Girl from Two Worlds
Zoe Stone knew she was dreaming. It was one of those wonderful lucid dreams where she realized she could fly.
She squealed with joy as she whizzed effortlessly around countless floating islands. Their sizes varied, some only as big as boulders, others as huge as regular islands. The larger ones were connected by railed glass bridges and stairways that, at a distance, resembled the filaments of an intricate spider web. The sun, setting in a solid red ball, was gradually disappearing into a sea far below, spilling its deepening light onto the wrinkled waters. A sharp, cool wind whipped at her, seeping through her clothes and toying with her hair.
"Zoe!" someone called from above, jolting her.
Zoe looked up. Her heart leaped. Her younger sister Ophelia swept toward her, riding a cloud that was a mix between a crocodile and a fluffy bird. Her dark cheeks were flushed a vibrant red and the wind stirred her tight black curls into a wild mass.
Joy battled with a deep pain as Zoe heard Ophelia laugh. The girl patted her mount's head as if it were a living animal. In waking life, Ophelia, who was only eleven, was practically dead. Their mother, a doctor, kept her hooked up to a machine in the hopes that she and her colleagues could cure her. Ophelia had been hit by a speeding car while she was walking home from school over a week ago.
"Let's race," Ophelia challenged. "I bet Moondancer and I will beat you." Her cloud mount gradually shifted its shape, transforming into a feathery horse. It regarded Zoe with incandescent eyes that resembled remnants of the sunset.
The pair took off at a speed that made Zoe dizzy.
"That's not fair!" Zoe called, struggling to be heard above the winds that batted against her. "You have a ride."
Ophelia merely turned and stuck her tongue out. She and Moondancer effortlessly dodged islands, boulders, and crystalline stairways.
Zoe increased her speed, kicking her legs as hard as she could, as if she were swimming. She was on the swim team at school and this felt just like swimming through air.
Moondancer vanished. Ophelia plummeted downward, toward the sea. Was she falling? Desperation grabbed Zoe. She had to save her sister!
The sun was suddenly in the middle of the sky as Zoe stumbled onto a sandy beach.
Everything went black.
I'm waking up, Zoe thought, struggling to remain in the dream. She didn't want to wake up. She longed to stay there where her sister was fully alive and happy.
But no. In a few minutes she'd have to get out of bed, go to school, and pretend everything was all right when it so wasn't. Ophelia was practically dead and their parents spent most of their time at the hospital, looking over her. But Zoe was still expected to perform her daily routine and do her chores and homework as if things were normal.
She groaned and thrashed in her bed.
No, wait. She wasn't in bed but lying on hot sand. The sound of crashing waves mixed with urgent voices roared in her ears. The sand was especially hot and itchy since she wasn't wearing any clothes. She could see the red tinge of the blazing sun struggling to penetrate her closed eyelids.
I'm naked on a beach, Zoe thought, not sure if this as good or bad. That has to mean I'm still asleep and dreaming.
"She's the sister all right, of that Visitor we've been stuck with," said a woman's voice, which was much louder than the others. "She was so determined to catch Ophelia that she followed her right out of the dream."
Zoe's eyes flew open. Horror struck her. She was surrounded by strangers. Her face burned with humiliation. She sat up and crossed her arms over her chest.
A girl who was a young teen around Zoe's age knelt at her side and slipped a silken robe over her shoulders. "Don't be embarrassed," she said in a voice that held an unfamiliar, lilting accent. "I've experienced this myself."
Blushing, Zoe pulled the robe tightly around her body and studied the girl. She was extremely pretty, bordering on outright beautiful. Her thick chestnut hair, stirring in the faint breeze that blew off the nearby sea, shimmered with reddish-gold highlights. The girl's large eyes, a light yet brilliant green, created a striking contrast against her deeply tanned skin.
A large woman stood over them, blocking the glaring sun. She was clad in an elegant business suit, which looked so out of place on the beach, but her short hair was rainbow colored. She glared down at Zoe with weird eyes that matched her hair. Everything about her appeared to be fake.
"Just what we need," she said in an exacerbated tone, pointing at Zoe and the girl. "Another Halfling, like you, Remmi."
Halfling? But Zoe had more pressing concerns. "What happened to my sister?" She looked around but didn't see her. "Where did she go?"
