Steady hands betray her expertise. Cora reaches out to flip the switch and bring the Screen to life. Not her own Screen. She could never afford that.
The owner sleeps calmly for someone with such little security and Cora feels a twinge of sympathy. It dissipates quickly. She has convinced herself that she can no longer care and she subconsciously corrects any errant emotions. As the program starts up she holds her breath, hoping for something she has yet to find. She is sorely disappointed by what she sees. His dream is mundane. In it, he and an old woman are feeding birds in a park. The scene is lovely, but certainly not what Cora is searching for. She loses herself for a moment, though.
They seem like such happy, normal people. The woman laughs as a sparrow perches on the bench beside them and cocks its head to the side, as though asking a question. One little bird taps the man’s finger in its search for food. He jumps, startled. But the woman just chuckles amiably and his shocked face relaxes into a smile.
A few reverent moments later, the dream changes. The woman disappears suddenly, just as the man begins to tell her a story. His face crumples, but it’s as if part of him knew this was coming. The man in the dream stops a tear from leaving his eye. Cora finds herself surprised to be doing the same thing, crouched on his cold floor. This shouldn’t affect her so much. But there is something about the honesty of it that feels too much like a secret never meant to leave his sleeping mind.
Cora knows the man will open his eyes as his Screen flashes black with the end of the dream. He sits up and glances at her once, still foggy with a haze of nostalgia and sleep. But he blinks and scatters the clouds. He realizes at last that his private moment was not truly private. She makes it to the window before he starts yelling.
“Goddamn Klepto! I’ll…” he mumbles, no vigor to his anger. Cora maneuvers back down to the ground, shaken by such vulnerability. It isn’t just the man’s defenselessness that frightens her. Her own weaknesses somehow seem underlined, italicized and bolded every time she hears herself called that ugly name.
Back on the slick pavement, Cora’s legs feel weak. She glances around cautiously before turning to walk back to the hostel she’s been calling home. It’s decrepit and unsafe, but cheap. And right now that takes precedence.
Once inside, she collapses on the dirty mattress she’s been allotted and falls instantly asleep.
In her dream, Cora is young and running through the woods with her sister Ellen. Their feet are bare and muddy. Curtains of hair fly behind them. Twigs try to scratch at their arms and legs but they don’t notice. They feel invincible.
Cora is in front as always. Her role as the older sister is not something she takes lightly. She’s known since the beginning that she will always be the one to protect her sister.
They climb over some branches and under others, following the same path they always use. At last, the girls emerge in the forest clearing. It is a place so ingrained in Cora’s memories that, even when dreaming, her mind can’t let it go.
Cora has noticed that most people dream of the future. She’s found herself crouched in enough bedrooms, watching enough Screens to notice this. Some are good. Dreamers winning the lottery or traveling the world. These are exactly the kinds of things most Kleptos are searching for. Others dreams are terrifying. She shudders to think of some of the nightmares she’s seen.
Her mind is different, always reliving memories in her dreams. They are the things she’s been trying to forget. Tonight’s dream is no exception. The scene is straight out of the depths of Cora’s past. Her subconscious knows to be apprehensive. She doesn’t want to watch this again. But her mind glides along in the grip of the dream.
She and Ellen are in the clearing now, a place they’ve stood hundreds of times. The breeze ruffles their hair. It’s picturesque and quiet, an escape from the noise of the city and all the people there who only worry about ‘making it’. Cora has hated that expression since the moment she began to understand its meaning. She wants much more than just to make it through or scrape by.
They flop down in the tall grass several feet apart. This is their place to tell stories without their mother scolding them for wasting their time with fantasies and delusions.
Cora starts first, as always. She creates a tale of a girl who wakes up one day and remembers that she can fly. It’s a simple story, but beautiful, and Ellen is enchanted. When she finishes speaking Cora closes her eyes and exhales.
“Your turn”, Cora mumbles to her sister.
But Ellen has unanswered questions. “I don’t understand! How did the girl forget that she could fly?”
