Christine was waking slowly from a confused and unclear dream -- something to do with dogs and cats -- she wasn't quite sure. She lay there feeling puzzled as she gradually realised it was just an irrational dream, evaporating from her mind the way early morning fog lifts from valleys to dissolve into clear air.
She was seized by an enormous, vocal yawn, and stretched her arms up, finishing it with her fingers wriggling in pleasure. It was the weekend. She loved going to school, but she enjoyed the weekends even more. At the moment she had no plans other than lazing here in the warmth of her bed.
Presently there was a soft knock at her door. "Christine, are you awake?"
"Yes, Mum." She yawned again as her Mum opened the door and entered. Christine watched through sleepy eyes, thinking to herself, as she often did, that her Mum was the most beautiful woman in the world.
"I thought I'd heard you stirring." She went to the bedroom window. "Want me to open the curtains? It's a lovely day outside, possum." At Christine's nod she pulled the drapes aside and opened the sliding window to let in the light, birdsong, and fresh breeze of the morning. "While you were asleep that nice young girl from yesterday..."
"Yes. She rang to ask if you'd like to go for a little bush walk with her this morning. I said you'd ring her back. I need to go to the shops soon, so I can drop you there if you want... after your breakfast."
Christine was a little surprised -- she didn't really know Betty, apart from their conversation yesterday -- but thought it might be nice to go for a bit of a walk in some part of the bush that she hadn't explored. She knew all the hills and valleys for kilometers out this side of the little town. "That sounds like it could be interesting. Thanks Mum." Her mother left the room and Christine threw aside the bed covers, stood, then yawned again, stretching, cat-like, on tip-toes toward the ceiling.
The car pulled to the kerbside with a soft hum and stopped, going completely silent. Christine opened the door and stepped out as her mother reminded her, "You have your phone. Ring if you want me or your father to pick you up. I don't want you home later than five, but I'd prefer if you got back about lunchtime, okay? Have fun, possum."
"Thanks, Mum." Christine smiled to her mother and closed the door, then turned to see Betty walking down the front path from her home.
All the houses here were almost identical, with neat front gardens and fences, and paved footpaths and driveways. Christine didn't understand how anybody could bear to live in such close proximity to others. She enjoyed company, but was so glad her family lived further out in the bush, along an unpaved road. Instead of the tidy lawns, she much preferred the unruly, unpredictable trees and scrub, and the wildlife. Having about a kilometer of space between home and her nearest neighbor gave a nice feeling of peace and isolation too.
Some time back their little family had travelled to an art gallery in the city. Along the way Christine had expressed pity at the people living in giant apartment blocks, with not even a lawn or garden. Her parents had laughed and her father had said, "Reserve your pity for those who need it, honey-bun. These people love living close to the city. They would probably pity us." At the time, the revelation had amazed her. She still didn't understand how people could feel that way, but the experience had changed how she viewed them.
Betty closed her front gate behind her and stepped up next to Christine. "I'm glad you came. I know some great places in the bush not far from here." She led the way, beginning by walking backwards along the footpath. "This way. Wait til you see my cave."
Christine caught up and walked with her, the two of them side by side. "I've never explored the bush this side of town, but I've covered pretty-much all the country on my side of town, all the way north to the river."
They continued down the path until they reached a carefully mowed, lawn-covered, vacant lot. Betty beckoned her, "Through here." There was no back fence; the rectangle of land was open to the bush, dropping away to the hillside. The day was fine and coolly sunny with a gentle breeze rustling the treetops -- a very good day for a walk.
The foot-track twisted around large rocks and between trees going down the steepening hill, but Christine had spent a lot of time covering much more difficult terrain than this so she easily took it in her stride.
The track had petered out and Christine noticed that Betty was now navigating by landmarks -- a large boulder here, a leaning tree there. Christine figured they must be about a quarter of the way down the hill, when Betty stopped ahead and announced that they were above the caves. She stood at the top of a cliff perhaps a four or five storeys tall, looking out at the tops of trees that grew at the foot of the cliff. The wind was stronger here pushing at them over the treetops.
"Uh, Betty? Could you step back a little? I'm a bit uncomfortable with you standing so close to the edge."
Betty grinned and crawled over the edge.
Christine's heart was beginning to flutter. She did not like heights. Creeping closer to where Betty had been, she could see there was another boulder below this one and a ledge that led across and down the cliff-face at an angle. It didn't look very safe.
Betty was in sight again now and she beckoned to Christine. "Come on, it's not very far."
Christine sighed, conscious that her palms were sweating and her heart thumping. "I don't suppose there is a less risky way?"
Betty either didn't hear or ignored the question and sidled further along the uneven outcroppings. She began to disappear around the curve of the cliff.
