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Unmasking the Subconscious

A short story by Kimberly Shyu

     Chox pushed the long, green grass aside as he cut a path through its blades, rushing to be next to them. He was nearly out of breath and ready to walk when he heard it again.

     “Ahhhh!” they cried in the distance. Some wailed in a constant, low-pitched groan, some cried and some screamed in terror. Their pain and agony seeped into his ears and down through his arteries, coming back through his veins as he exhaled heavily, panting and running. They were hurt, and they desperately needed help. He had to get there—fast. He rocketed forward, energized by the innate desire to tend to the wounded, to lend his strength and to challenge the face of evil. 

     They were victims of the latest C3 Comet attack, an intelligent alien body who took the form of a comet to break the atmospheric plane of Earth before transforming into its natural state: a slimy, flesh-eating bacteria. Since it had discovered Earth’s bountiful offering of mammals and other biological creatures, it had waged a relentless onslaught against the planet, forcing an eruption of local and international wars as the victims of Earth fought back, sometimes against one another. The militaries were called to the major cities to support the largest populations, leaving the country folk to fend for themselves. The problem was: no one had prepared for an invasion of this kind on a global scale, and with weak guidance across the planet from appointed leaders unable to (or unwilling to) partner on a united front, each neighborhood was left to its own defenses when attacks occurred—nearly daily. 

     Luckily, Chox had trained as a first responder and was prepared to deliver critical first aid in any way he could. He reached the first victim. The man’s eyes were glazed over and he was immobile, streaks of slime covering his face and arms. It was too late. Chox jumped him like a hurdle and moved on to find another. Tall grass his height encompassed his entire peripheral view and he could see no more than six feet directly in front of him, so it was unclear where the enemy might lie. He proceeded carefully, knowing full well he was in the impact zone of the battleground and the likelihood of C3 aliens remaining in the vicinity was extremely high. “Expect the best but prepare for the worst,” his father had taught him. It was long ago, but he could still recall his father’s kind smile and caring heart. He would always help a friend or neighbor in need and Chox knew his father would expect the same of him if he were here in person today. But he wasn’t.  

     I hope you’re here with me now, Dad, he prayed. I need strength and resilience. 

     He imagined his father, standing to his side, coaching him along through the field. “Find it within yourself, kid,” he would probably say. “You have all the strength you need inside of you.”

     Suppressing his adrenaline, Chox fought through the brush as quietly as he could, inching closer with every step toward the sound of a woman nearby, who moaned in between gasps for air. Pulling back the reeds on his right, he looked down and there she was, lying on the edge of a huge, empty, circular patch of grass that had been burned by the comet’s landing. Smoke rose steadily from the ashes of the charred grasses nearby. A treeline was visible in the distance, peeking just above the far side of the hollow, a trail of slime leading into it from the singed grass below. 

     He turned back to the woman and observed her for a moment. She appeared to suffer from burns only; no slime covered her, which was promising. She seemed unable to move, but her eyes slowly shifted toward him as she gasped again for air. 

     She inhaled too much smoke in the blast, he thought. He knelt beside her and offered her clean water while he looked for any signs of slime in their immediate surroundings. Finding none, his heart rate dropped slightly. At least they were safe for the moment. One touch of the slime would burn flesh upon contact. And if a C3 alien attacked you directly, it would eat you alive. 

     The excitement of the search subsided and, as his energy returned to a normal level, he began to notice the sounds of other victims crying nearby. A low rumbling was also audible, coming from behind him. It got louder and louder and was accompanied by the sounds of the tall grass crashing down and whipping against the metal of whatever was plowing through the field. Suddenly, a yellow off-road vehicle with no doors or windows and a netted black top blasted by him, paralleling the tree line on its way toward the main road. Chox wasn’t surprised. It was surely a neighbor finding an escape path toward the mountains, where they could hide reclusively until this nightmare was over. 



