Open your eyes.
The world around you is unfamiliar to you. There is sand beneath your feet and a blue sky above your head, but there is no sun. The wind seems to sigh against your arms and legs, rippling the sand into small, dusty tornadoes that fall silently to the ground as an army of thin white clouds slides its way across the sky. Aside from the wind, there is no sound. You breathe with the wind. In… out.
It isn’t hot, but it isn’t cold. There seems to be no temperature at all. It isn’t… wrong, but you don’t quite like it. Look around. There is a dark mass in the distance, just upon the horizon. Head in that direction.
Your feet make no noise as they pad across the sand. The wind seems to whisper words you can’t make out, as if you have walked past a room and heard an adult say your name and you don’t know what he is saying about you. You wish he would stop. Don’t let it bother you. Keep walking.
The sand shifts a few yards away, and a figure rises noiselessly from the earth. He is small, round in the middle, dressed all in yellow and red, a striking combination against the brown sand. His hair is scarlet and sticks out inches from his temples, leaving his scalp shiny and pure white, like his face. He wears a painted smile. Do not look at him. Whatever you do.
You can feel him eyeing the back of your neck as you press on. Do not look at him. Do not.
As you walk, more little piles erupt and all manner of strange creatures make their way past you. It is okay to look at the girl with the balloon who slips past you in a daze — only remember not to be startled when you realize that she is not walking, but being lead two or three inches off the ground by her balloon. It is okay to look at the monkeys. Avoid eye contact with the chameleons — they are paranoid and will think you are watching them. It is okay to look at the dogs, but do not ask them to play — they will be loyal friends, but they are too loud, and you don’t want people looking at you. Under no circumstances should you look at the lady in the red gown. If you see a cat, make friends with it. You can always trust the cats.
There are people all around you now — fish leap from the sand and dive back in, their scales glittering; dogs trot past, tails wagging; a strange man in a black suit with a half-painted face strides past, his knees reaching his collarbone with every step; a boy paddles his boat through the sand, a kite streaming from the aft; cats walk upon the air at your eye level, their backs arched and their eyes hooded, bored — but still, there is no sound but the breath of the wind. You breathe with it, only to realize that everyone around you is doing the same. In… out.
“It’s probably best if you breathe to your own rhythm,” purrs a tabby from two feet above your head. “It’s what I always do.”
Trust the cats. Change your breathing pace. Do not listen to the wind. Do not look at the clown, though you can still feel his gaze pricking your spine. Keep walking. You are almost there.
It is a forest, you can see now. A small forest. A very still forest. The leaves are green, but there are strange markings on them. Checkerboards and swirls and letters from some long-dead language you’ve never heard of before. You venture a few yards inside. It is dark, and silent. An old woman sits huddled beneath a tree, her wrinkled hand outstretched, palm up, fingers curled in a claw. You have a feeling she speaks the language.
“Spare any food for a dying old woman, good Knight?” she croaks.
There are Cheez-its in your pocket.
“I’d give her what you have,” says the black cat that followed you here. “An old woman is a pleasant ally and a terrifying enemy. You want no enemies here, you know.”
Trust the cats. Do what he says. Hand her the few yellow crackers. Bow politely when she thanks you, and take the scrap of cloth she presses into your hand. It is of more use than you think. Keep walking. Do not look back. She will not be there if you do.
There is a pool in the middle of the forest. It’s bubbling sound is pleasant. Sit down beside it. Take off your shoes. Dip your feet in the water. The black cat sits down beside you, washing its paws. You can see flamingos a few yards in, though they don’t move like any flamingos you’ve ever seen. They walk as if they are in a dance, but you can hear no music. It is okay to watch them, but if you find it funny (and it is doubtful that you do) do not laugh. Be respectful of their dance. They move with the rhythm of the wind. Remind yourself to breathe against it.
The cat falls with a yowl into the pool. Pull him out quickly. He is terrified. Pull the cloth from your pocket and rub him dry. Now he is grateful, and he will be your friend for good. You don’t know why, but you are deeply relieved to have a friend here. It is at once a beautiful and desperately lonely place. The cat nuzzles himself into the crook of your arm. Scratch between his ears. Breathe with the rhythm of his purr. Close your eyes. Go to sleep.
When you wake up, it is raining, and you are no longer in the forest. You are on a sidewalk, surrounded by a wall of mist on every side. You can see no more than ten feet any way you look. The cat is curled up on your stomach, sleeping peacefully. Do not wake him. He won’t be happy to find himself wet again.
People pass by, appearing from the mist and disappearing into it a few seconds later. Some of them are familiar. The girl with the balloon floats by, unseen. The fish leap from the cement, gulping in the rain with every breath. The man with the half-painted face lopes by, a bale of umbrellas tucked under one arm. He stops in front of you, offers you a deep red one. Take it. Nod politely, but do not speak. He would be startled by the sound. He smiles fondly and vanishes into the fog. A chameleon skitters its way across the pavement, darting his eyes around anxiously. He looks very suspicious. Don’t ask him what he’s hiding.
The clown is back. Open the umbrella. Hold it in front of you, so he cannot see you. You can feel his stare. The cat purrs. It is safe to look now. He is gone.
Hold the umbrella over yourself and your friend and wipe him dry with your free hand. When he wakes up, he nuzzles you affectionately. It is a wonderful relief to have him awake. The two of you sit huddled under the umbrella, waiting for someone else to pass by.
Someone else does. You do. A person with your face appears from the fog, smiles, beckons, leaves. From now on, the choices are up to you. It is wisest not to follow yourself, as anything wearing your face is not to be trusted. However, if you do not you may never find a way out of this strange world. If you choose to follow yourself, proceed with caution. When you pass the big-t0p with too-bright colors — and you will — do not go inside, no matter how loud the laughter coming from within is. Do not. It is not safe.
It might be that if you follow yourself, you will reach the end of the world. When you do, it is okay to look down. The drop is deep and dark and sharp, and goes on forever. I cannot tell you what is down there. I don’t know, and I don’t want to. Do not feed it.
Or, perhaps, you will find the Way Out. It will look like a forest, a normal forest, with normal animals. If you reach the Way Out, the cat will leave. This is okay. Say goodbye with grace. He cannot come to this world. He is not like you. Step over the line. There, the leaves will crunch under your feet and the birds will sing and the crickets will chirp and you will not have to remind yourself to breathe against the wind. There, you will reach a picnic. You should sit down and eat your fill. It will make you sleepy. Allow it to soothe you into unconsciousness. It is the Way Out. When you awake, you will be back here, in the real world. You will have escaped.
Of course, you do not have to leave. I didn’t. This is my map. These are my daydreams. Daydreams are a curious thing. Sometimes they can be controlled. I often find that a better way to go about it is to control myself within them. And so, I have developed a series of instructions in case you ever find yourself trapped within my world. This is a world of no explanations, no plot, no motivation. It is a world in which everything seems to be asking an unspoken question, which I do not know the answer to because I still do not know which question is being asked. It is a world in which no one has a name, and if you have one you are likely to forget it. If you should ever find yourself there, you should know that it is not a good place, or an evil one — but it is dangerous to venture inside without knowing what to do. So now, this is your map.
If you wish, you can stop by and say hello. I’ll be here on the sidewalk, in the rain. We can jump in puddles if you like, before you move on, as long as you promise to share the umbrella when the clown comes by. Trust the cats. Always remember to breathe against the wind. Put the map back in your pocket now.
Close your eyes.