They can hear me, you know. All the time, they’re listening. Always watching too. It has been twelve years, eight months and fourteen days, but I fear it will be forever.
All I wanted was to have some company.
I have been lonely for the longest time. Loneliness has been my only companion, really. A sombre constant that peers at me with pity as I navigate the world. The train carriages are busy. The office is busy. The bars I while away many solitary hours in are busy, not one of those people could save me.
I thought this place could.
I’m going to die here, I’m certain of that. It’s too late for me, I just want someone to know that I didn’t want this. I don’t know if anyone can hear me, but thinking out loud keeps me sane.
How can I make this make sense to you when I can barely understand how it happened myself? IT all seemed so innocent before, just some respite, an escape, but now, I’m trapped, and I don’t know if anything will ever be the same again.
It all started with her. It isn’t fair to say that, but I wouldn’t have ended up here if I hadn’t met her.
Once upon a time, I fell in love, and she was my escape. She had a laugh that could fill a stadium, and eyes like the Irish Sea. It was bliss, to belong to her, but as the old saying goes, nothing gold can stay, and neither could she, and though I know it isn’t right to blame her, losing her led me down this path.
With her, I could forget the scars of my solitude. I was seen, for the first time in as long as I could remember. Adored and aware of how beautiful life was when I looked up, and took it all in. Then she was gone, and I spiralled. For weeks, I was lost in my grief, and in a lot of ways, I still am. I understand that now. That’s the trouble with running away. Disappearing doesn’t stop your problems from following you.
Sometimes I see her here, but I can never reach her. It’s like this place drew me in with promises of all my desires, but enjoys dangling them above me, laughing as I reach for what I’ll never have.
I just needed to escape myself. I got sick of myself, and there was nobody else I could turn to, so as I, like most people, scrolled mindlessly through social media, I was captured immediately by a thirty second video.
They called it “reality shifting”. It sounded ridiculous at first, but I suppose I wanted to believe. It was supposed to be a way to go wherever you wanted as you slept, kind of like lucid dreaming, but… real. I fell down a rabbit hole and landed in a curious community of people who claimed to be living whole other lives in their desired realities, and without even thinking about it, I wanted it.
I watched testimonials of people talking excitedly about travelling to Hogwarts or The Shire, and at first, I couldn’t believe it, but hours of seeing their smiling faces as they discussed their experiences convinced me. It turned out, everything that they said was true. It is real, and you can do it too, but I am begging you, from my soul, don’t.
I know that you won’t listen to me. I wouldn’t have listened to me. There are so many success stories, and if you’re lucky, you could be one of them, but you never hear from the people who get lost. That’s because we never come back.
These realities exist. That was never a lie, but there are some places that we aren’t supposed to go. Maybe you’ll end up in Hogwarts, drinking butterbeer with the golden trio, but maybe you’ll end up stuck with me. There’s no way of knowing, because you’re handing over your consciousness, your soul, to something else, and hoping that it has kind intentions.
I wanted it though. I followed the instructions to the letter. Sitting down one evening, I spent hours crafting my very own dream reality. It was simple, nothing too extravagant, but I wanted to make it as real in my head as I could, to make crossing over as easy as I could. That’s what you do. You dream up your own little hideaway, and then, as night falls, you wait, counting up in your head, until your body starts to separate from your soul and you are guided away to your desired reality.
That was how it was at first. I didn’t want a place from a storybook or a movie. I just wanted a life with Millie. I had written it all down. We were happy, at home in a little apartment in London, just the two of us, living a normal life, where nothing could go wrong.
It worked, the first time. I laid still in bed, closing my eyes as the alarm clock ticked softly on the bedside table, counting up slowly in silence as I waited for something to happen. I could feel myself falling asleep, losing count somewhere in the late seventies, and I was just about to pinch myself awake when I suddenly felt myself falling. It was sudden, for a moment, before my body began to slow, almost floating as my heart raced. My fingers tingled and there was a bright light poking through to my closed eyes. I breathed deeply, continuing to count the numbers, faster and faster as my heart pounded in my chest.
“Anna?” I felt my body drop down, into the softness of a warm bed, and my eyes snapped open. She stood above me, by the side of the bed, her sweet, sapphire eyes staring down at me, as she pushed her sandy hair behind her ears. “Come on, we’ll be late.” It was Millie. I had made it. I reached up from the bed, clutching her hand close to me, marvelling at how real it felt. My body could remember her touch, and to feel it again was the sweetest kind of torment. I didn’t want to let her go, holding on to her hand tightly as she pulled me from the bed and into her soft embrace. It was real in a way that no dream I had ever had could have been. I could feel her skin against mine, her perfume filled the room and when she kissed me for the first time, I was enchanted.
We just spent the day together, visiting her parents, going for lunch at Nando’s, catching a movie in the evening. It was just like before, and I didn’t want it to end. As we settled down in bed, I held her close to my body. I felt myself slipping away, and wished, with all of my heart that I could stay with her.
It didn’t last. I woke up the next day, alone in a darkened room, as my alarm screeched at six AM finally arriving. I laid in silence for a moment, unsure if it had been a dream, or if I had truly travelled like all the girls on TikTok had promised I could. In the end, I decided that it didn’t matter. I was going back, whether it was to a dream, or to a truly magical place, I wanted more.
