## Hypnagogia

Herein lies a novel I did for NaNoWriMo back in Ye Olden Days.

It’s, um, about as good as one might expect for a novel written in a month, by a stressed computer science grad student who was still fighting off Big Gender Feels.

Content warning: This contains some pretty weird attempts at erotica, quite a lot of body horror, and some terminology that hasn’t aged particularly well. Also, angst. So much angst.

### I.reticulum

I felt pain.

It wasn’t pain in the traditional sense, not pain so much as a disarming sense of… vibration. This is how it always began – the feeling of a high-pitched tone, a vibration starting in my teeth and nose, slowly and meticulously spreading across my face in an altogether familiar pattern, and then casually invading my body, which has been paralyzed, imbuing me with a disorienting yet comforting feeling.

I had been here in this transitional state countless times, but as with every time before, I had no idea it was coming, nor did I have any idea where it was going. I knew I had to stay awake without actually waking up, however, as my brain’s reticular activating system went into a dream state incongruous with my conscious mind being active. Otherwise this rare chance to frolic within the world of my own mind would be wasted.

Suddenly, I realized I was awake – an unfortunate side-effect of actually thinking about this circumstance. I rubbed my head, the onset of a headache apparent. I decided to get up and get a drink of water and take an aspirin.

I groped around in the dark, feeling my way around the familiar environment. As I approached the bathroom, I realized that my teeth were feeling very rough. Had I forgotten to brush again? I ran my tongue over them, and the surface felt pocked. I began to panic. I surrounded my teeth with my lips and began to blow and suck air through them. I heard and felt the air whistle through holes which went clean through my teeth. I hastened my journey.

I entered the bathroom, turned on the light, and in the mirror, I saw that my teeth were rotting before my very eyes. With every passing moment, calcium carbonate was giving away to oxygen as the craters of decay grew and spread. Very soon the rot had eaten completely through, and little fragments of dental tissue flaked off, making very light plunking noises as they rattled against the sink. Shit, shit, shit.

What had I done? Why didn’t I stop this from happening sooner? People were going to be disappointed in me for not taking better care of myself. Thoughts of inadequacy raced through my mind, and I had no idea what I was going to do.

#### I.1.id

…and then I woke up.

I sighed, sitting up in bed, my heart racing. Once again, I had squandered a waking-dream state by becoming too casual. All of my plans of mental self-exploration were, once again, put on hold, and I sighed, disappointed.

“I really need to stop expecting it to work,” I thought.

“Yes, you do,” came the response.

I blinked. That wasn’t just a thought in my head, but an actual response which I heard – it had a voice! But I was still very tired. “Heh, I must just be hearing things,” I thought.

“Yes, you are,” came the response. “You are hearing me.”

My heart began to race once again. Was I still dreaming? Did I only dream about waking up? It wouldn’t be the first time that this happened. I turned on the light beside my bed, and took inventory. My peripheral vision was intact, I didn’t feel a vague “cloud” around my consciousness, and I was otherwise, as far as I could tell, awake. But of course, if you’re asleep, you can’t really tell, and unless you’re awake you don’t think to check your surroundings for things which are missing…

“I’m still here,” she said as I groped around in the darkness. I could feel her presence following behind me in the darkness as I stumbled through the hallway. I entered the bathroom and turned on the light.

I began to taste blood in my mouth, and then could feel it filling my mouth in throbbing spurts. I looked at myself in the mirror, my cheeks swollen with fluid. Blood was dripping from my lips, surging with every pulse of my heart. I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t bring myself to imbibe upon my own fluids. The taste and smell made me nauseous. I spat into the sink, hoping to rinse with water immediately. Quite a few of my teeth came out with the crimson splash. I felt pain in my face, as though something were pushing outward from the inside. I began to panic. I looked back up into the mirror. My eyes were the first thing I noticed, being solid-black orbs glinting in the light. My nose had flattened, and been pushed forward along with my mouth, forming a beastly snout, my remaining teeth giving me a very distinctively rodentine countenance.

“Oh, it’s this one again,” I thought, as I licked my incisors, which had grown longer and sharpened. I turned on the sink and cupped my hands, taking in a mouthful of water to rinse the blood out, noticing the long, sharp claws which now adorned the tips of my hands' four fingers. I looked up into the mirror, my brown hair replaced by shorter, blonde quills.

“This has gone on longer than usual,” I thought. “I must have fallen asleep… a pity I won’t remember this.”

“Or maybe,” said the voice in the bathroom doorway, “you are finally waking up. Are you a woman who dreams she is a porcupine, or a porcupine who dreams she is a woman?”

I turned around to see the owner of the voice standing in the doorway. She was sleek, having a humanoid rabbit’s body but a human head. From the neck down she was covered in pink fur, her cottontail a slightly lighter shade of pink. Her straight, shiny brown hair was held in place by a plastic barrette.

“This is new,” I said.

“So far as you remember,” she replied. “It’s funny how memory works sometimes.”

My quills bristled. I noticed that I was now naked, the clothing I was inexplicably wearing before having vanished, but covered in brown fur with a shimmering cascade of blonde quills gracing my back, the top of my foot-long tail, and the outer surface of my arms and legs. While examining myself and marveling at the detail present this time around, I asked the rabbit-woman, “So who are you, and what are you doing in my porcupine dream?”

“Well, I’m you,” she said, “but that part was obvious, since this is, as far as you care, a dream, making me just an expression of your own demented mind. Can’t your subconscious have a bit of fun every now and then?”

“You don’t look like any of my roleplaying characters,” I said, “or like anyone else’s I’ve met. I also can’t remember ever having a full, coherent conversation like this in my dreams before.”

“Maybe you’re getting better at this,” she intoned, “or maybe I’m just the product of random neuron firings. Maybe you only think we’re having this conversation because this is how you remember it when you wake up. Memory is tricky that way. Ah, but I repeat myself. Again, in fact.”

She walked towards me. I backed away, towards the bathtub. She reached towards me with a sleek, pink-furred hand, and gently stroked the head of my large, throbbing, erect penis. “Oh my,” she said sarcastically, “how did that get there? I guess you’re a hermaphrodite this time around.”

I recoiled at the touch. “I thought I’d gotten past that,” I muttered. I looked down and felt between my legs; my clitoris had been replaced by a penis which was perhaps a foot long. Everything else felt normal, so far as it would be for an anthropomorphic porcupine. I looked back up at her, to see that her head was now a pink-furred rabbit’s, matching her body. Purple eyes glistened, matching her purple nosepad and lips.

She came closer to me, and put her other paw on my lower-right breast. All four of my nipples got firm to the touch, little beads of milk forming at their tips. The rules of physics lost their meaning as she manipulated herself on top of my long shaft, and as disgusted as I felt, I began to thrust up into her until I came…

#### I.2.clean

…and then I woke up.

“Shit,” I thought, my heart racing, but this time I was truly awake. What had just happened seemed like a dream in comparison, at least.

I looked over at my clock. 4:45 AM. This was definitely real.

As I took a mental inventory I noticed a warm moistness between my legs. I put my hand into my cleft and felt that my crotch was coated in the gooey warmth of nocturnal emissions. I morbidly chuckled at myself; the dream hadn’t really been all that erotic, and it was more disturbing than anything. I was more repulsed at having a penis than anything, and the thought of thrusting it up into her and the feeling of ejaculating, of shooting a hot load of come into that rabbit’s cavity, was simply nauseating.

As I relaxed in bed, hoping to drift back to sleep, the rapidly-cooling viscous fluids quickly became uncomfortable and annoying, and made it very difficult to relax. I decided that if I was to ever catch any of the remaining, fleeting hours in which I could sleep tonight, I should probably take a quick shower. I donned my red bathrobe and went to the bathroom in order to clean myself off and relax.

I visually inspected myself to make sure I was really awake, more as a ritual than anything else. My hands were normal, my body wasn’t furred, my hair was hair, I had all my teeth (which were quite intact), my breasts (the two of them) and genitals (the one of them) were normal, and I really did feel awake. The memories of the dream were already beginning to fade and seem unreal, flitting off into the void of thoughts reconciled to be impossible. I chuckled sleepily as I stepped into the bathtub.

As I turned the water on, I had to pinch myself to avoid falling asleep from the hypnotic sound of running water. After giving the water a chance to warm up, I pulled the faucet valve shut, and a spray of water, warm but cold-feeling, hit me. I stood in the shower and relaxed, inhaling the warm water vapors. I leaned back against the wall, and felt a layer of quills between me and the wall.

“You can’t get away,” she said. My heart throbbed, but ultimately I ignored the voice, knowing it was a demented aspect of my disturbed imagination, random thoughts coming out of the woodwork due to my tired state of mind.

I fell into a deep pit, the bottom lined with sharp rocks which appeared like teeth, the fangs of a vicious, shadowy beast waiting to feast on my flesh.

Startled, I woke up again, to find that I had fallen asleep in the shower. I was still standing, however, and at this point quite wet. I decided that it would be easier for me to not fall totally asleep (thus slipping, breaking my neck, and killing myself) by keeping my mind occupied. Although it had only been a day since I last shaved my legs, I began to lather up some soap, and spread it across the wet skin of my lower body.

As I pulled the razor blade across the skin, I kept on having flashes of vision into my dream state; I was, for a few brief glimpses at a time, momentarily a porcupine woman again, inconceivably shaving the fur on my legs. Realizing I was even more desperately in need of sleep than I thought, I hastily only shaved the inner surfaces, whimsically leaving the slight layer of prickly stubble where my porcupineish dream form would have quills.

“I am so weird,” I quietly mused to myself as I rinsed the last of the soap off of my legs. I shut off the water, towelled myself off, and slipped back into my bathrobe, returning to my bedroom and immediately falling asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow. I slept without further dreaming.

#### I.3.restraint

I slept, I woke, I showered, I went to class, I ate, I went to class, I worked, I went home, I ate. The whole day I thought about the dream. I couldn’t get it out of my mind – why a pink rabbit? Why not one of the established fantasy personae I already had? Why was my subconscious creating new ones? Why was the dream more vivid and prolonged than usual?

Why was I obsessing so much, over such a childish image no less? Normal people would equate anthropomorphic animal-people with childrens' cartoons, but no, I would have to be predisposed to being mesmerized by what was known as “furry,” even though I couldn’t stand the subculture of perverts and self-victimizing idiots which sprung up around it. Why was my brain so fucked up?

After the end of an otherwise totally uneventful day, I crawled back into bed. I stared at the ceiling for a while, when I began to feel the simultaneously warm but cool sensation of conscious sleep overcoming my brain, the vibration filling my face.

“Back for more?” she asked. “I knew you’d come. Not that you have any choice.” I couldn’t move or speak, sleep paralysis having set in even more rapidly than usual. A high-pitched tone entered my ears. It grew louder until I felt it hit me hard, enveloping my body as my mind was jerked from the real world to the dream state.

I felt awake. My eyes were closed. I slowly opened them. It was dark. I tried to sit up – but my hands, neck and feet were restrained by something cold and metallic.

I was on a hard, cool surface… a metal laboratory table, perhaps, such as what a mad scientist would have in the back of his lair for performing ghastly experiments on unfortunate young victims his misshapen subordinate had picked up off the street. A blinding light came on and shone into my eyes. I reeled in pain, squinting, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light, which they eventually did after what seemed like an instantaneous eternity.

Shapes slowly evolved and resolved out of the vague blinding light. I looked around. I was alone, strapped to the table, and aside from what I could see in the light, the room was totally dark.

An indescribable creature of some sort – it was completely black and invisible against the dark background, yet I could see it there – stepped up beside me. “Ah, you’re here again,” she said, resolving into the form of a pitch-black demoness.

“Why are you doing this to me?” I moaned, exasperated.

“Because I want it, which means that you want it,” she said, licking her pitch-black lips with a pitch-black tongue, “even if you don’t realize it. You are doing this to you.”

She took a syringe full of fluid and injected it into my thigh. It began to burn, the pain spreading throughout my body like a wildfire, leaving behind a trail of paralysis. She removed the restraints and raised the upper half of the table, propping me up, forcing me to see my body as my arms limply dropped down to my sides. I couldn’t move or speak, and could only barely breathe.

She showed me what looked like a long thread made of leather. “This is going to hurt,” she cackled. I vaguely tensed up in anticipation as she threaded it into a darning needle. She spread my legs out until they could spread no more, strapped them into stirrups on the sides, and then crawled up onto the table. She put her mouth in front of my crotch and exhaled, and with her long, pitch-black demoness tongue began to caress my labia and clitoris.

I managed to let out a slight whimper as the last of the tension in my body gave out. She cackled devilishly, and then thrust the darning needle through the bottom of my labia as I was forced to watch and feel. Strangely it did not hurt, and instead sent waves of pleasure cascading through my body.

She pulled the leather string halfway through, and then threaded another darning needle through the other end.

“What is she doing?” I thought, even though I already knew the answer.

“You’ll see,” she said, as she began to sew my vulva shut tightly as one would lace a shoe, crossing the ends of the thread over each other as my orifice was sealed. Every prick through the sensitive folds sent another cascade of pleasure through my body, causing my nipples – which I had four of, my breasts being like the porcupine form’s – to erect momentarily and then subside. By the time the demoness was halfway done, small beads of milk were once again forming at their tips. She grinned evilly, and took a break from her sewing to suck off each of my four breasts.

“Drat,” she said, as I heard a rhythmic buzzing develop in my ears. She redoubled her efforts and returned to the disturbed act of tailorship. The buzzing noise grew progressively louder with every next pass of the two needles through my flesh. “I’m almost done,” she laughed, the buzzing growing intolerable. “Ah, there we go,” she said, running a finger across my tightly-sewn and incredibly-sensitive smooth crotch. She licked it, then looked up at me, grinning through a hyena’s snout. “You can go now–”

…and then I woke up, my alarm clock blaring in my ear.

#### I.4.hypnagogic

These waking dreams, known medically as hypnagogic hallucinations, are not an uncommon phenomenon. The structure and physiology of the brain is a very intricately-balanced thing, due to the fact that the brain was not designed, but evolved over time, little chunks of matter developing here and there in a completely haphazard way and occasionally gaining some form of specialization. The more complex the brain gets over the course of time, the more complex the interdependencies become, and the more room for error.

One of the more interesting parts of the brain is the way in which dreaming happens. For whatever reason, the conscious mind gets cluttered and needs to be cleaned up, much like how you need to occasionally defragment the hard drive of a computer, or how if you have a box full of wires or strings it’ll get all tangled up even if nothing was moving around in a way which should cause tangling. Dreams are there to keep the memories from getting too tangled up, and to also throw away the useless little short pieces of string which don’t do any good.

What happens in the normal brain is that once a person falls asleep and their conscious mind (namely the short-term memory retention, as controlled by the hippocampus) shuts off, the reticular activating system kicks in, first turning off the motor cortex (the part of the brain responsible for voluntary bodily movements) causing what is known as sleep paralysis, and then turning off the cognitive filters which prevent the conscious mind from getting overwhelmed by the vast amounts of utter crap floating around.

The reticular activating system is triggered by a surge of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for a great number of things, and the precariously-balanced serotonin levels are very easy to knock out of whack by something as simple as stress, or lack of – or too much – sleep.

What can happen is, under certain circumstances, such as during deep meditation or hypnosis, or if there is simply an excess of serotonin in the right parts of the brain, the reticular activating system can kick in while the mind is still conscious. The motor cortex is shut off, and then the mind begins to dream, yet it is still conscious.

A very similar thing happens while in a state of extreme tiredness; sometimes the mind will have little “glimpses” of the filters being disabled. These are referred to as hypnopompic peripheral hallucinations, as normally the resulting hallucinations are only in the periphery of the conscious mind – one might see little glimpses of movement out of the corner of their eye, or hear sounds which aren’t really being made.

Incidentally, dissociative hallucinogens such as LSD and DXM (commonly found in cough syrup) work in a very similar way – they shut off the brain’s consciousness filters. Someone on a dissociative hallucinogen will see things without their brain getting in the way, and things become much more interesting; you begin to notice the intricate details of the texture of the wall, the tiny imperfections which are on every surface, every little reflection and refraction and shadow of everything around, and also every little thought and memory triggered by the things you see. Static frames of reference are lost, colors appear to shift and fade and merge and change, and every little feedback cycle in the brain further nudges the precariously-balanced perception of things in an outward spiral. Such a state can become very psychologically addictive.

Both hypnagogic and hypnanomic hallucinations can be extremely frightening for whoever it is happening to, especially if they are not aware of the physiology involved. It is generally believed that most, if not all, cases of hauntings and UFO abductions are really hypnagogic hallucinations, and many who experience them under a more rational light believe that they are simply going insane for having vision with no scientific basis. Because of the terrifying nature of sleep paralysis, a vicious feedback cycle of believing something Bad is happening forms, and as a result, hypnagogic hallucinations are more commonly referred to as “night terrors.”

For those who are lucky enough to have one or two positive hypnagogic hallucinations, they tend to actively seek them out. For the chance to see inside their own mind in a way that one cannot do deliberately, they purposefully muck with their own sleep and serotonin cycles, they go to bed while not quite tired and begin to meditate, they purposefully set their alarms to go off a few hours early in the morning and let themselves tiredly fall back to sleep, and they otherwise do whatever they can for the chance to slip into a world of pure imagination.

For some, the experiences can become so realistic and commonplace that they begin to have trouble separating the dream world from reality, or perceive that the dream world is real, perhaps even more real than the physical reality. Eventually, the dream world begins to take over.

#### I.5.disconnect

I was sitting in a featureless white room, if it could be called a room. There were no walls or ceiling, and there was no lighting; instead, it was an infinite expanse of white. I looked around to see any sign of anything or anyone else, but there was nothing.

I looked down at my body. My skin was colored in thick horizontal stripes, snow-white and charcoal-black, like an idealized sort of a zebra. I felt my sides and noticed that my skin was perfectly-hairless, except on my head where I had a long, stringy, jet-black mop of slightly-stiff strands which draped my shoulders and dangled down to the middle of my back. As seemed to be growing “normal,” I had two pairs of breasts, the lower smaller than the upper. My hands were lacking pinkies and had long, black claws. The backs were striped with the same frequency as my arms, while the palms were striped much more tightly. Looking lower I discovered that I had no genitals, and instead only had smooth skin with a small hole for urinating.

“Ah, you’re back,” she said from the left. I looked, and only saw myself in a full-length mirror. My face was shaped like a stylized cartoon animal’s of some sort, and was also zebra-striped, a thick black stripe going all the way across by way of my eyes, and other stripes coming around beneath but terminating on my cheeks. My lips, the pad of my nose, and my eyelids were all densely striped black and white. I stepped closer to the mirror and opened my mouth to see that I, once again, had a rodent’s teeth, and that my tongue was also zebra-striped.

She walked up from behind and put her hands on my shoulders, startling me. Save for her hands, I couldn’t see her in the mirror, which seemed to only be existing where my reflection was visible. I turned around. She was not to be seen.

“Why do you insist on playing by the real world’s rules?” she asked. “You know I’m here, and you know who I am. Why do you need to look at me instead of enjoying yourself? That’s what this is all about, you know.”

She was right. As nonsensical as this was, and as disturbing as my experiences with “her” had been, I was most certainly enjoying this. I felt myself blush.

She put her mouth by my ear and whispered words with no describable sounds, and with meanings which I would not be able to form into sentences. I reached down and rubbed a finger against where my genitals would be. It was incredibly sensitive and sensual. I moaned in unexpected pleasure as a small bead of lubricating fluid dripped out.

“I have something for you,” she said, and I looked. It was a stiff three-foot-long wire with two wooden jumprope handles. She wrapped it around my waist and pulled tight. It cut through me, but without pain or blood. She sat my top half down on the floor, and inverted my bottom half, my legs sprawling outwards with my smooth crotch pointing at my face. I felt between my legs, and still felt the sensations of my hands touching myself. I wiggled my toes, and they responded. I had been cut in half, but not disconnected.

I leaned forward and licked at my left leg. It tasted slightly salty and of sweat. I pulled myself forward and kissed along the inside of the leg from my ankle upwards. When I got to my knee, however, I noticed that my waist was now firmly attached to the floor, on both ends, and I lacked the flexibility to go all the way down.

I felt her wrap the wire around my neck. I put my hands to the sides of my head, and she pulled, my head coming loose. I lifted my head off of my shoulders and moved it down towards my crotch so that I could lick up my own fluids. They tasted sweet but salty, and with every lick of my zebra-striped tongue I became more and more excited. Using my hands I nuzzled closer and began to nibble at the sensitive skin, and then I put my head down so I was looking across my crotch at my upper half and began to massage myself with my fingers.

She smirked. “You don’t have to masturbate here, you know. Save it for the real world.” I continued to stimulate myself, using one hand to rub my lack of genitals and the other to caress my own face.

A high-pitched tone entered my ears, which grew progressively louder as I came closer to climaxing. I breathed deeply and began to moan as my view shifted outside of myself and I saw the three parts of me in a self-orgy.

#### I.6.ego

…and then I woke up.

I was in third period. English class. Had I fallen asleep again? The teacher and other students were all looking at me, and laughing. Apparently I had.

“Okay, class, settle down,” said Mrs. Krüelmeijer. “I’m sure Samantha was just up all night studying the text.”

I blushed, and almost felt like crying. Of course I hadn’t been reading the text – I was out all night with my boyfriend, Paul. We had been talking at length about life and about what the future had in store for us. I was definitely going to go to college, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do. I got mad at him for not having any aspirations. He just didn’t seem to care, though. We stayed up until two discussing this.

“Now that you’re awake, Samantha, would you mind answering the question?”

“What question?” I asked. “I… I must have missed it.”

“In act two of Romeo and Juliet, where did Rosencratz and Gildenstern go before delivering the Acts of Apostles to Lady Macbeth?”

“I… I don’t know,” I whimpered, blushing as the whole class laughed at my lapse of knowledge, when the ever-merciful bell rang. Everyone in the classroom immediately stood up and began filing out the door. I sighed and gathered my books, and stood up to leave as well.

Mrs. Krüelmeijer put her hand on my shoulder. “Listen, Samantha, I’m sorry to give you such a hard time, but you have got to stop falling asleep in class. You seem to do it every day now.”

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again,” I lied.

“And that’s what you say every day,” she stated. “Are you getting enough sleep?”

I yawned. “I try to, but I just have such a hard time staying awake before noon, and English… isn’t my best subject,” I said, trying to be diplomatic.

“You find it boring.”

I sighed. “Frankly, yes. I love to write, and I love to read interesting stuff, but I don’t really see the point in memorizing every line of Shakespeare. It seems like a preference of the teacher, and isn’t something which seems… you know, useful.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Krüelmeijer, “I do happen to like Shakespeare, but I have to admit that the reason that we have to teach it is because it’s one of the standards. We can’t just let everyone read their own thing, either… then they might–”

“Enjoy it?”

She glared at me. “No… they might not get the same thing out of class.” She sighed. “Listen. High school is all about standards. Everyone needs to be treated the same way.”

“But to paraphrase Orwell, some are treated more same than others,” I retorted.

She sighed. “If only standardized teaching would mean that all students did get the same thing out of books. Your grades in this class, including your ‘reading comprehension’ exam on Animal Farm, have been pathetic, but yet you seem to be the only student who actually gets meaning out of what you read.” She paused. “That puts me in a very difficult position….”

“I’ve got to get to my next class,” I said.

“You mean you have to get there,” she chided.

“What is this, an essay question?” I said, smiling.

“Don’t be late. Goodbye, Samantha. And please, do try to get more sleep from now on.”

As I walked through the crowded hallways as I had done a thousand times before, a group of jocks jeered at me, as had happened a thousand times before. I glared back for the thousandth time, trying to ignore them, but as every time before, it hurt, I was on the verge of a thousand tears. I ducked into the girls' bathroom and gathered some toilet paper from one of the stalls. I looked at my visage in the mirror and couldn’t help but see myself as being an ugly nerd, even though I rationally knew that it wasn’t the case, and it was just the usual crap from high school, students being mean for the sake of being mean, building off of each others' beliefs of others, the whole fucking school deciding to turn against me based on one little glimmer of someone else, a domino effect spreading outwards by one single person looking at me with derision just because I was smarter than him. I’d gotten an undeserved reputation as a know-it-all, a bitch, and a slut, and the reputations begat rumors which begat reputations in a never-ending vicious cycle. At least in a month I’d be graduating and finally getting out of this hellhole.

The two-minute warning bell rang. I blew my nose, wiped away the tears which were welling up, and hurried on my way to Chemistry class. At least that was something that I could enjoy.

#### I.7.passion

Chemistry class went, unfortunately, in a blur, following the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun. After chemistry it was finally time for lunch. I had skipped breakfast that morning and was quite hungry.

As I was walking out of the classroom, I heard a voice behind me. “Samantha!” I turned around to see Paul waving at me. I glared a little. He ran towards me.

“What’s up?”

“Well, because I didn’t get any sleep last night, I fell asleep in English class, again, and everyone made fun of me, again.”

“Jeeze, Sam, are you going to blame me for that too? You’re the one who insisted on talking so late.”

I couldn’t help returning to the topic of discussion. “Well, you have a lot of potential! Do you really want it to go to waste?”

He sighed. “Not this again. What could I possibly learn in college which I can’t learn on my own?”

“I don’t know, but employers are going to want a degree.”

“Sam, it’s all just a stupid game anyway.”

“But–” I managed to say before he kissed me on the lips, interrupting me.

“Come on, let’s get some lunch. I’m starving!” He took my hand and pulled me along as I followed reluctantly. “C'mon! Cafeteria or food court?”

“Do you really need to ask? The cafeteria’s disgusting,” I objected, catching up to him.

He ran his fingers through my jet-black hair. I leaned against him as we walked on to the food court, arm in arm in silence.

One nice thing about having Paul around was that the jeers and insults stopped momentarily. They knew better than to fuck with me while I had my boyfriend by my side. Rumors and whispers work both ways, and the same uncontrollable gossip which labelled me led to the “insightful” observation that Paul must be crazy to go out with me, which eventually mutated to people believing that Paul was a psychotic killer just waiting to snap. Everyone was afraid to mess with him because they thought that he’d blow up the school or go on a murderous rampage or something, even though he made me look strong and athletic in comparison.

I don’t know what first attracted me to him. When I first saw him, I thought, “What a geek,” with his scrawny, entirely non-muscular frame only barely holding up his gargantuan backpack. He didn’t believe in going to his locker; it was a perfect opportunity for someone to sneak up on him and tie his shoelaces together, or trip him, or “accidentally” bump into him and slam him into the wall, or any number of other childish “pranks” which were all too common.

We were both outcasts, however, and the fact that he’d actually give me the time of day, and look at me like a human being, and he had that look of a kindred spirit in his eyes which I could see even through his thick glasses.

At the same time, years of taunting and teasing slowly stripped him of his aspirations. He was growing increasingly apathetic, and about the only time that he didn’t seem entirely fatalistic was when we were alone together.

He bought something which attempted to pass for a burrito; I had a slice of pizza. We sat at a table and ate together in silence.

After the silence went from pleasant to uncomfortable, he looked at me. “You do have a point, though,” he said.

“Hm?”

“About college. It’s only a game, but… well, I guess it’s a game everyone has to play. I’ll apply to the same colleges that you do, and then we can see about which ones we both get accepted to.”

He frowned a little. “I didn’t change my mind, I’m just open to suggestions.”

The end of lunch bell began to ring. But it didn’t stop. Suddenly I felt a panic, and began to look around frantically. I was alone, everyone having vanished suddenly. The ringing of the bell began to break up into a monotonous pulsing, and faded from a bell to a blaring buzz…

#### I.8.lapse

…and then I woke up, my alarm clock blaring in my ear.

I sat up in bed and thought about that dream. Was it a dream? It was so difficult to tell… everything was so realistic, and the memories were so coherent, and as far as it seemed it was quite real, but…

I thought about everything that happened. Why would everyone call me Samantha? That wasn’t my name. Who was Paul supposed to be? I’d never met anyone like him, though he seemed incredibly familiar somehow, like he was a blending of a number of people I knew. Why would I still be in high school? I graduated years ago; I was in graduate school now, and had never had a boyfriend.

I replayed the dream in my mind several times so that I would remember it for later. While replaying it, I began to notice things which would have been completely out-of-place if I hadn’t thought that they were perfectly normal. I never really looked at myself, but when I looked in the bathroom mirror, for example, I looked just as I did in the white room.

The white room.

