Charlie opened his eyes. It had happened again. The floor felt hard under his back and his head throbbed. Reaching up to feel the lump he knew would be there, the light dimmed as a figure leaned over him. As Miss Wolfe’s face came into focus, her panicked expression said it all.
Charlie sat up and a sea of eyes stared back. His classmates craned over each other, a few wore genuine looks of concern, but most were pointing and giggling.
It wasn't the first time Charlie had woken up on the floor of his classroom, but it was the first time it had happened at his new school. He’d only started there a week ago after the bullying had become unbearable at his last school. This episode threatened to start it all off again.
When Charlie had an episode, he fell asleep. That doesn’t sound too bad does it? The problem was, it didn’t start with a nice snuggly feeling as he slowly drifted off, it was instant. He could be sat watching TV, working in class at his desk or even climbing a tree and would suddenly fall asleep. The feeling when he awoke would be more or less painful depending on how far off the ground he was when he’d collapsed.
Despite his assurances that he was okay, Charlie was swiftly escorted to the school nurse. Sitting there, staring into the smudged mirror above the examination couch, a wiry boy, with a slim angular face and dark wavy black hair looked back. Charlie sighed, thinking what it would be like to be normal.
‘Are you Charlie Dormer?’ said the nurse snapping him out of his daydream.
Before he could answer, his wrist was grasped by probing fingers searched for a pulse. Looking up at the nurse, Charlie recoiled as a torch thrust in front of his right eye temporarily blinded him. The light moved to his left eye and then vanished leaving him with a blotchy view of his attacker. Hoping the trauma was over, Charlie confirmed who he was, albeit with a less than enthusiastic;
‘Yes, I’m Charlie’.
With a prod of the bump on his head, and a cursory squeeze of his neck checking for pain, the nurse finished her examination with a nimble inspection for nits. She wasn’t one to miss the opportunity to stop a plague of the tiny beasts spreading on her shift.
Deemed fit, the nurse ushered Charlie to one of the blue plastic chairs outside the head teacher’s room. Through the thin wood and frosted glass of the office door, Charlie could hear one side of a conversation about him.
‘So this has happened to Charlie before?’ said the head teacher.
After a couple of minutes filled with murmurs of acknowledgement and pauses to listen, the head teacher spoke again.
‘Well, it sounds like there’s no need for Charlie to miss the rest of the school day, although it would have been useful to know all of this before he started here with us Mrs Dormer.’
Charlie heard the phone call finish and let out a weak groan as the head teacher summoned him into her office.
It had been a busy autumn for the Dormer family. A new school for Charlie, a new job for his mum in a local florist and a new house for the family. Unfortunately, Charlie’s school paperwork had been a victim of the chaos. Rushed and submitted with the back page about ‘medical conditions’ being completely overlooked. It was a bad oversight already causing issues for the eleven-year-old.
By the time Charlie got back to class, he’ had already missed the rest of his Maths lesson and the whole of first break. Miss Wolfe made no reference to Charlie's episode when he returned, although he was sure that someone would quiz him about it sooner or later. It was sooner. The first time the teacher turned around to write on the board, Kieran Jenkins, sat next to Charlie on the front row, leant across and whispered.
‘What ‘appened to you before? Was it a fit or somefin? My cousin ‘as epilepsy an’ it looked like that but wiv less shaking an stuff.’
Charlie dropped his head and let out a sigh. He’d thought that missing first break was unfair, but now he was glad of it. He’d at least avoided one break time where he wouldn’t be picked on or have to field questions fired at him.
The reason Charlie had moved schools was that his episodes had got out of hand. Not because his condition had got any worse, but due to a bully called Angus who, by a cruel twist of fate, had discovered what triggered Charlie’s collapses.
Angus was sat in his usual spot outside the head teacher’s office having resolved another playground disagreement with his fists. The fight unfortunately landed him there at the very moment Charlie's mum was explaining why her son kept falling asleep in class.
‘It's the opposite of hiccups’ she’ d said. ‘Instead of a sudden scare stopping the problem, it actually causes it.’
It was pure gold for a bully. The jackpot of intelligence, too good to be true, and it had just dropped into his lap. The punishment he received for the fight would be well worth it. Angus had overheard that Charlie's episodes were not fits or faints, but Narcolepsy and Cataplexy. He’ d even written one of the words on his hand so he wouldn’t forget it, ‘NARKY LEPSEE’. Once home, Angus had searched on the internet for ten minutes to no avail and his parents were of little help. The setback didn't faze Angus, he knew enough. Charlie would fall instantly asleep if surprised, excited or scared.
From then on, Angus took every opportunity to jump out and scare Charlie. From the moment he arrived at school, to the final bell, and often beyond.