“Sometimes you can’t help forgetting things. Maybe she thought she had to let go. The important part was that she remembered again. Everyone remembers the important things, eventually.”
There’s a long pause. “…do you ever forget the important things?”
“No.” Cora says this decisively. “I never will. I’m different from the girl in the story. So are you.”
“Good.” Ellen sounds relieved.
“Now enough of these serious questions! I want to hear your story!” Cora yells over to her sister.
“Alright, alright.” Ellen laughs quietly and then begins. “There once was a girl who forgot she could fly…”
“Hey, hold on! That’s my story, you little thief!” Cora yells, joking.
This sends them both into prolonged childlike fits of laughter. When it finally subsides, Ellen begins again.
“There once was a girl who could paint the sky…”
Cora settles in, ready to be swept away in her sister’s voice and the melody of her story.
She doesn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, though she isn’t listening for it. She doesn’t see anyone, though she would if she sat up. Things would have ended much differently if she had. They might have taken her instead. Or both of them. But she’s hidden in the tall grasses. And Ellen is talking. Ellen doesn’t hear anything either, though she isn’t listening. She doesn’t see anyone until it’s too late.
There is a palpable pause after Ellen’s first sentence and Cora waits with held breath. But the silence stretches a bit too long. She laughs.
“Ellen? Did you fall asleep or something?”
But there’s no response, no burst of laughter from Ellen. Cora springs up in an instant, alert. She looks around quickly and finally spots them, across the field. Then she watches, stupefied, as the man who has grabbed her sister now drags her out of their clearing and into the forest.
Cora stays frozen a few beats too long, precious seconds that she’ll think about over and over later. Then she runs. She follows the man, confident that with her knowledge of the path she’ll catch him quickly. But he’s not following the careful tracks the two girls have created over the years. He’s clumsy and uncoordinated, but fast. He’s almost out of the woods now, one hand locked on Ellen, who has begun yelling for Cora. But she’s still too far behind.
She watches as they break free of the trees and she watches as he shoves her sister into a boxy white van. She watches, still running towards them, as he starts it. She watches her own hands beating on the side of the van even as it drives away. She can’t hear anything but she knows she’s screaming.
Her mother started warning them months ago about these men with vans. It’s a new business, stealing kids and forcing them to live as Kleptos. They’re taken to work for some organization, breaking into homes, watching Screens, stealing valuable dreams.
Cora breaks down, weeping, wishing desperately that it was her being carted away instead right now.
She wakes up with tears still wet on her face, lying in the oppressive darkness of the hostel.
For years she searched the faces of every child she passed on the streets. She called out to people who weren’t Ellen, just because she saw a flash of brown curls, or freckled cheeks.
When she was old enough she chose to live the life her sister had been forced into, in the hopes that they would cross paths one day or that she could find a dream that would lead her to Ellen.
Now, shaking in bed, Cora is flooded with all these flashes and memories of the day that changed her permanently. She knows why her subconscious has chosen tonight to bring her back to that clearing. The man’s dream affected her deeply. The old woman disappeared into nowhere as he started to speak. One minute they were feeding the little birds, and then she was gone, as he seemed to expect she would be.
The same had happened to Ellen. They were laughing in tall grasses with the breeze in their hair. The next there was silence.
She reminds herself that there is one important difference. The woman he dreamt of is gone forever. But Cora knows that she’ll find Ellen eventually. It is the same protective part of her that was always caring for her sister that is now driven to retrieve her. She may have failed once, but she never will again.
She sits there and breathes deeply for a while, staring into the blackness, trying not to forget a single one of her sister’s features.
Tomorrow, she whispers out loud. It’s a promise to herself and to Ellen. Tomorrow will be a better day. Tomorrow she will make progress. Tomorrow she will fix everything. She thinks these things over and over. She repeats tomorrow in her mind until it becomes a small yet significant mantra.
Finally, Cora lays back down on her mattress and curls her body tight. She whispers to herself again as she falls asleep.
“There once was a girl who remembered she could fly…”