"I'm so sorry." Remmi helped Zoe up. The sand burned the bottoms of her feet, revealing that this couldn't be a dream. While many of Zoe's dreams were detailed, none had ever felt this real. "That person . . . she wasn't your sister. She was me."
"You?" Zoe frowned. "I don't understand."
Remmi stepped back. Her features blurred, just like the cloud animal she had rode, shifting into Ophelia's likeness. Zoe pressed a hand to her mouth to keep from screaming.
"No . . . "
The illusion faded.
"I'm really sorry," said Remmi, tears shimmering in her vivid eyes. "Your sister, Ophelia Stone, has been spending most of her time in our world." She grasped Zoe's hand. "I'll take you to her."
Zoe gulped and clutched the front of her robe. "Who are you people? H-how do you know my sister?"
"She's one of our clients. We've been working with her," said Remmi, leading her toward a floating oval object that resembled a water shimmer.
"Are you doctors? You look too young—"
"No. I'm a dream actress and Lorelei Morningstar," Remmi nodded at the rainbow-haired woman, "is the Dream Director of Visitor Visions."
"And your boss, don't forget, Miss Clearwater," Lorelei said in a firm voice as she glared down at Remmi. "And, as such, I forbid you to enter that portal." She indicated the hovering shimmer. "You played your role and look what happened." Her fierce gaze bored into Zoe. "You are now off duty. Let the other actors deal with Ophelia in the Nightmare Realms."
"Nightmare Realms?" Zoe didn't like the sound of that.
"She spends much of her time there," Remmi said sadly.
"Then I have to go after her."
"You will do no such thing," said Lorelei. "You shouldn't be here, in Dreamearth. Just step through that portal to return to your world, Realearth. You must forget you were ever here."
Frustration burned within Zoe. She didn't understand any of this but her desperation to reach Ophelia—the real Ophelia—overpowered all her questions.
"But Ophelia is my sister, Ms. Morningstar."
"Half-sister," Lorelei replied coldly. "You're a Halfling so your father lives somewhere in Dreamearth."
Rage and confusion battled within Zoe. "That's not true. My parents are married, and were married before I was even born."
Lorelei cocked a colorful eyebrow. "So you say. What likely happened is that some dream actor took on your father's likeness in one of your mother's dreams and impregnated her."
"You lie!" Zoe screamed.
Lorelei smirked, as if she were enjoying this, which just made Zoe angrier.
"The evidence speaks for itself, Miss Stone. Only individuals who have one parent in Dreamearth and another in Realearth can cross worlds. You should have woken up from that dream yet here you are." She snapped her fingers at the others in her entourage. "Let's get out of here. I'm late for cocktails in Nod. Remmi, Zoe is your problem now if she doesn't want to leave."
Lorelei stepped into that bright shimmer, disappearing. The others, except for Remmi, followed. Seconds later, that too vanished, popping out of existence like a soap bubble.
This was too much for Zoe. Her legs gave out and she plopped back down onto the hot sand.
"I know this is a lot to take in." Remmi knelt beside her. Wisps of the girl's long unruly hair whipped across her face. "Are you okay?"
Zoe nodded and fixed her gaze on Remmi's too-bright eyes. "I-I think so." She swallowed. "Are you sure I'm not still dreaming?"
Remmi laughed and helped her to stand. Zoe wobbled slightly. The uneven drifts of sand beneath her bare feet didn't help.
"You can stay with me while you sort things out," she said and started strolling in the direction of several colorful, cone-shaped cottages that stood a short distance away. Thick, flowering trees and palm trees surrounded them. "Mother and I live at Periwinkle's Resort."
So many questions swirled in her mind as she walked beside Remmi through this tropical paradise in a dream world. Several people who looked like vacationing tourists in swimsuits lounged on beach chairs.
I really am here. Zoe pinched her arm and winced from the pain. Everything seemed both strange yet oddly normal.
"What's Visitor Visions?"
"One of the major dream studios," Remmi said in a tone that suggested it was perfectly normal. Perhaps here it was. "Ms. Morningstar is in charge of making sure the dreams run smoothly."
Remmi turned and faced Zoe. Her eyes were filled with sympathy. "I know what it's like to belong to two different worlds. My mother lives here but my father and half sister are in Realearth. I'm the only one who can cross over."
