Pigments and Figments: Part One
"PERCY" I yelled at my brother. "WAKE. UP!" I slapped him twice: once to make sure he was okay, twice for good measure. "Please..." I pleaded to the Usul.
But it was no good.
Clearly, IT had gotten him.
IT, the thing he had talked about for months. IT, the thing that had haunted him for months. IT, the reason he had not had good sleep in months.
"Arnold," he had warned me about a week ago at the kitchen table of our Neohome during breakfast, "IT's coming, IT's coming closer. I won't be able to hold IT back much longer."
"You still haven't told me what 'IT' is," I snapped at him. My once happy-go-lucky dependable brother had turned into something of a mess, and it was starting to affect our brotherhood. "I keep telling you to should go see a psychologist--"
"This is the one area psychology can't help me," he replied.
"Then what do you need?" I asked, frowning. I had asked this before.
He just shook his head and walked away. "I need to dream harder."
And that was it. Every single time, that was it. I genuinely wanted to help him, but what could I do?
And now, clearly, it was too late. I brushed my hand against his face... he was still breathing. He was still alive. He was still doing OK. He was just... stuck in his dreams.
It hit me, then. IT was currently keeping him trapped... in his dreams.
In his nightmares.
I had to enter his dreams.***
“Dr. Landelbrot!” I burst into the Brightvale University laboratory, the impact of the door making several shelved jars wobble. “You’ve got to help me!” I exclaimed.
The Lutari frowned. “It’s late, child,” he scolded. “Ye nearly caused the doom of my home,” Dr. Landelbrot gestured to the jars out of immediate danger of toppling.
“Sorry, but you’re the only one who’s even heard of something like this,” I explained, “I even asked the Faeries and they led me straight to you, as much as I…” I stopped here. Telling Dr. Landelbrot that I was afraid of him since childhood probably wouldn’t help Percy.
“What ees it?” Not a yes, but he jumped past that, skipping all polite formalities. Perhaps he was still annoyed.
“It’s my brother, Percy,” I went on, “He can’t seem to escape his dreams.”
The Lutari raised an eyebrow. “Let him live his dreams, then, child.”
“No, worse! He won’t wake up or eat anything or even drink anything.”
Dr. Landelbrot’s eyes became slits. “I may help you again but thees is a grand favor. What have you got in there?” He pointed to my pockets.
My stomach sank as I emptied them. There was nothing of value in there, just scraps from dailies I’d forgotten to put away.
To my surprise, Dr. Landelbrot’s eyes lit right up.
“That’s exactly what I need for my next experiment!” He held up the water fish and half-eaten berries in awe, as if he was holding treasure stolen from Hannah herself. Digging into a drawer, he fished out a strange device.
"Here, thees here should allow for you to entare hees dreams," the Lutari said to me as he bestowed upon me the small metal instrument. A wire connected two cups, to be fitted around the heads of the dreamer and enterer. Dr. Landelbrot explained it to me, but I was hardly listening. All I could think about was saving Percy. “…works utilizing the mapping of patterns of radiation and decay of brainwaves.”
Uh, what did he say? "Thanks," I said to him with a smile.
"Thank you for the water fish, half eaten berries, and Tombola Trash." He grinned at me as he held up his bag of Semolina. "I love this stuff!" ***
A heart-rending murmur.
The uncommon flail.
There was no doubt about it. My brother was truly suffering.
I slipped on the device, braced myself for the worst, and entered.
My eyes flashed open as wind roared in my ears. I looked around, my limbs flailing through empty space—no, sky. With streaming eyes, I strained to get a glimpse of Percy.
I could hardly get a glimpse of the ground, though. It seemed so far away but I knew, something inside me just knew, that it was going to get closer.
“Percy?” I called out, instantly met with a face full of whooshing air. I gagged on the breakneck current.
And it wasn’t just me this time, either.
Percy was also scrambling for purchase on the empty air, screaming with his eyes shut on the way down. “Hey!” I called out, despite the air stuffing itself into my throat as I spoke. “Everything’s going to be all right!”
The next thing I knew, we were underwater, deep down, with canopies of kelp and several yards of water before us. Percy struggled, I could see him, and I couldn’t save him—I knew that already. My lungs were atrophying more and more with every second.
But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t save someone I should have a long time ago.
Gritting my teeth, I dove into the thick ropes of kelp containing the Usul.
"Percy," I spoke through the water. "Where are you?"
"Arnold!" I scarcely heard through the bubbling, diffracted sound waves.
I swam closer to him... and watched him get sucked up into a small cavern hidden by the kelp. "NOOOO!"
I swam closer to the cavern, too, and tumbled inside.
"Huh?" I spoke, catching my breath; there was breathable air here. This must have been a pocket.
I heard Percy's voice. "Thanks, Martha."
"Percy," I said to no one in particular as I wandered around the cavern. "Where are you?"
"Arnold?" Percy appeared from behind a twist in the wall. "What are you--"
A girl was beside him. "Who's the Koi?" I interrupted, but I knew it had to be this Martha.