I could definitely tell that the white room was a dream. For example, she – my subconscious – was there, and… well, the situation was something which was obviously not real. Also, I felt like I was controlling what happened overall, while in the dream I just woke up from it was like… like reality.

Things weren’t exactly the same, though. I was fairly certain that in the later dream I had normal human hands, with regular fingernails which were just coated in black nail polish. Furthermore, my face was a normal human girl’s in shape, if not in coloration. It could have been that I was simply wearing makeup, but it didn’t seem that way.

I sighed. “It was just a dream,” I thought. “No need to obsess over it,” I told myself. But still, it bothered me.

I got up, got dressed, showered, and got ready for my classes. Things were beginning to feel very strange.

Was this life real? I had coherent memories of my entire lifetime, which I could only bring up by thinking about things through connections, as human memory is associative. But in the dream life where I was Samantha, I had coherent memories of my entire lifetime, which I could only bring up by thinking about things through connections. By what measuring stick was one reality real and the other not? Sure, Samantha looked like an unreal being to my concept of reality, but perhaps in her world she was just of a minority race who looked like that? Maybe she’d won the lottery and gotten extensive body-modifications to assert her individuality, thinking that she was basically screwed when it came to societal interactions anyway.

Who was to say that this life wasn’t a dream, and that Samantha’s was? Could it be that I was only Samantha’s dream?

At the same time, I now had no way of remembering Samantha’s memories, aside from what I remembered from the dream, and I had definitely been living this life before. So far as I remembered, anyway. Her memories were probably being manufactured as they were needed. Maybe my memories were being manufactured as they were needed.

I began to get a headache.

I resigned myself to using Occam’s Razor, and decided that the simplest explanation was that Samantha was a dream, this was reality, and that I should just get on with my life regardless. By Pascal’s Wager it would make sense anyway – if this did turn out to be a dream I’d lose nothing by continuing normally, just as Samantha lost nothing by continuing in her life normally.

The thought that Samantha was a different person than myself was a somewhat humorous concept to think about, in any case. After all, I had been living her life, just as she was likely now living mine.

I tried to remember other things in Samantha’s life, hoping to perhaps fill in some details, but I couldn’t reasonably come up with anything which seemed like a memory and not just a fictitious fabrication on my part. The more I thought about it, the more Samantha’s life seemed like a dream and the more mine seemed like reality. At the same time, I felt that the name Samantha would work well for myself, and decided that I certainly wouldn’t mind looking like her, either. But, I mused, she really needed to work on her self-esteem.

I left my apartment and headed to campus, leaving my thoughts behind.

#### I.9.truth

…and then I woke up.

The room was very dark. I tried to look around, but found that I couldn’t move. My body was totally paralyzed, and I couldn’t even control my breathing.

“Hello?” I tried to say, but couldn’t.

“Ah, you’re back,” she said. “It was starting to get a bit lonely in here.”

“Who are you really?” I asked aloud, my ability to speak returning. “What do you want with me?”

“I thought we had already settled who I am. I am you. The question of what I want with you is, therefore, totally up to you. You really are one fucked-up person, you know.” She grinned. “Of course, a better question would be for you to ask who you really are,” she added.

“Why can’t I move?” I asked.

She laughed. “Now that’s a loaded question. It implies that you have a body.”

“I’m breathing.”

“So you believe.”

“I’m speaking.”

“So you believe.”

I relaxed. “Okay. So I have a body.” I sat up in the darkness. “Could you turn on the light?”

“That implies that I’m any better-suited to that task than you.”

“So the light is on already.” And indeed, the light was, and had been, on. I was sitting up on the hard metal table. My crotch was still sewn shut, though the skin had grown in, covering over the visible signs of the stitching. “Oh, this is new,” I said, noticing that my skin was now colored in a diagonal purple and cyan checkerboard, and was now smooth and hairless. “Why did you do this to me?”

She smirked. “You did that yourself. Well, technically it’s the same thing, I suppose. You really are one fucked-up person.”

I turned my body to the side, dangling my legs off of the table. I dismounted from the table and stood up, standing on the smooth black floor. I looked at a mirror and saw that my hair was a shiny opaque yellow. So were my fingernails and eyes. “Yes, I would seem to be,” I said.

I turned around. She was sitting in a seductive position on the table, once again appearing of complete blackness, appearing for all intents and purposes as my own shadow, brought into three dimensions.

“So why do you look like that?” I asked.

“Because that’s how you believe me to. I’m really not so sinister. Freud would have a field-day with you, if he existed in this world.”

“So this is real?”

“I don’t know,” she chided, “is it? Do you believe it’s real?”

“I believe it’s a dream.”

“But are you in bed in whatever the real world is? After all, you were just heading out to class in what you most recently believe to be real, last I saw.”

“Maybe that was just a dream, and I only thought I’d woken up. It’s happened before.”

“Or maybe this is the real world, and what you believe to be real is the dream.”

“That’s just silly,” I said, looking at my zebra-striped reflection in the mirror, and cupping my lower pair of breasts in my hands.

“Have you ever noticed anything different about yourself, Samantha?” she asked me.

“How do you mean?”

“Are there many four-breasted, crotchless zebra-striped girls at your school?”

I shook my head. “No, but I’m like this because of that medical condition I developed. I had to be grown a new skin anyway, and so I decided…” I paused for a few seconds. “Wait, that’s… that’s not right, I’m not Samantha, am I?”

“Do you see it now? Your reality is all relative. You are Samantha, as long as you think that you are, and as long as you’re feeding off of the memories that make you Samantha. Though admittedly, reality isn’t normally as flexible as it is here.”

“Where is here?”

“‘Here’ isn’t a place, so much as a state of mind. Think of it as the dressing room where the actor becomes the character.”

I scowled at her. “So who am I, meaning the actor, really?”

“Another loaded question; you assume identity. Everyone. No-one. Someone in between. When you wake up in the morning, how do you know who you are?”

“I remember who I am, based on my surroundings and the memories they trigger.”

“And what creates those memories?”

“My experiences.” I looked around and saw that we were standing in the hallway of my – rather, of Samantha’s – high school. The halls were empty aside from the two of us.

“So what you, as Samantha, remember – you truly experienced that?” she asked. The hallway filled in with a teeming mob of students, though there was a very visible gap through which I could see Samantha, looking like an idealized version of me in reality when I was her age. She was walking over to her locker. Across the hallway, a group of girls – I remembered them as being the in-crowd bullies – were standing off to the side, talking in a conspiratorial way. One of them – Krystal? – showed the others a small vial of a clear fluid. She laughed and pointed over to Samantha, and the other girls cackled in delight. “Do it,” one of them said, cheering Krystal on.

Krystal carefully opened up the vial and dipped a sewing needle into the fluid, then very carefully closed the vial again. The other students cackled as Krystal snuck up behind me – rather, behind Samantha – and very gently pricked the back of her neck.

“That’s… that’s what happened?!” I asked. “That’s how the flesh-eating bacteria got into my skin? That little bitch, I should–”

“Now doesn’t that seem a little contrived?” retorted my shadow, interrupting me. “You’d think it’s something that would happen in a very bad teenage-angst science fiction story. The sort of thing which a very tired mind would come up with while asleep. The justification of that leading to your whole skin being transplanted with cloned tissue, which, conveniently enough, the doctors let you…” She paused to chuckle. “They let you actually choose to have as non-normal a coloring as you could think of, that oh-so-sexy striping which you find so erotic? Oh, and of course, they couldn’t save your poor little pussy, never mind that they’d have been able to clone that skin as well if it were needed, but yet they were able to make the cloned hair have nerve endings and hair follicles, but of course you only opted to have follicles on your head…. The states of science and technology and medicine and how professionals in those fields would behave aren’t even consistent within your different so-called ‘realities.’”

“So Samantha is a dream,” I said, feeling victorious, “fueled up by my own messed-up eros. Pathos, too… it looks like she has the same problems in high school as I did.”

My shadow sighed. “You’re not paying attention, are you. Does it matter if it’s a dream or not? It’s reality to her, and is reality to you at the same time while you experience it. Samantha has memories which exist to explain her current situation, and that is what reality is!”

“But nobody else in here is real. All these people here, they’re just a figment of my imagination.”

She shook her head and put her hand over her right eye, bowing her head and sighing in exasperation. “You’re not paying attention. This is very, very sad. I’m supposed to be your base instinct, not the intellectual one. You’re the conscious mind… you’re supposed to be the rational, all-knowing part of us.

"Look. This ‘reality,’ the dream world, is the world which exists inside your mind. It is what creates your other perceptions of reality. This is real, just as real as any of your so-called ‘realities.’”

“But it’s only real to me, to my brain, to you and me!” I said, as Samantha finished with her locker and walked off, scratching at the back of her neck where Krystal had sneakily pricked her. “There’s a canonical reality which must truly exist, correct? Where I do have a physical presence, where I am currently asleep and simply making all of this up in my head?”

“I don’t know,” she chided. “Must there be?”

“Well… yes! Because… um… well, just because.”

“You still have much to learn,” she said, as she disappeared from view.

“Oh, there you are, Samantha!” came a voice to my side.

I turned to the left, surprised to see Paul approaching me. “Oh. Hi Paul.”

I blinked a bit, as what had just transpired flitted away into my my lost thoughts. “Yeah, I guess I was just… lost in a daydream,” I said. “What’s up?”

“I was trying to call you all last night, but your line was busy,” he said. “Were you online?”

“Oh, yeah, you know me, I just can’t get enough porn,” I said, winking.

Paul chuckled, and then beeped my nose. “Well, I wanted to tell you that I wrote out and sent a whole bunch of college applications. My parents were all, like, ‘Wow, Paul, what’s gotten into you?’ and I told them how we’d been talking about this college stuff lately, and they were all, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ They’re really glad about it, even though it was, you know, you.”

I smiled, and hugged him. “I told you your parents would be supportive.

"So,” I mused, “when we get our letters of acceptance back, we’ll have to see which ones we can both go to.”

He sighed, and then rubbed the bridge of my nose where the black stripe gave way to white.

“What is it? That again?”

“Well… you know how my parents are. I don’t think they want me to go to the same school as you. I mean, they think it’s great that you convinced me to give college a chance, but… you know.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I know. They think I’m a ‘godless freak,’” I said, momentarily deepening my voice and slipping into a bad impression of his dad to emphasize the words. “They can’t handle that I’m not trying to look one hundred percent perfectly normal after what happened, like it’s my fault my skin rotted off. It’s not like they could have made my skin look exactly how it did before anyway, so I’d might as well–”

He interrupted me, putting his finger to my lips. “Ssh. I know already. We’ve been over all this before. They still have a hard time with ear piercing, and they can’t understand why anyone would want to look like an individual when given the chance. They’re just kind of stuck in their ways, you know? And hey, the way you actually tattooed your own tongue to match the rest of you… that’s just weird,” he said, winking.

I nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I know, but it seemed unaesthetic somehow to have it not match. But hey, at least your parents can’t complain that we’re not having sex, right?”

He smirked. “Why? I mean, that is… If you could, would we be? Um, since you brought it up, and all.” He was blushing fiercely. I couldn’t help but melt a little at the cuteness of his natural geekiness shining through.

I paused, thinking. “You know, I’m really not sure. I mean, we are a bit young for it, but… well, what does it really matter? It’s like what my mom is always saying… she thinks that as long as I don’t get any diseases and don’t get knocked up, it’s all just ‘harmless fun’ anyway.”

“I wish my parents were as cool as your mom,” Paul said.

“No you don’t. Trust me.” I sighed. “Let’s get lunch.”

Paul and Samantha walked off.

“See?” said my shadow with a self-righteous tone to her voice and a self-satisfied look on her snout. “As far as they care, this is reality. She is no more aware of your other realities when in her own than your other selves are when they are in theirs.”

“But Paul is just part of my imagination too,” I retorted. “‘They’ are really ‘me,’ as would everyone else in the non-real ‘realities’ be, while in the real world they’re separate people.”

She rolled her eyes at me. “You’re just not getting this, are you.”

“I can’t say that I am, ‘me,’” I quipped sarcastically.

#### I.10.eros

…and then I woke up.

I rubbed the salt from my eyes. “What an odd dream,” I mused to myself.

I slowly opened my eyes, and looked around, not recognizing my surroundings at first. I was very warm, snuggled up under many layers of blanket in a four-post bed. I remembered where I was when I looked to my right to see Ian, my close wolf friend sleeping soundly beside me.

I felt incredibly comfortable underneath his thick downy blankets, and was very tempted to fall back to sleep on this cold winter day. I turned on my side and snuggled up close to him, pulling my tail up. It was cramped after a long, restful sleep with it tucked between my legs.

He murred softly. “You just woke up too, hm?” he asked.

I nodded, nuzzling into his back. “Last night was wonderful, dear. We should do it more often.”

He murred again.

I heard a faint melodic beeping from the nightstand. I rolled over and picked up my portable computing node, pressing its activation button. It projected the “alarm” hologram, with the message, “Good morning, Pascal! Time to get up!”

“Mmf,” I said, flipping to the schedule, which listed, in strong letters, “Computational alchemy final today.” I rolled onto my stomach and put the hand-held spheroid back on the nightstand.

“I have my last final exam of the semester in an hour,” I said. “I’m not worried about it, but I do have to attend.”

“Good luck,” Ian replied drowsily.

I sat up on the edge of the warm, comfortable bed and began to stand, wincing as my feet touched the cold wooden floor. I stretched my body and shivered a bit, despite my thick red and black plaid plush-fur covering and the even thicker layer of brown plush pseudo-quills gracing my back, arms, and legs; not all the bodily fur in the world would counteract the heat escaping through the bare brown skin on the soles of my feet.

I slipped on my slippers and gathered my red bathrobe, tiredly shuffling towards the bathroom. I groggily looked into the mirror and saw a glimpse of myself as a human, one of the strange creatures which was the main technology-using species on this planet unknown eons ago. It jolted me a bit awake, and I scratched my head in confusion.

I removed my slippers, placed my bathrobe on the toilet seat, grabbed the towel I normally used from the towel rack and put it on top of my bathrobe, and then I slipped off the golden ring with the red gem from the middle finger of my left paw. I felt a rush of cool energy wash over me as the ring’s spell was broken, leaving me in my natural form, with my natural fur splotched in crimson, purple, and dark magenta, and my skin and quills zebra-striped as usual. I carefully placed the ring on the countertop and trundled into the shower, turning on the water.

The initial surge of cold water finished the job of waking me up, and simultaneously making my plump, zebra-striped nipples and clitoris firm. I jumped out of the shower. My heart raced a bit as I waited for the water to warm up. I noticed there was no shampoo left in the bottle.

“Ian?” I said loudly. “Did you remember to buy more shampoo?”

A few seconds later, I heard him reply, “Check the cabinet.” While dripping cold water on the bathroom floor, I looked in the cabinet under the sink and rummaged around until I found a new, unopened bottle of revitalizing fur soap. “Thanks,” I shouted back.

By now the water had gotten nice and warm, and I got back into the shower. I turned around in the warm embrace of the steamy hot fluid, dampening the fur and quills all over my body. I cupped my left hand and used my right to pour a handful of the transparent blue goop into it, squeezing out enough to cover my zebra-striped palm. I turned down the water flow, and began to work up a thick lather of the shampoo into my fur, starting with the rift between my upper pair of breasts.

I worked the lather across all of my fur. Still drowsy, I reached to the side to grab a razor blade. I gently put it to my left calf, and pulled… and was shocked back to my senses by the pain of many, many hairs being pulled out by the roots.

“Yeow,” I said. Then I pondered for a few seconds. “What the fuck am I doing?” I thought. I put the razor back down where I picked it up, and looked at my leg. A thin, rectangular patch of white skin was visible through my fur.

I scratched my head in bewilderment. Why had I begun to shave my leg? It seemed like the logical thing to do at the time, but it made absolutely no sense.

I turned the flow of the water back up, and removed the shower head from its holster, spraying its jets of water methodically against my fur from top to bottom, rinsing myself off. Remembering my and Ian’s activities of the previous night, I also sprayed up into my vulva, rinsing out my zebra-striped folds.

When I felt sufficiently clean, I shut off the water and pulled my towel from the outside. I patted myself down with the towel, drying myself off somewhat, then stepped out of the shower and hung the towel on the rack. I turned on the blow-dryer and methodically air-dried my fur and vulva while brushing my fur and quills. Finally, I reached down and carefully pulled up the zipper around my labia, hiding it underneath the color-matching pseudo-flesh, and then slipped on my bathrobe and slippers, and put my ring back on, leaving it inactive.

I walked back to the bed and sat down on the edge. “Ian?”

“Mmm?”

“An odd thing happened just now, while I was in the shower… For some reason, I started to… well, shave.”

“Hm?”

I nodded. “For some reason, I started to shave my legs, but I stopped before I’d actually removed any real amount of fur. It’s incredibly strange that I’d have done that, though… it was like a reflex or a habit, not something I did consciously.”

“Oh,” he mumbled, obviously wanting to fall back to sleep. “Why’d you stop?”

I smirked. “What a silly question.” A few seconds later, a further incongruity of the situation dawned on me. “Why was there a razor in the shower?”

“I dunno,” he mumbled sleepily. “‘Sallways been there, I think. I thought it was yours.”

I turned my head to look at him as an unrequited gesture. “Why would I have a razor blade?” I asked.

“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe you were feeling kinky. Maybe it was another of my lovers. I really don’t know, dear.”

I smirked and stood up, gathering my three-piece neon-green faux-fur winter bikini. I slipped on the bottom. “Are any of your other lovers into that?”

I heard him shrug under the covers. “You’re obsessing again, dear.”

“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just a bit weird, is all.” I tied the upper parts of my bikini on, then slipped on my matching socks. I then carefully pulled on my heavy overcoat and put on my sandals. I threw my portable computing node into my book bag. “I’ll see you in a few hours,” I announced, but then noticed Ian was breathing deeply, having fallen back into an enviable nap. I decided to just let him sleep as I quietly snuck out the door.

#### I.11.furthermore

“Now that is totally unfair,” I told my shadow. “Not only is Pascal my main roleplaying character, but Ian is someone else’s. You can’t claim that my dreams based on their interactions are real.”

“Tsk, tsk,” she said, wagging a thin pitch-black finger at me. “You’re making some pretty major assumptions there, girl. You still haven’t established that the reality which you seem to believe – let’s call it 'alpha’ – is ‘real’ is any more real than the others. As such, you also haven’t established that anyone else in that reality is ‘real,’ and there’s no reason to believe that in that supposed reality, you’re not just tapping into the same part of your subconscious – that’s me, remember – and expressing the same thing in a different way.”

“But that reality is such an obvious fabrication!”

“How do you know that? At least unlike Samantha’s, it’s logically consistent. It also seems to me that it has just as much detail as alpha.”

“Yes, but in alpha I obsess over Pascal’s world constantly.”

“Maybe it’s because Pascal’s world is the real one, and alpha is the closest to the surface that it gets.”

“Okay then. If Pascal’s world is the real one, why am I having this outside conversation with you while Pascal is supposedly on the way to a final exam?”

“Pah, when did I ever say that this was the real one? Just that there’s no reason to believe it’s any less real than alpha. For that matter, I never said that alpha wasn’t real.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that your pedestrian concepts of ‘reality’ are flawed to begin with! There is no absolute reality – simply the manifestations of your consciousness within different ones.”

“I refuse to believe that.”

“Why?” she asked, her tail twitching in obvious annoyance. “Why can’t you believe that the whole of your existence is a manifestation of your imagination?”

“Because it is unfair to the others in those worlds. It means that they simply do not exist. I refuse to believe that nobody else is real.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if they are not real, then there is no motivation to not simply fuck them over and do whatever I want.”

“Like what they do to you?”

I stared at her, dumbfounded. “Excuse me?”

“There is a theme in all of your realities. You allow yourself to be tread on, shat upon, abused and used by others. If you’re not being fucked over by your graduate advisors or corporate lawyers, your life is being made hell by the torments and machinations of jocks and preppies, or you’re letting yourself be used as a sex toy by others. Even now you’re letting me – a manifestation of your own fucking subconscious – verbally abuse you and tell you what reality is, and even though you think you’re being so novel and insightful in trying to tell me how I’m wrong, really you’re just trying to get me to explain everything as I see it. Why the fuck would I know any more than you what reality is? What am I, some all-knowing seer? Fuck no, I’m just the part of you which deals with dreams. Can’t you figure it out on your own?

"I mean, hell, technically you’re imagining this very conversation!

I stood in silent thought for a few seconds, and then sighed. “You brought me here.”

“No, you came here all on your own. You only invented me to justify it. Even before I first showed up you were specifically wanting to consciously explore your own mind. Well, that’s what you’re doing now. Take responsibility for your own thoughts.”

“So what’s reality?”

She glared at me. “It never ends with you, does it. Do you know how tiresome you can be? And you wonder why I only deal with you when you’re asleep.” She sighed, exasperated. “Just stop with the critical analysis and try to enjoy this while you can, okay?”

And with that, she vanished.

…and then I woke up.

I had fallen asleep on the living room couch. The TV was on. There was some sort of commercial playing where people were brushing their teeth.

“…and all you have to do is mix our patented, secret formula up, apply it to your teeth, and then minutes later, rinse thoroughly, and voila, your teeth are just as solid as the day you were born!

"Tired of waking up to find that you get to look forward to wearing dentures for the rest of your life? Afraid that your mom will be mad that your teeth dissolved, breaking your deep-seated Oedipus complex? Want to fix your smile? Then don’t delay, call today!

"But you may be asking, ‘But what are the risks?’ Don’t worry, if our top-secret patented formula doesn’t make your teeth perfectly-solid, we’ll double your money back! Stop throwing away your hard-earned money on dentists!” An image of a caricature of a dentist appeared, his fists full of cash while grinning in delight, the word “dramatization” appearing at the bottom of the screen in tiny print. “You can fix your own teeth for pennies on the dollar!

"In case you missed it, here’s how it works.” A cartoon representation of the cross-section of a tooth in the gums appeared. “When you brush the teeth, our secret, patented formula does its work,” the announcer said, a flashing blue arrow appearing at the gum line, “breaking down useless unneeded tooth material. Then the material fills in the holes and then hardens back up - good as new! Try it – we guarantee you’ll be satisfied, or double your money back!”

A different voice came on and spoke quickly. “To order, call +1 555 226 2928, that’s +1 555 226 2928. Have your credit card, checkbook or immortal soul ready. Sorry, no CODs or mon–”

I turned off the TV and sat up. I didn’t remember what I was watching before I fell asleep, but it didn’t matter. I was feeling extremely groggy after a three-hour nap, and the inside of my mouth had a disgusting film all over.

I tiredly shuffled to the bathroom and turned on the light. My blonde quills were all matted down funny. I splashed water on my face, getting the brown fur quite wet. I took my toothbrush and applied some plain toothpaste to it, and began to brush my teeth.

As the bristles brushed against my gum line, I felt an extreme surge of piercing pain in my mouth. I winced, and spat out the toothpaste, opening my mouth enough to look at my teeth in the mirror. My molars had many tiny holes near the gum line.

“Crap,” I said to nobody in particular. I looked around and saw a box of what looked like dishwasher detergent on the counter, with a red and silver starburst pattern and the words “EZ Tooth-Seal” in reflective silver lettering.

“Mmf… this must be what that ad was just for.” I read the directions and poured a tablespoon of powder into my glass, then added enough water to make it into a paste. It bubbled and sizzled a bit. Using a cotton swab I then applied the gooey material to my teeth, and reeled in horror as it ate through, quickly liquefying my teeth which then dribbled out of my mouth in a white liquid form. My former teeth immediately hardened into a pile of bone and enamel as they dribbled into my sink, piling up. For a few minutes all I could do was watch in horror as I had, once again, failed to stop this from happening.

I sighed. “So much for that idea,” I thought. I cupped my paws and filled them with water and then rinsed my mouth out. I opened my mouth to inspect the damage, and was completely surprised to see that my teeth were still there, perfectly-intact, and in fact I had a full complement of omnivorous human teeth, only my incisors giving away my rodent nature. “Huh,” I said, and then I licked my tongue over their surfaces. “It actually worked and then some… Amazing.”

I then brushed my new teeth and plodded off to bed.

#### I.12.love

“…and moving into the new apartment was difficult, but it’s a much nicer place. You’ll have to see it sometime. It also looks like I’ll be getting that raise I was telling you about… We’ll have to celebrate.” The talking stopped for a few seconds. “Sam?”

I looked up. “Oh… sorry, my… my mind must have wandered a bit.”

He smiled at me. “I’m boring you, aren’t I.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that! I’m just a little… preoccupied, lately,” I said, sipping at my coffee.

He nodded. “So, how’s life been treating you?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. Mom’s really getting on my nerves, trying to manage my life for me, same old thing. Oh, but I got a bunch of my college applications back, and I’ve been accepted to a whole bunch of schools!”

“That’s great news, Sam!”

I nodded. “I even got a full scholarship to State, and Paul got accepted there too… he didn’t get a scholarship, but I’m sure he could get a job there.”

He smiled at me. “So you and Paul are still serious?”

I nodded. “Yeah. His parents are trying to break us up again, telling him that they’ll disown him or some bullshit if he goes to school with me, but…” I shrugged.

He nodded. “Well, I’m happy for you, Sam.” He put his hand on mine. “You’ll always be my little girl, no matter who you’re dating or how you look. You’ve always made me proud.”

“What?” He smiled. “Can’t I talk to my daughter like my daughter once in a while? Your mom can’t take that away from me.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know… sometimes I feel like I’m living someone else’s life, or like this is just a dream.”

“Don’t talk like that, dear. It’s not healthy. Everyone’s been dealt a bad hand in life, it’s just a matter of how people deal with it.”

I put my elbows on the table and rested my chin on my hands. “I dunno, sometimes I feel like I’ve been dealt a worse hand than most.”

“Why do you say that? You’re smart, you have a great sense of humor, and all the people who matter like you, right?”

“Yes, but–”

“But nothing,” he interrupted. “You’re capable of so many things, and nobody can take that away from you.”

The waitress stopped at our table. “Would you like more coffee, miss? Sir?”

“No thanks, I’m fine,” I said.

“Can I get you two anything else? Dessert?”

“No, just the check, thanks,” he said.

“I’ll bring it right out. Oh, and I’ve been wanting to tell you all night, I love your makeup. It must be a pain to do,” she said, patting me on my shoulder.

I smiled. “Not really. Thanks.”

She smiled back and walked off.

“Yeah?”

“Do you ever… you know, regret meeting mom?”

“Well, if we had never met, you’d never have been born,” he said.

He leaned forward. “Look at me, Samantha. I’m your father. You’re my daughter. Nothing can take that away from us, not even all the regrets in the world. You can’t live life always second-guessing yourself, wondering how else things would have turned out. We’re here, and we’re talking to each other. Nothing else matters right now. If I hadn’t met your mother, you wouldn’t have been born, and we wouldn’t be able to have conversations like these, and I wouldn’t trade you for anything in the world. I mean that.”

I sighed, casually stirring my rapidly-cooling coffee with a fingernail. “You deserve better, though.”

“But it could be a lot worse.”

The waitress returned. “Here’s your check,” she said, slipping the receipt on the table. “You can pay up front.”

“Thank you,” my dad and I said simultaneously.

We stood up, and I opened my purse, looking for my money pouch.

“No Sam, let me pay for it.”

I sighed. “What does it matter? My allowance comes from your bank account anyway. At least let me get the tip.”

He slouched his shoulders, and smiled weakly. “All right.”

I fished a \$5 out of my purse and left it on the table. We went to the front of the diner. He paid the bill, and we walked outside.

“It’s getting a bit chilly,” he said. “Winter’s just around the corner…” He got that faraway look in his eyes.

I leaned against him. “So, same time next week?” I asked.

He wrapped his arms gently around me and patted my back. “Can we do it Thursday instead? I have a dinner meeting at our regular time.”

I nodded. “Sure. Do you need a ride home?” I asked.

“Nah, it’s getting late and your mother probably is waiting for you to get home. I’ll just take the bus,” he said.

“Okay. See you next Thursday.” I hugged him again, and walked to my car. I pressed the button on my key chain to disarm the alarm, the automobile giving a reassuring chirp out of the darkness. I turned around and waved to my father, who was already waiting at the bus stop.

I got in my car, and leaned back against the seat, putting my hand on my forehead. I sighed. My dad deserved so much better in life. I put my key in the ignition and started the car. A huge burst of cold air hit me. I recoiled in shock, and shut off my fan blower. “I don’t remember leaving that on,” I thought, as I turned up the heat control and set the fan to low.

