• The glowing green digital numbers of the clock mounted into the wall read three thirty-two AM, and I was, as always, alone in the laboratory perfecting my prototype. The block of florescent lights above me began to flicker slightly as I bent over to peer through the large magnifying glass that hovered only inches from project. I held the metal tweezers firmly in my gloved hand and took a deep breath, steadying myself, the distinct smell of the laboratory’s sterilized air filling my nostrils. This was it. If this computer chip was programed correctly, my years of striving would finally amount to something. As the chip fell into place, I stepped away from the exposed internal wiring of my creation and released a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding.
    My name is Lauryn Shepherds, and I am twenty-three years old. I was bound to become a gifted scientist from the very first day I began my life on this wondrous planet we call earth. I began to read at age two and I graduated high school at age twelve. By age sixteen, I had earned my Doctorate at Yale University and had graduated at the very top of my class. I moved on to devote my entire life to the study of the human brain, and with several companies jumping at the chance to support the newest child prodigy, I embarked on a mission to unlock the secret of our dreams. How we dream, why we dream, and a way to record our dreams engulfed every waking moment of my life. I began to design a machine that would, in a sense, record dreams by helping the brain retain their memory in extremely realistic detail. As I grew older, my daring, visionary project began to loose momentum as one by one my sponsors began to drop out. But I continued to persevere. Now, after seven years of research, hard work, and more setbacks than I could ever hope to count, my prototype was finally operational.
    After screwing in the last few sheets of metal plating, I stumbled over to the thick plastic folding chair that sat next to wall behind me. I all but collapsed into the seat and began to laugh with an odd mix of relief, expectation, pride, worry, and a strange giddy feeling tickling in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite place.
    “Don’t get too excited, Lauryn,” I said aloud to myself after recovering from my spasmodic laughing fit. “It must be tested before you can win a Nobel Peace Prize.”
    My mind swarmed with the problem, and I began to pace back and forth across the white linoleum floor. Without funding, I would never be able to do the required tests, and even if by some miracle I came across a few million dollars of funding, the tests alone would cost me years of precious time.
    Why not try it now?” the thought popped into my head, unannounced, as many of most brilliant ideas do. “ You’ve checked and re-checked the numbers. Miscalculation is impossible. All you have to do in hook yourself up to the machine and catch up on some much needed nap time. It’s as easy as that.”
    I stopped pacing, struck by the simplicity of the idea that was already cementing itself in my mind. There was no other solution, I was sure of that now. I began to conduct the necessary preparations for my experiment, wheeling the large, clunky bulk of my prototype over towards the small folding cot I kept tucked away in the corner of my laboratory. I exited the lab through the door to my right and used the small bathroom behind the door to prepare for a night’s rest just as I would have If I were sleeping at home. I bent down and grabbed the large fleece blanket I kept stored in the cabinet below the sink and headed back towards my cot.
    I placed the small electrode transmitters on the correct places on my skull and shut off the lights, leaving my machine’s control panel to cast the lab in a faint green glow. I tossed and turned for what felt like an hour, the anticipation of my success eating me away. Eventually, exhaustion achieved what concentration could not, and I fell deep into a deep sleep, or more appropriately, into my dreams.
    The electronic buzzer of my alarm clock went off, mercilessly slicing through the quiet morning air time after time. I reached toward the sound to shut it off, then reluctantly lifted my head and looked around. The effect was astounding. I was in a small, white room with tacky pink carpet; second hand furniture spread haphazardly around. My machine was working! Everything seemed so real! From the musty smell of the stuffy room to the thick cotton weave of the cheap bed linens, my dream came to life in stunningly realistic detail. I let myself fall back on to the mattress with my eyes closed, relishing in my success.
    My relaxation was promptly interrupted by the patter of small feet slapping against the hardwood flooring outside my door. A young boy with curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes burst into my bedroom and jumped, giggling, onto the edge of my bed.
    “Mommy! You’re finally awake!”he squealed, squeezing me tightly around the neck.
    For a few moments my spun ferociously, almost making me sick to my stomach. None of this made sense. I didn’t have a son. Right now I was asleep on a cot in my laboratory, hooked up to my “dream machine”. I looked at the boy in my lap, bewildered.
    “Are you ok, Mommy?” he asked, staring up to me with his big blue eyes.
    Somewhere in my brain, his innocent stare flipped a switch and memories began to flood into my mind. My name is Caren Medina. I’m a single mom raising my four year old son, Tyler, alone ever since his good-for-nothing father dumped me when he found out I was pregnant. Young and confused, I failed to take legal action and child support possibilities flew out the window like yesterday’s trash. I am currently stuck in a dead end job struggling to make ends meet.
