Jane Harrison is the Dreamer of Nian. Not that anyone knew it at first, when Great Grandpa Joel passed the gift down to her he was laying on his death bed, cheating time with every last breath he could manage. Quickly, Jane is forced to come to terms with her new abilities, and a mission of saving a land she has no responsibility for.
“Let's go!” Dad gripped the steering wheel tightly and the car lunged forward. “Morons. We'll never make it on time.”
I stared out the window, watching the streets and platinum colored buildings whoosh buy. I didn't know how I felt about Great Grandpa Joel. We only visited on holidays, and even then I didn't pay him much attention.
It was starting to rain outside. The nasty kind of January weather that made me want to curl up on the couch and avoid homework. We pulled into the parking lot of the old folks home and hurried inside the building. Really it was just a glorified hospital for old people, but with dim florescent lights and ugly carpeting.
“Take your earbuds out,” Mom whispered harshly as we walked though the first pair of doors.
I pulled at the wires and stuffed them in the pocket of my jacket. The woman at the desk unlocked the door and let us in. I followed my parents across the lobby and down the first hall. The rest of the family was already inside, crowded in the small space facing the bed in the middle. Everyone knew Great Grandpa Joel was dying, even he knew it, but Dad's side of the family wanted everyone to be there to show how much he was loved and this was the only Friday everyone else was free.
I stood against the wall and tried not to sneeze. The room smelled of stale air re-fresheners and powerful cleaning supplies. Really, the entire building smelled this way, but it was even worse on the first floor.
Grandpa Joel coughed and everyone moved to help, but the nurse pushed them back and helped him drink some water.
“Where was I?” he mumbled. “Oh, the Harrison's,”
Everyone looked up. Grandpa Joel only had one daughter, who ran off with her boyfriend to live somewhere in Colorado when she was nineteen, and then all boys down to the grandchildren. Of the seventeen great grandchildren, I was one of three girls, also the youngest of the cousins besides Clair and Wyatt.
Scanning the room for my parents, I quietly pulled my earbuds out of my pocket. It would be a while before my I was forced to say goodbye.
He was mid sentence talking about the good old days when he stopped. “Is Jane here?”
All eyes turned to me. I looked up embarrassingly and took my earbuds out.
Mom out stretched her hand, her all-knowing eyes shaming me as I gave her my earbuds.
“Jane?” Grandpa called again, he coughed.
“Hey, Grandpa,” I said awkwardly, I wasn't sure he knew my name until now.
I felt a sharp, manicured finger poke my back. Over my shoulder Mom raised her eyebrows and poked me again.
“Can I get you a glass of water?” I suggested, looking at the nurse, but she was too busy flirting with Josh.
“No,” He coughed, drool sprayed his hand and he whipped it on his blanket. “I'm fine.”
I gulped. I didn't know what else to say. I waited patiently for him to start talking again.
“You know,” he cleared his throat. “You always where my favorite grandchild.” I quickly scanned the room to see if any of my cousins had heard him, but they weren't paying attention. “You've always reminded me of myself. Which is way I was saving something special for you.” He wined and reached for something underneath his pillow. The nurse tried to push him back down but he wouldn't give. After another moment he pulled out a small red box and dropped it into my hands. “Thought it would be the easiest way to get you there.”
“Get me where?”
I picked up the silk cube and examined it. It was heavier than I had expected. The red cloth was adorned with plastic gems and faded yellow thread. A simple latch once held the lid close, but the hook had fallen off years ago. On the side Great Grandma initials were faded into the material.
He looked at Mom, then back to me with caution. “Promise me you won't get ride of it, it's special, and it can't be yours until you've met with the Father's of Time. You must keep it with you.”
“What can't be mine?” I started to open the box, curious to try and see if what he was talking about was inside.
Suddenly Grandpa sat up and stopped me, holding my hand tightly to the top. “Not now!” He yelled, spraying my face with his spit. “What are trying to do? Kill me! Wait until tonight, promise me!”
“At ten, you have to be the first,” he coughed, “no one can know.”
As the Uncle's helped him back down I stood and backed away.
“Grandpa Joel-” Dad moved to help. “Come on Grandpa, you have to lay down.”
“You can't let anyone know who you are!” His excitement threw him into a coughing fit. “There, or here. You have to wait until you're alone or bad things will happen.”
Mom's hand gripped my shoulder. The machine above the bed began to beep quietly. Someone yelled at the nurse and she turned away from Josh with a slow wink. She looked at Grandpa Joel and then the computer next to him. After adjusting the oxygen tank the machine stopped beeping.
“I think that's enough for today,” she began ushering us out of the room. “Let's give Mr. Harrison a break, you all can come back tomorrow.”
“Jane!” Great Grandpa Joel called after us. “Find Margaret, she'll help you.”