Zoe gulped. She didn't want to think about Dad not really being her Dad. Memories of earlier times, happier times, flickered through her mind. The four of them, her, Mom, Dad, and Ophelia huddled around a campfire in the mountains, roasting marshmallows and taking turns telling silly stories. She recalled the comforting scent of woodsmoke.
Dad showing her how to swim when she was small, guiding her through the clear water of a pool that looked impossibly deep. "You can do it, Princess. Just like the fish in our aquarium." She could practically hear his voice in her head.
How could he not be her father?
Remmi led Zoe into a rounded cottage that was almost entirely glass. Delicious scents of cooking food she didn't recognize filled the air. She blinked several times, struggling to adjust her momentarily sun-blinded vision.
This place was a restaurant, she quickly realized as she noticed several tables and chairs scattered about. The ceiling was shaped like the inside of an umbrella and painted with exotic birds, animals, and flowers. Colorful paper lanterns dangled from it.
The restaurant was obviously closed at this hour, probably right between lunch and dinner, Zoe guessed. The only people in here were two women seated at a far table, folding napkins. One had inky-dark skin and wore a colorful scarf over her hair while the other resembled an older version of Remmi with high cheekbones and delicate features. But her eyes were dark and held a blank, empty stare.
"Remmi!" The darker-skinned woman scrambled from the table and hurried toward them. She hugged Remmi and kissed her cheeks. The other woman, whom Zoe figured was Remmi's mother, continued to fold napkins, engrossed in that task. "It looks like you are enjoying your after- school stint as a dream actress. I'd ask how that went but I might not have to." Her black eyes sparkled as she looked at Zoe.
Warmth crept into Zoe's face.
"You've been following the news again, haven't you, Periwinkle?" Remmi said in a teasing tone. "The ongoing story about the Visitor who won't wake up. Well, this is her sister, who's a Halfling like me. She followed Ophelia right out of her dream."
"Is that so?" Periwinkle's round face broke into a wide grin, revealing startlingly white teeth. "I didn't recognize you as one of Remmi's usual friends." She firmly shook Zoe's hand. "What's your name?"
"Zoe Stone." Zoe's discomfort eased. Periwinkle reminded her of her maternal grandmother. She liked her instantly.
"Welcome to my resort. I'm Periwinkle Piper but everyone just calls me Periwinkle. Remmi helps me run it. Well, only after school and on days when she hasn't accepted a dream actress gig." She grinned.
"I am busy," Remmi said with a helpless shrug. "But Mom's a big help." Sadness shadowed Remmi's face as she looked toward the other woman, who was still dutifully folding those napkins and completely ignoring them. Zoe could have sworn that she was unfolding the finished ones just to refold them.
"What's wrong with her?" The words came out before Zoe could think. She slapped a hand over her mouth. "I'm so sorry. It's just—"
"It's okay." Remmi paced toward her mother. The woman still didn't look up. "Mother, there's someone I want you to meet." She spoke slowly, as if to a small child with limited understanding. That got the woman's attention. She put down the napkin she had in mid-fold and rose to her feet. Remmi took her hand and gently pulled her forward.
"Mother, this is my new friend, Zoe Stone. Zoe, this is my mother, Luna Clearwater."
Zoe took Luna's hand and gently shook it. "It's nice to meet you, ma'am." She smiled, an expression Luna didn't return. Her large dark eyes just continued to stare, not even focusing on Zoe.
"Mother, continue helping Periwinkle," Remmi said, blinking back tears. "The dinner rush will be starting soon."
"Yes, Miss Remmi," Luna said, as if she were a Victorian-era servant addressing a superior, not a mother talking to her daughter. Zoe's chest tightened.
"You can help me in the kitchen," Periwinkle said, guiding Luna behind a colorful curtain that Zoe guessed concealed the kitchen. "You girls go get cleaned up. Dinner will be ready soon."
"I'll show you where Mom and I live."
Zoe followed Remmi out of the restaurant and down a sandy path that led to the scattered cone-shaped cottages with thatched roofs. The tourists still lounged, enjoying the last rays of the lowering sun. Several small children played on a grassy area.
I feel like I'm on vacation, Zoe thought and was once again reminded of similar places she'd visited with her family. Would they ever have such experiences again?