I drove home, the experience uneventful as usual. I decided to take the long way and go the speed limit the whole time, just to stall for every last little minute, but fate refused to intervene, and I made it back to my mom’s house. I sighed, exited my car, and slowly walked up to the front door. I put my hand on the handle and turned, not looking forward to those words–

“Hey, stripeybutt!” came the usual grating voice.

“Hi mom,” I said, as I walked towards the stairs, past the couch where she was making out with her fourth boyfriend in as many weeks.

“Want any dinner? There’s pizza on the counter.”

“No thanks, I already ate,” I said.

“Who were you with?”

“Paul,” I lied, “as if you care. I was helping him study for a test.”

“Suuure you were, nudge nudge, wink wink!”

I ignored her self-amused laughter as I plodded up the stairs towards my bedroom. I sat down at my computer, turned it on, and got online. While my modem was making dialing sounds, I heard her ask, “So where were you really?” from my doorway, startling me.

I turned around to see her leaning against the doorway. “I told you already, I was with Paul.”

She walked into my room. “Don’t lie to me, bitch. I know you were with that pathetic excuse of a man.”

“Paul’s not–”

“Still insisting on that lie, huh? I know you were with your father, against court orders. You know I could have him arrested just for coming within a thousand feet of you, right?” She had a self-satisfied look in her beady little eyes.

I sighed. “Okay, how’d you know?”

“Your little geeky lover boy called earlier today, wondering if you were home. Since I know your pathetic excuse for a social life only has two people, it was pretty easy to guess who you were with.”

“What did he ever do to you?” I asked, glaring.

“Nothing,” she stated, as though it were reason enough.

“So why do you do whatever you can to make his life hell?”

“Because I can! It’s fun and satisfying.”

I narrowed my eyes to slits. “You are such a fucking bitch.”

My head was knocked to the side. A few seconds later the sound and pain registered on my mind, letting me know I’d been slapped.

“Don’t you ever, ever call me that again, you ingrate. I worked my ass off to get where I am, and I buy you whatever you need, no strings attached. Remember where all these things you take for granted come from.”

“These things, which I didn’t ask for, come from money you stole from my dad! You bleed him dry over alimony! You got to keep his house, you get almost all of his paycheck for ‘child support,’ and you waste everything of his that he worked so hard for! Where do you think the money comes from, pennies from heaven?!”

She began to run her fingers through my hair. I pushed her arm away. She smirked. “That’s not how the world works. You take what you can get, otherwise you’re nothing, and if you don’t learn that, you’ll be a pathetic little nothing begging on the street. I’m sure you have a wonderful life ahead of you as an exotic little whore.”

I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. “Leave me alone,” I said with my last shred of emotional control.

“‘Me me a-moan,’” she said in a high-pitched, childish mocking tone. “No allowance next week,” she said, standing up. She haughtily walked out of my bedroom with an air of victory, and then slammed my door behind her. “And quit slamming the door!” she shouted through the wall.

I reached over to my bed and picked up my black-and-grey plush porcupine doll, held him to my chest, and began to cry. Hot tears streamed down my face, and I could do nothing to stop them.

After a minute, just as the emotional sting began to fade, I heard a chime from my computer. A chat request. I sighed, and turned around to see who it was.

<FriendlyAdvice> Don't put up with her crap.


I blinked. That was far too weird; nobody would have known what just happened, not so quickly at least. It must have been a coincidence sent to the wrong alias.

<ZebraStripe> Uh, I think you have the wrong person.


A few seconds later, they responded. “No, I don't, Samantha.” A chill ran down my spine.

Who is this? Paul? Dad?” After a thought, I glared. “Mom? Some sort of sick joke?

No... well, yes. Sort of. It's not a joke, and it's very complicated, and you wouldn't believe me anyway. I can't say much now, but it's very important that you listen to me.

I grumbled. “I'm not in the mood for these sick games, whoever you are,” I sent. I then closed the window.

“FriendlyAdvice” sent me another chat request. I ignored it, and added them to my block list with the message, “I'm really not in the mood for this, whoever you are. Fuck off, plsthx.

#### I.13.meow

“Today on eh Crocodiddly Shunter, wey’ll be checkin' oot tha inland coastel region,” said the thick Scottish accent. “The wildlife is very varied, boot jess like the res' o' tha continen', it’s very dangerous!

"Now ye may be wunnerin' why it’s dark! Weill, none o' tha enimels here are awake durin' tha day, an' that’d make tha show very borin', wunn'int it? Pah, what a stupid question for ye to be askin'!”

The annoying host of the show turned on a flashlight, illuminating his face from below. “But don'a worry lad-dies, there’s nutthin' ta be afraid of!”

The camera turned up its brightness, the background light being barely sufficient to show a general idea of what was going on. A silhouette of an elephant was visible against the hazy night sky.

“Ah, that’d be a buggerphant! You gotta be very careful with these buggers, because you can never be sure what’ll happen! Let’s see what happens when we send our assistant Robbie up to one!”

The camera turned to a young man with short brown hair. “Me?” he mouthed, bewildered. He shook his head, and pointed his fingers at himself. “Not me!” he mouthed silently, shaking his head widely, and apparently having a protest conversation with the show’s producer. “But–” With a look of resignation, he gave up and slouched, then began to run towards the elephant, and got right behind it, also appearing as a silhouette against the sky. The elephant did absolutely nothing.

“Weill, it’d seem that this bugger needs some stimulation! You know what to do, Robbie!” he bellowed.

Robbie’s silhouette spread his arms out in an expression of giving up. He then pulled a large rag out of his utility belt, and began to whip it at the elephant’s back leg.

With a mighty bellow, the elephant began charging away from Robbie, kicking up massive clouds of dirt. Robbie followed along, continuing to whip the leg.

“See? Them buggers can be pretty dangerous when provoked – pretty much nothing’s gonna stop him from running! Let’s see what happens next!”

The camera continued to follow the elephant as it disappeared over the horizon. A few seconds later, a mighty explosion erupted where the elephant was.

“Ah, look at that! It done blew up! Looks like it had run home to its mommy an' it took out its own family, too! That was the devil’s nest!” The camera turned back to the well-illuminated host, who was sweating and grinning. “Ye can never be too careful when dealing with explosive tempers, after all. But wait, what’s that!” he said, pointing to camera right.

The camera turned, showing an empty patch of dirt. The host shone his flashlight around, and at the edge of the spot appeared an orange tabby cat, which blinked with much annoyance. Outside of the flashlight’s spot it appeared to simply not exist.

“We have hit the mother lode!” the host excitedly whispered loudly. “This is the most dangerous creature of ‘em all!” The cat yawned, and continued to stare annoyedly at the entire production crew. “This bugger be a bugger cat! It looks just like a normal cat, except instead of its tail, it has:” He paused dramatically, turning his flashlight towards the cat’s backside. “A leaf!” Indeed, the cat’s tail was a very large green leaf, hanging off of a twig, which blended into the base of the cat’s tail.

The cat waved around its leaf-tail, and began to walk off. “Oh no, we can’t let the bugger get away! There’s no telling what it’ll do!” The host and camera crew hastily chased the cat, which started to panic and gained more and more speed. Eventually, the host hit it over the head with a very large lead pipe, and it dropped to the ground, unconscious.

“Ye see, this is only one of its forms!” He whacked the cat over the head repeatedly, and it slowly turned into what looked like a tree branch. “It’s really not an animal, but a very vicious plant! And if yer not careful, it’ll get all snuggly and cute like any other bugger would, and then BAM! All his little friends surround you and strip you to the bone within seconds. Nasty, nasty way to die!” He pulled out his pocketknife and stripped the bark off of the once-cat tree branch.

“There he is!” came the shouts from off screen. “Let’s get 'im!”

“Uh-oh,” said the host, “here’s the most dangerous beast of them all - animal rights protesters! I’m getting out of here!” He began to run away from the group of protesters, but then was ambushed by another group of people who piled on top of him.

A woman stood in front of the camera and took the microphone with her left hand. Her face was gnarled and scarred, her nose having been apparently bitten off at one time. Her right arm was missing below the shoulder, leaving just a stump which grotesquely waved back and forth. “We’re sick and tired of television shows like this which depict poor, defenseless animals as big, mean, savage creatures! They’re not bad, they’re just misunderstood!”

“Oh my God,” said one of the support crew, “what happened to you?!”

She turned to her left. Her right ear was missing, as well. “What do you mean?”

“Your face! Your arm! You look like you went through a wood chipper!”

“Oh, it was just a misunderstanding I had with my cute little pet lion! He misunderstood that I’m not food… but I don’t hold it against him! He’s so precious and adorable! See? He’s right over there!” She pointed in the direction of the protest pile-up.

“Aww, how cute!” cooed the protesters as the twenty-foot-tall lion picked them up, one at a time, and chewed on each of them in turn, making loud, sickening crunching sounds.

I rubbed my eyes. “Since when do I have cable?” I asked, to nobody in particular. I reached for the remote control, turned off the TV, and got up off the couch, stretching out my arms, legs and tail. “Time for bed,” I yawned, and I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and quills before going to sleep for the night.

“Paul, what the fuck was that about?!” Samantha demanded, storming up to him, tears in her eyes.

Paul looked at her. “What are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” she scowled. “Last night, on the computer.”

“Huh? I have no i–”

“'FriendlyAdvice?’ On the chat? ‘It’s very complicated?’”

“Sam,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Seriously. I. Have. No. Idea. What’s going on?”

“You really don’t know?” she said.

“Really. Honest.”

She sighed, and rested her forehead against his. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry… just, something really weird happened last night, and… well, it seemed like you were the only one who could have done it.”

“Sam…”

She closed her eyes and sniffed, trying in vain to wipe the tears away with her finger. “I… I got home, from seeing someone, and–”

“Someone? Who?”

Samantha paused. “My father.”

Paul looked into her eyes. “Your father?”

“Yes, I… well, for the last few months we’ve been… we’ve been hanging out, once a week, in secret… you know, trying to keep in touch…”

“You told me that your mom got a restraining order against him when they got divorced, because he was abusive.”

She opened her eyes. “I never said he was abusive, just that my mom convinced the court he was! And I was too afraid to defend him, because she… well, because she wouldn’t let me.”

“Oh, Sam,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. “Why didn’t you tell me this?”

“Because I knew you liked my mom, and I didn’t want you to get on her bad side… but she’s not the person you think she is, she only acts that way when others are around. When I got home she knew I was with him, and… and we had a fight, and she made me feel like shit, and she kept doing the things she does to just fuck with me–”

“Ssh, ssh… Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

She put her hand to her nose, closing a nostril, and sucked in. “Because I’m scared, of her… of what she might do…”

Paul hugged her close.

“But… but that’s not the weird thing,” she said. “Right after she left the room, I got a message… from someone calling themselves ‘FriendlyAdvice,’ telling me not to put up with her crap… I thought it was some sort of sick joke. I mean, it had just happened, and I’ve never told anyone about this… Maybe it was her boyfriend, maybe she planned this somehow, I don’t know. But it really freaked me out.”

He rubbed at her back through her clothing, a white t-shirt over a black turtleneck. “She was probably planning that, then, to mess with you… but… wow, this just… a shock. I thought your mom was…”

“Was what?” she said, looking at him through puffy eyes.

“Well… was nice.”

She shrugged. “She hides it very well.” Tears began to well up in her eyes again.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere more private. Maybe the library… nobody’s ever in there. Okay?”

“Mm-kay,” she replied weakly. He held her to his side as they walked off.

“Nothing. She just deserves better,” I said. “I’m trying to help.”

“What, by interfering? By playing God?”

“This world is only in my mind, right? So what does it matter if I break the rules a little?”

She smiled contentedly, crossing her arms. “So you’re finally learning. But you don’t seem to have learned that it doesn’t matter. Why bother fixing things if something isn’t real?”

I shrugged. “I’m just a sucker for a happy ending,” I said.

She grinned, black fangs glinting. “I have underestimated you. You do understand.”

“You give me too much credit. But whether she is ‘real’ in the classical sense or not is irrelevant. She’s a sweet girl, and she didn’t deserve this. It doesn’t rationally make sense to me, but I gave her this broken life, and so I’m going to fix it.”

“Is this supposed to be a parable for your own life, or are you just bored?”

I pondered the question for a few moments. “Neither. Whenever I see her sad, whenever I see her memories of her life, abused, hurting, and tormented by practically everyone around her, I see that her life is incomplete and broken, and it makes me feel incomplete, and it makes me feel broken. I know that her life will always be in the back of my mind, and I can’t feel good about my existence until I know that hers is okay.”

“So why are you focusing on her life? Why not work on any of the other fictitious lives you’ve created around the so many other fictitious self-portrayals?”

“Because after tonight’s explorations and revelations, she’s the one I saw first who needed help. Also, as corny as this sounds, I see a lot of myself in her.”

She rolled her eyes at me. “Well, duh.”

“No, I mean, it’s different. Sure, she’s a creation of my brain, just like everyone else in my dreams, at least those not based on other people from real life… but they don’t seem like me, they’re just a supporting cast. But Samantha… she seems like… well, like me, if my life had been hers. I can’t really explain it, but it’s just… like… she’s me, not just an expression of me, but me. I just want her to be happy.”

“Because you want yourself to be happy. You’re living vicariously through her.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. You make that sound like a bad thing.”

She smiled. “No, it’s not a bad thing. If she’s happy, you’re happy. And if you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said, pointing a clawed finger at her own temple, grinning. “Huh?”

I grinned. “Yeah. I see now.”

She wrapped her long, spade-tipped tail around me and herself. “I think we need a little eros break, though, dear.”

I nodded, and grinned. “That sounds like a good idea.”

I put my hands around her pitch-black breast and pulled it up, bringing her pitch-black nipple to my lips. I kissed it and licked at it gently.

She giggled. “Not here, silly, not in front of the whole school!”

And with that, we vanished.

#### I.15.solder

We appeared back in the dark “mad scientist” room. I unwrapped my long tail from around the conscious, who was still quite enjoyably nibbling at my left nipple. I caressed her flesh-toned face with the back of my shadowy hand.

She placed her hand on my smooth crotch, and began to rub gently. I moaned a little, and began to rub her neck.

I pushed forward, leading her back, until her buttocks were pressed against the cool metal table. I could feel her feel it. I pulled up at her chin, and kissed her on the lips. I ran my hands down her breasts and put them around her sides. I felt the ripples of ecstasy flow through her perceived body.

“Mmm, looking normal tonight, are we?” I asked, noticing that she was opting to appear as she did in reality. “We’ll have to fix that,” I intoned, pushing her back onto the cool, metal surface of the table. I felt her flinch as her skin made contact with the cold laboratory table.

She lay in silence, but I knew every little thought running through her head; she was lusty, and in ecstasy, and I knew exactly what she wanted. I licked my lips, and nuzzled down between her legs, rubbing my muzzle against her folds. I felt her shiver in delight as I gently stuck my tongue between her labia and licked at her cleft. Ripples of ecstasy trembled through her body as I put my hands on her hips and very gently began to nibble at her clitoris, massaging her thighs with my thumbs.

I knew exactly when she craved more stimulation, and at that point I withdrew, grinning as she looked up at me in expectation, her little clitoris throbbing with every beat of her heart. I crawled up on the table, my knees between her legs. I traced my snout up her stomach, between her breasts, and up to her neck. I exhaled, my warm breath enticing her as it graced her throat. I took her wrists in my hands and put them into the restraints at the head of the table, clamping them shut. She closed her eyes, and she expected me to grow a nice, thick shaft, fully engorged and ready to penetrate her, which I did not do.

Instead, I waited for her to open her eyes and look at me longingly. I waved my hands and produced a small vial of a metallic fluid from thin air. I removed the cap, revealing that it had an eye dropper. I squeezed the bulb, filling the eye dropper with the mercurial fluid, and splashed a single dab onto her chest.

She winced in pain as the fluid chilled her skin. “Wh– what are you… doing…” I remained silent.

I splashed another drop onto her chest, and rubbed it around with my finger. She felt more pain as it soaked into her skin, turning it the same metallic color as the fluid. She could feel it slowly trickling through her body, a rod of pain forming through her chest.

Her heart stopped beating. Panic began to set into her eyes.

I poured the rest of the vial onto her, and massaged it into her skin, coating her with it, turning her entire surface into metal. She screamed out in pain as her entire body succumbed to the fluid as she turned into a sleek silver statue, frozen in position, her eyes and mouth stuck open.

I licked at her left nipple, twirling my tongue around it. I exhaled onto her silvery surface, my breath condensing. She could still feel every little thing that happened to her body, and she was completely, totally powerless to do anything.

“Mmm, what to do with you,” I mused. “Perhaps you would make a good decoration… perhaps I could melt you down and turn you into silver serving dishes… or perhaps,” I said, stroking her metal orifice, “you could be a plaything. Would you like that? Oh, what’s that, it would be wonderful?” I quipped as she was mentally disagreeing with my proposition. “Well then, you’ll need to be a bit more malleable if I’m going to do that…”

I produced another vial, this one of golden fluid. Using its eye dropper I very carefully put one drop on each of her nipples, and three drops on her genitalia. I used my finger to spread the fluid around, turning it gold in color, and making it warm and soft. I could feel her enjoying it.

“I suppose you might want to see for yourself,” I said, dropping one drop into each of her eyes, turning them into solid golden orbs, “and you might want to move your hands and feet,” I said, smearing the liquid on her palms, and tickling her as I spread it over the soles of her feet, “and perhaps you could feel free to speak more,” I said, smearing her lips and turning them golden. I then poured the rest of the vial into her mouth, changing her tongue and teeth golden as well.

“But I can’t have you getting away, now, can I?” I asked, pulling out the welding torch. She mentally screamed in anguish as I melted the restraints to her wrists, fusing her with the table.

I licked my lips, and then crawled atop her. I licked her lips; she could feel the ability to move them come back, and closed her mouth. I pressed my lips to hers, kissing her deeply, pressing my tongue inside her mouth. She whimpered, wanting but unable to wrap her arms around me. I put my hands behind her shiny, smooth neck, and began to thrust my firm shaft up between her legs, as she had been desiring all along. She moaned in delight as we shared in a moment of sexual intercourse.

She laid atop me and continued to thrust into my golden pussy. I tried to reach around her, but the unrelenting wrist restraints which my arms were now a part of would not give way. She had me exactly where she wanted me, and I couldn’t say that I particularly minded.

I felt my metallic body grow warm in the full-body blush leading up to orgasm. I spread my legs, hanging them off the table. I imagined the heat propagating through my body, melting the table to me, making me part of it, and then I realized that I was in fact fusing with the surface, my body welding itself down. I screamed in delight as I orgasmed, and in frustration as I was unable to move as a result.

“My, my,” she said, looking over the assemblage of me and table. “This is quite a situation you’ve gotten yourself into. How… sexy.”

I put my hands to her cheeks, ignoring my bondage, and pulled her face to mine, giving her a deep kiss with my golden tongue. Thoughts of body and presence faded away as I wrapped myself around her, pulling her inside of me, and we swirled together in mutual warmth and a deep, eternal embrace.

#### I.16.superego

…and then I woke up.

A bright, yellow light hurt my eyes as the sounds of street traffic filled my ears. I covered them with my hands, and sat up, waited a few minutes, then uncovered my eyes to see the sunlight streaming into my bedroom.

I stretched my arms, then got out of bed. The chilly air painfully teased my clitoris and nipples. I hastily put on my red bathrobe and slippers, and sat down on the edge of my bed.

My memories seemed cloudy. I knew I had just had an interesting dream, but I couldn’t quite remember what it was. Something to do with a girl named Samantha, and my shadow and I having sex, and for some reason I was living in the apartment I had moved out of years ago, and had a television which I kept on watching infomercials on late at night.

I shook my head a bit, my mind feeling incomplete.

I walked through the bedroom hallway of my house and entered the bathroom. I removed my slippers, placed my bathrobe on the toilet seat, grabbed the towel I normally used from the towel rack and put it on top of my bathrobe, and then began to remove my ring from the middle finger of my left hand.

I looked at my hand. I wasn’t wearing a ring, and furthermore, I never did wear a ring there. Why would I wear a ring to bed? I thought for a moment. Why would I try to habitually remove a ring from my hand, which wasn’t even on my ring finger, when I didn’t even normally wear rings?

I shook my head and ran my hand through my long, brown hair.

My mind continued to feel incomplete.

I stood in the bathtub and turned on the water. I waited for the water to warm up, and then I pushed the annoying little button under the faucet for activating the shower. The initial surge of cold water finished the job of waking me up, but it quickly gave way to warmth. I relaxed in the water stream, and let my bladder loose, a stream of the urine which accumulated over the night trickling down my leg and into the drain.

My mind continued to feel incomplete.

I could feel a song in the back reaches of my mind, but I couldn’t make out the melody or the words. It sounded very familiar, melodic but electronic, like the sort of thing which Samantha would listen to.

Samantha.

My eyes widened as I finished waking up with the surge of memories from the dream of the night before.

Samantha. I had to help Samantha.

While lathering shampoo throughout my hair, I grasped at memories of Samantha and the night before. Samantha was in there, she was in my mind, and she needed help.

I shook my head. “But she was just a dream,” I said to myself. “How can I do anything for someone who isn’t real?

"But she is part of me,” I replied.

I stood in the shower, wordlessly thinking, meditating on my thoughts, recalling the dreams, the visions, the hallucinations, the whatever it was which was going on all night… it felt like a week’s worth of stuff had happened, all in eight hours of sleep.

Samantha Samantha Samantha. I had to help Samantha, I had to help myself, I had to help Samantha.

I closed my eyes. I saw myself in Samantha’s body, in the shower, little bubbles of soap cascading down my hairless, zebra-striped body.

I thought of Paul, and of mom and dad, and of what happened, and of how angry I felt when she slapped me in the face, and how much I loved Paul and dad but how much I hated mom. I thought of my life as an outcast in high school, both as myself and as Samantha, of the bullying and tormenting and the absolute shit we were both put through by seemingly everyone.

I had to remember, before I forgot her like so many other dreams in the past. I couldn’t let her be forgotten, I couldn’t let her die.

I finished my shower, I toweled my body off, and I put on my bathrobe and slippers. I thought of Samantha.

I sat down at my computer, and I began to write a letter to myself, my fingers on autopilot as I let my memories do the typing.

Dear me,

Hi there. How am I doing? Am I feeling well? I hope I am doing fine.

I am writing this letter to myself – that would be you – so that I don’t forget myself, who I am, or where I come from.

I guess I should tell me about myself. I’m 16 years old and am in my last year of high school. That sounds young, but it’s because I skipped a grade in middle school. I look different than everyone else because of an illness I had two years ago, where a bacteria ate my skin away, so my skin had to be replaced. There was a problem, though, and the last skin they could clone from me turned out transparent and needed to be filled with pigment so I wouldn’t look like the “visible woman.” It was very gross and stressful to see myself in the mirror like that. I pulled some strings, and I managed to get the doctors let me say how I wanted to look as a result. I think they felt sorry for me because of what I’d been through, and so they let me have black and white stripes all over my body! (I love zebra stripes!) I think it looks very cool, and other people that I meet think it looks neat, though they all assume that it’s makeup. Only my friends know about the second set of boobs I have, since the doctors cloned my mammary glands as well and I convinced them to let me keep them, and only my few very, very close friends know about what happened to my… you know. (Of course, since you’re me, you already know what I’m talking about! If you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this…)

I don’t have a whole lot of friends, but that was how it always has been for me. I’m a bit of a nerd, and so people don’t want to hang out with me very much. I guess it’s because I prefer to talk about meaningful things, and don’t like chatting about shopping or who did what to who. My best friend in the whole world is my boyfriend Paul. He’s also a geeky type, and so we hit it off very well. He’s more into computers than I am while I care more about chemistry than him, but we still have plenty to talk about, and of course we don’t talk just about our hobbies! That would be pretty boring.

We’re both seniors, but Paul didn’t skip a grade, so he’s 17. Actually, he’s turning 18 in February. I was born in July so I’ll still be 16 when I graduate.

My other good friend is my dad. For a while we weren’t able to talk to each other because of what my mom did when they got divorced, but recently we’ve started seeing each other regularly in secret. I wish it didn’t have to be kept so quiet! But I couldn’t even tell Paul about it.

I also have a few other friends… there’s Krystal, who used to bully me a lot but after my skin disease she started to feel sorry for me (and sometimes she even sticks up for me and stops the other popular girls from picking on me!), and there’s a few other girls I hang around with at the local diner sometimes, but they’re pretty boring people, and I think they only hang out with me because my mom lets them have alcohol at my house.

Recently a lot of stressful stuff has been happening to me, both good and bad. On the good side, Paul and I both got accepted into the state university (not that it’s very hard, but getting Paul to apply was a huge achievement!), and I even got a full scholarship, so we’re both going to probably go there after we graduate, even though Paul’s parents don’t like me because they can’t understand what I’ve been through. But on the bad side, my mom has been getting even more manipulative and greedy, and she is ruining everyone’s life that she can just to get every little bit of personal gain. She has this thing that she does, where she’ll get on someone’s good side and seem all sweet and generous, but then she’ll start to manipulate things and make others think that her new target is doing bad stuff.

Like, she managed to convince everyone she knew that my dad was beating her up, and that’s how she was able to get a divorce, and got to keep the house plus child support (which she spends mostly on herself). For a while she even had me convinced, but lately she’s stopped trying to make me think she’s the wonderful good parent, probably since she’s about to lose the child support since I’m going to leave for college and I got the scholarship. Then of course, since my dad was supposedly beating her, she got a restraining order so that he can’t call her or come within a thousand feet of her or me, and since she got that stuff people assume that she was right. She’s feeding off of other peoples' gullibility, and the fact that he can’t defend himself against her accusations only makes things worse. It makes me sick to think about.

I think that she has started to manipulate others against me, as well. The other night we had an argument because she found out that I’d been hanging out with my dad. She cut off my allowance (which comes from the child support money) for a week, and then she stormed out of my room and slammed the door, and shouted at me for slamming the door, loud enough that her newest boyfriend in the living room would hear it.

Speaking of which, she goes through so many boyfriends. She is such a cumbucket. Then she gets them to give her even more money, and she acts like a two-year-old, getting what she wants when she wants it, and not giving a shit about anyone else in the world.

I don’t know what to do about her, but I do know that I need to stop her from her little ego games. I need to somehow undo the damage that she’s done, and I need to stop her from doing more damage to others.

Strangely enough, my dad doesn’t seem to hold anything against my mom. He’s a firm believer in only seeing the positive side of things, and turning the other cheek. He’s a bit of a push-over. I think I see a bit of that in myself, too, but I’m trying to break out of it, mostly so that I can help my dad. I have this silly fantasy where me, my dad, and Paul all escape to a happy place, far away from my mom, and we all live together, happily ever after. It sounds so silly when I write it down, though…

The really weird thing is that I seem to have some anonymous “friend” online who wants to help. The way they showed up offering “friendly advice” really freaked me out, though. I need to think about it some. Paul says he knows nothing about this person, and it couldn’t have been my dad. It’s a mystery, but it’s not one I’m very eager to solve.

So anyway, that’s what’s going on in my life right now. I hope to hear from you soon! :D

Samantha

I sighed, saving it to my hard drive as dream-Samantha.text. I really hoped this would work.

I heard a melodic beeping from my book bag, the alarm from my hand-held computer. I looked at the time and saw that I was about to be late for class. “Shit,” I said. I hurriedly threw on some clothes, canceled the PDA’s alarm, and ran to campus.

### II.caffeine

I sat on my bed, naked and cross-legged. It was 10 o'clock at night, well before my bedtime. I wasn’t yet anything remotely resembling tired, but I had to induce a hypnagogic hallucination.

I closed my eyes and imagined looking into the mirror and seeing Samantha. I focused on my image of her, hoping that my brain would latch onto it and do the seemingly impossible – resume a dream which was previously started.

My heart was pounding, nervously. I was feeling scared, scared that I couldn’t recover Samantha from the recesses of my memory, scared that I had failed her by waking up before resolving her life, scared that I couldn’t find my center.

I opened my eyes. It wasn’t working; I was too awake, too alert, too close to the plane of reality. My brain chemistry wasn’t working to my advantage; I was restless.

I stood up and stretched, imagining myself as Samantha as I did it. I had the image of myself as Samantha locked into my mind, but I just couldn’t induce a hypnagogic state. I was too restless, too anxious, too intent on this working. I had to distance myself so that I could dissociate myself.