     Lana bumped along with her leg hanging out of the door frame and her hand holding the top bar for support. She was driving through a huge field of impressively tall grass—as tall as corn stalks but with the flexibility of a wispy reed on an ornamental garden grass. It was so soft, it bent easily as her SUV roared through the field, desperately trying to make it to the main road. The sky was a bright, crisp blue, an impressively beautiful and plain sight juxtaposed against the complex, grisly scene on the ground. She knew people were in trouble—she could see their bodies lying around the area where she drove—but as much as she wanted to stop and help, she had to press on and make it to wherever she was going… quickly. 

     BOMP! PAH! THUD! 

     The vehicle bounced like it was running over large rocks at a high speed, but they weren’t rocks.

     Oh my God, I’m running over bodies! she realized as she cringed in horror. The bodies were everywhere. It was an all-out war and she was in the middle of a battlefield; she couldn’t avoid hitting them. The gruesome reality that she was further injuring or even killing the wounded, if not just blatantly blasting over dead bodies like roadkill, was inescapable. 

     These aren’t opossums, these are humans for God’s sakes! she thought as she urgently weaved among those in her view to avoid a head-on collision. She would deal with the emotional trauma of her actions later. For now, she had to keep moving. 

     Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a man squatting next to a woman. He looked at Lana as she turned her head. They locked eyes, and in a split second, they exchanged information telepathically. 

     “I’m helping the injured,” he expressed to her with conviction. She could feel he was conflicted about her flight and disdainful that she would be escaping while others around her were dying. 

     He continued to send his thoughts. “I wish you could be good and just, but I understand the right to flee and save oneself and one’s family.” She realized he wanted her to stay and help. 

     “Please,” he begged, “don’t run over the people I’m trying to save. And be on the lookout. There are enemies afoot that will harm you if you aren’t prepared.”

     She accepted his messages willingly and exchanged her own thoughts in response. 

     “I wish you well. I fear I cannot stop here, for I must complete my mission. Thank you for your selflessness. I hope someday we will meet again; remember I am a friend and not foe. Please, be safe.” 

     With that, her head snapped back toward the front as she blasted out of the field and onto the main road. But where was she going so urgently? Even she didn’t know. There was no time to plan, no thinking ahead. She didn’t even have time to process what she had just witnessed. She was fully present in each millisecond, and anything seemed possible, but as much as she tried to lure her thoughts to a paradisiacal island somewhere, she couldn’t coax herself into a happier place. The one clear feeling was that of imminent danger. 

     She had to escape this nightmare. 


     Lana awoke, sweat beads dripping down her face and soaking the back of her neck. It was still dark in her room. She rolled over and peeked at the clock—3:14 AM. She flopped back over onto her drenched pillow and, for the first time, noticed the dampness of her shirt. She wasn’t used to nightmares and this one had clearly rattled her. 

    Was she on Earth? Who was the enemy? How many were injured or dead? Who were the victims? The facts, she did not know, for this was just a dream. Her only confidence was in the man helping the fallen. He seemed so confident, so stoic. And they had spoken to one another in a fraction of a second, without words. She shuddered. She didn’t do that often in her dreams—something was peculiar about this one and gave her the impression she had been there… wherever ‘there’ was. She allowed herself to slip back into an uneasy sleep for the remainder of the night, praying she wouldn’t return to that disastrous scene. 

     Later that morning, Lana prepared herself for another mundane workday in the office. She was a junior business analyst for a large, commercial consulting organization and often spent her days digging through spreadsheets and creating data models and graphical analyses for her managers. Going through her routine forced assimilation to the structured constraints of conscious life, and she quickly forgot about the abnormalities of last night’s brain activity. The week was going to be fairly normal, but on Friday she looked forward to celebrating her friend Caty’s birthday. They had a nice dinner planned and Caty had mentioned something about a surprise afterwards. 

     Of course she would plan her own surprise, Lana thought, amused. Caty was always the type of go-getter who could coordinate an entire army if she wanted to. She was an event planner and didn’t enjoy sitting still, which made her fun to be around, especially on a Friday night when Lana was ready to escape her familiar daily hustle. Lana was happy to support whatever Caty wanted to do; it was her birthday, after all. Plus, she knew it was sure to be an entertaining evening no matter what the ‘surprise’ entailed.

