flash.
He hands it to someone else. Then his eyes are on me, comforting.
“Just breathe, Casey.” He puts his hand on my shoulder, brushing dust from my face. “Just focus on breathing.”
And slowly, as if in a dream, I can feel myself being reassembled.
about the writer
Abigail E. is a teenage writer whose characters often take control of whatever she writes. She seeks to depict hope even through the brokenness, and the love of God through suffering. When she’s not writing or reading, you can find her drawing, painting, or listening to music. Her family has long since gotten used to her staring into space, and being excited about stories with no obvious reason.
So? What do y'all think? Let us know in the comments below! Abigail is so good at immersing you into the character's mind and creating stories that transcend reality! I actually had the pleasure of sharing another story of hers, The Time Thief, which you can read here!