Drea sat on dusty coils of Egyptian papyrus twine. Her hands were a blur. Measure the twine, cut. Tie a knot, slide a bead, repeat. At the top, tie a ring and hook to wooden frame. Seventy strings equalled one bead curtain.
Madam provided meals and a place to sleep. Her wages went to her mother but she never complained. To an eleven year old girl, the market stall was freedom. Madam lived in the loft, so Drea had the floor. So much space! The building her mom and brothers lived in reeked of piss, shit and smoke. The cramped room was up six flights of stairs beneath cracked roof tiles and nesting pigeons.
On good days, Madam took her to the Ivy Bull for dinner. Drea had new clothes, sandals and a thin ring with a brass orb. They did well. Bead curtains were all the rage in fashionable Rome. Madam claimed her beads were crafted in the terra-sigillata style. Like the red wine cups embossed with nymphs and satyrs. But that was just the sales pitch. They were really dyed terra cotta.
Drea had a view of the street from her work stool. House slaves scurried like ants to their errands. Relentless clanging from the Syrian copper smith filled the air. The boy who sold eggs, sang off-key to the rhythm. Tucked in a sky-blue alcove across the street was Mithras. The paint on the god was fading because merchants rubbed him for luck. Ringing bells and drums heralded the Ishtar procession. Chanting worshippers danced by. Skipping young girls waved sycamore branches. For a donation, you received a blessed sprig. At sunset, you told the goddess your wish and burned it. The street cleared. Partly out of respect but mostly because the half-naked priestess waved a hissing cobra. Incense smoldered in her wild, black hair. The air smelled of amber and myrrh.
The harsh voice broke the spell. Automatically, she popped up at attention.
"The amphoras are empty! Fetch water!"
Drea lugged the first of three amphoras to the fountain. The stream of public water spewed from a leering Gorgon's mouth. She lowered the pot...
The Dream ends.
Drea opens her eyes. Odd request, but she did her duty. She checks her profile for likes, changes, notes from ghosts, anything. Nothing. Profiles are lame, she thinks.
The worst part is they tell you what sort of Dreams you prefer. According to Program, she enjoys spending 61% of Dream time in states of 'altered capacity.' So unfair. So much more to those Dreams...but she had to admit some Dreams are better than others. She thinks of doing some more historical Dreams. Round out her profile. She pokes around requests for awhile but grows irritated.
"Fuck this" Drea says loading up an old favorite.
You can redo Dreams for style points. Ghosts love improv. But Kade doesn't care. He simply likes this Dream. Summer after seventh grade. Everything seems to be changing.
But not Aladdin's Castle.
The air-conditioned, electric gloom of the arcade smelled of cigarettes, pizza and french fries. The techno glow of screens flashed madly to looped video game sounds. Aladdin's Castle at the Sunnyvale Mall. Sanctuary for Kade.
Ancient games were ridiculously hard. They'll be no food court corndog today. Nor will he ride the bus home. These games were created to suck every last coin from Kade. And he gave them gladly. He never complained about the four mile walk home on an empty stomach. Life was simple. The only thing that mattered today was Ikari Warriors.
On Kade's first trip to this Dream, the insanity of Ikari Warriors stunned him. The clumsy controls, overwhelming odds and sensory overload blew his mind. But this time he was prepared. With grenade and gun, Kade gained glory and honor for the bare chested warrior. But as his sixth token rolled into the slot for a continue, Kade knew it was over.
Her hands clamped around his eyes. Right on time.
"Guess who?!" she said.
The Ikari warrior groaned a terrible death. Time to work. He turned around.
"Cheater!" she pouted insincerely.
"Hey Shea" he rhymed.
"Shay-Ah!" she corrected. "Rhymes with Play-Ya!"
Shea was all about change. She was the first person to go goth in their class. This summer, she changed the pronunciation of her name. But something else had changed. Something deeper that went beyond smeared eye-makeup or The Damned t-shirts. It was a mysterious force that messed with his brain. When did he start staring at her? When did he start feeling shy around this kid he'd known since first grade?
"I challenge you..." she announced dramatically, "to Joust!"
"Joust?" laughed Kade. "Oh, you don't want to challenge me to Joust."
"Oh, I want to challenge you to Joust" said Shea.
Like a playground bully, Shea puffed herself up, glared and stalked forward. Her chest bump actually hit his stomach but the effect was powerful. A wave of hormonal impulses left him dumb. So he gulped.
