Under Salmon Skies

The dreams themselves were always in the same place. It was a strange place. The sky was pink, and it was like a sparse jungle. There were trees and plants and flowers and vines that I’d never seen before.

As a child, I used to have a recurring nightmare. Well, I say recurring, but it wasn’t the same every time; rather, it continued where it left off. And I say nightmare, but it wasn’t properly scary, just strange.

The scariest part, if I’m honest, was what happened just before the dream. At the age I was when I had these experiences, maybe 4 or 5, I lived in a Victorian farmhouse. It was situated on an east-west road, and my window (on the second floor) faced east.

When cars would drive down the road westbound, their headlights would make a thin vertical strip on my wall that moved from the far corner slowly around the room until it approached me.

This scared me, so, as it began its final approach towards me, I’d always close my eyes. Sometimes when I opened my eyes a few moments later, the light would be gone. Of course it would be, the car had passed the house and continued on down the hill to the river.

But often, when I’d reopen my eyes, the light wasn’t gone; rather, it had merely retreated to the far corner, and re-opening my eyes would set it in motion all over again.

Always before the dream would start, if indeed a dream it was, I’d have this terrifying experience of the resetting light coming to get me.

The dreams themselves were always in the same place. It was a strange place. The sky was pink, and it was like a sparse jungle. There were trees and plants and flowers and vines that I’d never seen before.

I’d wake up in a clearing with lots of other children. Some were younger than me, some older. Youngest I ever saw was about 4 years old, oldest maybe 14 or 15. We were sat in a Grid, some kids already awake and alert, some still asleep. Most of us, though, were slowly waking up, dazed and confused. Here and there the younger among us were crying, but mostly there was silence.

The first time, and only the first time, a tall figure in an upside-down conical full-face hat-mask spoke to us. I think it was a man, but perhaps I’m wrong.

He explained, like a drill sergeant in his forceful delivery, that we had been selected to play The Game at the behest of and for the glory of Her Grace, Interstellar Queen. He indicated a massive throne on a dais at the end of the Grid.

There sat a very severe-looking woman in red, revealing clothes. Her long, powerful legs were crossed at the knee; her high cheek bones accentuated the impression that she was above us, that she was more than us. Her dark skin glistened.

The man continued that we must remain in the Grid. If we left the Grid, we would be punished. Should we find ourselves away from the Grid, we must make our way back to the Grid with haste.

That was all. Some of the younger children cried that they wanted their mommies, but the majority of us sat silently. That’s all that happened the first time. I sat and waited. Sitting on the ground was uncomfortable and my Grid square was very small, so I couldn’t stretch out. I was stiff and sore and bored. But overall, I was okay.

It wasn’t frightening, but it was strange, confusing.

The next several times it went the same, only without the preamble. The light came, it took me, I woke up under the pink sky in a strange jungle on a Grid and I sat and waited under the watchful eyes of the tall figure and the dark-skinned Queen.

It happened so often, this dream, that I lost count. It was distinctly not the same dream every time though. Time had passed each time it happened — we all aged and changed, us kids, as was appropriate for the amount of time that had passed.

Once, the boy in the next Grid square caught my attention. He whispered, “Don’t worry, we’ll be okay. I promise.” He was older than I, and the kindness of his words extended to his eyes. I smiled a little.

He introduced himself, as did I. It is one of my biggest failings in life that I can’t remember his name at all. His face remains in my memory to this day, though.

From then on, though confused and disoriented, I felt reassured that my friend was nearby.

Things continued like that for a long time. Every night I’d spend waiting in a small Grid under a pink sky, and then, when morning came, I’d awake in my own bed, utterly exhausted.

I’d try to tell people about the dreams because they were so weird and so vivid and so real. The continuity, the frequency, it all made it seem to me that it was just as real as anything else. Certainly more real than a dream.

I drew picture after picture of the tall, authoritative figure, and of Her Grace, Interstellar Queen. But drawing has never been my strong suit, ever since I was yelled at for drawing once as a very small child. I gave it up, and never gained any skill.

So while the pictures were as accurate as I could make them, and the important features were in place, and I’d recognize them as the people they were meant to be, to everyone else, they were just silly, childish drawings from some stupid kid’s stupid dreams.

After a while, I stopped trying to tell people. They didn’t even notice my exhaustion. My marks at school were stellar despite it all, and that was the only metric anyone cared about, I guess.

