The dream came back, as it had every night for the past week. It was an autumn day on an abandoned beach, the sky foreboding, the seas calm, and a persistent beeping filling the air. She walked without purpose, bundled in her favorite coat and scarf, chilly toes gripping the half-wet sand. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a familiar figure keeping step with her and holding a red balloon that bounced in and out of her vision as it danced in the light breeze coming off the waters. If she tried to look at the figure directly, it would vanish and reappear on her other side, still just barely visible from the corner of her eye.
As they walked under heavy clouds, she became aware of a constant whispering from the figure beside her. The whispers rose and fell in time with the bounce of the balloon in her vision. Slowly she began to recognize them as every dream and every goal she had ever had, whispered to her in her own voice.
When the balloon floated out of her sight, the whispers faded with it, and she found herself panicking. If she turned to look for it, however, the figure would vanish and reappear on her other side. So she kept her eyes on her feet or on the storm clouds and never tried to catch the balloon when it began floating out of her sight, for fear she would lose it forever.
The beach seemed endless and was getting colder and colder as she walked, but she couldn’t simply stop. She was tired and numb and lost, with no beginning and no end in sight. The only change was the balloon and the whispers fading in, fading out. Several times she thought to stop to see if the figure would stop with her, but her stomach gripped and her breath shortened each time she thought to do so. What if she lost them forever and all there was was an endless beach in autumn, cold and empty? So she kept walking, never altering her pace, never looking beside her.
The clouds grew more ominous, the beeping echoed louder, and the wind picked up with each wave of panic that overtook her, biting through her coat and sending the balloon in wild twists and turns. The whispers were harder and harder to hear, even when the balloon was in sight. Her fear grew and the wind bellowed, finally pulling the balloon past her sight and out over the ocean. The figure clung fast to its string, pulled along with it, and she recognized it as herself.
She could barely breath and her feet were heavy and frozen to the sand, but she pulled them along anyway in a desperate bid to grab herself before she was blown too far out to sea. The wind pushed against her and pulled the figure away at the same time, and she was losing herself in the gathering storm clouds. With a final bid of strength, she leapt and grasped for the outstretched foot of her doppelganger. Her fingers moved fruitlessly through empty air and she was falling, falling farther than she had jumped.
Her eyes opened, her pulse still quick from the dream. The beeping sound still floated in the air, matching each of her pounding heartbeats precisely. In the dim light of a window that framed an overcast sky, she could see a red balloon floating in and out of her vision, bouncing in the faltering breeze of the hospital’s aging air conditioner. The beeping slowed to a steadier pace as she closed her eyes and fell back to sleep.