Toad Expanse and Dune Grass

T

Grace triumphantly steps onto the gravel path. She’s finally found it, after all those years she’s finally found Toad Expanse. And right where it was on the map too. A hidden clearing in a dune forest. The road to it blocked off by plants and debris. But now she’s here, and it’s beautiful.

The sandy ground is cluttered with prickly grey-green bushes. Leftovers of what once were proper paths crisscross the enormous clearing at different levels and are lined with dune grass. Where Grace stands, the road that led her here splits into two. Partly hidden behind a bush, between the two paths, stands a short wooden post with a still vibrant red arrow on it pointing to the right. It would probably lead to the middle of the clearing.

Grace would like to explore, but she’s very warm. The sun brings an oppressive heat to the clearing, but the light itself is oddly cold. It’s the light of a dark cloudy day, but brighter, and when Grace looks up, the sky is blue. There are no discernible shadows anywhere in sight. Grace pauses and wrinkles her brow. With effort, her sluggish mind begins to work a little. She looks at her watch; Three O’clock. She looks away. Now some of the bushes cast light shadows on the sandy ground. She looks back at her watch; Seven O’clock.

A grin spreads on her face, her mind clears. This is a dream.

She takes a moment to consider her surroundings. What had she called this place earlier? Toad Expanse? What does that even mean? Okay, whatever, it doesn’t matter. Now that she’s lucid, she can do what she has to do: think of Emma.

Not a second after the thought enters her mind, Grace hears footsteps behind her. She turns around and there she is, Emma, standing right there on the gravel path. “It worked,” Grace breathes.

“It worked!” Emma screams. She jumps up and down and embraces Grace. Grace feels Emma’s weight pressing against her. Even though this is just a dream, she can really feel Emma. Emma let’s go and bounces a little on her toes. “You really did it! Now we can see each other every day.”

Grace smiles. “I’m just glad I managed it in time.” She turns towards the path with the arrow. She’s familiar by now with the mechanics of dreams, and knows exactly how reliable paths really are. This one, which turns to the left after a few metres, completely obscuring the rest from sight, is perfect for a change of scenery.

She gestures for Emma to follow. The moment they take the turn, Emma gasps. The tall trees surrounding the clearing have fallen away. The crisscrossing paths are gone. The only thing left is the grass. Roiling dunes covered in grass as far as the eye can see. Emma unconsciously steps forward to get a better look. Grace just watches her. She sits down on the grass and watches Emma take in the view. The wind catches Emma’s hair and then continues over the dunes, making waves in the grass.

After a while, Emma joins Grace. Unlike actual dune grass, which is hard and sharp enough to cut into your skin if you aren’t careful, the grass here is soft. They sit there for a while in silence, happy to just be together.

“I’ve never had a lucid dream before,” Emma says, breaking the silence.

“You still haven’t,” says Grace. At Emma’s confused look, she continues. “This isn’t the same thing as a normal lucid dream. Those are in your own mind, but right now we’ve combined our dreamscapes.” Grace leans her chin on her knees. “I’m not sure exactly how it works.”

“Magic, I guess,” Emma says.

“Yeah.” Grace sighs and flops onto her back. She stares up at the empty blue sky.

Emma lies down as well. “Was it that last chapter that you were having trouble with, or was it something else?”

Grace groans. “Both,” she says. She throws an arm over her face. “I missed a link between the last chapter and chapter 5. I couldn’t just follow the instructions word for word, they had to be personalised.”

“How did you figure that out?”

“To be honest, I’m still not sure.” She huffs and turns her head. She can just see Emma from under her arm. “I just knew I wouldn’t be able to do it in time, so I took a shortcut. I wonder if it was the best idea…”

“A shortcut?” Emma sounds worried.

“I just… let my subconscious do the work. Instead of filling in all the details of the ritual I just let them fill themselves out.”

“Like a dream,” Emma breathes.

“Exactly.”

“But not a lucid dream,” Emma says, still working through the logic in her mind. Her brows are furrowed deep in thought, or maybe worried, Grace isn’t sure.

“No, not a lucid dream.” Grace lets her arm slip from her face. There are clouds now. Neither of them put them there.

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

High above, two cloud armies prepare for war as their respective clouds drift nearer. “Only as dangerous as any normal dream.”

“A normal dream with magic involved, you mean,” Emma says pointedly.

“Ah- yeah. But it seems to have worked well enough. I don’t think anything will go wrong now.”

“Famous last words,” Emma says.

Grace turns to the side, her face turned towards Emma. Emma does the same. Grace tries to sound reassuring as she says, “The only thing that can go wrong now, from what I know, is that this all turns out to just have been a regular dream. You weren’t here after all, and I just imagined this whole thing.”

“And it could be the same for me,” says Emma. Grace nods. “We should think of a way to confirm with each other that this was real.”

“Like an impossible question?”

“Yes,” says Emma, “Something impossible to guess that would 100% confirm that we met tonight.”

That morning, Grace wakes up feeling excited. She almost pulls the extension chord off her nightstand when she forgets to pull out her phone charger. Irritated, she yanks the chord out and pulls her phone towards her. She squints her eyes at the bright screen as she navigates to her contacts. She stares at Emma’s name for a moment, then swipes over her screen before she can change her mind.

A low beep against her ear, another one. Grace nervously moves her legs under her blanket. What if it wasn’t real and Emma thinks she’s crazy? Another beep. Grace closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. It’ll be fine, it will be fine. Emma has never thought she was weird before, this is nothing compared to everything else. It will be-

Her thought is broken by a crackle on the other end, followed by a sleepy “Hello?”. Grace swallows. The words are stuck in her throat. “Grace?”

At the sound of her name, something within Grace settles. The words slip out without a thought. “The dune grass waves to you.”

A second of silence. Grace almost begins to panic again, but then Emma answers, “The cloud-dwellers wave back.”

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