     The weekdays rolled by, hour after hour, and though Lana thought briefly of the strange dream occasionally, her sleep patterns delivered nothing unusual in subsequent evenings. 

     Friday finally arrived and she dressed herself up after work, ready for a night on the town. She rarely wore lipstick, but tonight she carefully applied a dark pink rose color to her lips to celebrate Caty’s special birthday. She bundled in her warm winter coat and zipped up her high-heeled boots, locked her front door and headed to the restaurant. 

    “Hi!” Lana said excitedly as she spotted Caty and their friend, Sara in the corner of the dimly lit restaurant. It was tapas night! In celebration of the upcoming Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead—a traditional Mexican celebration, the restaurant was decorated with colorfully painted skulls and masks hanging all around the ceiling and walls. Paired with the colorful strings of flags that criss-crossed the ceiling, plus the spotlights on the wall art, it was a sight to behold. Such limited light was generated from the table candles that the wall art seemed to pop against the darkness and, being that this was the only thing you could really see in the restaurant aside from your companion’s faces, it enveloped and overwhelmed the senses. 

     “Happy Birthday! Wow, this place looks awesome!” Lana exclaimed as she looked around in awe. 

     “Thank you! Yeah it does,” agreed Caty. “They really outdid themselves this year.”

     “Check that one out,” Sara said, as she pointed to a mask on the wall behind Lana. Lana turned around and saw a small mask staring at her that looked like a devil with short horns and pointy ears. Its paint reflected the brightest rainbow: a pure-red mouth with pointy white teeth, green and yellow scales across its nose and up between its eyes, blue-dotted ‘freckles’ leading up to its red horns, and bright green ears. Its blue eyes bore into Lana like it was laughing at her… like it knew something she didn’t. Surrounding it were other animal-looking masks, some with long, bull-like horns, others with curled ram’s horns. These were interspersed with colorful, ornate skulls and centered in the middle of the wall was a large sun folk art sculpture, mainly orange but sporting colorful swirls of patterns across its many pointed rays. 

     “Unreal. They should keep this up all year,” Lana replied, sitting down. 

     After some casual chatter and general catch-up, the ladies placed their order for spicy chicken taquitos, guacamole, and—of course—queso dip. Sara also ordered shrimp ceviche, but Lana wasn’t adventurous enough to try that and left it for the other two to enjoy. The idea of raw seafood made her nauseous. 

     As they awaited the arrival of their tapas, Lana broached the question she knew burned on Sara’s mind just as much as it did her’s. 

     “So, where are we going tonight, my friend?” she asked saucily as she took a sip of her drink and looked at Caty playfully. 

     “Well,” Caty started excitedly as she raised her eyebrows, “I’ve always wanted to have my fortune read, so tonight, in honor of my birthday AND halloween, we’re going to visit…”

     Sara and Lana leaned in, eagerly awaiting what was next. 

     “...a psychic!” Caty finished with a slight gleam in her eye and a mischievous smile. 

     Sara’s mouth dropped open. “I’m terrified of psychics! Aren’t they witches?” she asked nervously. Lana knew she had been raised in a traditional, religious household with limited exposure to things outside of church, so to her, this was surely unwelcome (and scary) news. 

     Lana chuckled. A psychic? Oh geez, I wonder what they’ll tell me, she thought as she rested her chin in her hand.     

     “No they’re not witches. Just relax,” Caty replied in a motherly tone. “Just think—you could get your palm read to find out about the future. How long will you live? When will you meet your husband? How many kids will you have?” she teased. It didn’t seem tantalizing enough to calm Sara, who looked like she might hyperventilate any second. 

     Lana sighed as she shook her head. “This was a surprise, alright.” 

     “Don’t worry, you two,” Caty said. “I promise you it will be an eye-opening experience. And if nothing else, you can laugh at me and my fortune, okay?”

     They relented and agreed to go along with her sneaky plan, as long as she agreed to go out for ice cream afterwards as a birthday treat. Caty willingly nodded and seemed grateful she had convinced them, though somewhat begrudgingly. 