Christine was debating with herself whether to obstinately wait for Betty's return, or whether it was worth venturing out onto the scary series of small protrusions to follow her when suddenly Betty's voice shrieked.
Christine tensed. "Betty? Are you alright?"
"I slipped! Help me!"
She groaned and murmured to herself, "Oh great," and called out, "I'm coming!" Her heart rate sped up further and she started panting as she crawled down the edge of the boulder onto the narrow rock that let her clamber across to the next one. The way was horribly uneven, with gaps over the sheer drop that she had to straddle. Somehow, concentrating only on each next step, she made it around the curve that had hidden Betty. The younger girl was about a meter below a rather smoothly rounded boulder that it looked like she'd slipped from. She was hanging onto tiny finger-holds in the cliff-face.
"I can't hold on!" she wailed.
Christine looked frantically around for some way to rescue her, but there was nothing. What could she do?. The wind was blustering even more strongly around this side of the cliff and made her feel even more insecure, whipping her hair behind her then in her face. She had to keep pulling her hair out of her mouth and eyes. She edged along the series of outcroppings until she was nearly above Betty. She got an idea and leaning against the large, rounded boulder, she took her sneakers and socks off. The sneakers she put aside, but the long socks she knotted together and dangled down to Betty. "Here grab this and I'll haul you up."
"Hurry, I'm slipping!"
At the panic in Betty's voice Christine leaned down a little further than she should have, and slipped. In horror she squealed at the death-drop below. She dropped her socks and scratched at the rock surface as she overbalanced out into the wind... and stopped. She was leaning out at an impossible angle from the rocks, supported only by the strong wind.
Everything seemed to stop for a long moment, then she whirled her arms to regain her balance and flattened herself against the wall, her heart thudding in her chest and her mouth as dry as paper. She clamped her eyes shut and clenched her teeth to stop them chattering.
There was a triumphant hoot from below. Christine opened her eyes to see Betty climbing confidently up the rocks. "I knew it! I knew you could fly."
Riding the wave of adrenaline, Christine's emotions switched through momentary disbelief to fury. "You engineered this emergency?! You nearly got me killed!"
Smirking, Betty said, "Don't be silly. You weren't in any danger. You can fly."
"I can't fly!" She accused Betty, "I could have fallen to my death!"
"Okay, if you can't fly, what was that?"
Christine angrily yelled at her, "I only fly in my dreams!" then realised the implication. "Huh..." she said to herself, "This must be a dream." She threw an annoyed look at Betty, "Nightmare!"
"No, Christine. This is real. It isn't a dream."
"That's what people always say in my dreams."
Betty looked puzzled. "You really have only flown in your dreams?"
"Oops... Sorry. Oh, dear." She started to look rather sickly. "I really did put you at risk." Then the stronger realisation hit her. "Oh! What if you hadn't been able to fly. You could have been killed! Oh I'm so sorry. I'm such an idiot. I thought this was such a great plan. I thought you were just hiding your ability from me."
"Meh. It doesn't matter. I'm only dreaming." She felt her bare feet on the rocks. "I'm a little annoyed about losing my socks. But... it's only a dream." She put her sneakers on her bare feet.
"Christine. This is not a dream. Truly."
Christine rolled her eyes in disbelief, and stood. "I wonder if it's worth seeing the caves if they're not real."
"Yes. They're just a little further on. I wasn't lying about them. That's a much more comfortable place to talk, and the wind isn't such a bother there."
Betty scampered around the edge of the cliff along the rough ledge and once again disappeared from view. Christine shrugged and followed, no longer feeling as threatened by the height and the awkward way. When she rounded the cliff she ducked under an overhang to see a large cave mouth open out before her. Betty was sitting in the middle of it on its sandy floor. The cave was almost as large Christine's entire home. It was enormous. Christine clambered down into its corner and stood. It was as tall as a house, but deep enough that it was protected from the elements. And corner to corner it was much longer than it was deep. It was shaped like a wide smile in the rock face. Christine took it all in with awe.
"Amazing isn't it." Betty said. "I come here a lot to read and just sit and think. I've never seen any sign of other visitors. I think I'm the only one who's been in here."
The floor was almost flat, sloping a little to the far corner where ferns grew, indicating that water seeped through there. The rest of the cave was dry and dusty, with numerous little ant-lion pits in the sand. Christine walked to the rear of the cave, which was breathlessly quiet. Then she strolled to the outer lip of the cave where the wind was strong. She stood there wondering about how her mind had manufactured such a captivating place. Her nightmare had turned back into a very pleasant dream again. She spread her arms and leaned into the pressure of the wind, trying to balance on its gusts. She rose on her tip-toes, and when her feet lifted from the floor she heard a gasp from behind her.
