Exit Light

Exit Light

Tovah Connelly would rather be asleep than awake. Since her accident, she’s become a shaper in the dream world, the Ephemeros, where she can manipulate places and people with just a thought. Tovah’s friends there, Ben and Spider, encourage Tovah to develop her skills, but the one ability she doesn’t want is to control the dreams of others—it’s a power she’s wary of, and a responsibility she’s not ready for.

Nobody can sleep all the time, though—not if they want a waking life that bears a semblance of normalcy. And Tovah’s waking life is vastly different from her dream life: she’s rebuilding and regaining her sanity after nearly losing it in the accident’s aftermath.

But when nightmares begin rocking the Ephemeros, Tovah’s two worlds begin to collide. As those she cares about are threatened, Tovah may discover that the one responsibility she doesn’t want is the only defense she has.

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Excerpt:

A crowd ripples just like the ocean, if it’s got a force pushing against it. Tovah Connelly intended to be that force. And, with a bit of effort and concentration, she would be.

That was the way things worked here in the Ephemeros, bending to the individual will. Some were skilled with it. Others, like Tovah, had only just discovered their abilities to move and shape the world they entered when they slept. And still others, less fortunate, would never know how to shift their bodies or encourage the terrain to mold to suit them. They would never know that in dreams, they could control the world.

“Hey, hey.” The voice pricked her ear even above the writhing, pounding music surrounding her, and Tovah turned.

She didn’t see him at first, shrouded as he was in shadow. The darkness rippled the same way the crowd had when she teased it with her will. Spider, the size of a large cat and striped with bands of crimson and gold, flicked his mandibles at her. He pulled the darkness back around him, his will stronger than hers, and she moved forward so as not to lose sight of him.

“Spider, how do you expect me to learn if you keep balking me?”

“How do you expect to learn if you’re never pushed?” Spider’s feet clicked on the tile floor. The crowd parted around them as he backed up and Tovah followed.

The current of mingled desires flowed around her, tendrils reaching out to caress as she passed, but she ignored them. She didn’t pay attention to what anyone else was shaping unless it was directed at her. It would have been rude, like peeking on someone in the shower. They might be sharing the same dream space, but they weren’t sharing the same dreams. She followed Spider out of the club and onto the grass, a place where an arachnid, even one the size of a household pet, would feel more comfortable.

She didn’t want to lose the club and kept the doorway fixed behind her. The land of dreams, the collective unconsciousness of the world, never stayed the same unless it was held in place by desire. She could talk to Spider and hold the door, but she had to be careful not to get distracted or else anything could shift. It was a balancing act, one she was only slowly learning how to perform.

Spider squatted in a tuft of purple grass. His coloring had changed, now banding his round, hairy abdomen with green and silver. A lamppost of filigreed iron slid out of the mist and highlighted a circle of earth around him. Tovah didn’t think spiders could preen, but this one did.

“Very nice,” she said.

“Thanks.” Spider smoothed one jointed leg over his head and set of eight wee ruby eyes. “How you doing?”

A Goodfellas spider. Tovah laughed. “I’m fine, Spider. How are you?”

He bounced lightly on eight legs, his colors swirling again before settling into a pattern of mottled blues and greens. “Fine. Fine. You been practicing?”

Tovah looked at the lamppost, which became an old-fashioned gaslight. “A little.”

It wasn’t a lie. She did, sometimes, spend her time in the Ephemeros practicing the complicated task of building and destroying worlds. Just not as often as Spider thought she should.

“You should practice more.” Spider didn’t look with even one of his eyes at the post, and it changed back. “You’re too easy to push. Almost as bad as a sleeper.”

She frowned. “Hey.”

Spider managed a shrug without shoulders. “I’m just saying. Anyone can come along and push you, that’s all. Not all of them are as nice as me.”

Tovah knew there were shapers who didn’t play by the rules, those who used their skills to force their will on sleepers or shapers weaker than they. But most shapers she’d encountered were careful not to shape anyone else’s reality without permission. She’d met a few rude sons of bitches who’d tried to convince her she wanted bigger breasts or blonder hair, but she’d been able to put them off without any trouble.

“You know, Spider, there are assholes in the waking world who think they have the right to push other people around, too. I get by.” She looked over her shoulder at the doorway of the club. It had been a plain wooden doorframe a moment before; now it arched and featured a bolted door padded with crimson satin. Someone had done that, not her, but as long as there was a door, she didn’t care what it looked like.

“This ain’t the waking world, Tovahleh. I’m just looking out for you.”

Tovah looked back at Spider, who’d become her dear friend in a time when she’d desperately needed one. “I know. You’ve taught me a lot, and I appreciate it. Really.”

“But you want me to back off.”

“A little, yeah.”

Spider made a low noise but didn’t argue further. From behind Tovah the door flew open and a woman stumbled out. She represented as having blond hair and a slim form. Barefoot, clad in a long white nightgown, she was the epitome of a gothic heroine, complete with a rose clutched in one hand.

Spotting Spider, she shrieked. Again and again she cried out, hysterical, sobbing. She cowered against the doorway, her fingers scrabbling at the wood but never letting go of the flower. Though the air and earth rippled around her, nothing changed. She wasn’t a shaper.

Tovah remembered how it felt to be powerless against fear. The first time she’d met him, Tovah had been as terrified as this woman. She looked at Spider, who’d grown larger. No help, there. “Spider, c’mon.”

Spider did nothing. With a disgruntled sigh, Tovah turned back to the blond woman. “Shh. You’re having a dream.”