    “Yes Tyler, I’m alright. I just had a weird dream. I’m better now,” I replied.
    Tyler clapped his hands and ran out of my room into the kitchen. I went to my closet, threw on a blouse and some jeans and followed after him. When I caught up with him, I ruffled his hair and tickled his tummy. He giggled and squealed; I smiled and laughed. Yes, this was my son Tyler, whom I would gladly give my life for any day of the week.
    After a small breakfast of off-brand Cheerios, I bundled up Tyler in his autumn jacket, tied his shoes, and whisked him out the door. I buckled him into his car seat and shoved my hand into my purse in search of my keys. After a few seconds of feeling around, my keys jangled into my hand and I started the car. We drove to Tyler’s day-care center and I dropped him off with Mrs. Drake, the sweet old lady who ran the place. I smiled and waved goodbye to Tyler and then quickly ducked into my car to head to work, accidentally knocking my knee on the car door in my haste. Jarring pain surged through my joint and I cursed under my breath. That was going to leave a mark.
    When I finally reached the telemarketing office where I work, my friend and co-worker Jenny Pierce, met me at the door.
    “Are you ok, Caren? You look a bit dazed,” she asked, her dark eyebrows dipping into a concerned frown.
    “Yeah, Jenny I’m fine. I just didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night and I’m exhausted. The little bit of sleep I got wasn’t even very deep. Weird dream, you know?” I said.
    “Oh,” she said, giving me an understanding nod. “What was the dream about?”
    “ I can’t remember exactly, you know how dreams are, but I was some genius scientist working on a harebrained experiment,” I answered.
    “That does sound creepy. I mean, ‘Caren the mad scientist’ it just doesn’t get any scarier than that,” Jenny joked.
    “Not Caren, Lauryn. Lauryn the mad scientist,” I said before turning to sit in my cubicle.
    Jenny gave me another one of her concerned looks before leaving for her corner of the office.
    The day wore on as usual and my eyelids began to droop. By eleven o’ clock, I was a zombie, barely able to keep my eyes open long enough to dial the next number on my list. My head began to fall and my eyes slammed shut. I knew I couldn’t fall asleep during work, but nothing could stop me from succumbing to the urge to lie down. Within seconds I was asleep and once again carried off to dreamland.
    I felt someone tug on my shoulder and I jerked up. If my boss caught me sleeping I could loose my job. If I lost my job, I would loose my house, my car, my daily supply of food, my everything. I couldn’t subject Tyler to that, not while I was still breathing.
    “ Easy there, Arlene. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the young man who’s hand was still on my shoulder.
    My mind reeled. I knew that name, I just couldn’t quite place it. Still trapped in the fog of sleep, my brain refused to function properly. I shook my head a couple times and rubbed my eyes in attempt to shake myself awake. As my dreams of mad scientists falling asleep during work began to fade, the world at hand regained it’s clarity.
    Of course I knew the name Arlene. What sort of fool didn’t recognize their own name? My full name is Arlene Ellsworth, and I am the principle at North Hampton High. I’m unmarried, and my only living family is my sister Gwendolyn, who is seven years older than me and currently lives on the other side of the world working as a missionary to the Chinese. I have two golden retrievers waiting for me to get home and feed them while I sit here sleeping on top of a pile of paperwork that isn’t going to file itself.
    “ Fell asleep in your office again, Mrs. Ellsworth?” Jeremy, the janitor’s aide asked me, green eyes smiling.
    “ What does it look like? And aren’t you supposed to be, perhaps, mopping or dusting something right now?” I asked, clicking the “condense” button on my portable computer.
    Jeremy simply ignored my comment and slip a step closer to my computer, eyes wide as the machine began to shrink to one tenth it’s original size. “Is that the newest model, Arlene?”
    “No,” I replied, shoving the now small black box into my purse, “On a teacher’s salary I could only afford the 2099 version, but just because it’s a few years old doesn’t mean it’s defective or anything. In fact, it works quite nicely.”
    Jeremy’s shoulders slumped, disappointed, “Oh, well. See you tomorrow, Arlene. By the way, what happened to your knee?” he asked, pointing to the large bruise that showed just below my black pencil skirt.
    I opened my mouth to tell him that I knocked it on my car door earlier that morning, but stopped before the absurd explanation could leave my mouth. I didn’t own a car. In fact, no own owned cars anymore; they guzzled too much fuel and pumped unbelievable amounts of polution into the air.
    “ Some rowdy kid snuck his rocket shoes into school today I had a little collision with him in the halls,” I said, recalling the real source of my injury. “ I’m sure it will be fine. Goodbye Jeremy.”