Smiling, she landed again and turned back to Betty who was looking at her very seriously.
"You must never tell anyone that you can fly."
"I already know that. I don't tell anybody about my dreams anymore. It's a pity. This is so nice."
Betty exhaled, frustrated, "Let me tell you a story, but you have to promise me that you'll never repeat it."
Christine sat cross-legged on the flat, sandy floor, nearer Betty. She grinned. "You already know I don't repeat my dreams."
Betty gave a little growl, "Promise."
"Okay, I promise."
Betty paused for a moment looking critically at Christine. "I have an uncle. One day we had been talking about what we're taught in school on how unifying religion made the great peace that has lasted a thousand years. He told me that it was true that the unification had brought peace under one religion, where before there had been more than a thousand, but that it wasn't quite like how we were taught. I asked him what he meant and he said that there have been breakaway versions of the one religion. They keep popping up and probably always will. He asked me how I thought we moved from many religions to just one. I'd always thought that people simply saw the right way, but he asked me how is it that someone changes their faith -- how do they question the unquestionable?"
Betty stopped and seemed to be thinking about how best to continue. "When he was much younger my uncle had a girlfriend. They were in love. Unfortunately she belonged to a church that had a slightly different interpretation of some minor aspect of the scriptures. The High Council had warned them to conform, but they stuck to their version of course because they had faith that they were right.
Betty paused for emphasis. "Most of the people who were part of that church simply disappeared. The whole family of my uncle's girlfriend disappeared. She was really scared and came to him to hide her. He told her she could stay in his family's guest room til his parents returned. A short time later some people came looking for her. He told them he didn't know where she was. When they left he went to the guest room to tell her about it. There had been some kind of struggle, but she wasn't there anymore. He never saw her again."
Betty looked squarely at Christine. "My uncle said that this is what is done to people who are different -- they just disappear."
Christine was appalled. "People are killed?"
Betty shrugged, "They disappear. They're almost certainly killed, but no bodies ever turn up. They're never seen or heard from again."
"These people who took your uncle's girlfriend, who were they?"
"He had no idea. He said they looked ordinary, no uniforms or identifying badges or papers, but that they acted authoritatively, like they could do anything. Maybe they were some kind of plain clothes police for the High Council."
Christine stood up, shook her head and, looking out the cave mouth, mumbled, "This is too weird," then turned back to Betty. "You said yesterday that you have a secret too..."
Betty looked conflicted for several seconds, then picked up a rock that she cupped neatly in her palm. She held it out towards Christine who wondered if she was offering it to her, then the rock dropped through her hand to the floor!
Christine stood there, unable to think of anything to say while Betty put her arm down into the rock where she was sitting and moved her limb through it as if it was as insubstantial as smoke. Then Betty stood and took a couple of steps over to Christine and put out her arm as if to shake hands. Christine took it automatically, and suddenly she was grasping nothing as Betty's hand simply slid though hers like a double-image.
Christine looked down at her empty hand and grinned in wonder, "Wow. This is by far the most inventive dream I've ever had."
"Oh, for goodness sake, Christine! This is not a dream."
"Of course it is. People can't fly in reality. We're the wrong shape. And people certainly can't move through solid objects. It's impossible!"
"It is clearly possible -- I don't understand how, but it is. Look, isn't most of matter empty space? Isn't it conceivable that I can move my atoms through neighboring spaces?"
"No. That's ridiculous. Anyway that's a misconception. Matter is made up of fields. There is no such thing as empty space. You can't move strong, mutually repelling fields through each other like that. ...And humans are way too heavy to be supported by wind on our small surface area. This is obviously a dream." She looked around and pinched herself painfully on the arm a few times. "And this should be where I wake up..."
But she didn't.
For the remainder of the morning they talked about school and their friends and families while Christine gloomily waited for the dream to end. Nearing midday they made their way back up the hill. Betty waved goodbye as Christine set out to walk home, deciding not to ring her parents to pick her up. She arrived home a little after lunch, but her parents didn't mind. They'd left some food out for her as they'd expected she'd return soon. Without much appetite, Christine nibbled, then put the food away when finished, and withdrew to her room. She was in something of a daze, still waiting to awaken, so she decided to have a nap. She'd never slept within a dream so expected that this would finally end this incredibly lengthy and complex dream.
She awoke feeling relieved that she'd shaken that long dream/nightmare. She threw aside the bedding and sat up... then was horrified to see her sneakers on the floor without her socks.
"Ohhh no!" she groaned. Was she still stuck in a dream, or had it been real after all?