I walked over to my computer, imagining the zebra stripes following my skin as it shifted around on my body. I sat down, I opened up the letter I wrote in the morning, to refresh my take on the situation, to refresh my manufactured memories.

I reread the letter a dozen times, each time remembering myself as Samantha, writing it into my diary for myself to come back to later, as if writing a time capsule to myself. Every little detail of her life seemed so crystal-clear to me; the faces, the voices, the mannerisms, the memories, the history, the everything that made her life recognizable as her life, the cues which provided inertia for her mental reference frame, the very definition of her reality, everything which separated her life from mine.

Everything added up, everything gave me hope that Samantha would not be alone, not until her life was complete.

I walked to the kitchen. I filled my tea kettle with water, and put the kettle on the stove, turning the burner up to full heat. I walked into the living room, and began to do some stretches to loosen up my body, still seeing myself as Samantha, still having the image of her striped skin following my every movement. My clitoris erected slightly; her appearance happened to line up with my fetish for colors and patterns. Then again, her appearance was specifically due to my fetish, due to her at least expressing it in her own life, and her affliction was a retrofit to make her appearance plausible. I smiled to myself, and imagined the way that Samantha must have had the pigmentation added to her skin. Probably through a full-body tattoo, something which I had considered for myself in the past, but something which I probably wouldn’t actually do, due both to the expense and the social implications.

“God, I can’t believe I’m getting so obsessed over a single dream,” I said to nobody in particular. “It’s not like it’s all that important, right?” I sighed. “But it seems like such a pleasant one… and important, somehow.” I grumbled, and began to question my own sanity, or apparent lack thereof.

I heard a faint whistling from the kitchen. The water had heated up. I poured some into a mug, stirred in some hot chocolate powder, and mixed it up. The hot chocolate was slightly too hot for my tastes, so I set it on the counter to cool for a little bit as I went to my bathroom, opening up the medicine chest, and pulling out two pills: one sleeping, one caffeine.

#### II.1.tease

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” she asked me. “Do you really think there is something to be gained by abusing your brain like this?”

“Well, I’m here again, aren’t I?” I asked, as she finished sewing my right leg back on. Some of my stuffing had fallen out onto the table.

“You’re here every night, whether you remember it or not. That doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in what you want to do.”

I shrugged, and wiggled my stuffed toes as their movement came back. “So I guess we’re in a bit of a plushophile mood tonight?” I asked, looking down at my plastic cyan buttons for nipples, gracing my purple plush chest.

“Tonight and every night, dear,” she grinned. “Should I do the arms next?”

“I guess. I wouldn’t mind being able to pick things up again, not that it makes much difference. So, when can I get back to Samantha’s world?”

She peered at me. “You really are intent on this, aren’t you.” She threaded another needle. “You might have trouble with that, you know. You’ve been awake a while.”

“I’ve done what I can to hold on to her memories,” I said. I winced as the sewing needle went into my right shoulder. “I really should have constructed this form to be a bit more rugged. Who knew that a life-sized porcupine plushie would fall apart so easily?”

She grinned, holding my arm to my shoulder. “I thought this was supposed to be part of the fun,” she cooed. I could feel the connection come back as the stuffing made contact. I wiggled my fingers a little bit, and then made a fist in anticipation as she pushed the needle through the arm, beginning to sew it back on. “But seriously, dear, I know you have this thing about needing to save Samantha, but I honestly don’t know if you’ll be able to even go back to her reality. The memories may have degraded too much.”

“What difference does it make? I’ll just create new memories as they’re needed. ‘She’ wrote all the important details in her letter anyway.”

She finished re-attaching my right arm. I flexed my fingers a bit, and then stroked my cyan nylon clitoris with a cyan plastic claw.

She sighed at me. “You’re such an incorrigible wanker, even in your dreams. I have half a mind to just sew you up down there.” She ruffled my cyan nylon head quills. “At least let me cut off the thread first, unless you just want it to unravel.”

“Is that concern I hear? I thought I was supposed to be the literal-minded one. Do I have to be the one to remind you that this is just a dream?”

She pouted, and tickled my nose with the tip of her long black tail. “I thought you preferred this to be realistic.”

“Well, even I have limits,” I said, realizing that my body was completely put back together. I ran both of my hands over my front, twiddling my plastic button-nipples. I stood up and looked in the mirror, posing my body seductively, admiring my purple plush fur and deep-pile cyan fabric pseudo-quills. I waved my tail around in approval.

“Not to sound ignorant, because I’m not and I already know the answer anyway, being your subconscious and all, but what is with you and porcupines?”

I shrugged. “They’re cute. I like cute things.”

“So it’s not a need to be defensive against others?”

“What is this, counseling time? No, it’s just a cuteness thing. Well, okay, maybe a bit of self-defense early on, but it’s not like these quills are going to be stopping much of anything, except maybe very sensitive electronics,” I said, rubbing my arms up and down, generating little sparks of static electricity.

“Yes, but it’s such a theme with you. It’s practically demented.”

“Practically?” I grinned. “I thought it was the absolute epitome of demented,” I said.

She threw a pillow at me. “No, that’s your other fetishes.”

“Hey, now,” I chimed, catching the pillow. “What did this pillow ever do to you? Stuffing has feelings too, you know.”

She rolled her eyes at me. “Only in your mind.”

I hugged the pillow to myself. The pillow nuzzled contentedly.

#### II.2.understand

…and then I woke up.

I was clutching my pillow between my arms. It was pressed to my face and soaked with tears. I pulled it away a little bit. The room was bright, light streaming in from the skylight. I sat up, crossing my legs, still holding the pillow to my chest with one arm.

With my other arm I reached over and picked up Herbert, the cute stuffed zebra which Paul gave me last night. I traced a stripe with a fingernail. I sighed, as tears welled up in my eyes. I began to cry again.

I heard a knock at my door. “Hey stripeybutt, are you going to get up at any time today? It’s a shame to waste a Saturday.” my mom said.

I sucked in, clearing my nose. “Go away,” I cried. “I don’t want to talk to you right now.”

There were a few seconds of silence. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I could almost hear actual concern in her voice.

“Paul broke up with me,” I said. The words rang hollow in my mind, and another flood of tears came.

“Oh, honey…” she said. “Do you want to talk about it?” She began to turn my doorknob.

“Don’t come in, I’m–” The door opened. “–naked,” I finished, as my mom saw me with my knees and arm wrapped around the pillow.

“Oh, I’m so sorry… I’ll go, I thought you still wore pajamas,” she blurted, turning around.

I sighed. “Mom, it’s okay. Nothing you haven’t seen before,” I offered in diplomatic resignation, still hiding behind the pillow.

“Why don’t you take a shower and put on some clothes and come downstairs… I’ll make you some breakfast, and we can talk about what happened.”

“Okay,” I resigned as she carefully closed the door behind her.

I was surprised. She sounded like she had actual concern in her voice, some actual sympathy for me. As much as I wanted to feel suspicious of her motives, however, I was just feeling too crappy, too emotionally shaken to second-guess her too much.

I put on my red bathrobe, and wandered to the bathroom. I closed the door, removed the bathrobe, and carefully placed it on the toilet seat. I took my towel off the towel rack and put it on top of my bathrobe. I turned on the water and pulled the little plunger to activate the shower.

I waited for the water to heat up, and then, in a lackadaisical manner, stepped into the bathtub, letting myself be hugged by the hot water. I breathed in the warm water vapors, which relaxed me from the inside out, even as tears continued to stream out of my eyes.

After what felt like a brief eternity, I reached to the side for the shampoo, my eyes closed. My hand hit the wall, and I looked to see that I was reaching for a place completely unrelated to where the shampoo was kept.

“Meh,” I thought. “I’m so messed up I can’t even remember where the shampoo holder is.” I took the bottle out from its rightful place in the faucet-wall crevice, and squeezed a decent amount onto my striped palm. I worked it into a lather in my hair, and spread the lather across my body, trying to wash away my sadness.

I detached the shower head from its holster, and methodically rinsed off my body. I felt better as the lather went down the drain, as though it took my emotional pain with it along with the dirt on my skin.

I shut off the water, and stared at it as it spiraled down the drain. I sighed, and reached out of the shower to grab my towel. I dried myself off, and put on my bathrobe.

I went back into my bedroom and sat on my bed, sliding the bathrobe off. I put my elbows on my legs and my face on my hands, and cried some more.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” I said.

I put on some panties and a bra, and then re-donned my bathrobe, tying it around my waist. I got up, left my room, walked down the stairs, and went to the kitchen. I sat down at the table. My mom slid a plate with two frozen waffles, fresh from the toaster, and a glass of orange juice in front of me. She sat down opposite me. I sighed, and started to cut the waffles with the fork.

“So what happened?” she asked, not one to beat around the bush.

I sighed. “He finally gave up on debating with his parents. They found out that he was intending to go to State with me, and they put their foot down. They told him that if he went to the same school as ‘that freak,’ they wouldn’t help him out with his tuition. When he took me out last night, it was to say goodbye.”

She shrugged. “I know this sounds cold, dear, but if he can’t even stand up to his parents, he doesn’t really deserve to be with my little girl.”

I glared at her, my hand tensing suddenly. “What… do you mean… by that?”

“He’ll never make it in life if he doesn’t have a spine of his own. Do you really want to be with someone who winds up like your father?”

I gawked. “My father ended up the way he did because of you! If you hadn’t… hadn’t taken advantage of him, and screwed him out of everything he was worth, he–”

“He’d have ended up the same from someone else.” She smiled at me. “I’m just glad you have found the courage to stand up to me, dear. It means you’ll go far in life.”

Go far?! What, you mean I’ll end up like you, living in someone else’s house, off someone else’s paycheck, stolen from them through deceit?! Mother, I… I don’t know what to say.”

“Mmm,” she said. “By the way, your roots are showing… I think it’s time for you to dye your hair again,” she said, changing the subject. “Though I think white hair would look good on you, too. Maybe you should let it grow out.”

“Don’t change the subject!” I shouted. “Don’t manipulate me like that!”

She crossed her arms and sat in silence, smiling. A few moments passed. “Well? Please, continue.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, you didn’t want me to change the subject, so obviously you have more to say, don’t you?”

I let out a growl. “That… is not… the point.”

“Then what is?” she chimed.

I sighed, exasperated. “The point, dear mother, is that you are a lying, conniving bitch, who takes every advantage that she can. It is people like you who make this world a difficult place. It is people like you who make it necessary for other people to bite and scratch their way to the top. It is people like you, mother, who make life miserable for those who have any shred of kindness and goodwill and basic human decency in them.”

She chuckled nervously. “The world isn’t fair, dear. If it were, then obviously we wouldn’t be having this conversation, now would we? But don’t blame me for everything in your life,” she said, removing her shirt.

I peered at her. “What are you doing?”

“You seem to think your father was completely innocent.” She reached behind and unhooked her bra. “Did you honestly think that the court would side with me on my word alone?” She removed the bra, revealing a series of scars along her side, under her armpit.

“Always in denial,” she said. She sighed. “Your father did this to me.”

“What?”

I saw tears begin to well up in her eyes. “Yes. Your fucking innocent father, who you love so dearly, who you are so goddamned pushy in defending, did this to me.” She began to cry. I was dumbfounded. I’d never seen my mother cry before. “It was back when you were just starting middle school… you were out doing god knows what with your friends, I think you were at a slumber party… He came home, he was drunk, I didn’t know when he was coming home, but I made dinner anyway… and he came home late, dinner was already cold…

"I asked him where he’d been, he told me to mind my own business. Then I demanded to know where he’d been, and he… he had a bottle, of whiskey or something, I didn’t see it… he broke it over the counter, and I don’t remember what happened next, but he… He attacked me, Samantha. Your oh-so-fucking-innocent father attacked me.

"I still don’t know what got into him, or why he did this to me,” she said, pointing at the parallel lines of scar tissue, “but I felt no remorse when I called the police, and had him put in the drunk tank that night.”

“I thought you were too young to understand,” she said, putting her bra and shirt back on, “and I didn’t know how to tell you. Honestly, I didn’t know what was going on… he’d never so much as laid a hand on me before… but that night it was like he was someone completely different, and I was afraid that this other person would show up again.” She sniffed, and wiped her tears away with a napkin. “So now you know why when you came back the next day, your father was gone, and why a few months later we were getting a divorce.”

We sat in silence for a while.

“I want to see the police report,” I said.

“So you don’t believe me.”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t blame you. But I do have a copy, complete with all the grisly pictures.”

“Show me.”

She glared at me. “I already have to use every fiber of my being to put it out of my mind. You cannot honestly expect me to want to look at it.”

“Then tell me where it is.”

“Look in my closet. There’s a black filing cabinet. Bottom drawer, all the way in back.”

I stood up, and begun to turn around towards the back of the house, in the direction of her bedroom.

“Samantha,” she said, “I know I’ve been a right bitch to you lately, and that it’s been slowly building up since the incident, and that it was unfair of me to not tell you these things. But you’re my daughter, and I love you, and I want to protect you from being hurt. I’ve lost sight of myself lately, though, and I want you to try to be understanding. But most of all… don’t back down. Question authority, be sure of yourself, and don’t take shit from anyone, not even me.”

I stood in silence.

I relented. “Okay.”

“And Samantha… I do hope things work out with you and Paul. You deserve better than to have his intolerant parents decide what you can and cannot do.”

“Thanks,” I said. I finished turning and walked off for her bedroom.

#### II.3.know

“Samantha! What an unexpected surprise,” said my father. “Come in, come in… can I get you anything? Coffee? A bagel perhaps?”

I shook my head. “No, I’m… I just came to talk.”

“What’s on your mind?” he asked. “Oh, come in from the cold,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. I stiffly followed, holding the Manila folder under my arm.

“Sure, honey. What is it?”

I walked over to his kitchen table and put the folder down. I was shaking, both nervous and afraid. “I… n-need you to… tell me about something.”

He smiled. “Well, you don’t need to be afraid. Is this about sex?” he said, coyly.

I trembled, and opened up the folder. On top was the examination photo showing my mother’s side, cut open and bleeding. “T-tell me about this,” I said.

I looked over at him. His eyes were closed, and he was shaking his head. “Oh, Sam…”

“Well?” I asked. “Did you do this?”

He sighed. “Yes. I won’t lie to you, you know that. I… well, I’m surprised you didn’t find out about this sooner,” he said.

“So it’s true, what she said is true… oh my God. All this time,” I said. “All this time, I thought she was lying, I thought she made it all up, I thought she was manipulating everyone…”

He put his hand on mine. I recoiled.

“Listen, Sam. I’m sorry. I really, truly am. I made a mistake that night, a huge mistake, a horrible mistake. We were having a stag party for a friend, and things got a little out of hand, we had a drinking contest, and I couldn’t… wouldn’t stop from joining in… God, Sam, not a day goes by that I don’t regret what happened. There’s nothing I can do to ever undo what I did, and I can never apologize enough. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

"I’ve taken responsibility for my actions. I didn’t fight any of the decisions, I send all the money I can to you guys, just to try to make up for it.”

I pulled away from him. “No wonder it was so easy for you to turn the other cheek,” I said. “It’s easy to do that when you weren’t the one who was hit!”

He sighed. “Sam… I know this is hard for you. But this is something which happened years ago, and only once, and never again.”

I glared at him. “It’s not what you did to my mom. It’s what you’ve been doing to me.” I gathered up the folder with the police report. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to be going,” I said, and turned towards the front door.

He grabbed my arm. “Sam…”

I closed my eyes. “Let. Go. Of. Me.”

He let go.

I walked towards the door.

“Sam, I’m sorry,” he said.

I opened the door. “Too little, too late,” I said. I pulled it shut behind me.

As the door clicked closed, I felt awash with sorrow. My heart felt of lead. I dragged my feet and plodded towards my car. I opened the door, I sat down, I shut it.

I broke down and cried. Tears streamed down my face. What had I just done? I just kicked my father, the person who I thought I could trust the most, out of my life… but… but he lied to me. He fucking lied. Sure, he didn’t say anything untrue, but he lied through omission. He made me think that he was such a fucking nice guy, that he held nothing against my mom because me being in his life made it worth it, that he didn’t care whether his life was shit as long as mine was okay, but it was all a lie… he was trying to make my life better to sate his guilt, he was willingly giving my mom all his money to try to make up for the horrible thing he did…

If it had just been an unfortunate discretion for one night, I wouldn’t have felt so manipulated, but no, it was a long-time thing, where he was using money to try to buy himself some fucking peace of mind.

I mentally ran and reran through conversations I’d had with him, not knowing whether I was trying to find evidence to forgive him or whether I was trying to see where I’d overlooked something stupid and obvious, something which someone else could have seen from a mile away…

I felt like something was crawling down the back of my neck. I looked to the right, and saw my dad looking at me through his window. He had a look of remorse in his eyes, but I couldn’t bear to be around him. Not right now, not for a while, not after what just happened.

I tried to appear like I was ignoring him as I started my car and drove off.

I just drove. I didn’t have anywhere in particular… I couldn’t go home, not yet, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I drove without any planned destination, I just drove.

I had nowhere to go. I felt lost… I felt like I was living a dream, like I could just wake up at any time. But of course I couldn’t just wake up… could I?

I pulled into a parking lot and cut the ignition. I closed my eyes. I waited in silence, waiting for a sign, for some reason to open them again. Maybe this was just a bad dream, and I was about to wake up. I breathed slowly. “Just a dream, just a dream,” I told myself. I opened my eyes.

I was still sitting in my car, still pulled over by the side of the road, but things seemed… different. Colors were more vivid, more vibrant. I could see the little details of everything around me. It was as though I was looking through new eyes, renewed, like I had a brand new outlook on the same old things.

I breathed deeply, feeling a zen-like sense of calm wash over me. I started my car back up, and started to drive home.

#### II.4.daydream

Somewhere along the way home, I ended up making a different turn. I didn’t notice at first, allowing myself to simply drive on autopilot, but after I had been driving for some amount of time longer than I should have been, I realized that I was nowhere near my house. I was in a part of town which I didn’t quite recognize; it seemed familiar, somehow, but I didn’t recognize any features.

It wasn’t too long before I noticed that wherever I was, it was quite… empty. Buildings were unoccupied, the streets were, aside from the myriad of cars parked alongside the sides of the road, empty, and there was nobody on the sidewalks. There was an eerie calm throughout the place. The clouds seemed fixed in the sky, and there were no birds to be seen.

After a few minutes, I found an unoccupied parking meter, which I parked at. I got out of my car and fished through my purse to find a quarter, when I realized that the meter had an hour on it already. “Lucky me,” I mumbled to myself, and I wandered around to try to find any indication of where I was, be it a store I recognized, a person I could talk to, anything.

All of the shops were nondescript, their windows tinted black, and no readily-visible signs indicating what they were, except that they were all “closed” or “out to lunch.”

I continued to walk down the sidewalk, until something caught my eye. It was a single piece of yellow paper, perhaps a credit card receipt, blowing in the wind. I watched it and traced its path, until it blew past a pair of feet.

“Captivating, isn’t it,” said the owner of the feet.

I gasped, startled, and looked up at her. She looked like she was in her late twenties, with long, frizzled brown hair, and medium-toned skin. She carried herself with an air of comfortable uncertainty. She wore a black felt overcoat which draped down to her boots, and a plaid scarf wrapped around her neck. She seemed familiar, somehow.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

I blinked. “Uh. Yeah, I am… sorry, you just… startled me a little,” I managed to say.

She chuckled. “I seem to have that effect on people, it would seem. You look lost. Do you need any help?”

I nodded. “Yes, as a matter of fact… could you tell me where I am?”

“That’s not a very useful thing to know,” she said. “A much more important question is where you’re going, Samantha.”

I stared, dumbfounded. “Do… Do I know you?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she said. “I’ve been watching you, Samantha.”

A chill ran down my spine. “Who are you? What do you want?”

A gust of wind kicked some leaves into the air, which circled around her feet, ruffling her coat and hair. “All you need to know is that I want you to be happy,” she said.

Suddenly I thought back to a few days ago, when my mother and I had the fight. “That was you,” I said, “on the computer…”

She nodded.

“What do you want with me? Do you have some sort of sick lesbian fetish for under-age girls with zebra stripes or something?”

“Listen, I don’t know who you are, or what you’re trying to pull, but if you knew what I’ve been going through lately, you’d probably think twice about trying to manipulate me for your own sick little games. I’ve been fucked with enough as it is, and if you’re going to even try to keep me from calling the police on your stalking ass, you’re going to have to start by telling me the truth. Who are you?

“I’m you,” she said.

…and then I woke up.

I was still sitting in my car, which was still in the parking lot I had pulled into.

What the hell was that? Who was that in my dream? She seemed so familiar, and yet I’d never seen her before in my life.

I sighed, and rubbed my eyes. “And to top it all off, I’m going crazy,” I said out loud. “Yep, I’m talking to myself now. Only a matter of time before I’m sitting in a padded cell! Oh joy,” I sarcastically quipped to nobody in particular.

It was getting dark. I looked at the time. I’d been asleep for three hours, and the fact it was winter didn’t help any; the sun was already setting.

I sighed, and started my car back up, and turned on the headlights. I sat, thinking in the near-silence, only the consistent rumbling of the car’s engine keeping me company. I felt tired, even though I had just napped, groggy from the three hours of extraneous sleep I just woke up from.

I turned on the radio. The beat of the song which was playing was somewhat captivating, and I couldn’t help but tap my foot and gently bob my head to its rhythm. Something about the music made me feel a bit happier.

It would be December soon. The semester would be over soon, and then there would be winter break, and then I would be starting my last semester of high school. It would only then be a few short months before I was a high school graduate, ready to go on to college. Time felt like it was passing so quickly.

After a brief eternity of driving, I made it home. I opened the door.

“Hey, stripeybutt. You okay?” asked my mom.

I walked over to her and leaned against her. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “If I knew what you’d been through–”

“I’m sorry too,” she said, interrupting me. “I hid it from you, and I held your lack of knowledge against you. It was unfair of me.” She ran her hand through my hair. “It was a long time ago, but there are some things you just can’t let go of, not easily.”

I nodded, and rested my head on her shoulder, and hugged her for the first time in years.

#### II.5.tears

“Wow, now that was totally unexpected,” I said. “I didn’t think that you’d have found it in yourself to make her parents, you know, not flat characters.”

The conscious looked up at me. “That wasn’t me doing it,” she said.

I grinned, continuing to knead her clay surface, changing her body’s shape in random ways, as if doodling. “Of course it was, silly.”

“No, I mean… that wasn’t me. I didn’t cause that.”

“Well,” I said, stroking my tail-tip over her front and poking little dimples all over the flesh which was once her breasts, “you know what authors always say about their characters… they have an idea for them, and then they just go on their own.”

She glared at me. “That’s not what I mean. She’s real. Her world, it’s real, it’s not… it can’t be all in our head.”

I sighed. “This again? I thought you’d figured things out.”

“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t have it right,” she said. “You seem to think that I’m the one controlling this. I thought you were the subconscious – so why aren’t you the one in charge right now? Think about it, the only time that either of us seem to have anything to do with her world is when she’s very close to being asleep. Maybe we’re the dream!”

I tsked. “Come on, you know better than that. You’re real. Well, in a manner of speaking. Hm, clay got boring quick,” I said, turning her into a living blow-up doll made of shiny black latex. I licked at the seam of her neck.

“Quit changing the subject,” she said, trying not to enjoy what I was doing to her. I made her surface purple with cyan polka-dots, and rubbed at the strategically placed hole on her shiny crotch. “I mean it,” she glared.

I sighed, wrapping my tail around her, rubbing at her smooth, shiny surface. “Fine, fine. Okay. So you don’t think she’s a product of your imagination. What makes you say that?”

“Well,” she started, “even though she is obviously linked to me somehow, and things are very similar, and even though we’re seeing through her point of view as things go on, I have absolutely no control over what she’s doing. It’s not just to the point of being in a dream and letting inertia take over – I realize it’s a dream, and yet I’m completely powerless to do anything, as though I’m a passive viewer of her experience.

"Next, even in dreams, I’m usually aware of who I am in real life. But as her, I have no idea that there is another life.

"Also, time continues to pass when I’m not inside her head. It’s not as though there’s nothing going on here – we’re just not seeing it as it happens.

"I’m wondering if she is me, but a me from an alternate reality, born a few years later to different parents.”

“Ah,” I said, “but you’re forgetting a few things as well. Last night, when this whole thing happened, you were, in this space, fading between your real persona and Samantha. Furthermore, you are in control, you just don’t want to believe it. You just want her to be real so badly that you’re going out of your way to believe she’s real. Finally, time is passing because it’d simply be boring for us to live every single second of her life – you never see real-time movies for good reason. It’s boring, and there’s not enough hours of dream time in the night for it to play out like that.”

She sighed, twiddling her inflation-valve nipples. “I suppose you’re right. But still, something seems different about her.”

“It’s different because you want it to be. And anyway, you’re envious of her life, ‘Samantha.’ For all of the crap in it, she’s also fundamentally happy, and she’s not a little chicken shit who isn’t afraid of bucking society’s trends or of letting herself express herself in the way that she wants. I’m sure that if you had the confidence that she has, you’d immediately get yourself tattooed like that and get your pussy sewn shut.”

She sighed. “You’re right, I suppose. But she still seems so real.”

“She is real. Her existence is real, isn’t that good enough?”

She sighed, leaning back. “I thought I’d gotten over this existential crisis crap.”

“We never seem to,” I sighed.

She appeared as Samantha. Suddenly, we felt a wave of sorrow wash over ourselves. I wrapped my arms around her, and she cried against me.

“I just can’t take this anymore,” she said, her tears burning my surface. “God, I can’t stand being trapped in my body in reality… it’s so comfortable here, and I can appear however I want, and do things which are just plain impossible to even conceive of in real life… and I feel so helpless, and life always seems so stressful, and so I escape here, and in the morning I wake up feeling empty, and… and…”

I nuzzled at the top of her head. “Ssh, I know, I know.” I closed my eyes, and whispered, “I know.”

I held her close to me, and we cried into each others' arms.

Infinite moments passed.

“I’m not going back to her world,” she said.

“I don’t like the way things are going. And you’re right, it’s not real.”

I sighed. “Samantha, you disappoint me.”

She scowled. “Don’t call me Samantha. That’s not who I am.”

“Maybe you are,” I said.

“Then what’s your name in real life?”

“That’s simple, it’s… it’s…”

“It’s Samantha, dear.”

She blinked. “No, it’s… Oh.” She remembered when she “woke up” from the initial Samantha dream. “That… that was a dream, wasn’t it,” she said. “I’d forgotten that it, that alpha was, and the morning that I really did wake up, I was so hung up on helping her that I forgot who I am.”

I nodded, and patted her stripey tush.

“But the other Samantha, the stripey one… she is a dream.”

“Mmm,” I said. “But it’s a nice dream.”

She nodded.

“Are you going to keep it going?” I asked. “It’s your call, ultimately.”

“Yeah. Real or not, I need to see how it plays out.”

I smiled, and kissed her on the lips. “That’s my self.”

She snuggled herself against me. “For the rest of tonight, I’m going to be her. No more breaks, no more weirdness.”

I blinked. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

She nodded. “Just her. Starting now.”

…and then I woke up.

#### II.6.stress

I jerked awake with a start. I was sitting at my computer. It was much too early in the morning to be using it; I must have fallen asleep at it last night.

“Mmf… what was it I was doing that was so fucking important?” I asked myself. “Oh, right,” I said, remembering that I decided to see who the hell this “FriendlyAdvice” character was. I checked my chat program’s ignore list to see what her email address was.

She wasn’t in the ignore list.

“That’s odd,” I thought. “Maybe it automatically deletes old entries.” I looked at my outgoing message log. Nothing.

I pondered. There were message logs from conversations I had weeks ago, but there was not one single trace of the conversation I’d had with FriendlyAdvice.

“What… the… hell… is… GOING… ON?!” I shouted, hitting the keyboard in frustration.

A chat message came in.

<FriendlyAdvice> Please don't lose your temper.


…and then I woke up.

I jerked awake with a start. I was sitting at my computer. It was much too early in the morning to be using it; I must have–

Didn’t this just happen?

I looked at my hands. They looked real, and I didn’t think I was dreaming… I pinched myself, and it hurt, but it could have simply seemed that way.