Remmi led Zoe to a cottage that stood a short distance from the others. It was made of a thick adobe and embedded with seashells.
"This is our home," Remmi said, throwing open the oval door and entering. Zoe followed.
The cottage was small, with two beds side by side and a desk beneath a window with a view of the ocean. A fan dangled from the tapered, thatched ceiling. The tiny bathroom was dominated by a porcelain tub shaped like a clamshell.
"You share this with your mother?" Zoe suddenly felt embarrassed for all the times she'd complained about the size of her room and having to share it with Ophelia. It was larger than Remmi's entire cottage and part of a fairly large house.
Remmi nodded and strolled over to her closet. "We need to find you something to wear."
Zoe glanced down at the silken robe and blushed. She was naked underneath. At least the air here was so comfortably warm that she'd nearly forgotten she was barely dressed.
"What happened to my clothes? I could have sworn I put pajamas on before I went to bed."
"That's one of the problems of being a Halfling when you cross worlds. Solid objects belonging to one world can't cross over into the other and this includes anything you might be wearing. Believe me, I found out the hard way."
Remmi turned and studied Zoe. "I don't think any of my clothes will fit you unless you wouldn't mind wearing one of my dresses as a blouse."
It was then that Zoe became completely aware of their height differences. Even though Zoe had recently turned thirteen and assumed Remmi was around that age, Remmi was tiny, closer in size to a younger child. Zoe stood a head taller.
"Mom's clothes should fit." Remmi pulled out a sundress decorated with colorful flower patterns. "Her shoes too," she handed Zoe a pair of sandals, "but don't worry about it if they don't. We're pretty casual around here and most of us go barefoot." Zoe noticed Remmi wasn't wearing any shoes.
Zoe slipped into the bathroom and quickly changed. The dress fit but the shoes were slightly too big. Still, she didn't mind. Having lived all her life in the suburbs, she wasn't used to going barefoot in public, except at the beach or a pool.
"Thanks," she said, stepping back into the bedroom. An uncomfortable question clawed at her throat, straining to be released. "Was your mother also in an accident, like Ophelia?"
Remmi shook her head and sank onto her bed. "No. Mom had been a dream actress when she became pregnant with me." A bright flush touched her dusky cheeks. "My father was one of her Realearth clients. Back then, such relationships were against Dreamearth law. Mother escaped to the Collective Unconscious Forest and we lived there for the first few years of my life."
Remmi's gaze took on a distant look. Zoe sat down beside her.
"We were eventually caught. Mother was mind-drained, a process that takes away a person's mental faculties and free will. It's a long story but I was spared."
"I'm so sorry." Zoe placed a hand on Remmi's slender shoulder. "Can she ever be cured?"
Remmi shook her head. "So far, no. But my Realearth father is a neuroscientist. Even though he never met my mother as herself and only while he was sleeping and they live in different worlds, I still hope that someday he will come up with a cure."
Thoughts about her biological father crowded Zoe's mind. He was somewhere in this world. Had he been mind-drained too, like Remmi's mom?
Zoe pushed those thoughts aside. The dad she knew was her real Dad. A dream dad didn't matter. The most important thing now was finding Ophelia.
"We ought to go to dinner," said Remmi, rising to her feet. "Periwinkle's son is the chef here and he makes the best—"
"I'm not hungry," Zoe blurted. "I have to find Ophelia. It sounds like she's stuck somewhere in this world." Hopelessness filled her. "Didn't Lorelei say she was in the Nightmare Realms? Do you know how to get there?"
Remmi's eyes brightened. She stood and strode toward her desk.
"There is a way but it will get us both in trouble."
"Just tell me. I'll do it. Ophelia needs me."
Remmi opened a drawer and pulled out what looked like a glossy silk swath. When she hung it in the air, where it floated without any attachments, Zoe saw it resembled the water-shimmer portal Lorelei and her entourage had entered.
"This portal is spun from ghost hair," Remmi said. "It will take you anywhere in Dreamearth you want to go. Even Realearth for us Halflings."
"And it'll help me find my sister?"
Remmi nodded. "Just picture her as you step through. The ghostsilk portal will take you directly to her."
"It's that easy?" Zoe couldn't believe it. She paced closer to the eerily hovering silk. "Will I lose these clothes, like before?"