The woman screamed again and covered her face, though Spider hadn’t moved toward her. Tovah bent and put a hand on her shoulder, shaking gently. The woman stopped screaming and looked up, eyes wide and mouth lax with fear.

“You’re having a dream,” Tovah repeated. “What’s your name?”

“Princess Pennywhistle.”

Tovah laughed, though she knew she shouldn’t. The woman might be representing as a gothic heroine but she thought she was in a fairy tale. “Princess. This is a dream, okay? That spider isn’t real. This is all a dream.”

Strands of midnight suddenly streaked the sunshine of Pennywhistle’s hair. Her nightgown shortened over a body fuller in the hips and breasts than it had been a moment before. She dropped the rose.

“A dream?”

“Yes. It’s just a dream.

The woman looked around, dark eyes going wide. “Are you sure?”

Tovah nodded and gave her a confident smile. “Absolutely.”

The other woman closed her eyes briefly. “I’m not here.”

“Well…” Tovah shot Spider a look, but he was no help. She fudged her answer a bit, not wanting to get into a deep, philosophical discussion about the technicalities of being “here.” “You’re dreaming. Which means you can go anyplace you like. Wouldn’t you like to dream of something nicer than a big, ugly, hairy spider?”

“Hey!” Spider complained. “I’m not ugly!”

The woman flinched when he spoke and turned her face away. “I would love to dream of something nice.”

“Then all you have to do is do it. What do you want to dream about?”

The now-dark-haired woman didn’t answer in words. She stood, her body changing once again. The front of her nightgown swelled. Her hair grew lush and long, swirling around her. She ran her hands over the bump of her belly and smiled with an uncertainty that made Tovah’s throat close with emotion. She’d had the same dreams, once.

Spider had also been the one to teach Tovah how to escape a nightmare. She painted letters with her finger in the air above the door. They became a blinking neon sign, familiar to most people.

“See? Look there. Exit light. Just go back through that door,” Tovah prompted. “You’ll be all right. And remember, you control your dreams. They don’t control you.”

The woman nodded, already losing sight of Tovah and Spider as she turned and went through the door. It closed behind her with a snap. Tovah looked back to her friend. It was impossible to read his expression, since he had no mouth or nose and was an arachnid, but she guessed at his mood anyway.

“She was terrified. What was I supposed to do? Just let you scare her into apoplexy?”

Spider chuffed. “She wasn’t a shaper.”

“She shaped.”

“You guided her.”

“You guided me,” she reminded. “Maybe she’ll learn.”

She knew that was unlikely. Dreams arose from individual experience, thoughts, memories. Fears. But it took desire to shape the dream world to one’s own purpose. Conscious desire. And remaining conscious in the land of unconsciousness wasn’t a talent granted to everyone.

Spider got a little bigger, his front legs rubbing against each other. “She needed to be scared. That’s why she was here.”

“So, you like scaring people? That’s something new.”

Another chuff, this one sounding like a laugh. “Sometimes. But you done good with her. Helped her out. You’re a good guide.”

Now she knew where this was going. She waggled a finger. “Ah, ah, ah. No. We’re not going there. I don’t want to be a guide. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone else but me. That’s too much pressure, Spider.”

“Too much work, you mean.”

“That, too.” She reached behind her to touch the wood of the door, making sure it hadn’t gone away while Spider distracted her with discourse. “I’m going back to the club.”

Spider sighed, a sound so human and so at odds with his inhuman features Tovah stopped. “So much to do here and all you wanna do is play.”

Good friends can get away with saying things like that, and Spider had become a very good friend. Still, Tovah’s back stiffened and she clenched her jaw. “I’m a grownup, Spider. I know the rules. I’m not the only person who’s looking for the same thing.”

He snorted, his body turning completely black. “That don’t make it good.”

Exasperated, she snapped. “Why does it make it bad?”

Spider said nothing for a moment. This wasn’t their first argument. She knew him. He was thinking of a way to zing her.

“It’s dangerous,” he said, surprising her.

His concern touched and irritated her. She didn’t miss the irony of him warning her against danger and urging her to become a guide—which would mean deliberately opening herself to the shaping of others.

“I can take care of myself, Spider.” She softened. “Really. I promise. You taught me, remember?”

Spider sighed. “How could I forget?”

Tovah blew him a whimsical kiss, the pair of red lips like a butterfly fluttering from her fingertips toward him. “I’ll see you later.”

Spider grunted, low, and scuttled forward. “I haven’t seen you in awhile. You been avoiding us?”

“Of course I haven’t.” Guilt pinged her. She had, maybe a little. She turned the handle of the door but didn’t open it. “I saw Ben just last week. And look, I’m here with you, now. Besides. You know you can always find me if you want. It’s not so easy to find you.”

“Ben does.”

Geographically, the Ephemeros had no boundaries. It was as likely for her to meet someone from China as it was for her to bump into a man she’d passed that day on the street, or her neighbor, or a friend. It didn’t matter where their physical bodies existed. The only requirement was that the other person be dreaming, too.

Add to that the ability to shape surrounding reality, and the Ephemeros offered limitless opportunities for interaction. Shaping your reality meant shaping your companions, too. Creating a past lover’s face on someone didn’t always mean that lover was really there.

That’s what guides did. Filled in all the empty places, the roles in others’ dreams. A good guide was also a good shaper, able to mold a cast of thousands from nothing but the gray mist of the Ephemeros, and all based upon the desire of the person they guided. Guides helped sleepers finish what they started.

It was too much work. If that meant there were sleepers out there haphazardly populating their dreams with half-formed figures and uncompleted tasks, well…that wasn’t her problem.