I looked at my computer screen. It was the chat program, which was showing both the ignore list, which was empty, and the message log, scrolled back to when “FriendlyAdvice” had contacted me, but it didn’t show any conversation between us.

I sighed. What if the original contact from her was just a dream too? It didn’t seem like a dream, but what with all the odd but realistic dreams I’d been having lately, it seemed like a likely possibility.

I stood up and stretched, removed the dirty clothes I fell asleep in, and put on my bathrobe. I opened my door and began to walk to the bathroom.

“Oh, Samantha, you’re awake already,” said my mom, who was just heading up the stairs. “Last night when you got home, I forgot to tell you that Paul called. He wants to talk to you.”

My heart leapt. Maybe he changed his mind! “Did he say what about?”

“No, he didn’t tell me anything, he just said to call him back.”

I nodded. “Okay. God, these past few days have been so…”

“Difficult?” she offered.

“Surreal,” I countered. “Do you ever feel like you’re just living in a dream, but you can’t wake up from it?”

She nodded. “Ever since the incident with your father,” she said. “Just don’t act like you’re just living in a dream, pretending that others don’t matter…” She trailed off and sighed. “Anyway. After you take your shower, please come downstairs. I’m making breakfast.”

I smiled. “Mom, I think I can put the waffles in the toaster myself–”

“Oh,” she interrupted me, chuckling, “but I’m actually making pancakes.”

I was shocked. “You’re actually cooking? You haven’t done that in a long time!”

She nodded, smiling. “I decided I needed to stop being so… lazy.”

“Wow, it’s like having a whole new mom! Or the old one I had as a kid back.” I hugged her.

“Wow, if I knew you’d get so happy over pancakes, I’d have done this a lot sooner!”

I giggled. “Hi mom.”

“Hey, stripeybutt.”

“Ugh. Please don’t call me that…”

“I thought you liked it.”

I sighed. “It was cute at first, but now it just reminds me of how you’ve been these past few years.”

“Okay. I’ll come up with something else, then.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t have to call me by a nickname, mom.”

She sighed. “You try to be so grown-up sometimes. Okay, Samantha… take your shower. I’ll see you in a bit.”

I went into the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror. The white roots of my hair were definitely showing now, but I was sick of the continuous dyeing. I decided I’d just let it grow out white, and maybe try a different color when it was easier to dye. Maybe magenta or purple, or perhaps light-blue… those would provide a nice contrast from my black-and-white skin, I thought.

I looked at my eyes, and sighed. Their brown irises, on the other hand, didn’t match the rest of me at all well. Perhaps I could get colored contact lenses; my vision was starting to show signs of getting blurry anyway. Black or purple would work well, I thought.

I removed my bathrobe and put it on the toilet. I took my towel off of the towel rack and put it on top of my bathrobe. I stepped into the bathtub, turned on the water, and waited for it to warm up. I took the shower head off of its holster and pointed it towards the drain, and then pulled up the thing to make the water go through the shower instead. The initial burst of cold water ricocheted and still ended up getting me. I sighed and muttered to myself.

I re-holstered the shower head and stood in its warm, embracing stream. I took some shampoo and lathered it up into my hair. I took the bar of soap and ran it over my body, lathering it up against my skin. As I passed it over my crotch, I felt something fibrous between the bar and myself, and noticed that little white soap bubbles stuck to the black stripe of skin in a way which seemed familiar, but incorrect…

I rinsed the shampoo out of my hair, and meditatively allowed my body to be cleaned by the warm water. I turned off the water, reached out of the shower, and wrapped my towel around me, drying myself off. I stepped out of the shower, and decided to air-dry myself off with the hair dryer. The warm air felt even more comforting as it wrapped around me, evaporating away the water on my skin. It felt slightly breezier on my crotch. I looked at it, and saw a very thin layer of fuzzy, white hair.

“Incredible…” I whispered.

I shut off the hair dryer and ran, naked but dry, to my bedroom. I threw on a t-shirt and ran downstairs and into the kitchen.

“Mom, you have to see something,” I said.

She turned around from cooking pancakes and sighed at me. “Samantha, I know you don’t have anything to hide there, but there’s certain social conventions which are actually valid for simple reasons of cleanliness, like, you know, wearing underwear.”

“Mom, this is important. Look closer,” I said, pointing at my lack of genitals. “The skin is growing hair.”

She chuckled. “Samantha, that’s a normal part of development, with puberty–”

“Mom, I already know about puberty, remember?” I asked rhetorically, lifting up my shirt and showing her my two pairs of breasts. “I was getting my pubes three years ago. But I lost them when I lost my skin. In the skin they cloned, they only bothered to put hair follicles on my head… this hair is growing in on its own!”

She shrugged. “Maybe your skin is just healing or something.”

“No, it doesn’t work that way… skin doesn’t just get hair follicles. Something very strange is happening,” I said.

“Well, okay… we can go see a doctor if you like, but I don’t think it’s that important. But please, put some underwear on before you get some nasty germs all over the kitchen.”

“You’re not taking this very seriously,” I grumbled, and sighed. “I don’t want to see a doctor about the hair… not yet, anyway.” I paused for a few seconds. “But I did want to see an eye doctor, about getting some colored contacts–”

“Samantha. Underwear. Now.” She had the no-nonsense look in her eyes.

“Yes, mother,” I relented, and went back upstairs to get dressed.

#### II.7.friendship

“Hi Paul, I guess you’re not home right now, but I’ll call back later.” I sighed, hanging up the telephone.

The doorbell rang. I went downstairs and opened the door. It was Paul.

“Oh, hi Paul. I just left a message on your answering machine… my mom said you called yesterday. What’s up?”

He came in, and sat on the couch. “Sam, I’m sorry for what I said to you the other day.”

“No, it’s… it’s okay, I understand, your parents don’t want you seeing me, and–”

“That’s not it. Well, not quite. I… didn’t tell you the whole story. I told my parents what you had said about that stalker person who tried chatting with you, and they didn’t believe you, they thought you were desperate for attention or something. So I told them that you wouldn’t do that, and they said that in that case, you were dangerous to be with, if you had someone after you like that.

"So I decided to look this ‘FriendlyAdvice’ person up myself, and I couldn’t find anything about them. So I figured that either you were making it up, or they changed their user name to cover their tracks, meaning that this person is serious, and you really are dangerous to be around. So I over-reacted and dumped you. I’m sorry.”

I sighed. “Maybe I am dangerous to be around. My life is so fucked-up right now… all sorts of strange things are going on,” I said.

He blinked. There was a pregnant pause for a few seconds. “Like what?” he finally asked.

I shrugged. “First it turned out that my dad really did do what my mom said he did, only they both kept it secret from me, not wanting to hurt my feelings or something… and after my mom finally told me and showed me proof, she started to act nice – I mean, really nice. But it also turns out that she wasn’t taking as much money as she can… my dad was just giving it to her, to try to not feel guilty or something. Ugh. I feel so used and lied to by him.”

Paul just looked confused, trying to sort things out. “Okay…”

“But that’s not the only weird thing,” I said, sitting down on the couch next to him. “After I talked to my dad, while I was driving home I suddenly got, bam, tired, and had to pull over and take a nap, and I had this… this dream, about the FriendlyAdvice person. I’d never seen her before in my life, but she looked incredibly familiar somehow. And she told me that she was me, which makes absolutely no sense… so when I got home I looked in my logs to see what I could about her, and there was nothing. It was as though it never happened, like I had dreamed the whole thing, but I could swear that I was awake for it.

"And then, there’s this,” I said as I pulled my skirt up to my hips and then pulled down my panties, exposing my crotch.

Paul reflexively looked away and blushed. “Jeeze, warn me when you’re going to do something like that.”

He looked. “So what?”

I pulled at some of the fine white hairs. “So I have hair there. I didn’t have hair there before.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There is no reason that I’d have hair there, Paul. That skin should not be capable of growing hair, but it is!”

He hummed. “That is interesting,” he said, forgetting himself and feeling the hair with his finger. He touched the skin. It tickled, and I squirmed, blushing fiercely. He blushed back. “Oh, I’m… I forgot, I… sorry, sorry…”

I embarrassedly cleared my throat, and pulled my panties back up. “Eep,” I said.

He nodded. “Eep.”

I chuckled nervously. “That felt nice,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Um, I mean… uh… I should go,” he said, standing up, a quite visible erection bulging under his pants.

I frowned. “Why?”

“Just… um… because. I’ll see you at school tomorrow, right?”

I pouted. “Okay. So are we back together, then?”

He cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah, I guess, um… or something.”

He shrugged. “I don’t really care what they think anymore. If they don’t want to pay my tuition, then I’ll just get a part-time job or something. The tuition’s cheap as long as I budget, and I was looking at apartments there, and they’re pretty affordable… we could probably find someone to split a three-bedroom with, and I’m sure your mom would pay your rent…”

I smiled. “Isn’t it a bit soon for us to be living together?” I asked, coyly.

He blushed. “For… for purely economic reasons, of course,” he said.

“Of course.” I kissed him on the cheek.

He fidgeted around uncomfortably.

I smiled. “You can go now.” I looked down at his bulge. “Maybe you’d like to use the bathroom first, though?”

His face grew even redder. “Su– sure,” he said, and meekly slipped off to the closest door and slipped inside, closing the door behind him. I heard him feel around for a light switch.

I knocked on the door. “Paul, that’s the closet.”

A few seconds later, he said, “I knew that!” and emerged, tears of embarrassment welling up in his eyes.

“It’s that way,” I said, pointing the way.

He blushed, and scurried off. I nonchalantly followed, and waited outside the bathroom door for him to finish whatever it was he was doing.

Several minutes later he emerged, much more relaxed. He put his hands on my shoulders, and held me close.

He nodded.

“Want to talk more?”

He nodded again.

“Hm, okay… well, I was thinking about not dyeing my hair for a while, so it grows in white–”

“Wait, I thought you had black hair.”

I laughed. “What, didn’t you notice that my roots are white? You’re too polite. Or a typical guy, or something. Well, my hair isn’t really white, it’s really transparent, but that’s how all white hair is… but anyway, yeah, I was going to let my hair stay white, and then I’d dye it purple or something. I was also thinking of getting purple colored contacts…”

He looked at my eyes. “But your eyes are so pretty already.”

I blushed. “Thanks. You’ve never said that before. But I think purple eyes would look neat, and would go well with–”

“Eyebrows,” he interrupted.

“Hm? No, I don’t have–”

“Yes you do,” he said, stroking at the skin above my right eye. It felt… different.

I rushed into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He was right – just as with the hair on my crotch, I now had the beginnings of fine, white eyebrows inside the black stripe which bordered my eyes.

“Oh my God,” I said. “I didn’t notice those this morning… this is so weird! What the hell is going on?!”

I pondered, and then pulled off my shirt, leaving it in the sink, and looked under my armpit. There was a thin layer of fuzzy, white hair there as well.

“Did that show up just now?” Paul asked, walking into the bathroom.

“I don’t know, I didn’t notice anything this morning, but it’s not like I looked either. This can’t be happening,” I said. “There’s no logical, rational, scientific explanation for this. It’s not like the follicles were just dormant, they were non-existent.”

“You’re making it sound like a bad thing,” he said.

“Well, isn’t it? I don’t care whether I have the hair or not, but the fact that I seem to be growing it simply makes no sense. I just can’t sit by while the whole world–”

“Sam, it’s not like the whole world is going to disappear because of this. Can’t you ever enjoy something for what it’s worth?” He put his arm around my smooth shoulders.

I sighed, leaning against him. “This is just so confusing, Paul. It’s like the whole world is changing.”

“Well, I’m still the same, aren’t I?”

I sighed. “I’m not even sure anymore. Are you?”

“Well, can you think of anything which has changed?”

I sighed, and looked him over while thinking about his recent behavior. “Well, you seem a bit more confident about yourself, but you’ve been getting that way for a while…”

“And you helped with that.”

I hummed. “And you’re also gung-ho about going to college now–”

I smiled. “Yes. But still, you’re fundamentally shy, bashful, and geeky, which is the way you’ve always been, and why I’ve always liked you.”

He blushed. “Okay. So not everything’s changing.”

I leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. “Nope.”

He cleared his throat, and handed me my shirt. “So, um… wanna go somewhere?”

I nodded, and put the shirt back on. “Sounds like a good idea.”

“I know, let’s go get our tongues pierced!”

I gaped at him, shocked. “What?!”

He grinned. “Just kidding.”

“Not funny,” I said, laughing. I hit him on the shoulder.

#### II.8.tedium

…and then I woke up.

I looked around. It was dark.

“I’m sorry to do that, dear, as I know you wanted to stay there, but… well… I pulled you out.” It was my subconscious.

“Mmf. Why? I told you that the rest of the night–”

“The rest of the night,” she said, “should not be spent on a single subject. You’re getting repetitive. You’re obsessing over this one subject, you’re obsessing over her, and frankly, it’s not healthy.”

“But Samantha–”

“Samantha isn’t real, dear. Her happiness doesn’t matter for your life. If you were to make her perfectly-happy, you’d be happy in real life for one or two days, but then you’d fall back to the same old need for an escapist fantasy.”

“Damn it, it’s my brain, I’ll obsess about whatever I want to!”

“It’s my brain too, and I have just as much say as you do.”

“But it’s also Samantha’s brain. The other Samantha, that is.”

“No, it’s not. She’s a figment of our imagination. Her world never has been and never will be real. It exists only as memories, only as thoughts and dreams. You can go back to it any time, dear. Just not tonight. I’m sick of it, and I don’t want you getting stuck on yet another un-fulfill-able fantasy, on some silly quest which won’t accomplish anything except filling in time while we sleep. You can get back to her later, but not now.”

I sighed. “But I already know how I want things to end!”

“Then you’ll have no trouble waiting, then, will you?”

I submitted. I may have been the conscious mind, but this was her domain. I could feel that she wouldn’t let me get back to the dream in progress no matter how hard I tried, and there was no point in attempting subterfuge.

“Okay then,” I said. “What are we doing right now? Why am I not seeing anything?”

“I thought I’d play around at something,” she said, stroking my furry breast. “But I can’t have you see anything until I’m done… arranging things.”

“Ooh, sounds naughty.”

“I suppose,” she said, turning on the light. “But this is more of a mental exercise, a diversion if you will.”

I tried to look around, but found that moving my head had no reasonable effect. My head was sitting on the ground. She picked my head up and smiled at me, grinning. She pointed my head at the ground, where my body – furred in a mottled purple and magenta scheme, and without genitalia, but otherwise normal and human – was strewn about on the floor in a piecewise manner. I wiggled my toes, watching and feeling them wiggle like so many disconnected worms.

“See if you can put yourself back together,” she said, “with no help from me. Oh, and no cheating through belief.” She put my head down on a table so that I could overlook everything.

“This is sadistic,” I said. “How am I supposed to do anything?”

“You’re a smart girl. I’m sure you can figure it out.”

I sighed. “Okay, fine.”

I looked around with my eyes. My right hand – sans fingers or wrist – seemed to be a good starting point. I clenched it in a fist and released, and it wiggled futilely in place. I tried wiggling my thumb. That had a much more useful effect. I soon found that by waving my thumb in a circle, I could slowly move the base of my hand around.

I looked for my forearm, and spotted it relatively close to my hand. I inched my hand towards the wrist connection, and through careful manipulation was able to bring the base of my hand into contact. It merged quickly.

I tried flexing my wrist, but nothing happened. “Hmm,” I said, flexing my left wrist instead, and the hand-forearm assemblage moved accordingly. “Wrong forearm, I guess. I’ll have to fix that later.”

The combined hand-forearm was able to move around much more reasonably, and I continued to assemble my left arm (with my right hand). I wiggled my right fingers around a bit, inching them towards my hand while also bringing my hand towards the fingers.

When that was complete, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was able to rather quickly bring my left arm to my upper torso and attach it at the shoulder, figuring that I’d from there have much more mobility and be able to put everything else together with relative ease.

I made a fist with my right hand and tried to move my upper torso around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get enough leverage. I was stuck. I grunted in agony.

My subconscious smirked.

I sighed, and flailed my left arm around, trying to grab on to any piece of my right arm that I could. At first I had difficulty grabbing onto things, forgetting that it was my right hand I had to grab with, but eventually I managed to get my right upper arm attached to my right shoulder. I was then able to “walk” around awkwardly on my arms, bringing my upper torso closer to other parts of myself.

I was sweating. This was tiring work. But I was feeling tenacious, and I very soon had my right arm and left hand assembled. Now the work could proceed even quicker.

My subconscious yawned, and looked at her wrist in a “checking the time” manner. I glared at her, and “walked” my upper body towards my hips, which I picked up. My fingers brushed against my crotch, and I whimpered as a cascade of pleasure washed over me. Then I realized that while holding it, I couldn’t “walk” any more.

I decided to slowly crawl my way over to my left thigh by repeatedly picking up my hips, putting them down closer to my destination, and then walking on my arms again.

As time passed, I eventually got my lower half together all the way, I couldn’t yet stand up, but I decided to finally correct my hands. I pulled my left hand off with my right, then used my left wrist’s stump to pin my right hand against the ground so that I could pull the right hand off. I then put my wrists to their correct detached hands.

Finally, I moved my legs towards my midsection, walked my upper part onto my midsection, then walked my now-complete upper half onto my lower half.

I stood up, and clumsily walked over to my head. I picked it up. The sudden movement made me disoriented, and I dropped my head. I rolled under the table. I couldn’t see where my body was in respect to me, and also had a painful headache.

I grumbled. “A little help?” I asked.

“Nope, sorry,” my subconscious said.

I sighed, and closed my eyes to override my incorrect viewpoint so I could just rely on touch, got down on my hands and knees, and felt around for my head. I finally picked it up, and put it onto my shoulders. I opened my eyes and looked down to see my back.

I grumbled. “Well, I’m back together. It’s not correct, but I’m done. This got boring fast. Are we done yet?”

“I don’t know. At least it took your mind off of Samantha for a little while,” she said. “But that still bores me, just as even though this started out interesting, it ended up boring you after it became tedious.”

I sighed, closed my eyes, and put my hands to my ears, pulling my head off of my shoulders. I held my head in front of me and turned it around, and then put it back on my shoulders. I opened my eyes and looked back down. I was back together, apparently correctly. I turned around, and walked to my shadow.

I pulled her arms off. She was startled. I then pulled my left arm off, and then attached her left arm to my left shoulder. I put my hand on the table, then flexibly put my right foot on it, pulling my right arm off. I leaned over and, with my teeth, picked up her right arm by the hand, then manipulated her arm in my mouth until it was attached to my right shoulder.

“So is this interesting enough?” I said.

She grinned. “Why, yes, it is.” She tried to reach for my right arm, but I backed away from the table.

“You’re not the only one who can be a sadist,” I said.

“You make it sound like you’re the one in control,” she said, reaching down and tickling my crotch. The fur grew moist as I became aroused.

I murred. “Okay, fine,” I said, walking over to the table. “You can have my arms, and then we can be at each others' mercy.”

“Why thank you!” she said, picking up my arms in her hands. She walked over to me, and I turned towards her so she could attach my arms to herself. I grasped at her head, pulling it off from her shoulders, and put it on the table facing the wall so she couldn’t see.

She gasped in surprise. I walked over to her body, put my hands to my face, and pulled my head off of my shoulders, reattaching it atop her. I opened my eyes, and picked her head up and put it on my body.

“Ooh,” she said, looking down and feeling over my body. “Not to stroke my own ego, but I like the way you think.”

“Even boring things can be made interesting. You just have to look at them in the right way,” I observed, cupping her breasts.

“Touché. Mmm.”

I murred as she felt my body up, and I reciprocated, rubbing her smooth shadowy self. We rubbed each others' crotches for a while, masturbating each others' lacks of genitalia while writhing under each others' sensual touches.

I walked my body over to myself, and thrust my crotch against hers, fusing our hips together. I reached down and kneaded us together. We both moaned in ecstasy as our forms fused together, writhing against ourselves in pleasure.

#### II.9.join

…and then I woke up.

I was wandering aimlessly through my house, trying to find something. I remembered that I needed to brush my hair, and so I walked into my bathroom. I picked up my brush, and looked in the mirror.

I recoiled in horror when I noticed that my hairline had receded like a middle-aged man’s. It crossed the apex of my forehead where it gave way to scalp.

“Oh crap, oh crap… how did this happen?” I asked myself. I thought back, and wondered if my endocrine system was acting up lately, flooding my bloodstream with testosterone for some reason…

I looked in the mirror again and noticed that not all of my hairline had migrated back… some had migrated down – there was an “island” of hair sticking out of the middle of my forehead in an annoying manner. I sighed, and grabbed my scissors, cutting the forehead-hair off, then reached for my shaving gel. I worked it up into a lather and spread it over my forehead, shaving it.

I shook my head to spread my hair out. “Hm, that doesn’t look too bad,” I said, noticing that the way my hair was, and the way that it now had blonde hilights, and the fact it was somewhat stiffer now, made it look like quills, on a porcupine. I shrugged… “It could be worse,” I mused.

I walked out of the bathroom and into the living room. I saw Ian sitting on the couch.

“Oh, hello Ian, what are you doing here?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be over in Pascal’s world?”

He shrugged. “You’re pretty sexy too,” he said.

I smiled, and sat down on the couch next to him. He pulled me on top of himself, and I nuzzled at his face. He kissed me back.

“This is the wrong world,” I said.

“Well, then, let’s make it the right world,” he intoned, as he slipped Pascal’s ring onto my finger.

I felt a surge of energy wash over me as I felt my tissue reform. I felt a chill, my clothes dissolving away into nothingness. Pain gripped me as I felt Pascal’s tail sprout out of the base of my spine, and her muzzle push her way out of my face.

He ran his paw over my unfurred face and murred. “Not quite right,” he said, running his fingers through my head-quills, “but it’ll do.”

I churred porcupinely, and focused on the ring. I brought up what I knew to be one of his favorite forms – coincidentally, with smooth, unfurred black-and-white zebra-striped skin, white hair, and with the appearance of no genitals (with the crotch zipped up); like Samantha with a muzzle, only this form had existed long before the dream of Samantha.

He smiled, stroking a paw over my lower-right nipple, which grew firm.

I wrapped my legs around him, squeezing myself close, making out with him on the couch from the real world which appeared in “alpha.”

“Mmm,” I said. “You are very naughty, silly subconscious. Two eros breaks in a row?”

Ian pouted, and reformed into my shadowy subconscious. “How did you know it was me?” she said.

“What a silly question. You underestimated me this time. And anyway, this was just too incongruous… this was a typical alpha dream, what with the hair thing, and the only other entity which has ever shown up in one of these is you.”

She grinned. “You’re mighty lucid for being in alpha.”

I snuggled my smooth, stripey body against her, nuzzling my muzzle at her neck. She wrapped her hands around me, and traced her tail’s tip across the stripes on my back.

“I need your help,” I said in between moans.

“Mmm. With what?”

“With making Samantha’s world interesting.”

“I see.”

“But we can’t make it incongruous with her reality.”

She nodded, and rubbed my neck.

“But I want to finally breach the wall.”

“Wall?”

“Between me – this me – and her reality. Showing up in her dreams isn’t working so well.”

“Mmm. And what, exactly, will you do to ‘help’ her, anyway? Assuming you can even get her to talk to you.”

“I dunno. I’ll… figure something out.”

…and then I woke up.

I looked around at my surroundings. Trees… grass… children, playing with a soccer ball, throwing Frisbees, laughing…

I must have been in a park. I sat up groggily, my back sore from a nap on the park bench.

“Hey lady!” shouted a young child to my left. “Do you know what time it is?”

I pushed back the left sleeve of my felt overcoat, pretending to look at a watch. “It’s just before three,” I said.

“Thanks!” He started to run down the street towards a bunch of houses.

“Probably going to watch cartoons,” I mused to myself, smiling. “I wonder if they’re any good in this world.”

I stood up and stretched, and ran my fingers through my frizzy, brown hair. I took off my sunglasses, rubbed my eyes, and put the sunglasses back on.

I leaned back against a tree, facing Samantha’s house, and crossed my arms, waiting for her to return home from school.

Moments later, a car which I recognized as hers – a mid-1980s German vehicle, maroon in color – arrived, pulling into her driveway. Both front doors opened; from the driver side came out Samantha, from the passenger side Paul.

It was March now. Samantha had let her hair grow out without dyeing it for a while, cut it shorter, and then dyed it magenta. She was wearing my favorite purple skirt, and a light-green t-shirt. She pushed some dangly bracelets up her wrists and ran her fingers through her hair. Her irises were purple; she had apparently gotten the contact lenses after all.

Paul was wearing a black leather jacket, partially zipped-up but showing a white t-shirt underneath, blue jeans, and dark sunglasses very much like mine. He looked like he had grown up so much.

He walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed her on the lips. I smiled happily; how nice it was to have someone in love with her.

I began to walk across the street, heading in their direction. Paul caught a glimpse of me.

“Look over there,” he said to her, quietly, and pointing at me. She looked over, and froze. I waved.

“Hello, Samantha,” I said. “It’s been a while. I love what you’ve done with your hair.”

“You again,” she said, glaring. “I thought you gave up on whatever sick game you were playing.”

“Sam, we got off on a bad start,” I said. “I really do want to help you.”

“Only my friends call me Sam,” she said. “You’re not my friend, and I don’t need your help.”

“That’s what you think,” I said. “I know something that is extremely important for your future well-being.”

She crossed her arms and glared at me. “I don’t even know your name. Why should I trust you?”

“Well, my name is also Samantha,” I said, “and you should trust me as you would trust yourself, for reasons you already know.”

Paul stood behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “She said that she didn’t–”

“Wait, Paul,” she said. She paused, and looked over at me. “You show up in my dreams, you seem to know everything about me, and you claim to be me. Just as I’m starting to believe you’re real, you disappear for months. Then you reappear, but in person. I’ve never seen you before but you look familiar. What do you mean when you say that you’re me?”

“It’s… difficult to explain,” I said, not wanting to reveal too much about her life. “But we share a mind. I live your life as you do. I see and feel and think what you do.”

“Okay then,” she asked, smirking, “what words am I thinking right now?”

“Cranberry sauce.”

She gaped. “How–”

“Like I said,” taking off my sunglasses and tucking them into a pocket, “I’m you.”

Paul looked very confusedly between us. “You know,” he offered in an attempt to be helpful, “she does look a bit like you, Sam.”

I grinned. “Let’s get some coffee. The three of us. I have a lot to discuss with you both.”

Samantha sighed. “Okay. But I’m driving, and Paul’s sitting in back in case you do anything funny.”

I nodded. “But of course.” I walked over to the passenger side of the car.

“You have to jiggle the handle just–” she started, interrupted when I opened the door flawlessly on the first try.

The three of us got in the car. I sat down, buckled up, and crossed my arms.

“Keep your hands on your lap where I can see them,” she said.

“But of course.” I folded my hands on my lap.

She looked at them. “Your… your hands are… colored like mine,” she gasped.

I looked down at them, to see that they were zebra-striped, thick stripes on the backs and skinny stripes on the palms, just like Samantha’s. She didn’t notice my lack of pinkies, however, or the fact that I had claws instead of fingernails. “Indeed, they are,” I said, feigning lack of surprise.

“Dear,” I thought to myself, trying to communicate with my subconscious, “what are you doing?”

I felt her grin. “Making things interesting.”

#### II.10.coffee

I nervously played with my hair. “So you said you had something important to tell me,” I said as she sipped her coffee.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Samantha said.

“And?” My patience was growing thin.

She sighed, and put down the coffee. “It always tastes better here than where I come from.”

“Hm?”

“The coffee. It tastes bitter in the re– um… in the region I live in.”

“So you come from far away, then?” Paul asked, still trying to figure her out, a task I had long since given up on.

“Not particularly,” she said.

I grumbled at yet another cryptic comment made by this odd person, and propped my chin with my right hand, boredly dangling a spoon in my coffee with my left.

I frowned. “Blah. What about him?”

“So you haven’t forgiven him yet.”

“No, should I have?”

“I don’t particularly blame you, you know. He did lie to you for so long. It’s just that… well, he meant well, and…” She trailed off. “You were about the only thing he had to live for. Everything he was doing, he was doing for you.”

I sighed. “I know. That’s part of why it hurt so bad.” I felt tears begin to well up in my eyes. “Why are you telling me these things?”

“I don’t know what he’s going to do, honestly. He’s too far…” She grasped for a word. “Outside. He’s too far outside for me to know for sure. But he’s almost certainly going to either hurt himself or others. Maybe even you, or your friend,” she said, glancing to Paul.

