Imi was a dreamer of a most remarkable kind. Her dreams were large and expansive as the ocean. They spanned decades and millennia, colored in characters and locations beyond that of any mere mortal imagination. In her mind, worlds bloomed with a flutter of her eyelashes and spun with a smile.
Imi loved her dreams. She would always sleep with the brightest smile upon her rosy lips. She would always wake up exploding with stories to tell me about her dreams, with eyes as wide as sky and a broad, toothy, grinned that tickled her ears. Imi spoke of them in whispers and ear-shattering exclamations, acting out each part in refined drama, letting her teddy bear play parts when she could not fill them all herself.
She’d never brush her hair in the morning, so entranced with telling her dreams to me in precision. Usually, she ended up at school with a fairy’s nest of tangles in her hair, a nightgown underneath her jacket, and a milk mustache from her breakfast she had never bothered to remove. The other children didn’t mind. They liked listening to her stories as much as Imi liked telling them. When I picked her up from school, she was often surrounded by a crowd of onlookers as she let the stairs of the playground become her stage in a dramatic retelling of her nighttime adventures. Her voice, as clear and shrill as a bell, belted across the parking lot. It did not take long for everyone to see Imi as the wild-eyed, wild-haired, wild-spirited storyteller, the dreamer in chief.
Imi brushed her hair one morning and carefully wiped her mouth daintily on a napkin without saying a word. Her clothes were perfectly ordered and clean. Her lips were absolutely still.
“What did you dream about last night, Imi?” I asked.
“Nothing,” her voice was a chirp as she stared into the depths of her orange juice, her eyes so foreignly solemn.
“Well, I guess I hardly ever dream these days,” I said, trying to force cheer into my voice and into Imi’s heart. Imi so cold and calm was so utterly disconcerting that I could not find happiness to give to her.
“No. I dreamed. But I dreamed of nothing. There was black and dark and nothing at all,” Imi said tonelessly.
I sat down next to her. She did not look at me, but continued to pierce through her glass of juice with the ferocity of a lion.
“What is dying like?” she asked.
“It depends on who you ask,” I said.
“No. There’s a truth, and there’s stories. What’s the truth?” Imi asked. “You know everything. You should know this.”
“Well, when you die, your brain turns off, like a lightswitch. That’s all science really knows. And once your brain is turned off, you can’t think anymore-” I started slowly.
“So, it’s like darkness. Darkness and blackness and emptiness forever,” Imi said.
“I don’t know, Imi. No one knows for sure,” I carefully responded.
“But, I’m right, aren’t I? You think I’m right.” It was not a question. I did not answer.
Imi left for school.
“It’s all dark.” Imi said. She was in her nightgown at the foot of my bed. She had not brought her teddy bear.
“What, Imi?” I asked groggily.
“My dreams. They’re dark and black and empty, like they were last week and the week before,” she stated flatly.
“You can sleep in my bed, if you want, Imi,” I said.
“I’m not scared. Not like that. I’m anxiety-ed that I can’t dream like I used to. I think my dreamer’s broke,” Imi said.
I stood up, meeting Imi at the end of my bed. “Dreams come from in here, Imi.” I tapped the side of her head, below a pigtail. “Do you want to talk about something? Sometimes the things we keep buried down come up in our dreams.”
Imi shook her head. She left my room and went back to hers. Somehow, I could not fall asleep.
“What does cancer do?” Imi asked. Her hair was neat, her clothes were washed, and she was staring into her toast with the power of a laser.
“It depends a bit on the cancer. It means that your cells, the little bits of your body that make up you, don’t replicate like they should. Instead, they just make lots of bad copies of cells, like a broken printer,” I said.
“So, does your body waste all of its cells? Like a printer running out of paper? Is that how people die?” she asked.
“The bad cells crowd out the good cells, so I suppose it’s like that. The printer no longer has any paper for making good copies,” I said.
She continued to stare at the toast.
“How come people believe in God?” Imi asked. She was alone in front of the school. There was no crowd of awestruck onlookers, just Imi by herself, in her clean clothes, with her neat hair.