     After dinner, Caty led them down the cobblestone street past a dark alley. On the corner was a small store with the word “Psychic” in neon letters and the outline of a neon hand with a white star in its palm blazing through the large window. Caty bravely entered the front door, confidently leading the women inside—Sara trailing at the end of the pack. Lana noticed her demeanor was subdued and almost depressed, ever since Caty had broken the news at dinner. 

     Poor Sara, she thought. I guess I can offer to do mind first so she doesn’t feel pressured. Truthfully, Lana didn’t even know what to expect. What if she found out her lifeline was short and she was going to die in the near future? She wasn’t ready to deal with any grave news and prayed it would all be positive and jovial. 

     We can all laugh about this over ice cream, she hoped. 

     As they entered the reception area, Lana saw bookshelves lined with trinkets and cards, books and gems. A salt lamp and small water fountain glowed on the front desk and a soft light glowed from the rear of the store, emanating from behind a purple curtain. The smell of eucalyptus and maybe a hint of lavender was peaceful and inviting—Lana immediately felt at ease despite being largely uncomfortable with the unknown of what lay ahead. 

     A woman who looked like she could be Lana’s aunt stepped out from behind the curtain and greeted them with a smile. 

     “Hello! You must be Caty,” she said kindly. Her voice was sweet and normal—not at all like the cackly witch Lana had imagined. Having been trained by popular fairy tales, she was imagining an old lady, stooped over as she hobbled around her shop and stared at them with huge, creepy eyes and gargled some nonsense through her scratchy voice. This woman was the antithesis of that: she seemed, in all respects, normal. Again,         Lana’s defenses dropped slightly and her curiosity piqued. 

     “Hi! Yes, I called ahead for three readings,” Caty replied. 

     “Absolutely, right this way,” the lady said, indicating for them to follow her behind the curtain. “I’m Stella,” she said with a smile. “Welcome.” 

     With that, she walked behind the curtain and held it back for them as they entered the main room. It was lit by more salt lamps and the soft glow of candles. There were comfortable chairs surrounding her reading table. A map on the wall behind her showed different astrology signs. 

Caty found a comfortable seat in the middle and Lana and Sara flanked her sides. Stella walked around them to the back of her table and sat down daintily on her upholstered chair. 

     “So Caty, we’ll start with your palm reading, yes?” she asked. 

     Caty nodded and then looked at her friends. “You guys still want in, right?” she probed.

     Lana looked at her, then at Stella. It seemed harmless, and, like Caty said, it was all in good fun. “I’m in,” she promised.

     Sara didn’t look so convinced. She glanced at Caty, then smiled nervously at Stella. “Um… I think I might sit this one out,” she said. 

     “No problem at all,” Stella reassured her. “I want everyone to do what’s comfortable for you.” With that, she turned her attention to Caty and asked for her palms. She spritzed them with some lavender spray, which quickly spread around the room and smelled refreshing and soothing. 

     “Let’s start with clean hands and energy,” she announced, taking a deep breath. Caty pulled her shoulders back and spruced up her posture, prepared for her fortune. 

     Stella carefully observed her palms and their corresponding lines: the heart line, the head line, the life line, the sun line and the fate line. Stella announced that Caty was born with a strong will and healthy genes. She fell in love easily, and she showed great promise if she could use her talents for positive career pursuits. She had potential for great recognition and success. Seeming satisfied after 20 minutes of detailed analysis,         Caty pulled back so Lana could take a turn. 

     Stella once again sprayed the lavender mist to cleanse Lana’s hands, then stared into her palms for what seemed like several minutes. Finally, she looked up. 

     “Lana, do you have strange dreams?”

     Startled, Lana looked at Stella skeptically. “Yes, I had a strange dream on Sunday night,” she replied. 

     “Yes,” Stella replied in an absent-minded tone. “I believe you have the power to connect with others. You are clear and focused. Your intelligence shows through your deep head line.” Her voice grew eager and forceful. “You must unmask your potential and capture these moments in your subconscious. It may be the only way to communicate with those you love… even those you never knew and may never know. They have connected with you for a reason.”

     Lana stared at Stella for a moment, unable to fully comprehend her advice. Was she telling her that she could talk to spirits in her dreams? 