“He’s… he’s not a violent person,” I said. “Except that one night, but… but that was different.”

“Because of alcohol,” she said.

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Which is, unless this place is substantially different than where I’m from, the most readily available drug on the market,” she said.

“Inter-dimensional traveler!” Paul interjected, excitedly.

“That’s what you are! You’re Sam from a parallel universe. It’s why your hands are like that, right?”

She unwrapped her hands from her coffee cup and straightened her fingers. I suddenly noticed that she had claws instead of fingernails, and only had four fingers on each hand. She smiled at him, exposing bucked incisors. “A very good guess, Paul, and fairly accurate given what you know. But completely, absolutely wrong.”

“Oh,” he said. He slumped back in his chair, disappointed.

She turned to me. “Mmm, he really is cute, isn’t he.”

I blushed and sighed. “Yeah.”

“I wish I had a boyfriend like him,” she mused. “Can I share?”

Paul perked up, and grinned.

“No,” I said, glaring at him.

He slumped back and crossed his arms. “You’re no fun,” he groused. I stuck my tongue out at him.

She folded her hands and rested her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands. “It’s so nice that you’re able to express yourself the way you want to and be accepted for it,” she said dreamily. “I wish I could do that.”

I shrugged. “I’m not accepted so much, I’m just tolerated and cast out from social groups.”

“Yes, but people still respect you. Well, adults do, anyway, and that’s all that really matters…”

“Sometimes I feel like they’re just patronizing me,” I said. “‘Oh, nice makeup,’ they say. ‘Oh, that’s your skin? What happened? Oh, why didn’t you try looking normal?’ And I tell them that I don’t know, that I just felt compelled to look this way. As much as I like it, sometimes I wish I’d just tried to look normal, or like an albino or something.” I sighed. “Why zebra stripes?”

She shrugged, and sighed. “They look neat. They’re cute, but different. Cute and different things are nice.”

I thought about that for a few seconds. “I suppose.”

We both smiled, and simultaneously said, “Like porcupines!” We broke into a fit of girlish giggling. Paul rolled his eyes, and sighed boredly.

I giggled. “So your hands… those are normal for… wherever you’re from?”

She smiled. “No. It’s… I can’t really explain things without…” She sighed. “Let’s just say that here I look different than I do there.”

I shrugged. “So are you ever going to explain where you’re from, then?” I asked.

“It’s not the endgame yet.”

I grumbled. “Whatever that’s supposed to mean. ‘Endgame.’ You make it sound like…”

“Like chess,” offered Paul.

She nodded. “Something like that.”

“Do you play?” he asked her.

“Yes, but not very well. I just don’t have the concentration for it.” She smiled. “But I’d love to play against you someday.”

He grinned. “My Samantha won’t play chess against me.”

“It’s boring,” I interjected, “and it takes too long, and no fun playing against you. You can practically play it in your sleep!”

The other Samantha grinned knowingly, in a way that made me feel that I’d missed out on a joke I just said. I noticed that she didn’t have any of the usual pointy, carnivorous teeth, though it wasn’t like she had lost them, she just never had them to begin with.

“What?” I asked her, hoping that she could fill me in on the joke I had somehow made.

“Nothing, nothing.” She sighed. “I wish I could tell you about myself, but I can’t. Not yet.”

I shrugged. “I’m still not entirely convinced that this is actually happening,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow there will be no proof that it actually happened. Maybe this is all just a dream, and Paul isn’t really here, and he won’t remember this happening…”

“Your previous encounters with me were dreams, yes, but this is certainly real for you, dear,” she said, “and Paul will remember. I will make sure of it.”

I grumbled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She glanced over at Paul. Paul fidgeted nervously.

“Are you going to remember this, Paul?” she asked.

She looked back at me. “See? He’ll remember.” She pulled back at the sleeve and looked at the back of her wrist. “Oh, my, look at the time,” she said, even though she had no watch that I could see. “You two really should be getting back to your, ahem, ‘studying.’”

Paul and I both blushed.

“Thanks for the coffee,” I said. “Will I ever see you again?”

She nodded. “You can be sure of it.”

I heard a distant ringing, as if of a bell. The other Samantha started to look around frantically… “Oh, fuck,” she said…

…and then I woke up, the telephone ringing.

#### II.11.return

“Mom, I told you not to call me this early,” I said, angrily into the telephone. “I was asleep.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I’ll let you go back to bed now.”

“No, no… I’m already awake.” I yawned, stretching. I carried the phone over to the computer so that I could start to write down what happened in the dream so I could remember it for later.

“What are you doing? I hear typing,” she said.

“Yes, I’m typing. I had a dream, and I’m writing it down before I forget it.”

“That’s a pretty personal question, mom.”

“You don’t have to take that tone with me, young lady.”

I sighed. “Mom. I’m not your little baby anymore. Can’t you treat me like an adult for a change?”

“I’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like one.”

“Jesus Christ, mom! What, you think I’m being immature just because I’m grouchy since you woke me up at seven in the morning?!”

“I’ve been awake since five.”

“That’s nice,” I quipped, hoping that my voice was absolutely dripping with sarcasm. “I’m not a goddamned morning person like you are!”

She paused a few seconds. “I can tell you don’t want to talk to me. I’ll call back later. Bye.”

I heard a click. I slammed the phone down, and yelled angrily.

I sighed. “Have to concentrate… what was happening, what was… Okay, so… um… her mom turned out to really be abused, her dad was lying to her, and I… Fuck, fuck, I can’t remember.”

I sighed, and tried replaying the scenes in my mind.

I looked at my bed. It was very tempting… try to go back to sleep, get back in the dream… but all that would likely do was just wipe out the memory before I could remember it.

“Have to think, have to think…”

I “heard” her voice, my subconscious, telling me not to worry, and that I’d remember, and all I needed to do was relax.

“Relax,” I said to nobody in particular.

“Shower,” I replied to myself.

As I inhaled the warm, relaxing water vapors, the dream-Samantha’s memories came flooding back to me. I remembered everything which transpired for her, the conversations with myself, the confusing issues with her parents, the impossible hair, the passage of time, and the coffee shop conversation.

In the shower I kept on micro-napping, almost nodding off. Every time I got another burst of memory flood, of what happened in the several months which my subconscious had me skip. It truly was boring, but it helped me to feel complete.

I quickly wrote down what I knew, and still tired, I laid back down on my bed.

“What just happened?!” the dream Samantha asked me.

I looked around. We were in the dark laboratory room, and I was sitting on the cold, metal table. She was standing up. We were both naked.

“I’m sorry, I… I… don’t know.” I grasped at straws, trying to remember… the ringing, the conversation… “I think I… I woke up.”

She stared at me. “What are you talking about?!”

I sighed. “Where were we?”

“We were in the coffee shop with Paul… I heard a ringing, and then suddenly we were here.” She looked down at herself. “Oh God, I’m naked. You’re naked. You have… fur, and quills?! What is this place? Where’s Paul?”

“Please, be quiet,” I said. “I need to… need to concentrate…”

I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. The coffee shop. Table. Me, Paul to my left, Sam to my right. Background chatter. Her clothing, my clothing… fill in the details, fill in the details…

I opened my eyes. We were back in the coffee shop as things were before. Sam was shaking terribly.

“You were just saying ‘Oh, fuck.’”

I thought for a few seconds. “Oh, sorry, I had lost my train of thought… I just remembered that I forgot to do something. Nothing important.”

Paul looked over at my counterpart. “What’s wrong, Sam?”

She was shivering, and clutching her arms around herself.

I sipped at my coffee, nonchalantly. “She’ll slip out of it eventually.”

Paul stared at me. “What do you–”

I waved my hand, and he stopped. Time froze.

I leaned towards Samantha, and put my mouth to her ear. “You will understand,” I muttered softly to her, “but not yet. It is not important now.”

I allowed time to continue. Samantha stopped shivering.

“–mean?” finished Paul.

Samantha gazed at me, confused. A few seconds later, she spoke. “I’m sorry, I just had the… the strangest… dream, I think. I don’t know what came over me,” she said.

I nodded, pretending to be calm. “It’s quite all right, dear. Happens to everyone from time to time. But anyway, I do believe that I must be going,” I said. “It was nice to finally meet you two in the flesh, so to speak,” she said, extending her odd, zebra-striped hand to me.

I shook it, and then she extended it to Paul, who also shook it.

“Um… see you again?” I asked.

She nodded. “You can be sure of it.” She winked, and turned towards the door, walking out. It looked like there was a large bulge on her lower back.

“That was odd,” Paul said.

I nodded. “What a strange porcupine,” I said.

“What?”

I blinked. “I said, ‘What a strange person.’”

“I… I could have sworn you said ‘porcupine.’ Are you feeling okay, Sam?”

I looked around. “Frankly, no.” I sighed. “This was far too weird. Let’s go back to my house.”

Paul nodded. We walked out of the coffee shop. On the way out, my reflection caught my eye. My hair was light-blue.

“Paul?” I asked, stopping. “What color is my hair?”

“Light-blue, of course. What, you forgot already?”

“It’s not magenta?”

He shook his head. “No, not as far as I know. It’s been light-blue all day.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. “Are you sure?”

He put his hand on my forehead. “Sam, I think you’re running a fever… you must be delirious. Let’s get you home. Give me your keys.”

I nodded, feeling dizzy. I opened my purse, and tried to search for my keys, but… I felt dizzy, I felt faint… I… “Paul…”

#### II.12.delirium

…and then I woke up, hearing a faint beeping.

I looked around to see the beeping. It was a heart monitor. I was… wearing hospital clothes. I closed my eyes again.

“Mmf,” I managed to say.

“You’re awake!” I heard my mom say, enthusiastically. “God, Sam, don’t scare me like that… Paul said you just passed out in front of the coffee shop.”

I managed to groan a little. “What happened?”

“The doctors aren’t sure, but they think it’s an infection. They have you on some antibiotics…” She trailed off, and wrapped her arms around me. “Oh God… I was so worried… You were passed out for an hour!”

“Mom… wh… what color is my h… hair?”

“What kind of a question is that to be asking?!”

“What is it? Need to know.”

“Why, it’s purple, of course. You dyed it this morning.”

“Magenta?”

“Purple, magenta, whatever. What’s the difference?”

I nodded, weakly. “Just checking… tired.”

I lay on the hospital bed in silence. I could feel her looking worriedly at me. I smiled, started to hum a happy little tune to fill in the gap of noise.

“Sam… Can you understand me?”

I nodded, and swallowed. “I’m fine, mom. I was just having a dream. It’s okay.”

I felt a bit sore between my legs. I slowly reached there, and began rubbing. It felt swollen.

“Sam… Sam, what are you doing?”

“Hurts…”

I lapsed into unconsciousness, and awoke again. I cracked my eyes open. Surgeons wearing masks were very carefully cutting at the skin below my peehole. I lapsed again.

I woke up, feeling like I’d been dead for a hundred years. The room was empty. I looked around and weakly found the call button. I pressed it.

A few minutes later a doctor came in. “Ah, you’re awake.”

I was feeling giddy. “Hullo,” I said cheerily. “Wassup?”

“We found the source of infection, and removed it… it’s quite… bizarre,” said the doctor. “It seems that you had built up… menses.”

I giggled. “But I don’t make messy menses messes. Don’t got no Miss Pussy or Mister Uterus.”

“Hmm, yes. Well… it would seem that you do, now.”

“Hehe, silly funny doctor man…” I smiled at his joke.

He cleared his throat. “I’ll come back later when the Valium has worn off…”

“Okay mister man,” I said, falling back asleep.

Some unknown time later, I awoke, an incredible pain between my legs, like a hot knife was being thrust in and twisted around, then some salted lemon juice added for good measure. I screamed out in agony. After an excruciating brief period passed, a nurse rushed in and administered a shot to me. It felt like warmth was spreading out from my legs. The intense pain eventually subsided to a regular throbbing. I felt like I had to vomit. I looked around and grabbed a convenient yellow bedpan, and tried to puke. All that came up was some bile.

A doctor rushed in. It may have been the same one from before; I couldn’t tell.

“Ugh,” I said. “What’s going on?”

The doctor picked up the chart, and looked it over. “Ah, yes, Samantha,” he said. “I’m Doctor Benjamin Jenkins, the one who operated on you earlier. Let me look at your chart for a reminder… Ah, yes. It would appear that you came in here because of a rather nasty infection within your vagina, since it was, for some reason, sealed up, in what looks like a botched infibulation–”

“Doctor,” I said, interrupting him, “I have a long history at this hospital. You can check my records here if you would like to verify any of this. A few years ago I came in because of a nasty skin condition which developed, which required the replacement of my skin due to a bacterial infection. That infection had spread to the mucus membranes lining my vagina and uterus. It was not sealed up, it was removed.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“So there is no reason,” I said, “why I should have a vagina or a uterus at all. It was not an infibulation, it was a removal. Therefore, there is no reason that it could be menses.”

He nodded. “That may be the case, but when you came in this afternoon, you most certainly did have both a fully-functional uterus and a vagina, which had both been swollen with necrotic menstrual tissue.”

“Doctor,” I said, “let me explain this again. I am sure you are aware of the fact that humans do not have the ability to regenerate missing body parts.”

“Samantha,” he said, “let me explain this again. You have a uterus and a vagina, the latter of which had to be opened up, drained, and flushed out because of the necrotic tissues which built up and gave you a rather nasty infection. Whether or not you had any functional genitalia before is irrelevant, as you have them now.”

“Then it would seem,” I said, “that either you are mistaken, or there is something incredibly wrong with the universe.”

“Yes,” he said, “it would. You are in no condition to be walking around just yet, and we are still draining the region. But I assure you that when we change out your gauze, you will be at least somewhat surprised. You should also probably know that you have no labia, so things will look a bit odd…er.”

“I see,” I said. “Actually, no, I don’t. I’m still rather hung up on the part where you said that I have a uterus and vagina.”

He shrugged. “Are you a religious person, Samantha?”

“No.”

“Then perhaps you should stop fighting new facts on the basis of faith,” he said. “Most people would be happy about this, even if it can’t be explained. I see things which can’t be explained every day – people with malignant brain tumors who continue with perfectly-functional lives for years, people who have clinically died on the table only to recover a few minutes later, and a whole host of other issues. I’ve even seen women who were declared barren discover that they were pregnant. Not one of them has ever complained about their survival or sudden fertility simply because it didn’t coincide with medical knowledge.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” I quipped sarcastically.

“You’d have to take that up with my boyfriend,” he retorted. “Are you always this cheerful, or is it just the Valium talking? Get some sleep. I can tell you need it, and if not, I’d hate to see you when you’re actually cranky.” He left the room.

I leaned back. Okay, so what if he was right? The hair magically starting to grow I could maybe understand… perhaps they did put follicles in after all and they just didn’t tell me because the hair didn’t seem to work, and they wanted to save face. But honest-to-God new genitals? Somehow, the term “inconceivable” seemed ironically appropriate.

I began to feel dizzy, with a slight humming sound in my ear. It grew progressively louder as I grew progressively tired. I felt sleep wash over me.

#### II.13.menses

…and then I woke up.

“That was an odd dream,” I said to myself. “I wonder where that came from.” I stretched in bed, and felt something cold and slippery between my legs. “Ugh, I think I know now…”

I looked down to see that I’d had my period a few days early. Not only was I still wearing my bathrobe when I fell asleep, but the blood had soaked through into the sheets.

“Ugh. Gross. Now I need to have another shower,” I thought, “and also wash my sheets and bathrobe. Great. So much for a pleasant Saturday. At least it makes dream Samantha’s life a bit more interesting.”

The phone rang. I sighed, peeled off my bathrobe so that I didn’t make more of a mess than necessary, and sat on the edge of my bed, answering it.

“Hello?”

“Yes, hi dear.” It was my mom. “Are you awake now?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sorry about the way I acted earlier, but I was very tired.”

“Were you up all night again?”

“By your standards or by my standards?”

“Mine.”

“Then yes, I was up until midnight.” I sighed. “Could I call you back? I have a headache, and I’m in a bit of a crisis right now.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, you know… that time of month.”

“Oh. That’s one thing I don’t miss from having my hysterectomy.”

“Yes, thank you, you’ve mentioned that before. I look forward to turning fifty so that I, too, can experience the joy of menopause. I’m sure it’s very convenient.”

My mom sighed. “You don’t have to be so snippy with me, dear. Can’t you at least try to be pleasant?”

“Not without dripping with sarcasm, mom, at least when I’m dripping with blood.”

“Not even for the sexiest guy in the world if he promised to clean my kitchen.”

“Okay, dear,” she chuckled. “Call me back later then… promise?”

“Promise.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too, mom. Bye.”

I hung up, grumbled at the turn of events, and planned out how I’d go about cleaning things up.

I stripped the sheets from my bed, and thought about the dream. I piled them in my laundry basket along with my clothes, and thought about the dream. I nakedly walked into the bathroom, shut the door behind me, and pulled my towel off of the towel rack, putting it on top of the toilet, and thought about the dream.

I turned on the water, and waited for it to heat up. I pressed the button to force it through the shower head. I stepped into the water, closed the shower curtain, and relaxed in the warm embrace of the shower’s hot and steamy water.

“That was the same dream as the night before,” I thought. “A continuation of it… just like I’d hoped for.”

I pondered the implications of that. It was a dream which was somehow important enough that I did manage to get back into it. This was not something I had managed before – voluntarily continuing an interesting dream from a previous night.

“I wonder if my subconscious is telling me something,” I mused, as I soaped up my wash cloth to clean my skin off.

### III.resolve

After a long but boring Saturday of various random minor crises (most of which related to doing my laundry – I’d forgotten how difficult it was to clean out blood, and I couldn’t find any stain remover so I had to go to the store, which meant dealing with annoying people, and so on, and so on), I finally had a chance to sit and think.

I sat down on my warm, toasty, freshly-remade plaid-sheeted futon.

I pulled my knees up to my chest, and wrapped my arms around them.

I sat. I thought.

I had a glimmer about my dreams of the previous night. I thought about those, and remembered everything which happened. Dream-Samantha’s breakup and reunion, the changes in her parents, the changes in her body…

I started to feel genuine concern for her. Sure, she may have been the product of random nerve firings in my unconscious brain, but even though it wasn’t real, it seemed like I was living two lives – hers and my own. No other dream had ever been such a complete universe unto itself, and I’d never been so captivated by a single nighttime alter-ego’s goings-on before.

While awake I was certain about what reality was, about the fact that this life was real, and my dreams seemed like, well, dreams. But while asleep I was certain about what reality was, about the fact that those lives were real, and from there, this reality seemed like, well, dreams.

This life I had returned to many times before. But in those lives I had no reason to doubt that they were real as well.

A feeling of déjà vú washed over me. Hadn’t I thought about this before? Hm, perhaps it had been debated at length in the past, or perhaps in a dream, but I decided that I needed a refresher. After all, if memories were what defined reality and I didn’t have any concrete memories, then did it truly happen? I proceeded with the re-evaluation.

I looked down at my hand. I imagined it being zebra-striped, without its pinky, and clawed, like the representation of my real-world self towards the end of last night’s subconscious recreation. In the dreams, the supposedly real me seemed like a different person from myself, the stripey dream-world Samantha.

But the evidence all pointed to this world, the world I was in while pondering these things, being real, with the others being fictitious manifestations of myself.

I decided that reality, like time and position, is relative, and that if my memories built up a certain reality as being real, then this reality was, for all intents and purposes, the real one. Why worry about the true, canonical reality if it makes no difference anyway?

I supposed that if this world were a dream as well, that if it were the perception of a single mind in an isolated solipsistic existence, then I could be a complete opportunist, like all of the solipsists that I had the displeasure of ever meeting. I didn’t want to act like a solipsist, or at the very least decided that even if solipsists were correct (meaning, of course, that if the solipsists were manifestations of my own thoughts which were correct in stating that I was the only creature in existence), it would be no fun to live in a self-inflicted shitty world where everyone else hated me for behaving (even if correctly) like I was the only one who existed.

And also, I supposed, it could be the case that the different dream worlds didn’t exist solely in my mind – that there are infinite consciousnesses in the universe, all of whom exist in many of infinite universes but only very rarely did any two both exist in a congruent pair. An inverse solipsism, if you will.

Do the real thoughts of a unicorn make the unicorn real? Perhaps in one of the infinitely improbable permutations of energy.

Every possibility is equally infinitely improbable; just because reality is a certain way doesn’t mean that it was any likelier to be this way than it turned out. So, I figured, I’d might as well live as though every possibility is true – in which case I should simply go on as normal.

The stripey Samantha may or may not have been real in the canonical reality, but she was real in her reality, and that’s all that mattered.

I looked at the time. It was only 9 PM. Far too early to be going to bed, even though it was dark out and there wasn’t anything in particular to do.

I got on my computer, connected to the Internet, and logged on to a chat service. Just for kicks, I searched for users named ZebraStripe.

No matches. Oh well.

I pondered, and remembered the dreams involving Ian. I connected to the role-playing game where I knew him. He was, not unsurprisingly, connected.

“Hey,” Pascal messaged him.

He hugged her. I felt warm and fuzzy.

The porcupine and the wolf, their human counterparts living vicariously through them, talked for a few hours. They cuddled, not caring about the outside world that we, their “typists,” lived in.

Their life existed outside any real reality, and yet they had a reality of their own, in which it was perfectly normal that she was a color- and material-transmuting alchemist and that he was skilled in magic, and that they simply existed without any sort of justification, without any parents or siblings, without the need to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom (except in the hazy area of out-of-character activity). Sure, they could do that if they wanted to, and they had in the past, but there was no point to it; the routine, boring things weren’t worth being explicit about.

I yawned. Pascal told Ian that she was tired; Ian said the same. She got into her pajama-like plush plaid form. They snuggled up in bed together as their respective typists disconnected to go to bed in our reality.

I slipped into some soft, fuzzy pajamas, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.

#### III.1.lemonfresh

…and then I woke up.

It was Sunday in reality. The reality of before, the reality of when I went to bed.

I didn’t recall dreaming. I probably had dreamed, of course, but I didn’t remember anything that happened.

I sighed. A sleep cycle wasted.

I stretched, I got up, I donned my bathrobe, I walked to the bathroom. I put my bathrobe on the toilet seat, removed my towel from the towel rack, and placed it on top of my bathrobe. I turned on the water, and waited a few moments for it to warm up. I stepped into the shower, comfortable in the water and its warm embrace.

I took the bottle of shampoo. It felt pretty light. I turned it over and squeezed it. Empty. Damn.

I did what I could to wash my hair out without assistance of shampoo, and hoped that the conditioner would at least take care of whatever dirt remained. I really had to get to the store to buy more shampoo, though…

I shut off the water, got out of the shower, and toweled off. I donned my bathrobe, and I brushed my hair. I opened my contact lens case and popped the lenses in. The world turned slightly purple, a small sacrifice for the attractiveness of having their unnatural tint.

I exited the bathroom. I heard a high-pitched whine coming from nowhere in particular. I walked into the living room. The television was on. I sat down at it, staring at the hypnotic imagery of cartoons imported from Japan.

Paul sat down next to me with a bowl of cereal. “Up so soon?” he asked.

I nodded, watching the buxom bikini-clad warrior girl cut off the arm of the green four-eyed monster from another dimension. I snuggled up next to Paul. “Why do you watch this stuff?” I asked.

“Do you want to watch something else?” He picked up the remote control.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, feigning disinterest while wondering how the monster could still be alive now that it was missing both of its arms and had spurted out probably enough blood to fill a small swimming pool.

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

The monster’s acid breath melted one of the warrior’s bikini straps.

“Now you will be having to pay for what you have had done to me!” she shouted in a disinterested voice as she covered her breasts with her arm.

“Roar!” said the monster in a very un-monster-like way.

I picked up the remote.

“There’s nothing better on right now,” said Paul.

I nodded. “I know,” I said, turning off the TV.

He put his bowl of cereal down on the coffee table and wrapped his muscular arms around me. He put his nose in my hair, and breathed in.

“No shampoo… I ran out, and so I just used extra conditioner,” I said.

“Oh. You can borrow some of mine.”

I shrugged. “I’ll just buy some when I drop you off at the store today.” I leaned against him. “Your arms are getting pretty strong.”

He nodded. “We’ve been stocking up on watermelons. They’re pretty heavy.”

“Well, they’re mostly water,” I observed.

He smiled. “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” he said, and then kissed at my ear.

I closed my eyes. “Mmm,” I said.

He slipped his hand under my bathrobe and gently squeezed my lower-right breast, rubbing his thumb over its nipple. I melted in his arms.

He rubbed my stomach, patting its curve softly. “So how’s little Paul Junior feeling?” he asked.

I giggled. “It might be a girl, you know,” I said.

“Okay then, how’s little Paula feeling?”

I laughed, and snuggled up against Paul, kissing him on the lips. “She’s feeling like she doesn’t like her name,” I quipped.

“Oh, speaking of which,” he said, “yesterday my mom sent me an email with a whole bunch of name ideas with meanings and stuff.”

I giggled. “She’s really gung-ho into this whole ‘grandmother’ thing, isn’t she.”

He nodded. “Well, at least she’s finally accepted you into the family. So has dad… he can’t wait to be a grandfather.”

I nodded, and sighed. “That reminds me, I should call my mom to see how she’s doing…”

“Sam, you don’t have to call her every weekend.”

“Yes I do, just to touch base. I’m afraid that if I don’t, she’ll think she has nobody in her life. I mean, ever since my dad…” I trailed off, and sighed.

He hugged me. “Okay. But try to keep it short… our phone bill has been getting pretty big lately.”

“Yeah, I know, but most of the companies I’m applying at are across the country–”

“Sam,” he interrupted, “you really don’t have to kill yourself to get a job right away. I can support us just fine for a while, and when the baby gets here and life has settled down a bit, then you can start looking. Nobody wants to hire anyone who’s four months pregnant anyway. You’ll have a master’s degree in chemical engineering. There’ll be jobs for you. And then I can quit my job, and we move, and I stay at home with the baby.”

I smiled. “You’d be a house-husband?”

He rubbed his fingertip over my forehead. “What, are you suddenly getting conventional on me?”

“Ha ha, that’d be a laugh,” I said.

He slipped the hand which was on my belly between my legs. I moaned softly.

He yawned. “Sorry honey, but it’s time for me to go to bed.”

I nodded. “How much longer are you working the night shift?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. I’ll be glad when this tech recession is over though. Then we could probably hire a nanny for our kid and both work.”

I nodded. “Well, we can’t really tell the future, you know. Just a few years it seemed impossible that I’d even be able to have a child, and I wouldn’t even have considered that I’d be married to you and so on… It’s odd how things can work out sometimes.”

He smiled, and kissed me on the lips. “‘Night, honey,” he said.

“Good night.”

As he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth, I picked up the mostly un-eaten bowl of cereal and started to eat breakfast.

#### III.2.dream

“Mom, please don’t be so hard on yourself,” I said. “It’s not like any of us saw it coming. It’s been three years, now.”

I heard her sigh. “Yes, dear, I know, but every day I wake up, and it’s more of the same. I hope you never have to know what it’s like living in a wheelchair,” she said.

“Yes, mom, I… I know,” I said. I felt a twinge of remorse as I began to feel responsible for it again, not heeding that strange woman’s warning about my dad. But it was so long before he had actually done it… she must have just been idly speculating. I probably would have with the same information she did.

“So has he tried contacting you again?” she asked, spitefully.

“No,” I said.

“You’re lying, I can tell.”

I sighed. “Yeah. Dad tried to call me again yesterday. I declined the call though, of course.”

“You’re lying again. So what did you talk about? Did he say anything?”

“Yeah. Just the usual. He tried apologizing a lot, told me to send his apologies to you, said how he wishes he could undo what he did, usual bullshit. I just said 'uh huh’ a lot.”

There was a bit of silence.

“You know, mom,” I said, “part of me wants to forgive him. I feel like it’s partially my fault, in how I just dumped him from my life once I found… that… out, leaving him with nobody…”

“And the other part?”

“A different part of me hates him, for all the manipulation, for the self-pity, for the unwillingness to accept what he did, for trying to pretend it never happened, for refusing to just move on with his life. I feel like he brought it all on himself, and I wish he’d just go away.

"But then there’s the last little part of me, who is scared about what’ll happen when he gets out of jail.”

She sighed again. “Well, it’s what, fifteen years off? Hopefully we’ll all have moved on by then.”

“And if not…” I started.