"Martha," the Usul replied. "Of course you wouldn't remember." He sounded only slightly resentful. "She was my imaginary friend as a kid... but I found her still alive and well in my subconscious after IT kept trapping me here. She always seems able to get me out of bad situations. Except this time..." He paused. "Again, what are you doing here?"
"You didn't wake up," I started, "so I acquired one of Dr. Landelbrot's inventions and entered your dreams. I'm here to help destroy whatever's preventing you from waking."
Percy just laughed. "You think it can be destroyed?"
How like him to be pessimistic these days.
“I saw you almost get killed once, I’m not going to let it happen again!” I snapped, shaking the Usul by the shoulders.
My face was met with a slimy, rubbery tail. I let go of my brother and stumbled backward.
“I won’t let you hurt Percy,” Martha hissed, her dorsal fin raised high. Through swollen lids, I looked at her. This close, I could see the features of her face more clearly. She was indeed a pink Koi, but looked to be entirely made of crayon. How she didn’t melt in the water was beyond me, but less so than how I could feel pain, such real pain, in a dream.
“Martha, it’s okay. He’s trying to delay the inevitable.” Percy sniffed.
I sighed and immediately regretted it. Even in a dream, the pocket’s air was beginning to tighten. “Let’s just get somewhere safe,” I said.
Martha narrowed her eyes at me and we swam through the cavern, not unlike Hannah in her pirating days. I felt nothing like an adventurer today.
At last, we reached a large cave, filled with plenty of air, as Martha guided us. How was she able to guide us so well—no, it was only dream logic. She existed only in the dream, I reasoned, so of course she would know her way around it.
“Thanks for saving us from drowning, Martha,” Percy told her, casually driving a stake into my heart. I winced, trying to keep saltwater out of my memories.
The storm, the darkness, the water, the water, the water, both of us in it, the squeezing of my chest, a sinking Usul tail…
I shook my head to clear it. This was just as much my nightmare as Percy’s, it seemed. Just in different ways.
“Do you know what IT is?” I asked, using Percy’s term of whatever was tormenting him.
Percy looked at me, his face touched with exhausted agony. “Yes and no.”
I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes in frustration. “What do you mean?”
“IT’s followed me, dropped me from crazy heights, tried to drown me, actually drowned me, scared me so much I couldn’t breathe… there was a sense of darkness in all of those dreams.” Percy looked at me hard. “And it keeps happening. Over and over. It should be here any second--”
The cavern went black.
“Martha?” I heard Percy call out.
A wave of anger flooded me. He would rather call on a figment of his imagination than his own flesh and blood?
Percy wailed. “IT got her too!”
I narrowed my eyes, even though he couldn’t see them in the pitch blackness. “Then we’ll get IT back.” I pulled Percy to his feet.
“Since you could remember these dark spells, can’t you do something to stop it?”
Even without being able to see him, I knew the Usul shook his head. “I’ve tried,” he explained. “Martha’s always helped me get through them.”
Martha… I felt my jaw clench.
This was going to be tougher than I thought.
I shut my eyes, wishing hard. I didn’t know what I had to do, but I do know that I needed a flashlight. It wasn’t even my dream—could I just dream it up?
A faint glow just barely dispelled the worst of the shadows in the room.
I turned around. Did it actually work?
"Look what I found!"
Martha neared Percy and me, a candle held between her sketchy fins. "This should dispel the darkness." She grinned at us, then at me... definitely condescendingly. "What are you still doing here?" she shot at me, an almost sort of fire passing over her eyes. "I think I can take care of Percy just fine."
"I'm his kin," I shot back at her. "Not just some figment of his imagination."
"At least I can provide real aid," she rebutted, waving the candle just enough to not cause it to blow out.
"Look," Percy interjected, "we can all three get along," shoving himself between us to prevent further escalation of altercation. "It's just," he continued, turning his attention towards me, "she knows this terrain much better than you, coming from my subconscious here, after all. Give her a chance."
I looked at Martha. She just... smiled. My mouth was a neutral line.
I turned back to Percy, my expression unchanging. "OK Percy, for you."
The Usul nodded. "Martha, lead the way out of this part of the darkness."
"There's more than one darkness?" I asked, raising an eyebrow slightly.
"Gladly," Martha replied to Percy as she started to move in front of us, taking a guiding stance.
"Arnold," Percy started, "the darkness... IT... seems to follow me. IT traps me here... I can't wake up when IT's here. Martha has been leading me out of it consistently in the past, and I wake up, but lately IT has a firmer hold of me. This time around, I've been unable to escape IT, though I've been trying."
I frowned at Percy. Something seemed off. I glanced up at Martha ahead. She stole a glance back at me... and seemed to smile with her eyes.
It was almost sinister, the way the crayon eyes glistened like that. Maybe it was just younger Percy’s art style.
“This cave’s a dead end, it looks like,” Martha told us, pressing on a wall to confirm that we couldn’t phase through it, dream-beings though we were.
“We have to go back out?” Although it was just a cave, water, and kelp, a strange kind of petpet-like panic took hold of me. I wasn’t even sure I could swim anymore.
Martha glanced at me with grave indifference. “We do.”
To be continued…