"The wager," she growled, while still pressed against him, "is one token!"
Shea was touching him. With her chest. Kade didn't know what to do so he spun around and walked to the Joust machine. The familiar screen brought him back to earth.
"See?" he said pointing. The top spot on the high score. NOS.
"Not bad," acknowledged Shea. "Since you're pro, you pay."
Maybe he was changing too? A year ago, he'd refuse to waste his last two tokens on Joust. But now...
Shea was a lively player. She yelled, smacked buttons and bumped him. He kept sneaking sideways glances and his gameplay suffered.
"Hah!" she mocked when he lost another knight. "Down to two lives, baby! Maybe Joust isn't your game! Maybe those aren't your initials! Maybe you should go play Ms. Pacman!"
Kade grinned. This was the Shea he grew up with. The loud mouthed, troublemaking, tomboy. He began to play.
"Why are you cowering down there?" Kade asked. "Trying to feed off my scraps? Egg thief!"
"Oh, it's on!" she said.
What she lacked in technique, she made up with cheating.
"Mexican kidney punch!" she cried.
She gouged his side trying to make him flinch. But Kade was focused. Shea was nothing compared to his dickhead friends. Wedgies, eye flicks, neck slaps or having your pants yanked down in a crowded arcade was much worse. Soon, the effortless beating started to piss Shea off. So he eased up. Sacrificed his knights until they were even. One knight each.
"Mercy?" she said with disgust. "Bring it, bitch!"
"Ok," shrugged Kade.
The ostrich lifted his knight skyward and paused. When the pterodactyl chased Shea into the open, he dropped like a stone from the sky. No mercy. He guided the bird for the killing stroke-
"If you let me win, I'll kiss you."
"Wha-what?" Kade stammered turning his head.
But Shea was focused. Her knight dodged as Kade plunged into the fiery lava.
"Hah! Loser!" she yelled pointing at him! "Pay up!"
He smiled. Then he laughed.
"Sorry, I'm broke!"
"Aww!" cooed Shea locking her eyes to his.
This was the end of the Dream. The first time, it was a surprise. He never reacted. But like Ikari Warriors, Kade was ready. Shea lunged forward, stepped on his feet, tiptoed up and put her hands on his shoulders. Face to face, she leaned in and kissed him.
And he was back in Town. The blue orb floats above his head.
"Drea left a message" said Steve.
"Oh, yeah" mused Kade. "I wanted to ask her something."
Drea nodded, he followed her inside and shut the door. In this Dream, Drea was a tired looking, middle aged woman in pink sweats. She absent-mindedly scratched her flat butt and led him to a living room.
"Ugh," said Kade. "Smells like fried bologna and a litter box in here."
"Just a Dream, Kade," smiled Drea.
Kade nodded and watched a seagull walk into the room. The bird stopped to look at them. It seemed vaguely dissatisfied.
Kade looked over at Drea. She shrugged.
"It's my pet. I think."
The seagull hopped onto the couch and settled itself in Drea's lap.
"This is exactly what I wanted to talk about" said Kade frowning.
"This!" Kade said pointing at the bird. "It's wrong! No one had pet seagulls!"
"How do you know?"
"I don't know! But some parts are definitely weird."
"Ghosts ask for weird Dreams all the time" said Drea. "Remember when you tried to eat six crackers in sixty seconds?"
"Not that stuff!" grumbled Kade. "Things like the people that know me. Or how Steve can appear in-"
"Hold on," interrupted Drea. "You mean people know your Dream character, right?"
"No. Me! They know my name!"
Drea got that far away look people have when consulting Program. Then she looked at Kade. "No. You're mistaken."
"It's true! Some people can tell I'm not real. Once this guy called me Abomination. Then he killed himself!"
"Remember our discussion on the substances ingested in the Dream? How the memory lingers in Town?"
Kade shook his head. A phone rang. Drea gently pushed the seagull off her lap.
"We'll talk later" she said. "Time for work."
Kade watched her go to the kitchen to answer the call.
"Hello?" said Drea.
The seagull looked at him and approached.
"Get off me, you glitch!" said Kade as he pushed the bird off his leg.
"DXM?" yelled Drea. "Fuck you talkin' about?! Blues! Get blues!"
Time to go, thought Kade standing up. The seagull took his spot, turned in a circle and flopped down. It shoved one webbed foot out and began to lick it.