At its peak, Charlie was having ten episodes a day. He’ d collapsed whilst holding his full dinner tray, splashing beans and strawberry mousse everywhere. Collapsed in assembly in front of the whole school and had even collapsed at the top of a flight of stairs. That was the final straw. The head teacher expelled Angus and Charlie had to stay off school for four weeks with a broken collar bone.
Although Angus was the ringleader, countless children now found it funny to leap out on the unexpecting Charlie to make him collapse. As a result, Charlie had moved schools at half term in the hope of a fresh start.
Today's episode in Maths had threatened to start it all off again and it wasn't even November. Thankfully, Charlie and his mum had come up with a well-rehearsed answer if quizzed about his ‘episodes’.
‘If you have an episode in your new school.’ When, would be more realistic Charlie had thought.
‘You can tell whoever asks, you that you sometimes faint if you bang your funny bone, but you’ll grow out of it.’
The explanation satisfied Kieran, especially as there was no 'shaking an stuff'. The lesson continued and there was no further mention of it.
Lunchtime was a different matter. He was the new kid, only there a week, and already Charlie was becoming known as the boy who collapsed in Maths class. The taunts were easy to shrug off. If that's all they did, he’d be safe.
Over the rest of term, Charlie kept himself to himself and didn’t have any more episodes. He worked hard in class, sat in the corner of the playground at break times to avoid being bumped into or hit with a football and was doing ok. He did get some funny looks and became known as a bit quiet and odd, but that was fine. Well, compared to his experiences in his last school anyway.
Everything changed just before Christmas. Year 6 was putting on a play and, although excused from some activities due to his condition, Charlie’s parents agreed that a small part on stage would be good for him.
Rehearsals ran smoothly. Charlie was a tree and only had to point to his right and say, ‘That way Dorothy, follow the yellow brick road’ and that was it. Low stress, easy line, no problem. Or so everyone thought.
The day of the play arrived and with the cast poised and the audience seated, Mrs Grimes, the head teacher, stood up. She was a round lady with tiny square glasses and an unnerving air of authority. After the usual introductions and announcements, the lights dimmed, and the play began. Fifteen minutes in, a short interlude allowed a scene change. The curtains parted to reveal a yellow brick road narrowing into the distance, destined for the sparkling emerald city. To the right of centre stage stood a tree, Charlie.
The tubes of cardboard, made to look like branches over Charlie’s arms were digging into his sides. The covering of green tissue paper leaves stuck to his cap tickled his nose. Looking out at the beaming faces of all the parents, Charlie forgot about his costume issues and felt himself getting more anxious. He’d been so nervous before the play that he’d even written his only line of dialogue on his palm in case he forgot it. His delivery imminent, Charlie’s pulse accelerated again as he realised the rigid cardboard branches preventeded him from bending his elbow to access his lifeline. As he was processing this, Charlie saw the Tin man, the Lion, Dorothy and Toto skipping in from the other side of the stage, full of the joy of adventure. Before they’ had uttered a word, one of the Tin man’s shin pads, sprayed silver for the role, slipped down and sent him flying. Charlie’s eyes widened, seeing it all in slow motion. The cumbersome tree costume and the fear of the impending collision rooting him to the spot, he could only watch as the silver funnel, borrowed from the school kitchen and now acting as the Tin man’s hat, jabbed straight into his side.
The next thing he knew, Charlie was at home in bed, his mum sitting next to him, a cup of hot chocolate on his bedside table.
‘Oh no!’ said Charlie, ‘Not in front of everyone. How long was I asleep for?’
‘60 minutes this time. It was a long one’ said his mum.
She explained that after the impact, Charlie had fallen straight on top of Alex, the Tin Man. Someone in the audience had even shouted ‘Timber!’ which got a good laugh. The laughter soon faded as the parents noticed the tree hadn’t got up quite as quickly as expected. Knowing what had happened, Charlie's dad climbed on to the stage, lifted him off the squirming Alex, and took him home.
The rest of the play went on without a hitch, although it was the felled tree that was the talk of the school the next day, not the safe return of Dorothy to Kansas.
Isla sighed. It was the third time she’d explained it to her little brother Iain, but he just wasn’t getting it.
‘Press it here, swipe it this way and blend it with that one. Easy.’
‘I did that already but it’s not blending. It keeps deleting it,’ said Iain.
‘Okay’ Isla said, her frustration peaking. ‘I’ll finish your Dreams homework for you, but don’t tell Mum.’
‘Thanks Isla’ grinned Iain. Mission accomplished.