     Stella’s voice began to tremble as she closed her eyes and continued with her reading. 

“Indeed, conscious imagination is just a figment of our unconscious state.

Events that cannot be controlled we must surrender to fate. 

Like the masks you saw in the restaurant tonight,

Each one so different with colors alight. 

Yours will be removed in the splendor of dreams.

Only then will you find freedom’s not what it seems.”


     Lana yanked her hands away, snapping Stella partially out of her stupor. 

     Sara gasped and quickly got up and left the shop. “I’ll meet you outside,” she mumbled as she scrambled out. 

     Caty stared at Lana with a look of disbelief. Lana returned her gaze with a look of shock, then she turned to Stella, expecting an explanation or some other guidance on how to interpret everything. But Stella had changed. She seemed aloof and disturbed—nothing like the person who had greeted them at the front of the store only 30 minutes ago. 

     “I’ll see you out,” Stella offered quietly, looking past them toward the purple curtain. 

     Lana winced. Is it over? She’s going to leave me hanging just like that? she wondered. 

     Caty threw down a few $20 bills and grabbed Lana’s hand. “C’mon,” she implored. 


     Outside, Sara stood in the frigid wind waiting for them. She widened her eyes and gave them a worried smile when Caty busted through the front door with Lana in tow. Sara’s face conveyed what they were all clearly thinking: “What just happened in there?”

     Lana was still processing everything and feeling slightly perturbed that nothing had been mentioned about her successful career or long life.           Why did Caty get an uplifting reading while mine was all weird? Maybe that’s just typical fodder she feeds to most people, Lana thought. I guess I’m lucky she really went deep with me… but what the heck does it mean?

     “Ice cream, anyone?” asked Caty hopefully.

     “You’re trying to make up for dragging us into that fiasco?” Sara joked in an accusatory tone, nodding toward the storefront. She still seemed frazzled by the whole episode. 

     Lana jumped in to mediate. She could tell emotions were heightened and didn’t want to unintentionally ruin Caty’s birthday. “We promised we would take you even though it’s freezing out here, so let’s go,” said Lana. “I could use some double chocolate mocha right about now.” 

     After dissecting Stella’s evaluations over ice cream, Lana wished Caty a very happy birthday, or whatever remained of it, and went home to get ready for bed. She was mentally exhausted after debating the hidden meaning of Stella’s cryptic messages. Her friends had helped her realize that her subconscious state Stella had mentioned was really only accessible through sleep. Maybe if she opened her mind to the events in her dreams, like the man nursing the wounded in that field, she would learn more about their connection to one another and perhaps find an unexpected bond. If nothing else, she looked forward to some much needed rest after this wild week. 



     Lana trudged down the lane parallel to the huge golden fields, unaccompanied by her four-wheel drive, rugged SUV. She was back in the dream, but things looked different this time. There was no smoke billowing from the burning grass, no bodies scattered around like hurdles in an obstacle course and nothing decrepit or eerie about the scene. In fact, the long green-and-gold grass swayed gracefully in the wind as the sun’s rays shone through the patches of clouds and touched the earth with a gentle warmth. It was beautiful and relaxing. 

     “You’re back,” said a man’s voice as he approached from the rear.

     Turning, Lana noticed a long dirt road that stretched out for at least a mile behind him before disappearing into the hills beyond. It was the same man from the last dream, except this time he appeared kind and cordial. He walked along the road toward her, closing in within 20 feet, and she could now make out the details of his features. He had dark brown hair and fine lines around his eyes. His skin was slightly weathered and she detected an underlying green, scaly pattern just under his epidermis, as if he wasn’t entirely human. There was no time to consider the meaning of this now; she was living in the moment—unmasked, as promised. 

     “I’m back,” she repeated, sounding almost as surprised as him. 

     They were talking, yet there were no words. Again, information was exchanged via telepathy and she knew that even if they spoke different languages or came from diverse worlds, the root of their communication was in something deeper than a common tongue. 

     “I wish I could have helped you,” she said regrettably. “I don’t even know where I was going.”