The days felt a little easier when I had the thought of my escape to look forward to. I’d count down the hours as I went about my regular life, making plans for when I could finally be back with Millie after the day was over. I began to smile. Not because of anything on the Earth, but because of my new life in the stars, or wherever it was that I want. It was like having a secret, some kind of amazing thing that nobody else in the world had. I had my own perfect little land, just for me and my lover, and nothing could take it away from me.
That was what I thought, and if I could still live in that delusion, then I would. They’d let me, in a sense. If it distracted me from their plan for my body, they would let me have her, and part of me wants to let them, but I can’t.
Your body gets left behind, you see. I didn’t think about that much at first, because it didn’t seem to matter, but it didn’t take long for me to realise just how dangerous it is to leave your body unattended.
It had been a few weeks in the desired reality, and just a few days in the real world before I started to notice things weren’t quite as they seemed.I got the hang of things after a while and learned how to stay a little longer each time. It was bliss. Millie and I were happy, living in a romantic bubble, and I barely noticed the outside world, until I saw them for the first time.
Millie and I were in Hyde Park, soaking up the sun after a long day of heart eyed bliss. I kissed her cheek softly, handing her another drink from the cooler. As I looked up, I saw them. A crowd of cloaked individuals. Their faces were covered in little clouds of black smoke and they pointed in unison towards me. I stared, confused as they stood, pointing at me. Nobody else seemed to notice them, and I looked down at Millie, shaking her gently.
“Do you see that?” She didn’t look up, closing her eyes as she enjoyed the soft rays against her skin.
“Just say yes.” Her tone was casual, almost bored. She hadn’t looked at them, but seemed to know that they were there. “Just say yes, and we’ll be okay.” I thought about pressing her for answers, but my eyes returned to the hooded figures and their sinister pointing.
Slowly, I walked towards them, the babble of the world around me fading away. My reality slipped with it, the trees, the grass and the sun vanished until there was nothing but darkness and them, looming before me.
“What is going on?” I asked, my voice shaking as they continued to point. I reached them, peering at the clouds of smoke but unable to see through to where they faces should have been.
“Would you like to stay forever?” The crowd spoke together, lowering their hands and opening their arms, their cloaks billowing in the wind.
“I can do that?” They beckoned, but I stood still, staring at them, and the darkness that lay behind them.
“We will make the trade.” They barked, and then, they were gone. A white light flooded the scene and the park returned, the world buzzing with life again.
“You said yes!” Millie cried, suddenly behind me, wrapping her arms around my waist. I turned to face her, lost in her smile for a moment. “Now we can stay here forever.” She pressed her lips against mine in a tender kiss, and I slipped from a position of panic to distracted euphoria. I hadn’t technically said yes, and I didn’t know what I’d said yes to, but in her arms, the thought of it seemed so unimportant.
The days went on, in my little dream world, and after a few weeks, I started to wonder when I’d go back to reality. It normally never went on that long, and every now and again, I’d worry, but then Millie would kiss me, or we’d spend a wonderful day together and I’d forget all over again.
Months went by before I saw them again. I had been so wrapped up in my new life that I had forgotten all about them. I woke in the middle of the night, unsure of why, but certain that I was being watched. As I felt around in the dark for the bedside lamp, I heard them.
“It’s time to go.” I shot out of bed, running for the light switch and pushing it, filling the room with light. They were all over the room, pointing as before, with the clouds fixed over their faces.
“What’s going on?” One of them stepped forward, lowering its arms as it approached me, the cloud moving as it walked. “I don’t understand.” I glanced over at Millie, who was sleeping soundly. “Where are we going?”
“It’s time to go.” The crowd repeated. The lone figure stood before me, taking my hands in its own as another approached it from behind. My fingers tingled and I had the familiar feeling from the first time I’d shifted. My body seemed to sink, floating as my heart raced. The world around me seemed to slide away as the figures gathered around the one holding onto me, and slowly, each crowding it, they pulled down it’s hood, and the cloud in front of its face drifted away.
It’s face. My face.
I gaped in horror, staring at my own face, staring back at me.
“What is happening?” I screamed as we seemed to fly through a manic rush of lights and sounds, her holding my hand tightly.
“You stayed so your body will serve the dreamers.” They chanted. “More will come.” The world around us blurred and she slipped from my hands, the words repeating as I tried to breathe.
I blacked out. There was nothing, for a moment, and then, a dark blur before me. As I awoke, I tried to feel my way around but I could barely see. I felt along my body, and all that I could feel was loose fabric, all over me.
“Hello Anna.” So many voices, just like before. I couldn’t see them through the fog, but I could hear them all around me. “Welcome to the collective.”
I had so many questions, but every time I tried to speak, there was silence.
“You will stay until your body has gathered a harvest large enough to free you.”
Again, I tried to speak but nothing came out. I wondered what they meant by a harvest, and how many would be enough, and of what.
“More people like you.” They answered, as if they could hear my thoughts. “We will tell you when it’s enough.” I tried to speak again but there was nothing. “You will only speak with the collective.”
I haven’t spoken in years. My body is back in your world, collecting souls with a smile. She will make videos, like the others, drawing in all the loneliest people with all kinds of promises, and for a while, it will be perfect, but you can never stay. Don’t even try to get here, no matter what they tell you, and whatever you do, when they ask you to stay, say no. Say it while you still can.