It was snowing outside now, a thick gray slush covered the parking lot and threatened to soak my sneakers. I held the little box gently between my hands as we drove home. I didn't think I was his favorite, but here he was offering me the only gift that he really cared about, and one that seemed to come from the peanut gallery. Sure Aunt Josie was given the task of locating and retrieving a storage unit full of Great Grandma's stuff, but it's not like she was told not to let anyone know why she had to do it. I guessed Grandpa could have developed a kind of dementia since the last time we visited, but he didn't seem like he was confused.
A sudden pot hole jerked the car, inside the box the sound of little beads clinked together in protest. Again I considered opening it, we were far away from Grandpa, he wouldn't know I had disobeyed him and opened the box early. I slowly lifted the edge of the lid.
As if my thoughts were projecting onto Mom's brain, she turned around in her seat and opened her mouth.
I pulled one earbud out. “Huh?”
“I said, what do you think is inside?”
I clamped my hand over the box and shrugged. “I don't know,”
“Guess we'll just have to wait. It's exciting though, don't you think? Just imagine what kind of treasure could be in there!”
I rolled my eyes when she turned back. Sometimes it was hard to forget that she was a lawyer with a seventeen year old daughter, and not the helicopter mom of a six year-old. Setting the box inside the cup-holder, I put the earbud back in and watched the ice covered buildings fade into the trees bordering the highway.
The little box rested in front of me, creating a small divot in my blanket where it sat. I stared at it, memorizing every crease and stain it had acquired over the years, while trying to guess what was inside. It was almost ten, just two minutes to go. Mom was in the study down stairs, while Dad found a late night snack. Finally, the clock turned and I reached for the box.
All this waiting had driven me to cleaning my room, something I tried seldom to do. I had a system, one which allowed me to surpass a small closet and a wardrobe with such an attitude it rarely let me open any of it's drawers without a fight. I called it the clothes trough system, a series of bins under the edge of my bed I could keep my t-shirts and jeans neatly folded in while I bargained with the empty box of wood. This only worked if you kept a tight schedule of washing your clothes in a timely matter and immediately folding and putting them away, a chore I already hated. So I spent the time going through the piles of laundry against my desk and door, and coming up with a peace treaty for the wardrobe, but it would have to be burned before it willingly excepted my underwear.
I flipped the lid open and stared inside. As I had expected, the box was half filled with buttons.
I turned the box upside down and sifted through the different sizes and shapes. In the middle of the pile was a small ring, probably put in by accident. The simple piece of metal was tarnished and missing two of the five white opals. I picked it up. I didn't remember Grandma's ring, or if she even had one, but it looked like something she'd wear. I tried it over my right ring finger, it only fit half way down. I tried to pull it off but it had gotten stuck. I relaxed hand and got a firm grip on either side, with a breath I yanked it off. A stinging pain shot through my wrist and I shook my hand quickly, as if a bee had just stung me. I held my hand close and inspected the skin for a sliver. On the inside of my finger the skin had turned red, below the knuckle a small spot puffed up like a blister. I blew on the skin, the heat was gone but it still hurt.
“There's food in the kitchen if you want some,” Dad said as he opened the door. “You okay?”
I showed him the blister on my finger. “There was a ring in the box,” I explained. “It got stuck and then this happened”
Dad picked up the ring and inspected it. He put the ring on the tip of his pinky finger and looked over mine for some kind of metal. He raised his eyebrows. “Well, come on downstairs and we'll take of that.”
I scooped the buttons in my hands and tossed them back into the box, Dad did the same with the ring.
“I made the sweet rolls, so we'll have to think about something else for breakfast tomorrow.”
I nodded my head absentmindedly, I felt dizzy, like I stood up too fast and hadn't drank anything in days. “Waffles?” I suggested.
Dad smiled. “Perfect!”
A bright light turned on and I squeezed my eyes shut. I stretched, my whole body ached and shivered with the cool breeze. I reached for my blanket, but my hands filled with gritty dust. A shadow covered my face and something rough fell across my body. I blinked until I could see and sat up. A woman crouched in front of me. She was dressed in many layers that didn't help her boxy frame, the tips of her long graying hair brushed the orange and pink sand. I looked around. Other than the short train of wagons passing a few feet away, all I could see was a never ending sky and a sea of orange.
"Siz yaxshimi?" The woman asked, drawing my attention.
I rubbed my eyes. "What?"
A second woman appeared behind the first, she was younger, and looked irritated. She strode with the grace of a young woman but her frown betrayed her soft features. Her hair cascaded down her tan arms in large curls and exaggerated her attractiveness. "Uning kimli so'rang,"
The older woman reached for my shoulders and helped me stand, my whole body felt numb and tingly. The blister on my left hand had been replaced with a dark, almost flowery mark.