Neither of us dared to attempt the sentence.

“So,” she said, “change of subject. How’s my grandchild doing?”

I rubbed my tummy. “Well, he’s starting to get noticeable. Second trimester and all that.”

“He? So it’s a boy?”

I giggled. “No, I just mean that in the gender-neutral sense. It’s still too early to tell, but I have this feeling that it’s gonna be a girl. It seems crazy, but I feel like I just know.”

“Well,” she said, “I had the gut feeling that you were going to be a girl, and what a girl you turned out to be!”

I giggled a bit. “Hey, I turned out all right, all things considered, right?”

“Mm-hmm. You make me proud… about to get your master’s degree and have my granddaughter with a wonderful husband, and you’ve managed to live your life more or less the way you wanted to.”

I felt warm and fuzzy. “Thanks, mom.”

“Anyway. I’ll let you go now, before the phone company makes off with my granddaughter.”

“Hm?”

“You know, giving them your first-born child. For payment.”

“Ah.”

“Okay, I guess it wasn’t that funny. Well, send my regards to Paul. I love you.”

“Love you too, mom.”

“‘Bye,” we both said.

I hung up the phone, and sighed.

I went into the office and sat at the computer. I turned it on, waited for it to boot, got online, and checked my email. Nothing new, go figure.

I suddenly got the strange idea to connect to the chat network I used to hang out on all the time, but had stopped using when I got so busy with working on my master’s project. I wondered if anyone I knew was online. A few random people who I vaguely remembered were, but nobody I really felt like talking to.

I was about to close the program when I got a chat request.

<DreamState> I was wondering when you'd get back.


I scratched my head. This wasn’t anyone I noticed before…

<DreamState> Sorry for confusing you.  The name 'FriendlyAdvice' no longer
seemed appropriate, I'm afraid.


It was her, the same odd woman who had contacted me in high school.

I replied, not feeling particularly happy to see her again.

<ZebraStripe> So you've come back, then.
<DreamState> Meet me for coffee.
<ZebraStripe> Can't.  Caffeine, baby, you know.
<DreamState> You're putting me off.
<ZebraStripe> Wow, I can't get anything past you, can I?
* DreamState sighs
<DreamState> I'm sorry, I honestly didn't mean to leave you hanging for so
long... it's how things work with where I am.  I know it's been what, six,
seven years in your reality?  It's been only 16 hours in mine.  But I have
to talk to you.
<ZebraStripe> Why do you keep on insisting on getting involved with me, instead
of just letting me live my life?
<DreamState> It's the endgame.


I stared at the screen for a few moments. The “endgame” was when she said that she’d tell me what was going on. It sounded so… ominous, though.

<ZebraStripe> *sigh* So where do we meet?
<DreamState> You'll know the way.


I sighed. This bizarre person comes into my life once again, and I can’t help but satisfy my morbid curiosity. I threw on some clothes and got in the car, driving aimlessly.

#### III.3.endgame

“My, how you’ve grown,” she said, clutching her coffee cup in her hands, the backs furred in crimson, purple, and dark-magenta and the palms zebra-striped. She took a sip of coffee. “I regret not being around to see it as it happened…”

I crossed my arms. “So tell me.”

She sighed. “Always so direct,” she said. “Fine, then. Do you ever have a dream which seems so realistic, so lifelike, so complete that while you’re dreaming it, you believe that it is real, and when you wake up you feel that you’d lived a complete life?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

“Well, that’s what this is.”

I waited a few seconds, hoping for a further explanation which never came. “Sorry, come again?” I asked. “I could have sworn that you just claimed that I was a dream of yours.”

She nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” she said. Tears were in her eyes.

“Prove it,” I said.

“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t even prove it to myself. You have been a most… interesting dream.”

I glared at her. “You act as though I’m supposed to just believe that, and to just appreciate being… trivialized in that way.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t say that you didn’t exist.”

“Good, because I happen to believe that I do.”

“Last time I was here, you saw a glimpse of the transitory free-form 'dream world,’ shortly before I left. It was followed by your body suddenly having some certain parts which weren’t there before. Those were the direct result of two things which happened. The first was that I was woken up in my reality while we were in contact. After that time I went immediately back to sleep to try to repair things. The second was caused because of a certain regular biological event which altered what my subconscious was expressing, and thus altered this world.”

I pondered her words for a second. “You make it sound like you’re a god in this world.”

“In a sense,” she said, “I am. It’s because of me that you began to grow hair, and the reason that you regenerated certain body parts. Your very existence hinges based on what my subconscious mind cooks up for what has happened. The last six years of your time simply don’t exist, but thinking about them will make them do so. You and Paul graduating, moving for the high-tech job, you starting grad school, him losing his job, you getting pregnant, him deciding to work at a grocery store for the short term… those events were all created just now as your memory looked at them. But you can’t prove the nonexistence of the memories, because the memories are all you have to go by.”

I shrugged. “Strangely, I don’t seem to care. You’re telling me the secret of the universe, but all I can see is two things: either you’re crazy, or things don’t matter anyway, and I’d might as well just not have this information.”

“I might be crazy,” she said, reaching forward to stroke me under the chin, “but things do matter. And this is something which matters to me.”

I felt a tingling sensation in my mouth, as though things were vibrating at a high frequency. I couldn’t help but open my mouth. Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t breathing. I felt pain in the bridge of my nose, as I felt my face… shift forward, somehow. Bone and skin reformed. I felt several of my teeth - the canines, the lateral incisors, the bicuspids – simply pop out, and fall onto the table, small pools of blood soaking into the tablecloth. My remaining pairs of incisors grew longer and sharper.

Suddenly, the pain stopped, and I gasped for breath. “What… what happened?!” I shouted. Nobody else in the café noticed. I looked at my reflection in the napkin holder; I could see perfectly clearly that my face had reformed into a rodent’s… a porcupine’s?

I looked back up at her. Her face was the same way, but now furred in crimson, purple, and dark-magenta splotches, her skin zebra-striped. Her hair was replaced by cascading zebra-striped bands of quills. Her overcoat hung open, and I could see that the coloration extended over the rest of her body.

“What have you done to me?!” I shouted.

“I finished,” she said. “You were created in my image, so to speak, though a different image of myself than this one, which is in turn different than how I look in my reality. In my reality I look much like how you did, before the infection that rotted away your skin.”

“Jesus Christ… how am I supposed to explain this to others?!”

“The same way you explained everything else. The hair, the genitals. Unexplainable.”

She slipped off her jacket and stood. I had recognized her like this – it was how I saw her for that brief instant before I had collapsed in delirious shock six years ago.

“People in this world are understanding because I want them to be,” she said. “Ultimately, they won’t care. I didn’t consciously create this world, this life, you, they all just… happened.”

“You’re insane,” I scowled.

She shrugged. “Yes, but you’re a product of that insanity. And your daughter will be too. Please, do try to accept this… this was a gift. Your life, everyone you know, it’s all a gift, to myself.”

#### III.4.muzzle

…and then I woke up, sitting in my car in the driveway.

I must have dozed off before I even headed out to meet her.

I ran back inside, to the computer. There were no records of the conversation. “Typical,” I said out loud.

As I said the word, I noticed something odd about my mouth. I ran into the bathroom, and looked in the mirror. I had the muzzle.

“Holy shit, holy shit… this must be a dream, must be a dream,” I said to myself. I pinched myself. It hurt. I didn’t wake up.

The memory of what I had just dreamed was quickly fading. I had to remember it, had to write it down, had to run to my computer to type it in…

I got to my computer, and tried to type. My fingernails had become long, black claws, and I was now without pinkies. “Jesus Christ,” I said, and fired up the text editor.

I started to type. My mind drew a complete blank. I couldn’t remember the dream, I couldn’t remember…

I felt like I was going into a panic. What had happened?! All I could remember was that… that it was… whatever it was that gave me pubic hair, and genitals… and something about this reality being a dream, but not being a dream…

My heart was beating a mile a minute. “Oh God oh God oh God, what do I do, what do I do…”

Suddenly, I felt a bit calmer. “Why… why do I have to do anything?” I thought. “If this is just a dream, can’t I just let whatever happen? It’ll all be gone when I– she– whoever wakes up, right?”

I put my hands over my face and breathed deeply through my fingers.

“Okay, okay… I’m calm, I’m calm, I’m a tranquil little flower in a field,” I said to myself.

I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and stood up. “Paul needs to see,” I told myself. “I’m his wife. He needs to see that his wife has changed.”

I turned around, and walked into the bedroom. I sat on the bed next to my sleeping husband, who was rolled onto his side away from me. I looked over at him.

No response.

I gently tapped him on the shoulder. “Paul…?”

He rustled a bit. “Mmh?” he asked.

“I’m sorry to wake you up,” I said. “But it’s important.”

“Murfle,” he said.

I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

“Mrrm. I’m awake,” he said. He turned over to look at me. He rubbed his eyes. He looked at me again. He turned back over and grabbed his glasses off of his nightstand. He put them on, and looked at me again.

“You look different,” he mumbled.

I nodded. “I saw… her.”

“Her… who?”

Her her. ‘FriendlyAdvice,’ the other Samantha, whatever. The lady with the zebra-striped hands. Six years ago, back home.”

He looked at me oddly.

“She… she changed me, Paul. She’s the one who… um… hair, genitals, this,” I said, pointing at my new muzzle with my new hand.

I sighed. “Six years ago. We met her for coffee. She left, I turned delirious, I had that massive infection which turned out to be my new genitals…”

He blinked. “I remember you talking about her, but I thought you were just delirious.”

“Argh!” I screamed. “You told me you’d remember it!”

He shrugged. “You remember me saying I’d remember it. But I don’t.” He shook his head. “I’m very confused right now.” He looked at the time. “Ugh, I have to be up in three hours for work… Can’t I just sleep a couple more hours? We can talk about it on the way.”

I sighed. “Okay. Fine. But I am so fucking confused right now,” I said.

As Paul fell back to sleep I remembered more of the dream. I began to think that maybe that’s what this was, just a dream… that my reality was just something tucked in the back of her mind.

I grumbled, and walked back to the computer. I saw another chat message from her.

<DreamState> I'm sorry... I didn't think you'd react that way.  I came across
wrong though.  I'd like to try again.


I replied. “Fine, whatever. What does it matter anyway?

I felt a disconcerting sensation as reality gave way around me. I was in a very familiar dark room. She was standing across from me. We were both naked.

“Hello, Samantha,” she said.

“Cut the bullshit. So this is a dream. Why should I care then? Why should I keep on living?”

She sighed. “I keep on asking myself the same question. Why should I keep on living in my reality, if it’s just someone else’s dream. I don’t have any evidence that it’s not, and it seems just as likely that my reality is the reality.

"Honestly, I don’t see any reason to believe that any reality is really real. So I feel that we should make the most of our respective lives.”

I growled at her. “So by what right did you think you could interfere on my life?”

“Because it’s my life too. Your life is, for all of its pitfalls, one which I wouldn’t mind having. You have a loving husband, you’re carrying a child which is going to be very special indeed, and you’re able to look in the way which expresses who you are, not what society expects you to be.”

“So why is there so much shit in my life? My parents, my life in high school…”

“Well, honestly I’d have had no idea how a ‘normal’ high school life would have been anyway. Your skin condition was a retrofit to make you zebra-striped, and your parents… honestly, I don’t know. That’s just how things turned out, I guess.

"I don’t know why I felt it necessary to tell you the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I know exactly how you’re feeling, and I can’t just snap my fingers and change it. You’re a real person, even if not in my reality, and you have real thoughts and feelings and emotions. One’s life, one’s reality, is defined by the memories they have, and your memories make your life just as valid, just as real, as my own.

"I actually didn’t mean to tell you anything until much later, honestly, but… well, this is just how things turned out. I’m sorry. Let’s try this again,” she sighed.

“What do you mean–”

#### III.5.rollback

…and then I woke up.

It was Sunday in reality. The reality of before, the reality of when I went to bed.

I didn’t recall dreaming. I probably had dreamed, of course, but I didn’t remember anything that happened.

I sighed. A sleep cycle wasted.

I stretched, I got up, I donned my bathrobe, I walked to the bathroom. I put my bathrobe on the toilet seat, removed my towel from the towel rack, and placed it on top of my bathrobe. I turned on the water, and waited a few moments for it to warm up. I stepped into the shower, comfortable in the water and its warm embrace.

I took the bottle of shampoo. It felt pretty light. I turned it over and squeezed it. Empty. Damn.

I did what I could to wash my hair out without assistance of shampoo, and hoped that the conditioner would at least take care of whatever dirt remained. I really had to get to the store to buy more shampoo, though…

I shut off the water, got out of the shower, and toweled off. I donned my bathrobe, and I brushed my hair. I opened my contact lens case, but then decided not to wear my contacts today. It’s not like I was going anywhere.

I exited the bathroom. I heard a high-pitched whine coming from nowhere in particular. I walked into the living room. The television was on. I sat down at it, staring at the hypnotic imagery of cartoons imported from Japan.

Paul sat down next to me with a bowl of cereal. “Up so soon?” he asked.

I nodded, watching the buxom bikini-clad warrior girl cut off the arm of the green four-eyed monster from another dimension. I snuggled up next to Paul. “Why do you watch this stuff?” I asked.

“Do you want to watch something else?” He picked up the remote control.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, feigning disinterest while wondering how the monster could still be alive now that it was missing both of its arms and had spurted out probably enough blood to fill a small swimming pool.

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

The monster’s acid breath melted one of the warrior’s bikini straps.

“Now you will be having to pay for what you have had done to me!” she shouted in a disinterested voice as she covered her breasts with her arm.

“Roar!” said the monster in a very un-monster-like way.

I picked up the remote.

“There’s nothing better on right now,” said Paul.

I nodded. “I know,” I said, turning off the TV.

He put his bowl of cereal down on the coffee table and wrapped his muscular arms around me. He put his nose in my hair, and breathed in.

“No shampoo… We’re out, and so I just used extra conditioner,” I said. “I’ll just buy some when I drop you off at the store today.” I leaned against him. “Your arms are getting pretty strong.”

He nodded. “We’ve been stocking up on watermelons. They’re pretty heavy.”

“Well, they’re mostly water,” I observed.

He smiled. “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” he said, and then kissed at my ear.

I closed my eyes. “Mmm,” I said.

He slipped his hand under my bathrobe and gently squeezed my lower-right breast, rubbing his thumb over its nipple. I melted in his arms.

He rubbed my stomach, patting its curve softly. “So how’s little Paul Junior feeling?” he asked.

I giggled. “It might be a girl, you know,” I said.

“Okay then, how’s little Paula feeling?”

I laughed, and snuggled up against Paul, kissing him on the lips. “She’s feeling like she doesn’t like her name,” I quipped.

“Oh, speaking of which,” he said, “yesterday my mom sent me an email with a whole bunch of name ideas with meanings and stuff.”

I giggled. “She’s really gung-ho into this whole ‘grandmother’ thing, isn’t she.”

He nodded. “Well, at least she’s finally accepted you into the family. So has dad… he can’t wait to be a grandfather.”

I nodded, and sighed. “That reminds me, I should call my mom to see how she’s doing…”

“Sam, you don’t have to call her every weekend.”

“Yes I do, just to touch base. I’m afraid that if I don’t, she’ll think she has nobody in her life. I mean, ever since my dad…” I trailed off, and sighed.

He hugged me. “Okay. But try to keep it short… our phone bill has been getting pretty big lately.”

“Yeah, I know, but most of the companies I’m applying at are across the country–”

“Sam,” he interrupted, “you really don’t have to kill yourself to get a job right away. I can support us just fine for a while, and when the baby gets here and life has settled down a bit, then you can start looking. Nobody wants to hire anyone who’s four months pregnant anyway. You’ll have a master’s degree in chemical engineering. There’ll be jobs for you. And then I can quit my job, and we move, and I stay at home with the baby.”

I smiled. “You’d be a house-husband?”

He rubbed his fingertip over my forehead. “What, are you suddenly getting conventional on me?”

“Ha ha, that’d be a laugh,” I said.

He slipped the hand which was on my belly between my legs. I moaned softly.

He yawned. “Sorry honey, but it’s time for me to go to bed.”

I nodded. “How much longer are you working the night shift?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. I’ll be glad when this tech recession is over though. Then we could probably hire a nanny for our kid and both work.”

I nodded. “Well, we can’t really tell the future, you know. Just a few years it seemed impossible that I’d even be able to have a child, and I wouldn’t even have considered that I’d be married to you and so on–”

“Shh,” he said. “You’re rambling again.” He kissed me on the lips. “‘Night,” he said.

“Good night.”

As he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth, I picked up the mostly un-eaten bowl of cereal and started to eat breakfast.

#### III.6.fork

“Mom, don’t be so hard on yourself,” I said. “It’s not like any of us saw it coming. It’s been three years, now.”

I heard her sigh. “I know, but every day I wake up, and it’s more of the same. I hope you never have to know what it’s like living in a wheelchair,” she said.

“Yes, mom, I… I know,” I said. I felt a twinge of remorse as I began to feel responsible for it again, not heeding that strange woman’s warning about my dad. But it was so long before he had actually done it… she must have just been idly speculating. I probably would have with the same information she did.

“So has he tried contacting you again?” she asked, spitefully.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Dad called me again yesterday.”

“So what did you talk about? Did he try anything?”

“Just the usual. He tried apologizing a lot, told me to send his apologies to you, said how he wishes he could undo what he did, usual bullshit. I just said 'uh huh’ a lot.”

There was a bit of silence.

“You know, mom,” I said, “part of me wants to forgive him. I feel like it’s partially my fault, in how I just dumped him from my life once I found… that… out, leaving him with nobody…”

“And the other part?”

“A different part of me hates him, for all the manipulation, for the self-pity, for the unwillingness to accept what he did, for trying to pretend it never happened, for refusing to just move on with his life. I feel like he brought it all on himself, and I wish he’d just go away.

"But then there’s the last little part of me, who is scared about what’ll happen when he gets out of jail.”

She sighed again. “Well, it’s what, fifteen years off? Hopefully we’ll all have moved on by then.”

“And if not…” I started.

Neither of us dared to attempt the sentence.

“So,” she said, “change of subject. How’s my grandchild doing?”

I rubbed my tummy. “Well, she’s starting to get noticeable. Second trimester and all that.”

“She? So it’s a girl?”

I giggled. “It’s still too early to tell, but I have this feeling that it’s gonna be a girl. It seems crazy, but I feel like I just know.”

“Well,” she said, “I had the gut feeling that you were going to be a girl, and what a girl you turned out to be!”

I giggled a bit. “Hey, I turned out all right, all things considered, right?”

“Mm-hmm. You make me proud… about to get your master’s degree and have my granddaughter with a wonderful husband, and you’ve managed to live your life more or less the way you wanted to.”

I felt warm and fuzzy. “Thanks, mom.”

“Anyway. I’ll let you go now, before the phone company makes off with your first-born before I get a chance to spoil her. Send my regards to Paul. I love you.”

“Love you too, mom.”

“‘Bye,” we both said.

I hung up the phone, and sighed.

I went into the office and sat at the computer. I turned it on, waited for it to boot, got online, and checked my email. Nothing new, go figure.

I disconnected from the Internet, and stood up, pondering what to do for the rest of the day. I supposed I could clean again.

I felt compelled to sit back down at the computer. I felt that there was a really old file I had to look for, but I wasn’t sure what. I browsed the hard drive, looking for one of the really old document directories which was saved from my old computer when it got replaced.

I stumbled across a file called “Letter to myself,” dated from almost seven years ago. I giggled at the time capsule, and opened it.

Dear me,

Hi there. How am I doing? Am I feeling well? I hope I am doing fine.

I am writing this letter to myself – that would be you – so that I don’t forget myself, who I am, or where I come from.

I smiled. “How whimsical,” I thought.

I guess I should tell me about myself. I’m 16 years old and am in my last year of high school. That sounds young, but it’s because I skipped a grade in middle school. I look different than everyone else because of an illness I had two years ago, where a bacteria ate my skin away, so my skin had to be replaced. There was a problem, though, and the last skin they could clone from me turned out transparent and needed to be filled with pigment so I wouldn’t look like the “visible woman.” It was very gross and stressful to see myself in the mirror like that. I pulled some strings, and I managed to get the doctors let me say how I wanted to look as a result. I think they felt sorry for me because of what I’d been through, and so they let me have black and white stripes all over my body! (I love zebra stripes!) I think it looks very cool, and other people that I meet think it looks neat, though they all assume that it’s makeup. Only my friends know about the second set of boobs I have, since the doctors cloned my mammary glands as well and I convinced them to let me keep them, and only my few very, very close friends know about what happened to my… you know. (Of course, since you’re me, you already know what I’m talking about! If you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this…)

I reached down under my bathrobe and stroked gently at my labia-less vulva. “Mmm, if only you knew what would happen to your 'you know.’”

I don’t have a whole lot of friends, but that was how it always has been for me. I’m a bit of a nerd, and so people don’t want to hang out with me very much. I guess it’s because I prefer to talk about meaningful things, and don’t like chatting about shopping or who did what to who. My best friend in the whole world is my boyfriend Paul. He’s also a geeky type, and so we hit it off very well. He’s more into computers than I am while I care more about chemistry than him, but we still have plenty to talk about, and of course we don’t talk just about our hobbies! That would be pretty boring.

We’re both seniors, but Paul didn’t skip a grade, so he’s 17. Actually, he’s turning 18 in February. I was born in July so I’ll still be 16 when I graduate.

My other good friend is my dad. For a while we weren’t able to talk to each other because of what my mom did when they got divorced, but recently we’ve started seeing each other regularly in secret. I wish it didn’t have to be kept so quiet! But I couldn’t even tell Paul about it.

I couldn’t help but choke up a bit, as now-distant memories of what happened soon after surfaced.

I also have a few other friends… there’s Krystal, who used to bully me a lot but after my skin disease she started to feel sorry for me (and sometimes she even sticks up for me and stops the other popular girls from picking on me!), and there’s a few other girls I hang around with at the local diner sometimes, but they’re pretty boring people, and I think they only hang out with me because my mom lets them have alcohol at my house.

Recently a lot of stressful stuff has been happening to me, both good and bad. On the good side, Paul and I both got accepted into the state university (not that it’s very hard, but getting Paul to apply was a huge achievement!), and I even got a full scholarship, so we’re both going to probably go there after we graduate, even though Paul’s parents don’t like me because they can’t understand what I’ve been through. But on the bad side, my mom has been getting even more manipulative and greedy, and she is ruining everyone’s life that she can just to get every little bit of personal gain. She has this thing that she does, where she’ll get on someone’s good side and seem all sweet and generous, but then she’ll start to manipulate things and make others think that her new target is doing bad stuff.

I smirked as I started to read the paragraph. “Big lot of good Paul’s degree is doing him right now.” My eyes scanned down a bit more. “Wow, I really had no clue, did I…”

Like, she managed to convince everyone she knew that my dad was beating her up, and that’s how she was able to get a divorce, and got to keep the house plus child support (which she spends mostly on herself). For a while she even had me convinced, but lately she’s stopped trying to make me think she’s the wonderful good parent, probably since she’s about to lose the child support since I’m going to leave for college and I got the scholarship. Then of course, since my dad was supposedly beating her, she got a restraining order so that he can’t call her or come within a thousand feet of her or me, and since she got that stuff people assume that she was right. She’s feeding off of other peoples' gullibility, and the fact that he can’t defend himself against her accusations only makes things worse. It makes me sick to think about.

I think that she has started to manipulate others against me, as well. The other night we had an argument because she found out that I’d been hanging out with my dad. She cut off my allowance (which comes from the child support money) for a week, and then she stormed out of my room and slammed the door, and shouted at me for slamming the door, loud enough that her newest boyfriend in the living room would hear it.

Speaking of which, she goes through so many boyfriends. She is such a cumbucket. Then she gets them to give her even more money, and she acts like a two-year-old, getting what she wants when she wants it, and not giving a shit about anyone else in the world.

I couldn’t help but laugh morbidly. “Oh my God, I actually called my mom a ‘cumbucket?’ I must have been mad. If only I knew what was really going on back then…”

I don’t know what to do about her, but I do know that I need to stop her from her little ego games. I need to somehow undo the damage that she’s done, and I need to stop her from doing more damage to others.

Strangely enough, my dad doesn’t seem to hold anything against my mom. He’s a firm believer in only seeing the positive side of things, and turning the other cheek. He’s a bit of a push-over. I think I see a bit of that in myself, too, but I’m trying to break out of it, mostly so that I can help my dad. I have this silly fantasy where me, my dad, and Paul all escape to a happy place, far away from my mom, and we all live together, happily ever after. It sounds so silly when I write it down, though…

I sighed. That hurt to read.

The really weird thing is that I seem to have some anonymous “friend” online who wants to help. The way they showed up offering “friendly advice” really freaked me out, though. I need to think about it some. Paul says he knows nothing about this person, and it couldn’t have been my dad. It’s a mystery, but it’s not one I’m very eager to solve.

I smirked. “And other-Samantha, wherever you are, I still haven’t figured things out, and I still don’t care.”

So anyway, that’s what’s going on in my life right now. I hope to hear from you soon! :D

Samantha

I giggled. “I was such a weird child. Wow, but that was only a few years ago… Time just marches on, doesn’t it.”

#### III.7.relapse

“Indeed, it does,” she said. “It’s amazing what can happen in a matter of two and a half days.”

I nodded, not speaking lest the thread tear through my lips. “What is it with you and sewing things shut?” I thought, the crystal hung around my neck speaking for me.

She stroked my chest, colored once again in a diagonal cyan and purple checkerboard, along with the rest of my skin, with her fingers. I squirmed in my restrained state. “What is it with you and colors?” she asked.

I tried to shrug, a task which turned out to be ineffective with my hands tied together above my head and my feet tied together below.

“You know,” she said, stroking her tail tip against my sewn-shut labia, “that was a pretty shitty thing you did to Samantha back there. Fucking with her reality, breaking the very same promise you made me take, and then when things turned sour, just undoing it.”

I nodded.

“You can’t really even undo it, either. She might not have the memories now, but in the back of her mind she knows something’s amiss with her world.”

“Since when do you care?” I had the crystal say.

“I don’t,” she quipped. “I’m just making sure you’re aware of the ramifications.”

I tried to shrug again. “Hasn’t this game gone on long enough?”

“Tsk, tsk, dear. I thought you actually cared about her and her well-being.”

“How can I care about something which isn’t real?”

She sighed. “And here I was, thinking you understood. I’ll try to spell things out for you one last time. You can’t really know if something is real or not. Even beliefs which are firmly-rooted in observed facts are still that – beliefs. Do whatever you want, I don’t care, but just remember that your actions will have consequences, whether a reality is real or simply perceived.”

“But I’m effectively a goddess there.”

“How do you know the god portrayed in your Torah wasn’t simply someone who was dreaming and decided to meddle in the affairs of your world? Maybe that stuff really did happen, but God tried to undo His mistakes by affecting the shared memory of perceived facts. Maybe Samantha is your Moses.” She turned away from me.

“You’re playing with fire,” I mused.

She looked back over her shoulder at me. Her eyes glowed with a reddish flame. “Yes, you are.” She turned her head back away from me, and walked off into the shadows.

I sighed. “Okay, so any minute now we’ll be back in Samantha’s world, right?”

Time passed with no response.

“Hello? Shadowy demonic manifestation of my perverted id? You there?”

I continued to be stretched out in an uncomfortable position.

“This isn’t funny. You gonna untie me?”

Still nothing.

I sighed. I curled my fingers around and started to whittle through the rope. Quite quickly my fingernails cut through, apparently much sharper than I would have expected. The rope snapped, and with the loss of tension I fell down. My feet simultaneously hit the ground hard. It hurt. I sighed, and brought my hands down in front of me. I lost my balance and fell forward, unable to stop due to my bound feet.

I pulled my wrists in front of me as quickly as I could, just barely stopping myself from painfully planting my face into the ground.

I grumbled, and wriggled around, turning myself over so that I was lying face-up on the ground. I bent over and sliced apart the rope which was binding together my ankles, then used my toenails, which were just as sharp, to cut off the wrist-binding rope.

I stood up and stretched out, moving my limbs around to work out their stiffness. “Odd,” I thought, “how she seems so adamant about this seeming like reality right now.”

I walked in the general direction that she had disappeared off to, hoping that I could find something. I walked perhaps a hundred feet in the darkness when I turned around to see that I hadn’t progressed far at all from the table, which seemed only twenty feet away. I grumbled, and walked for another stretch, and turned around to check - I was still in the same place. I walked back towards the table, which was back in its horizontal rest position, and sat on it.