"No." Remmi stepped beside her. Zoe could see their unsteady reflections mirrored in the rippling fabric. "That only happens when you cross worlds, not the different provinces of Dreamearth."
Zoe took a deep breath.
"So I just picture Ophelia in my mind and walk into it?" This all seemed too weird.
"Yes. Now go ahead. I'll be right behind you."
Zoe closed her eyes. The images that pulsed through her head were of the last time she'd seen Ophelia, bruised and unconscious in that hospital bed with wires attached to her.
No! She forced another image, that of a healthy Ophelia, laughing and teasing her. How she missed that Ophelia.
Zoe stepped forward. The portal's silk brushed against her skin with a touch that was softer than dandelion fluff.
The air suddenly felt colder and smelled of exhaust fumes. The hardwood floor of Remmi's cottage shifted to asphalt beneath the thin soles of her borrowed sandals.
I'm through? She opened her eyes.
Zoe found herself standing on the side of a street at night. Barren trees with spiky branches lined the road. Ophelia stood in the middle of that street. She was as diaphanous as a jellyfish; Zoe could see right through her. Even her dark hair looked white.
Zoe started when Remmi appeared beside her.
"Did Ophelia die?" The words tasted like bile. "She looks like a ghost."
"That's just her dream body," said Remmi. "All Visitors look like that during their jaunts." Remmi frowned. "Although I thought Ophelia's hair was black. That's the description I was given when I had to take on her appearance for your dream. But now—"
Remmi bit off her words as a car sped toward Ophelia, its brilliant lights shining through her as if she were made of glass. Her clothes held an eerie sparkle.
Ophelia remained standing in the street as the speeding vehicle drew closer.
"Ophelia, run!" Zoe yelled, her panic rising.
"She can't," said Remmi. "She's covered with paralyzing powder. That's the sparkly stuff. She's had this same nightmare for days. The car never hits—"
Zoe wasn't listening. She didn't care if this was a dream; it felt too real. She dashed into the street and knocked Ophelia aside. The van whizzed by, barely missing them. Ophelia not only looked like a ghost but felt as light as one. She floated a short distance away and settled on the ground next to a skinny tree.
"Ophelia!" Zoe felt hot tears on her cheeks as she knelt beside her sister. Mist curdled from her mouth as she spoke. It was cold here. Much too cold for a cottony sundress but she didn't care.
Ophelia didn't respond, even when Zoe rolled her over. She was fast asleep.
"What's the meaning of this?" shouted a male voice as someone shone a flashlight on them.
Zoe blinked up at the sudden brightness just as Remmi raced to her side. A middle-aged man in a purple suit glared down at her.
"It's okay, Mr. Nimbus." Remmi stepped in front of her. "This is all my fault. I just wanted—"
"I contacted Lorelei the moment I saw her appear," Mr. Nimbus said. "She had a feeling this newest Halfling would come looking for her sister."
"I just want her to wake up." Zoe realized she was sobbing. She felt Remmi's small, comforting hand on her shoulder.
"It's too late for that," said a disturbingly familiar voice from behind.
Zoe turned to see Lorelei stepping through a ghostsilk portal, holding a martini in one hand.
"What do you mean?" Zoe returned her watery gaze to ghostly Ophelia, who continued to sleep. She was sleeping during her dream? Zoe sadly reminded herself that she was in a coma. But even more troubling was her hair. It did look white, as Remmi had pointed out, and held a silvery gleam like ghostsilk.
"She cannot awaken, even when she should," said Lorelei. "Her dream body remains here, in our world, even when she is between dreams. And she's slowly turning into a ghost."
"A ghost?" A sharp tingling that wasn't from the cold spread through Zoe's body, starting with her toes. "You mean she's dying?"
"That's precisely what I mean." Lorelei took a sip of her drink. "If she dies here in the Nightmare Realms, she'll remain a ghost here permanently."
"You mean," Zoe gulped, "instead of moving on to heaven, or wherever?" If Ophelia had to die, she deserved to end up in a place more pleasant than this, Zoe thought wistfully.
"Yes. We don't know where the other Realearth dead go. But look on the bright side. She can join the other ghosts here. They automatically get roles in nightmares and their hair is used to make our portals."
Zoe's grief shifted to anger and then desperation.