"Qaerdan kelding?" She waited for me to respond, but I didn't understand. She scratched her chin and pointed to the wagon. "Yurasizmi?"
"Shun o'shash" the younger one said, exaggerating her hips as she walked back toward the only wagon that wasn't moving.
Realizing they wanted me to follow them, I stepped forward. My leg buckled and the older woman wrapped her arm around my waist, half pushing half dragging my body forward.
"Tu nima?" The younger one asked over her shoulder. After a moment she threw her hands up and huffed.
The older one shook her head and pointed to her chest. "Chirri," she pointed at the younger one. "Kenishca," She pointed at me and raised her eyebrows.
"Jane," I answered.
"Jane?" She copied.
I nodded and she smiled.
Kenishca pulled the curtain aside on their wagon as I passed underneath. The inside was covered in reds, purples, and yellows. Different goods occupied the many shelves and hung from the frame of the wagon. The aroma of spices was thick inside and made my nose itch. Chirri began searching through one of the crates while Kenishca held the curtain closed. She pulled out a dark red dress and held it up to me, measuring it to my body. It's short puffy sleeves and layered skirt was sewn in different ways to make it look more loose and busy. I held it with one hand and the blanket with the other as she dug through the chest again and pulled out a pair of wide brown pants and a shorter under-dress. Handing the last of the outfit to me she left, urging me to hurry. The red dress's neckline matched the brown under-dress, while the pants puffed out under the edge of the skirt, giving it more body.
I opened the curtain to leave but Kenishca stopped me. She adjusted the shoulders and tied the slip to the dress at the neck line. She looked at me with the scrutinizing eyes of my own mother, looking my outfit up and down. She pointed at my hair and made what sounded like a snarky comment, but Chirri agreed with her. I guessed blonde hair wasn't a good thing to have here. Chirri pulled one of the scarves from her neck and wrapped it around my head like a turban. Allowing me to keep the blanket on against the chilly morning, they guided me around to the front of the wagon. There were two benches, a young boy sat on the front seat next to an older man hunched over with his hat covering his eyes,
"Adham, Aaron," Kenishca called, waking the older one. "Tay yoramiz."
The older man pulled his hat back and sat up. He covered his mouth as he yawned and stretched, then began rumbling a series of excuses. Kenishca waved her hand impatiently as he tried to give her a kiss. The younger one, Aaron I had guessed, gave a short up-tuned whistle and the wheels begin to turn. The cart wasn't attached to any animal, nor was there room for it to have an engine, but it rolled on. As the boy's pitch changed the cart speed up and got back to it's rightful place with the rest of the company, fourth to last, and then slowed down to the pace of the other carts. Aaron stopped whistling, but the cart continued to roll.
By the state of their wagon, I imagined they were traveling to a vast city filled with people, great buildings and good smells, with a castle far off in the distance on top of a great hill. When I blinked I expected to be there, but the endless horizon of sand stayed in front of me.
The sun climbed lazily up the sky, casting exaggerated shadows of the wagons on the ground. We rode for hours, the heat changing with the time. Kenishca pulled a rope against the wall of the cart and a thin curtain fell down, she handed one edge to Adham and the other to Aaron, and they hooked the screen to the end of the bench. It wasn't comfortable, but it was better than sitting in the sun.
Soon the sky turned a pale yellow, fading to a dark purple. We stopped well after dark, my endless journey in this desolate place was rewarded with a sea of stars and colors. Two large moons danced together across them, one a pale blue, the other a light pink with a visible crater on the side that left a trail of rocks and dust. The company separated into nine groups of three carts, pulling the wagons close together for shelter. Fires were lit, bread rolls, raw vegetables and dried fruits were passed around and music began playing at some of the camp sites. Once prayers were said I was allowed to bite into my roll, the outside was hard and almost completely black, but the inside was pale and fluffy. Wheat shells not fully ground became wedged in my teeth as I chewed. The men began talking, about the trip I figured, and about me based on the looks they stole. Chirri rolled her eyes and tried to tell me not to worry, but ended up looking like she was constipated. Kenishca and Adham sat close, holding hands and leaning on each other as they watched Aaron poke a stick into the fire and wave it in circles. When Aaron got too close to the wagons Kenishca gave a warning and he stopped. Chirri, in her loving grandmotherly way, was eager to make sure I felt included in the group, sharing her cup with me and making sure I had plenty to eat.
The men kept the fire well stocked. Bedrolls were laid and final good-nights were spoken. I tossed and turned in my place close to the fire, another one of Chirri's 'helps'. I faced the outside, the blanket Chirri had given me draped across my back, shielding me from the heat.
"Xayrli tun," Chirri whispered next to me, almost ordering me to fall asleep. I moved my bedroll a few inches away from the fire, just enough not to burn, and stared up at the stars.