     “I know,” he replied, nodding his head as he squinted his eyes and smiled, revealing dimples in his cheeks. He knew something she didn’t. “You were going to our bunker.”

     “Our bunker?” she asked, perplexed. Did she know this man?

     “You were saving the children,” he explained. 

     She gasped as her eyes widened incredulously and she stood silently, demanding an explanation from him. She felt her hair follicles raise as chills ran up her spine. Was he speaking of her children? Their children? What children?

     “We stand today in a future time,” he stated. “That C3 Comet attack was more than 250 years ago. Even still, Earth’s survival hangs in the balance of those who will fight every battle, no matter how tiny, and those who will lead among leaders to plan strategically and fight together—setting individual interests aside to support the common good. Your bravery on the field that day allowed us to defeat the C3 aliens by deploying our only known weapon at that time: sodium chloride bombs. It was the best we could do as a small community left to our own accord. The bunker held the detonation key, and you made it there in time.” 

     He smiled at her and for the first time, she noticed his tongue slithering slightly between his teeth. 

     “Are you human?” she asked point blank. 

     “Yes. And I am a guardian of humans,” he replied mystically.

     “Are we lizards?” she probed, already knowing the answer. 

     “We are descendants of reptiles,” he confirmed, “320 million years in the making.”

     She looked down at her hands. They appeared normal.

     “And the children?” she inquired. “What was their fate?”

     He took a deep breath and smiled at her quizzically. “Follow me,” he said.

     As they walked, he filled the silence. “I didn’t know you at the time,” he said, “but since that day, we have become quite close. You saved our community, and—in saving yourself—our future children. In exchange, I saved you.” 

     They walked to a spot on the edge of the woods where an old oak tree stood with the girth of a California redwood. At its base sat an old plaque, etched in stone. She could barely make out the detailed words, but the header clearly showed the ‘C3 Comet Battle of 2040.’ 

     “This is where you detonated the NaCl bombs and destroyed the C3 aliens on the battlefield,” he informed her.

     Lana stood like a statue, trying to absorb it all. 

     “Their leader returned five years later looking for you. He wanted to avenge his people’s deaths but I deflected his army’s attack. I lured them into a mine in the mountains over there,” he said, pointing down the road in the distance. “That’s where we ambushed them with the newest technology of the time. Unfortunately, its chemical compounds exposed my underlying reptilian traits and left me scarred.” 

     “I’m so sorry,” she communicated to him. She didn’t mean to cause anyone harm. 

     “By then you had delivered our two children, and I knew they would not thrive without you. You had sacrificed yourself for us in those early years, so I risked it all for you.” 

     She looked at the ground, ashamed. 

     “And I’m glad I did,” he said, reaching out and lifting her chin. They locked eyes and exchanged a deep feeling of mutual affection. “Lana, you are our past, our present and our future. Now that you’re here, unchained by the realities of space and time you think you know, you can understand what lies beneath the surface of your mind, and you can unlock your potential. The future is in your hands.”

With that, he smiled one last time and walked into the woods, disappearing from sight. She tried to follow, but when she crossed the plane of the oak tree, she found herself on an island under a palm tree, alone and surrounded on all sides by clear blue water. 



     Saturday morning, Lana snuggled against her pillow while she considered her future husband’s words. 

     So I guess I know my real future now, and I didn’t even need a psychic, she chuckled to herself. 

     She finally realized the meaning of Stella’s strange chant: our perception of reality is just a mask—a way of helping us understand, categorize and communicate with others about the world around us. In our conscious state, we can hypothesize, we can plan and we can reflect, but these actions often result in stress or information overload. 

     Only in the subconscious world of dreams are we able to remove those perceptions of our reality, relieving us of our known constraints and freeing us to see things as they really are—or the potential of what they could be. That’s because in dreams, we are free, as long as we train ourselves to invite all opportunities and shed our subconscious interpretations. In dreams, we are unmasked and can live in the moment, relinquishing control of the outcome. We can be everywhere at once, and anything is possible. 

     Free from the mask of everyday consciousness, bias and reason, we can truly allow our minds to explore the universe. 

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