Unlike Iain, Isla loved school, especially Dreams. It was her favourite subject and it came so naturally to her. She knew much more than an average 12-year-old on the subject and read about it whenever she could. Of course she could draw a dream frame in fine detail and beautiful colour, that was the easy part. The art was in the story telling. With two frames drawn, the dreams console would create the most logical path to connect them and move onto the next. The more subjects and objects within a frame, the more intricate the story required to link them all. After that came blending, which Iain was struggling with. Blending was changing one subject into another to add to the surreal nature of a dream. If they were too real then the humans might get confused and not know when they were dreaming and when they were awake.
Skilled dream makers could implant ideas into a human’s subconscious, create dreams within dreams or even dreams where different decisions led to alternate endings. Isla could do all these, but officially she wasn’t allowed to until she was at least 15.
After a few clicks on the screen and flurries with the stylus, Isla stood up. Reminding Iain not to tell their Mum about the homework, she turned and walked back to her own bedpod. As she approached, Isla flicked her eyes up to the sensor above the doorway. Registering the light turn from red to green, she stepped through the opaque yellow forcefield. On the far side of her pod there was a beautiful autumn forest that appeared almost on fire with the glowing red, orange and yellow leaves back lit by the sun. It had been like that since the morning and was getting boring now.
‘Wall. Space images,’ Isla said.
As commanded, the forest faded and the wall displayed a view of space so realistic that Isla shivered, sensing the cold of the vacuum. She recognised the Milky-way galaxy and the five highlighted planets known to support intelligent life. Grieg, Groumous, Brackie, Neptune and Earth.
Sitting at her desk, she switched on her screen to finish her own homework. Efficient as always, Isla only had ‘Plants and Animals’ left to do. For this she had to create a new design for a butterfly inspired by something else in nature. Looking around her pod for inspiration, her gaze paused on the small dot on her wall that denoted Earth. There, after all, was where all of this work was for. She blinked as the screen smoothly transitioned to display the Butterfly Nebula, a beautiful giant dust cloud with a wingspan over 3 light years. Well, that solved her homework for tonight at least.
In the main, Isla’s school subjects focussed on the understanding of humans and their planet, Earth. She and her family actually lived in a place called Earth, but not the Earth you’re thinking of. This Earth was an enormous city divided into 200 zones. Isla’s zone was England. Strictly speaking Isla wasn’t Isla’s real name, that was Ey-ak-la. She’d chosen her Earth name when she’d started school, as had each child in her class. As instructed they’d chosen an English name that sounded closest to their own. Quarks all around the city of Earth did this, those in each zone choosing names from their allotted countries.
All this was necessary due to the defining role of the Isla’s people, the Quarks. They were responsible for creating Earth and everything on it, except for the humans. Even the Quarks weren’t sure where they came from. Come to think of it, it’s a little inaccurate to say that the Quarks made everything. They did make the whole planet, the rocks, the water, the minerals and all the plants and animals, but the humans used these building blocks to make houses, clothes, computers and everything, well, human-made.
Happy she was up to date, Isla switched to her Dreams console to check her dreamer’s timelines and toy with some ideas for future narratives. In her class, Isla created dreams for one girl and one boy from England. First up was a nine-year-old girl from Wigan. Isla scrolled through and could see that she still had four days-worth of dreams left. Plenty.
Now, you may think that a child of nine would need nine hours of dreams per night, sixty-three hours a week. Thankfully for Isla, that wasn’t the case. Humans only dream during the ‘rapid eye movement’ or R.E.M. part of sleep, three hours a night for most children. With the frames she drew covering ten minutes each, that equated to eighteen frames a night or one hundred and twenty-six a week per child. It could be a little more if the child had a weekend nap, but Isla could cope with that.
She then tapped on the boy’s icon at the top left of her screen.
Something wasn’t right. It took a few seconds for Isla to realised what she was seeing. Frantically swiping, tapping and pinching on the screen made no difference. The boy had already used up all his dreams. Not only that, but he was now dreaming spare dreams.
Everyone knew that once created, a dream could be stored and altered, but never deleted. It was almost a living entity, only tamed by being dreamt. If not used within one Earth week, the dream would escape into the ether.
The next human who fell asleep without a dream of their own would find themselves dreaming a very odd dream, often in a language they didn’t understand. You can imagine how many dreams were loose out there, their intended human dying before they could be dreamt them.
Isla’s boy had only been sleeping for two hours more a day than her girl but had been dreaming almost twice as much. It wasn’t Isla’s fault he’d been dreaming so much, but that was no excuse. She was responsible for creating enough dreams for the boy. If her teacher discovered that one of her humans had used ‘spare’ dreams, she may even fail Dreams class. That couldn’t happen.
Isla caught a movement out the corner of her eye. It was her wall changing again. This time a huge black hole filled half the screen with a dense emptiness. Isla stared into its depths, a wry smile on her face. That would certainly be an easy way out of this mess.