“Because some people believe that there is more to the world than what we can see. We anthropomorphize things -- give things human characteristics-- when we can’t understand them. That’s why the ancient peoples had their gods of thunder and rain,” I said. “It comforts people.”
“But how can it comfort anyone? Any god would have to be mean to let good people die all the time,” she returned.
“They often believe in an afterlife better than earth, Imi,” I said.
“But, then why would God send us here in the first place? Just to die? God would have to want to watch us suffer, no matter what way you look at it,” she said.
“Many religious believers think life is a lesson,” I said.
“But, what is it supposed to teach you? Good people don’t get hurt any less than bad people. Good people still die for no reason,” she said calmly.
“I don’t know, Imi. Perhaps the lesson is that every moment with those you love is precious?”
“But, if afterlife is forever, than moments aren’t precious. You would get a million, billion moments,” she explained in monotone.
“Perhaps I’m not the best person to talk to about this,” I said.
“But you are. You know everything,” Imi said.
“I don’t like the darkness. How come things can’t go back to the way things used to be?” Imi asked.
“Some things are irreversible and can’t go back, like the time the movers dented the wall in your room. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t un-dent the wall,” I said.
“But, I don’t want to go into the darkness. I hate it. Please, don’t make me,” Imi said. Her words were as the call of a mourning dove. Her wide eyes were wet.
“I don’t want you to go either, Imi,” I said. I grasped her hand. It was cold.
“I don’t want to go into the darkness,” she repeated. “Can’t you keep my brain on? Can’t you do it? You know everything.” Her lips were as pale as faded paper and the skin hung on her cheeks like old vellum. Her eyes were clear and young and lost.
“I don’t know this, Imi.” She slouched into the bed, her hand falling from mine.
“I don’t want to go into the emptiness,” she said.
She barely lifted her eyes to meet me. She didn’t have the energy. She didn’t have the time. I placed both of my hands over hers. I could feel the sharp angles of her skeleton bumping against my flesh.
A tremble let me know she knew I was here. My throat squeezed tight.
“Hello, Imi,” I said. My voice shook as I tried to smile, but couldn’t. My lungs felt as if they were held in a vice. A long moment passed in silence, punctuated only by the susurrus of the wind outside the window.
“I had a dream, Imi,” I said, almost choking. I stopped, and took a breath, trying to control the beating of my heart. “Last night. We were both there, except, we were birds.”
I grasped her hand tighter and looked out the window. My entire chest ached. “You were a pretty little white bird, a piping plover, like the one we saw in the aviary last year. You were most beautiful bird there ever was. And you were the best flier as well. You could fly in loops and arcs and every sort of acrobatic. And you always went on the best adventures.”
I looked down at Imi. Her eyes were closed. Her chest was so still. However, a sudden burst of effort would carry through, raising the thin cage up again once more as her little body fought for life.
“We were very happy, but there was a storm coming. A dark storm, higher than the mountains and filled with thunder. It was very, very dark and frightening. I wanted to hide you from the storm, but you didn’t want me to. You saw that storm and were determined to fly through it. You insisted that you must face it head-to-head, as equals.”
My eyes were clouding. I could feel the precipitation threatening to release. I swallowed hard.
“I didn’t know what was on the other side. I didn’t even know if there was an other side, but you knew you had to face the storm. So, you took off into the heart of it. You couldn’t do all your acrobatics anymore. The rain fell too sharply and the winds blew too roughly. But, you flew like a dart through it all.
“And then, you disappeared into the storm. I couldn’t see you anymore. I couldn’t hear you. I was so frightened for you. But, it was okay. Because, I knew you were too beautiful, too perfect for flying in perfect weather. You needed the storm because it was the only way you could be challenged. And I knew, when I was ready, I would follow you into the storm too.
“I didn’t know if we would ever find each other or if we would ever find the other side. But, we would be there together, forever, for a million, billion moments.”
The chest fell, and struggled to rise. There was a slow, rattling draught of breath. Then, there was nothing but a sudden hush and stillness so complete, I could feel it stop my heart in turn.
I leaned over and kissed Imi’s forehead. “I’ll love you forever, my dreamer.”