Anyway, after ages of just sitting in the Grid, finally something began to happen. Some of the kids suddenly disappeared from the Grid. Large men with buzzing, glowing guns materialized around us, then marched out into the surrounding jungle.

“The Game moves on,” the tall figure intoned.

I looked at my friend but he was just as out of the loop as I was. In the distance, we heard a scream and then as suddenly as he’d disappeared, a boy reappeared in his Grid square, unconscious but breathing. There was a hole in his shirt and what looked like a burn.

This pattern continued for some time. When someone would be caught and returned to the Grid, another would vanish to replace him. At one point a girl ran into the clearing, but reached her Grid and sat before her pursuer could catch her.

Then, I felt a tingle all over my body and I was on my feet running through underbrush as vines and brambles pulled at my clothing.

I knew I had to find my way back to the Grid, and so I ran as fast as I could, but none of the scenery looked familiar, and so I grew increasingly frantic. I stumbled out into a small clearing and collided with someone. Picking myself up and dusting myself off, I realized that it was my friend.

“Look, we’ve gotta hurry. The Grid is this way, run!” He pushed me off in a direction and I ran.

My legs and lungs were burning, but my friend kept telling me to run, and so I did. I could hear him keeping pace behind me.

But then, in front of me was one of the hunters with his glowing, buzzing gun aimed right at me.

Before he could fire, my friend pushed me out of the way. “Run!” he yelled as the hunter discharged his weapon. I heard the noise, but didn’t see it happen. I was already on the move again. I could see the Grid, just twenty meters more. I could hear the hunter crashing through the jungle behind me.

And then I was in the clearing with the Grid. I raced to my spot and sat, not a moment too soon. I saw the hunter lower his weapon and back away into the jungle.

At the head of the Grid, Her Grace had risen from her throne and there, resplendent in her red and black vestments, her long legs exposed, she swiveled her hips while laughing maniacally. I would never forget that scene.

Reaching over, I put a hand on my friend’s back. He was back in his Grid, of course, having been returned there after being shot.

He was hot to the touch, and he was breathing. He opened his eyes for just a moment and smiled just a little at seeing me. “Thank you,” I said, but he had passed out again.

Thereafter, though that phase of The Game continued for quite a while, I never had to be chased again. At the same time, my friend never woke again, not that I saw anyway. He just lay there, breathing peacefully, as I rubbed his back. I think rubbing his back was as much about comforting him as it was about comforting myself.

Slowly, over the weeks and months, the dreams came less frequently, and then, when I was 9, some four or five years after they had started, I moved from that Victorian farmhouse to a new house with a window facing away from the road, and with heavy curtains. I never saw the scary light again, and I never saw the pink sky again. I never saw my friend again.

The memories faded, and as I got older, I decided that they must have been nothing but dreams. Just like everyone had told me.

But now… now I’m not so sure.

In June 2012, the Commonwealth celebrated its Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I, like many others around the world, tuned in to see the various festivities, including the “how much will it take to kill Philip?” endurance rally known euphemistically as “The Flotilla”, and also the concert outside Buckingham Palace.

It was during the concert that my conviction that the dreams were indeed dreams wavered. For, as you see, sandwiched between a bit of MC work by Jimmy Carr and a different bit of MC work by Lee Mack and Miranda Hart, the world was treated to the Interstellar Queen for whose glory we had all played that damned Game and sat in that accursed Grid.

And as she stood there, in the same clothes, with the same long legs I remembered from my childhood, she swiveled her hips in the same way she had then, though now she was supporting a hula hoop with the motion. The only difference was, instead of laughing maniacally under a pink sky, she was singing “Slave to the Rhythm” in front of the Palace. Instead of my thinking she existed only in my mind, she was there on international television for all to see.

For you see, Her Grace, Interstellar Queen, for whose benefit I and countless others had spent the nighttimes of our childhoods sitting on the ground in a bizarre jungle — and by whose henchmen’s hands my friend had been injured — was singer, actress and model, Grace Jones.

I can only guess at what nefarious deed she was perpetrating under the guise of performing for the Jubilee. Of course, I can’t tell anyone any of this, they wouldn’t believe me. Grace Jones, some sort of evil regent from beyond the stars? I’d never be believed, and so I’ll keep it to myself.

It does raise another question in my mind though: if she’s real, then what of my friend? We’re grown up now. I wonder if I’d recognize him if I met him. If he’d recognize me.

I hope we would.

I hope he’s happy, wherever he is.