"There's nothing that can be done?" Zoe's mind raced. "I'm a Halfling. Surely that's something special. I belong to two worlds, apparently. What if I take her place?" Remmi's grip on her shoulder tightened but she ignored it.
Ophelia stirred. Her eyes slightly opened. They weren't their usual dark brown but gleamed with an ominous glow that reminded Zoe of black light.
"Zoe, don't do that." Her voice was a raspy whisper. "My body is broken and my mind might be too. I don't want to be a burden to you or Mom or Dad."
Zoe tried to wrap Ophelia in her arms but they passed right through her. She felt as cold and ethereal as mist.
"I don't care." Zoe thought of how Remmi still loved and cared for her mother despite Luna's disability and even held onto the hope for her eventual recovery. Besides, her own mother was a doctor and Zoe had faith that she would heal Ophelia to the best of her abilities. But only if Ophelia lived. "My mind is made up. And you know how stubborn I can be."
A faint smile played about Ophelia's pale lips before she passed out again.
Zoe stood and faced Lorelei. "I choose to take my sister's place."
Lorelei tossed back the rest of her drink and handed the glass to Mr. Nimbus. "Take this, Larry." She grinned at Zoe. "You are sure you want to do this, become a permanent resident in the Nightmare Realms?"
Zoe looked around at the oppressive gloom surrounding them. She would have preferred the beautiful floating islands where clouds were living animals or the seaside resort where Remmi lived, but it didn't look like she had a choice. This was the place in Dreamearth where she'd be stuck. Her entire body tightened but she knew what she had to do.
"Yes." Her voice sounded more confident than she felt.
"Well, at least that will be one less Halfling crossing worlds and causing trouble." Lorelei rubbed her elegantly manicured hands together.
"Just tell me what I have to do."
"Return to Realearth and go to sleep. When you return in your dream body, I'll see to it that the switch is made."
Lorelei turned and stared down at Remmi. "And you stay out of this, Miss Clearwater. I don't want any tricks from you."
"Of course not, Ms. Morningstar." Remmi's voice was meek but Zoe swore she caught a mischievous glint in her eyes. She wasn't sure what to make of that but she didn't care. All that mattered was Ophelia.
She turned toward the nearest ghostsilk portal. "I just have to picture where I want to go and step through, like before?"
"That's right," said Remmi. "But remember, this time you are crossing worlds. Be sure it's somewhere private because your clothes will stay here."
"How could I forget?" Zoe winked at her. "I'll see you soon, in my next dream, even if it's a nightmare."
She pictured her bedroom as she passed through the silk. Just as she expected, the borrowed sundress and sandals vanished as she emerged into her bedroom.
Her heart clenched as her gaze scanned the room with her books and trophies lining the shelves on her side of the room. Ophelia's side was an array of stuffed animals and multiple drawings, mostly of dragons and surreal aliens and landscapes.
Will she ever be able to draw and paint again?
Zoe struggled to ignore that melancholy thought. She had a job to do.
The open window revealed the soft light of early morning. Zoe's pajamas were tangled in her blankets. Just where I left them when I crossed over. The thought made her smile as she pulled them on and crawled beneath the blankets.
Nerves struck her as she struggled to fall asleep. Sleep, please sleep, she pleaded with her mind. Her stomach fluttered with nerves. Would this work? What if Ophelia still died and they were both stuck in the Nightmare Realms, leaving their poor parents all alone? Dad will never know he isn't my real dad, she thought. But that's not something I could ever tell him. It wouldn't make sense to him anyway.
Zoe knew she had finally fallen asleep when she saw the familiar spiky trees and stark asphalt road. The air to her dream body didn't feel quite as cold but the gloominess of the place pressed down upon her. I'd better get used to it.
Mr. Nimbus was gone. Remmi and Lorelei stood beside the sleeping, ghostly Ophelia. She looked even more pellucid. Zoe's heart lurched. She had to make the switch now.
"Okay, I'm back and dreaming. What do I do?"
Lorelei held out a clipboard. "First you must sign this contract. It's a legality for Visitor Visions, stating that you agree to take Ophelia's place as a Nightmare Realm ghost and, as such, you are now an employee of my company. You will be required to appear in the occasional nightmare and all that but you are pretty much free to do as you please, as long as you stay within the boundaries of the Nightmare Realms. The other provinces have no need for ghosts. Here's a little light so you can see what you are doing."