I crossed my legs, boredly waving them about, humming.

I tried to chew on my fingernails, which I remembered to be moot due to my mouth being sewn shut. I grumbled, unable to satisfy my need to engage in a nervous habit.

I sighed, and put my hands behind my head. I laid back on the table and closed my eyes to rest.

I felt a cold, slimy fluid dribble onto my thighs. I opened my eyes. It was her again, grinning evilly as she poured a milky substance on me.

My loins began to burn. I looked down and saw that the region she was spilling the liquid on was melting, becoming liquid, spreading out. It re-hardened in a cyan-and-purple checkerboarded puddle.

I grumbled. “I don’t find this particularly sexy,” I thought, the crystal speaking for me.

“It’s always just about you, isn’t it?” she asked, tickling the puddle of skin which was once my hips with her tail tip.

I sighed. “You’re not really me, are you.”

She pouted. “But I am. Just because you don’t want to admit that you’re a messed-up bondage slut doesn’t mean you’re not one. I just represent the deep, dark parts of what you don’t want to acknowledge.”

I sighed as she picked my legs up and waved them about, tugging the hardened skin-puddle with them. She giggled.

“Also,” she said, “not everything has to be about sex, you know. I’m just feeling a bit silly.”

“I thought you were my id, my base instinct. Aren’t you supposed to be just about the carnal desires? Food and sex?”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Freud was a crock.” She drizzled the liquid over my entire body and poured me into a large bucket.

“Ack,” the crystal said as the world went dark.

I felt myself harden somewhat. Her hands reached into the bucket and pulled me out. I was once again on the hard, cold surface of the table.

“So what should I make out of you?” she asked. “Ooh, a bunny!”

She gathered a quantity of me into her hands and squished it into a ball-like shape. She pulled off two chunks which she rolled into cylinders and flattened out, attaching to the ball and smoothing them together, forming the head and ears. The rest of me she formed into a sort of a loaf-like shape, pulling apart legs and arms.

I opened them, and grumbled. “You could have at least tried to make my parts correspond with the bunny’s,” the crystal (now embedded in the middle of me) said. My eyes were down the bunny’s back, and there didn’t seem to be any mapping from my body parts to the bunny shape’s.

“Aww,” she said, poking a carrot into the bunny shape’s mouth (which felt like my left knee). “Poor little bunny. I know what to do,” she said, injecting my body with the liquid, melting my insides.

Via the crystal I screamed in pain. I stretched my limbs out, trying to get into at least a mobile shape. As I began to harden again, I felt her… sit on my head?

“Mmm,” she said, rubbing my shoulders from above.

I cautiously opened my eyes. We were in front of the mirror, merged together, as if like a centaur, only I was the bottom half. My body was shaped like a large rat’s, my eyes peering out through her crotch. Her tail accented my posterior, and twitched around happily.

“Okay,” I thought, “as much as I hate to admit it, this does seem kind of sexy.”

She giggled. “It’s always sex, sex, sex with you! And you were accusing me of being the carnal one,” she said, leaning back and gently smacking my buttocks. She stood up – moving my arms – and tried to walk around on them. “C'mon, move your butt,” she said.

“No,” I thought, keeping my hind legs firmly planted on the ground.

“Oh, poop,” she said, in a childlike manner. “Can’t you at least try to have some fun?”

I reached up with my paw, rubbing where my nose felt to be. “No.”

She grumbled. “So you really can’t think of anything to do which isn’t based on sex?”

“Not in here,” I said. “It’s not like there’s anything external to do here, and what could we possibly talk about which we don’t both already know?”

She hmmed. “Well, we could always frolic!”

“I’m not in the mood.”

She grumbled, stroking at my neck/her crotch. “Well then, what do you want to do?”

“I want,” I said, “to get back to the stripey Samantha’s world and finally get this finished up.”

“You don’t know what you really want, you mean,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “in the abstract sense I want happiness, and I still think that helping Samantha is the best way to go about that–”

“Help her with what?” she asked. “She’s happily married, she has a child and a master’s degree on the way, and her life seems to be just fine, aside from the meddling you keep on insisting on doing. You can’t reasonably change what happened with her father without completely messing everything up. So what do you want to do, do you really want her to end up finishing that transformation and looking like a porcupine, like that’ll somehow make her any happier than she is already?”

I tried shaking my head. “No, I don’t want to change her, that was just a… a heat of the moment thing. But I do want her to know the meaning of life.”

“You already told it to her – that her life was a meaningless dream of yours. That didn’t go over very well.”

I sighed. “But it had come out wrong. Her life isn’t a meaningless dream. Well, it isn’t any more of one than mine is. I want to set things right, to undo the damage I did last time. And… and I want to say goodbye,” I said.

“Why would you say goodbye to her? It’s not like she’s going anywhere.”

“No, but her reality is.”

“What do you mean? Oh,” she said. “You’re… ending it?”

“Nuh-uh. Just…” I paused. “Just letting it go.”

“Mm,” she said.

#### III.8.lost

…and then I woke up.

“Mmf,” I thought, opening my eyes. I was on the couch, wearing just my white sweat pants. The TV was on, with some ad for a phone-sex service running, usual for this time of night. I sat up, turned off the television, and sighed, pulling my knees to my chest and wrapping my arms around them. I was feeling incredibly depressed for some reason. Tears welled up in my eyes.

I heard a key enter the front door. My heart leapt. I glanced over to the turning doorknob. The door opened, and a hand reached in to turn on the light. I flinched as the room suddenly got brighter.

“Oh, hi Samantha,” said Paul. “Work let me go home early tonight.” He checked his watch. “What… what are you doing up so late?”

I shrugged.

“Are you feeling okay?”

I shrugged. “I’m… I dunno,” I said.

He sat down next to me. I leaned away.

“It’s nothing,” I said, resting my forehead on my knees. “Nothing important.”

“You’re depressed, aren’t you,” he said, not asked.

I shrugged.

“Honey,” he said, “please talk to me. You’re scaring me.”

I sighed. “I just feel so… overwhelmed. I have so much to do and so little time to do it in… and for what? What good does it do?”

He wrapped his arm around me. “What do you mean, what good does it do?”

“It just seems so… meaningless,” I said. “Everything. So I’ll have a master’s degree, big deal. Life is just such a stupid game. No matter what we do, it’s all just more of the same, and we go on living and then we die, and then it brings the world one generation closer to its inevitable doom. We’re just filling in time here, and it doesn’t make one bit of difference.”

He ran his hand through my hair. “You’re really scaring me, dear.”

“Why,” I said, turning my head to him, “because I’m telling the truth?”

He thought for a few moments. “Even if what you’re saying is true, it leaves out so much. So what if life is meaningless in the long run? Not everything needs a lasting impression,” he said. “I think that how we live our lives is much more important than what we leave behind.”

I shrugged. “That sounds pretty selfish.”

He stroked his hand against my cheek. “That’s a pretty cruel way to put it.”

“What if this life is just a dream?” I asked. “I mean, you only really remember what happened in the last few minutes; the rest is just stuff your brain brings up as it’s needed. Maybe we’re just someone else’s dream, and then they wake up, and poof, we’re gone. No more you, no more me, no more baby, nothing…”

“Well, then,” he said, “we wouldn’t want whoever’s dreaming to be sad when they wake up, right?”

I sighed. “That reminds me of that odd woman, the other Samantha…”

“Hm?”

“Remember?” I asked. “She took us out for coffee… she was the one who was ‘stalking’ me, back in high school.”

He nodded. “Ah, yeah, her. With the weird hands… What brought that up?”

I shrugged. “I dunno, she just… occurred to me, for some reason.”

He hummed. “We never did find out where she came from… or went to, for that matter. Did she ever contact you again after that?”

I shook my head. “No, not even after my dad ran my mom down…”

“Huh,” he said. “That’s kind of… well, surprising, I guess.”

I shrugged. “She seemed like she was just a dream,” I said.

“Well, she must have been a dream we both had,” he said, “since I remember it clearly. That day was so odd, how could I forget it?”

I shrugged.

He chuckled. “It didn’t seem funny at the time, but… well, you were so delirious from the infection that you thought she was a porcupine or something. Also something about your hair color… you had dyed it purple that day, and you thought it had turned blue…”

I shrugged. “Doesn’t seem funny to make fun of people when they’re sick.”

He hugged me gently. “You’re not sick now, are you?”

I shrugged. “I still remember why I called her a porcupine. There was the whole thing with her hands and her teeth… but also, as she was walking away, I thought I saw a bulge under her coat, like she was concealing a tail… and we’d said something about porcupines earlier.”

He giggled. “What is it about you and porcupines? Her too, I guess. Is it some sort of girl thing?”

I shrugged. “No, not a girl thing… it’s just that they’re cute and fluffy. I like cute things. And maybe I was a porcupine in another life or something.”

He wrapped his arm around me. “Okay then, porcupine-girl. Just don’t poke me.”

I smiled, and leaned against him.

He stroked my nose with a finger. “I bet you’d look sexy as a porcupine. A pretty zebra-striped porcupine-girl.”

I mmmed, and closed my eyes. “With purple quills and eyes?”

He scratched the top of my head. “Mmm, on the eyes, sure, but you’d better keep the quills white, so you can dye them whatever you want.”

I giggled. “So what species would you be? A wolf?”

He laughed. “No, I’d be human. You’re the one who was the porcupine in another life.”

I laughed back, and leaned against him, poking him with my finger. “Poke,” I said.

He chuckled. “Feeling better now?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess.” I snuggled close to him.

He nibbled at my ear, and put his hand on my stomach, gently feeling its curve. “It’s amazing… in a few months we’ll have a kid.”

I nodded.

“I wonder what it’ll look like.”

I shrugged. “I’m sure it’ll look somewhere between how you do and how I did before the whole skin thing.”

He nodded. “Well, I don’t really know what you looked like before, since we met after that… but knowing how things have been with you, I bet there’s something unexpected.”

I grumbled. “Don’t make me worry about these things. It’s not like I don’t already worry enough.”

He smiled. “I know, I know.”

I sighed. “But what if something is wrong? Like, it’s missing a limb, or is mentally retarded? What do we do then?”

“Why would we do anything differently? It’ll still be our child, and I’d hope we’d still care for it and love it just the same.”

I nodded. “Rationally I know that, but… emotionally, how could we handle it?”

He squeezed me gently. “I think we should burn that bridge after we cross it.”

I giggled. “I like your way of saying it better.”

“Of saying what?”

“‘Cross that bridge after we come to it.’”

“Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to go?”

I nodded.

“You know, I think I first heard that expression from you.”

I blushed. “So I taught it to you wrong, then.”

“You taught it to me better.” He nibbled at my ear.

“For all intensive purposes,” I offered.

“Instead of ‘For all intents and purposes,’” he guessed.

I nodded. “It’s funny. Sometimes I’ll say it that way to someone who doesn’t know that I know better, and they correct me. Like if I purposefully misspell a word online, like using only one ’s' and ‘l’ in ‘misspell,’ or transpose some letters in the word ‘typo’ or something, and then someone laughs at the ‘irony’ of me making a mistake when talking about mistakes.”

He chuckled.

“It’s been a while since we’ve talked like this,” I said. “Just about fun random stuff, just saying what’s on our minds, even if it has nothing to do with anything…”

He hugged me. “I’ve missed it too,” he said.

#### III.9.resolve

“So,” she said.

I nodded. “So.”

She wrapped her tail around me. “I’m sorry about earlier. I just thought we were, you know, getting stuck in a rut.”

I shrugged. “Well, we were.”

She nodded, stroking my shoulders. I felt a prick on my right shoulder. I looked, and saw that she had sneakily injected me with something. I looked back at her in a bit of a panic. She was grinning.

I winced in pain as I felt a burning sensation in my shoulder, which gave away to warmth, which slowly spread across my body. I felt a pressure build up as my whole body got firm.

She pressed a scalpel to my chest. “This will hurt a little,” she said, cutting the skin. I winced in pain. She peeled my skin back like a wrapper, and lifted it off of my surface, revealing that inside I had turned into… chocolate.

I giggled. “That was unexpected,” I said, looking down at my dark-brown, shiny hands.

She nuzzled between my breasts, and began to lick, tasting me. It felt incredibly pleasurable, as the taste of chocolate built up in my mouth…

“Mmm,” I said, as she began to suck on my upper-left nipple. I murred as it melted in her mouth. She worked her tongue in deep, and broke through the layer of chocolate. She drained out the cream filling from my breast, gnawing at the growing hole where my nipple was.

I wrapped my hands around her shoulders. She pushed me back onto the table. I laid back and spread my legs. She pressed her nose against my crotch, licking at my milk-chocolate cunt, literally eating me out. Her hands were massaging my hips, which moved like flesh but slowly melted like chocolate.

She traced along the inside of my right leg with her tongue, barely melting a small stripe of my flesh. She wrapped her mouth around my toes and sucked at them, then chewed on them, breaking them off, sending cascades of sheer pleasure through my body.

“Now I know how a chocolate bunny feels,” I said contentedly.

She nodded. “They’re made to be eaten,” she said between licks and sucks at my foot.

I put my left hand up into my semi-melted vagina, twirling the once-flesh around a bit, giggling in pleasure.

“Don’t play with my food,” she chided, taking a piece of piano wire and wrapping it around my wrist. She pulled it taut, cutting my hand off. She put it around her hand, fitting it on like a glove. She wiggled her fingers, which I felt from the inside, a very strange sensation indeed.

She crawled up onto the table, and put her knee between my legs. She broke off a piece of my now-hollow breast, and put it into my mouth.

“Mmm,” I said, sucking on the chocolate, twirling it around in my mouth.

She pressed her lips to mine and began to suck gently, licking my lips and tongue. She put her hands on my shoulders, pressing me firmly to the table. She squeezed my shoulders, cutting my arms off.

I moaned in pleasure, bending my detached arms, stroking up and down her back, smearing melted chocolate over her surface. She put her left hand, covered in my left hand, in my mouth, and I sucked gently, melting the chocolate further, feeling it soak into her surface.

She wrapped her arms and legs around me. I felt my body grow soft as it melted to her, clinging to her surface. She murred, rubbing her arms up and down herself, smearing me all over her until nothing remained of me but my head.

She picked my head up and cradled it to her bosom. I licked at her chest, nuzzling as best I could against her chocolate-covered surface. She smiled, and put my head on like a mask. She stood in front of the mirror and posed. I couldn’t help but smile at our combined svelte, brown form.

She stroked her hands over our body. “Mmm, I wouldn’t mind this in reality,” she said, “being intertwined with a nice lover this way…”

I couldn’t help but giggle. “Think of the mess it’d make all over my carpet. I’d lose my security deposit for sure.”

“So selfish,” she said, twirling her tail around and rubbing it up inside our vagina, causing more of the milky cream filling to seep out through my chocolate clitoris. “No matter,” she intoned.

She walked inside me over to the darkness. She stood inside a porcelain tub, and turned on a heat lamp. I began to melt off.

“No,” I said, “please let me stay on you…”

She shook our head. “Sorry, dear. Time limit. Keep your eyes closed… I have one more thing for you.”

I dripped off of her and accumulated in the porcelain tub. She stepped out of me. I felt her mix a powdery substance into me, stirring me up. I tried to stand up, but I felt too weak, and I collapsed back into a pile of liquid. She added more powder and stirred vigorously. I felt myself begin to harden; I stood up again. I twitched a long, sinewy tail behind me as I felt myself take form.

She wrapped her arms around me, and pressed her lips to mine. “You can open your eyes now,” she said. I opened them. I was facing the mirror.

My shadow and I were in a passionate, no-nonsense embrace, kissing each other on the lips, running our hands over each others' surfaces. I was in a form just like hers, only white, like porcelain but soft, like skin.

I rubbed her shoulders; she rubbed my back. I wrapped my legs around hers, and used the spade on my tail’s tip to massage her lower back in return.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a yellow ray of sunlight peek through the darkness of my unconscious world. I snugged my arms around her and nuzzled at her neck, while she nibbled my ear.

I sighed. “Morning is coming,” I said. “I’ll be awake in a little while.”

“Don’t look so sad,” she said to me, wrapping her tail around me and hugging me closer. “It’s not as though she has to simply disappear.”

I nodded. “When I wake up, she will be gone, but she will continue to exist in my mind, for as long as I remember.”

“So just make sure you always remember. Write it down. Who knows, it might make a good short story.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know… I’m not much of a writer. And anyway, these past three nights have been pretty damn memorable all on their own.”

She nodded, kissing my neck. “Well, the option is always available, you know. Hey, make sure you put me in there too. If you do, anyway.”

I smiled, resting my cheek against hers. “I’m sure I could squeeze you in somewhere.”

“Mmm,” she said, squeezing me and deforming my body slightly. “I’d love to monopolize you more, but… well, you have to be going,” she said, nodding towards the growing shaft of light on the horizon.

I nodded, and kissed her nose. “Wish us luck.”

We kissed each other on the lips and twisted our tails together, smelling each other, the faint scent of chocolate present on both of our bodies.

#### III.10.meeting

It was noon when I sat down at the computer, turned it on, and connected to the Internet. I didn’t bother checking my mail; instead, I went directly for the chat program which I hadn’t used in at least four years. I opened it up, and logged in. Amazingly enough, my old account, ZebraStripe, was still active, and I still remembered the password.

I looked at the contact list. Nobody I knew was online, not that I was expecting anyone I knew back then to actually still be using this thing, and even if they were, I doubted that they’d even remember me, or even care.

But that wasn’t why I was connecting; there was only one person I needed to talk to, and she wouldn’t show up in the contact list anyway.

A few minutes later, the resounding chime of an incoming message sounded on the speakers.

I want to meet with you again,” came the chat request from FriendlyAdvice.

I've been expecting you to,” I replied. “It seemed about right.

A few minutes passed.

I see. Well, let's meet at a coffee shop. I know you can't drink coffee due to the baby, but I'll spring for anything you want, of course.

I smiled. “Of course,” I replied. “But I shouldn't bring anyone with me, right?

Well, it's up to you, but it would probably be a good idea not to.

So it's the endgame, then?” I grinned to myself, wondering if she’d even remember the wording she used so long ago.

No. It's a new beginning.

The words surprised me. “Well then, let's meet somewhere. I'm sure you'll be able to find me,” I replied.

Indeed.

I disconnected and shut off my computer. I walked into the bedroom, where Paul was sleeping peacefully. I stared at him wistfully. “This life had been so wonderful; it was a shame for it to be coming to an end,” I thought. “Only she did say it was ‘a new beginning…’ I wonder what she meant by that.”

I stepped over to the bed and leaned over, kissing Paul on the cheek. “Goodbye,” I thought, “just in case.” Tears were welling up in my eyes, but I felt happy nonetheless.

I carefully opened the closet and pulled out my light autumn jacket. I slowly slipped it on, careful not to make any sound which would wake Paul up.

I felt a bit of a thump in my stomach. The baby was kicking. I smiled, and put my hands around her. “Mommy’s here,” I thought to her. “And you’re here, and daddy’s here. And everything’s going to be fine.”

More tears welled up in my eyes. God, I didn’t want this to end. But if I was right about things, they would be ending. The other Samantha wanted to contact me. She always did this as some major chapter in my life was ending, and this seemed like the big one.

I walked slowly into the kitchen and found my purse. I put the cellular phone into it, just in case, made sure my keys were in it. I closed my eyes and thought.

“Maybe the world’s not ending,” I thought. I felt a reassuring feeling of calm wash over me.

I looked through the phone book to find a coffee shop or deli which I hadn’t been to before, one on the other end of town from campus, one where people I knew wouldn’t be likely to be. I didn’t want to have to explain things to them should I run into them before… the other me.

I saw one which was circled, with an arrow pointing to it with the words “Go here” in my handwriting. I didn’t recognize the name of it or even the street it was on. I flipped to the map section of the phone book to find roughly where it was. When I returned back to the listing, the circle and note were gone.

“Thanks,” I thought, figuring she’d hear me.

I went out the front door, locking it and carefully closing it behind me.

“God, I feel like I’m going to a funeral or something,” I thought.

“Hey, Samantha!” shouted a voice from the right. It was Gary, my neighbor.

“Oh, hey, Gary. What’s up?”

“Not much. Say, I was wondering if Paul would be able to help me with my computer… I’m having some sort of device conflict thingamajig or something.”

“Sorry, he’s asleep right now,” I said. “Why don’t you send him an email? He’s sure to see it when he gets up, and he’ll probably be able to answer that way.”

“Well, okay. Oh, maybe you can help me?”

I shook my head. “Sorry… I’ve got to be somewhere. I’m meeting someone for lunch.”

“Ah. Can I come along?”

I silently grumbled to myself. “Um, no. Sorry. There’s gonna be estrogen talk,” I quipped.

“Oh, okay. Well, I’ll see ya around, then,” he said. “‘Bye.”

“Yeah, see you.”

As he ducked back inside his apartment, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Gary, the sort of neighbor who was your friend only while it would be advantageous – free computer help from Paul, chemistry homework help from me, and an “Oops, I forgot my wallet… can I pay you back later?” lunch from whoever happened to be around.

I shook my head, and carefully walked down the steps to the apartment. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Gah. I couldn’t wait for this pregnancy to be over… regaining my ability to actually do things relatively quickly and easily would be a nice change.

I got to my car after a brief eternity. I noticed a yellow slip on the windshield. “Oh crap,” I thought, “a parking ticket.” I looked at my car, and saw that it was just barely touching the line of the spot to the right, what with needing a bit more extra room to open the door these days. I grumbled, and threw the ticket into my purse.

I deactivated the car alarm, got in, closed the door carefully behind me, and leaned back. “Ugh… that was far too difficult,” I said to nobody in particular.

I put the key into the ignition and started the car. I turned on the radio and tuned it to the electronic music station. A nice ambient groove was playing.

I backed out of the space and began to drive in the general direction of the coffee shop in the phone book. I had never been to this part of town before, but things seemed very familiar.

I finally reached the coffee shop. There was an empty meter right in front, which I wasted no time in parking at. I stopped my car, got out, and locked up.

She was sitting at a table outside, wearing her sunglasses and the thick black felt overcoat over a purple sweater, as well as purple velvet gloves. She was reading a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

“Appropriate,” I said to her. “I suppose you’re the Cheshire porcupine?”

She looked up and smiled. “Hello, dear. You seem to have forgotten that you’re the one who is striped for the part.”

I shrugged, and smiled. “Shall we go inside? It’s a bit cold out here.”

She nodded. “Indeed,” she said, taking off her sunglasses as we went inside.

#### III.11.sun

Even though it was rather dim, it seemed glaringly bright inside the coffee shop. I almost considered putting my sunglasses back on.

We walked over to a table. I pulled out a chair for her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“What do you want, dear?” I asked her.

She thought for a moment. “Get me a turkey on rye with provolone, everything on it, and a decaf coffee.”

I nodded, and stood in line, fidgeting with my gloves. There were perhaps a half dozen people in front of me. “How embarrassing,” I thought, “having to wait in a line in my own dream.”

“Well, you’re playing by the rules, no?” asked my subconscious.

“Yes, but time is short…”

“Don’t worry, dear. You’re still deep in sleep, and I’ve… arranged for you to not have any interruptions.”

“What do you mean by that?” I thought.

I felt her grin. “Don’t think about it too hard.”

I sighed. I glanced back at Samantha, who was looking out the window, watching traffic. She looked so beautiful. She also looked so resigned, somehow, like she knew what I was going to tell her. Then again, in my communication with her, she seemed all too… comfortable. I worried that she might already know too much, but at the same time, she seemed surprisingly happy and calm, considering what happened last time I had tried this.

“Miss?” asked the man at the register, interrupting my thought process. “What’ll you have?”

“Mm, that was quick,” I said. I proceeded to order two of the sandwiches Samantha wanted, as it sounded good enough for me to have as well, moot as it was. I yawned.

“What sorts of dressings do you want on the salads?”

“Oh, they come with salads? Huh. Okay… um… Balsalmic vinaigrette.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh right, your Italy doesn’t have a Modena. Um, how about a raspberry vinaigrette? Do you have that?”

He nodded, looking extremely confused.

“That on both, then.”

“Okay… raspberry vinaigrette,” he said as he wrote down the final detail of the order. “And anything to drink?”

“A large decaf and a large espresso, with a shot of chocolate syrup.”

“That’ll be twelve twenty-three,” he said.

I handed him a twenty. He returned my change and handed me a table card for the waiter to find us by. I put all of the change into the tip jar.

“Let me get you your drinks right away,” he said, trying not to gawk as I doubled his wage for the hour.

“Thank you,” I replied.

A few minutes later he returned to the counter with a coffee and an espresso which were each practically overflowing, as well as a couple of appetizer rolls.

I smiled and nodded, and then proceeded to walk back to the table.

“Do I owe you anything?” she asked, looking back, almost disinterestedly.

“No, the food’s on me,” I said.

“I don’t mean just for the food.”

I smiled, taking off my gloves, revealing my zebra-striped, pinkie-less, clawed hands. “No.”

I rested my elbows on the table with my arms crossed. “So, where to begin,” I said.

“Indeed,” she replied. “Perhaps I could take a guess?”

I smiled. “First, let’s just… talk. I don’t want to waste a perfectly-good chance to just talk to you first.”

I thought. “Well,” I said, looking around, to see that nobody was looking, “there’s something which I know both you and Paul want, now. Hold your hands out.”

She put her hands, palms up, on the table. I grasped them. “I’ll try to make this not hurt,” I said, as I sent some energy through her hands.

“Mmm,” she said, closing her eyes as a warmth filled her belly. “Ohhh,” she said, as a warmth and pressure filled her face. Her teeth pushed forward a bit, flattening her nose. She winced as her upper lip split, and inhaled sharply as her incisors grew slightly longer and sharper.

I rubbed her hands with my thumbs. She let out a small whimper of pain as her fingernails shifted forward and tightened into claws, and she dug her claws into my thumbs as her pinkies slowly and painfully withdrew into her hands.

I smiled. “You can open your eyes now, dear. I’m done.”

She opened her eyes, and put her hands to her face, inhaling sharply. “Oh, my… I feel… different,” she said.

I nodded, and pulled a mirror out of a pocket to show to her. She first looked at her hands. “My hands, they’re… like yours, now…” She took the mirror in her hands and looked admiringly at her new face. “This… this looks like… something from a dream,” she said.

I nodded. “Do you like it?”

She nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. “Yes, and I know Paul will too. Thank you.”

“Your hair is going to grow a bit thicker and stiffer over time,” I said, “but don’t worry, it’ll never be sharp. Also, if you put your contacts in today, you’ll probably want to remove them.”

“I didn’t, why?”

“Well, purple contacts are a bit redundant with purple eyes.”

She nodded, and smiled. “So… what did you do to my baby?” she asked.

I smiled. “Well, you don’t have to worry about any problems. She will be a shining example of the second member of a new race.”

“You’re the first.”

“Ah,” she said, smiling more. “So we’re both still… human, right?”

I nodded. “But the genes are very much dominant. They’ll be passed down for a long time; you will make… quite the impact on your world.”

She smiled at me, more tears welling up in her eyes.

A waiter arrived with our sandwiches, setting them down in front of each of us.

“Thank you,” we both said as he took away the table card.

I smiled. “Looks good,” I said of the sandwich.

“Yeah,” she said, staring off into space. I felt the world begin to fade out while the sun began to flood light in through the window.

“Sam,” I said, “you don’t have to be so distant. It’s not like the world’s coming to an end.”

“Huh?” she said, startled and glancing at me.

“I said it’s not coming to an end. The world. Nothing’s ending,” I said. “I’m just… going between worlds. It’s how I am… I go back and forth, between different worlds, and this is just one of them…”

“But you’re going to wake up eventually,” she said. “I mean, this is your dream, right?”

I smiled. “So you know, then.”

She nodded. “I figured it out… I haven’t told Paul, of course. I don’t think I will.”

I smiled. “That would be a good idea.”

“But yeah, I know… this is your dream. And all good dreams need a happy ending, right?”

I smiled. “It’s not an ending, it’s a beginning.”

She nodded, smiling.

We both started to eat our sandwiches. The room got even brighter.

She put her sandwich down. “Will you remember me?” she asked, choking back tears.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll remember you. Your world will live on.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yeah,” I said. I nodded and smiled, tears welling up in my eyes as well now. “I promise.”

…and then I woke up.