Lorelei held up a hand and twisted one of her rings. It shone like a miniature flashlight.
"Thanks." She struggled to read the print. Zoe had always been a good reader, at least a couple reading levels above her grade but she couldn't make out the words. None of this made any sense. Why can I never read in dreams? she thought in frustration. Not that it really mattered. She already knew what she was doing and what it entailed. She signed her name on the line at the bottom.
"Excellent." A wide grin stretched across Lorelei's face as she took the contract. "Welcome to your new home in the Nightmare Realms."
Zoe looked down and saw that Ophelia was gone. "What happened to my sister?"
"She woke up, of course. Isn't that what you wanted?" Lorelei turned off her ring and strode toward her ghostsilk.
"But I hoped I'd at least get to say goodbye." Zoe's eyes burned as if they wanted to release tears but couldn't. Could ghosts cry?
Lorelei stopped before the floating silk portal. "Don't look so sad. She'll probably still have nightmares after all she's been through. You'll get to see her again during those dream jaunts." She disappeared into the portal. A second later it, too, vanished.
Although Zoe knew she should be weightless in her ghost form, the crushing weight of her decision bore her down. She sank to her knees and didn't even feel the cold, hard asphalt beneath them. She'd never see her family again unless they ventured here in their dreams. And she'd only wish pleasant dreams for them.
Remmi knelt beside her. "You aren't stuck here. There is a loophole, you know."
Zoe looked at her. She could barely make out Remmi's face in the faint glow of the hidden moon struggling to break through the murky clouds.
"What do you mean?" Despair threatened to crush that faint spark of hope.
"You aren't really a ghost. You are just a Visitor."
"I am?" Zoe studied her hands. They looked solid, only slightly blurred at the edges, indicating she must be in her Visitor body. And her hair was still dark, not ghostsilk-white.
Her momentary joy suddenly evaporated. "Does this mean that Ophelia is dead? My exchange didn't work?"
"No, it did." Remmi beamed and placed an arm around Zoe's shoulders. "You don't see her here, do you?"
Zoe shook her head.
"That means she woke up. You are a Halfling, like me. We are split between two worlds, Realearth and Dreamearth, belonging to both. Neither world can completely claim us. You aren't dead. You're just dreaming. All you have to do is just wake up."
"That's it?" It didn't feel all that different than when she was here bodily. Except that her senses were slightly dulled.
"Yes." Remmi pulled a wadded ghostsilk out of her pocket. "But before you do, let me give you this." She shook out the silk and tore it neatly in half. She handed one half to Zoe.
"You're the first Halfling friend I've ever made," Remmi continued, her eyes shimmering. "I don't have to wait for you to dream in order to see you. Ghostsilk is the key for you to return to Dreamearth when you are awake."
Warmth filled Zoe as she and Remmi tightly hugged. Could Remmi and I become best friends even though we live in different worlds? she wondered.
"I promise I'll have clothes ready for you when you visit."
"Same here, when you visit my world," said Zoe. She once again felt her dream eyes grow warm with nonexistent tears.
"Ghostsilk is invisible to full Realearthlings," Remmi said when they parted. "If you show it to anyone they won't—"
Everything faded to black before Remmi could finish.
. . . they won't be able to see it, Zoe thought as she emerged into wakefulness.
Her eyes opened. She was lying in bed, in her pajamas with something soft and gauzy tangled around her fingers.
The ghostsilk! She sat up and studied it. The fabric was finer than a spiderweb and shimmered blindingly against the morning sunlight that now flooded her room.
How could anyone not see that? she wondered as she folded up the ghostsilk and slipped it into her nightstand drawer.
Zoe was startled by a knock at her door.
"Are you awake, Princess?" called Dad.
Zoe's heart leaped. He sounded happy. "Mom called with wonderful news. Ophelia is awake and her vitals are strong. There's a good chance she'll make a full recovery. Get dressed as quickly as you can so we can go to the hospital and see her."
Zoe raced out of bed with a joyful cry and opened the door. Dad stood there with a huge grin on his face.
She threw herself into his arms, not caring if he wasn't truly her father. No one in Realearth would ever know. Warmth filled her chest as he held her tight. They were once again going to be a complete family.
And, best of all, they belonged to the same world.