    After leaving the school and walking home to my house only five minutes down the path, I punched in the numeric code required to unlock my house and collapsed on my large leather sofa.
    “Hello, Arlene. Welcome home,” my automated house system said to me in it’s cool, electronic voice. When I first got the Voice Activated Robotic Environment Control, or Varec for short, installed, the idea of my house speaking to me seemed a bit odd, but after five years of constant use, I don’t know how I’d survive if it wasn’t for Varec.
    “Hello, Varec. Would you mind dropping me an inventory of my current food choices?” I asked.
    “Yes, Arlene,” Varec said as a pictorial touch screen popped out from behind a ceiling panel and lowered to eye level.
    I scrolled through the options and then clicked on a plate of spaghetti, a can of coke, and some garlic bread.
    “Could you please feed the dogs today Varec? I’m not in the mood today,” I asked
    “Yes, Arlene. And your dinner will be served in seven minutes,” Varec replied.
    I flipped on my television and settled on the old movie channel. After finishing the meal that Varec had prepared for me, I cuddled up on the couch with a large pillow, some chocolate ice-cream, and forty-eight high definition inches of Harrison Ford. By ten o’ clock my eyes shut and I began to dream.
    The loud knocking of a large fist against my wooden door woke me with a start. I looked around, but with my surroundings shrouded by the thick black veil of night, I could only discern the a few rough outlines. I felt around frantically for a light switch as the thudding at my door continued at an alarming volume. I was in a bedroom, dressed in a long cotton nightgown. But that didn’t make sense, I fell asleep on my couch and don’t even own a nightgown.
    “Varec?” I shouted into the darkness, hoping the computer system could explain all of this.
    “ Helen? Is that you?” a deep male voice called from outside the door.
    “ Helen, it’s Ezekiel. I need you! Thomas fell and hit his head, it’s bleeding everywhere. Helen? Helen!?!” the man continued to yell and pound on my door.
    The name Thomas triggered my memory. He was a seven year old who lived in town. With bright eyes and a cunning smile, his mischievous personality had instantly won my heart the very first time I met him.
    My name is Helen Kline. I am a nurse to Doctor James Smith and I live in a small frontier town in the plains. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a doctor, but being a woman I was only able to study as a nurse. I’m not complaining though, in my town, the general public is much more likely to call on me for help than to wait for the doctor I work for to arrive.
    I quickly lit the lamp on my bedside table and ran to my clothes chest. When I fell to my knees to open the chest, my left knee began to ache. I looked down, but didn’t see a bruise. Part of me faintly remembered colliding with one of the children in town and slightly twisting my knee, but under the stress of the situation at hand, I didn’t have enough time to sort out the exact source of my discomfort. So after throwing on a long cotton work dress, I grabbed my medical bag and answered the door.
    Ezekiel, Thomas’s father, stood before me. The dark of night suited him well. The moonlight highlighted his muscular figure and light blue eyes while hiding the nasty burn scar that stood as a tribute to his suffering on the left side of his neck.
    “I have a cart ready, it’s not far,” Ezekiel muttered to me, a single tear streaking down his face. “I can’t loose him too, Helen, not after what happened to his mother and sister. He’s all I have.”
    I rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder and stared straight into his eyes, “Don’t worry, I won’t let that happen. Just take me to him and I’ll do the rest.”
    He returned the stare, searching my eyes for any hint of worry or hesitation. He then reached up and gave my hand a small squeeze before leading me to his horse-drawn cart. Once I was in, he slaped the reigns and yelled, urging the horses on. We sped down the dirt road, leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. Ezekiel guided the horses into a small grove of trees and then brought them to a stop.
    It was then I saw him. Young Thomas was lying on the ground beneath a tree, a large gash across the back of his head. I jumped out of the cart and ran to Thomas’s side, leaving Ezekiel to tie up the horses. I opened my bag and grabbed a thick piece of cloth, pressing it up against Thomas’s head in attempt to stop the bleeding.
    “Ezekiel, I need you to run to the stream and fill this pouch with water,” I ordered using my free hand to pass him the leather container.
    He nodded an ran off into the night leaving me alone with my patient. Thomas was unconscious, that much was clear. It was probably for the best though, that way he wouldn’t feel any pain. The gash was only about three inches across and less than a half an inch deep, but like all head wounds, the amount of blood loss was enormous. I pulled Thomas’s head up on to my lap and brushed his matted hair from his forehead with my left hand, using the right to maintain constant pressure on the open wound. I felt a slight wetness through the cloth and looked down to see the gash had already bled through my thickest bandage. I reached for my bag and frantically began to rummage through it when my eye caught sight of a folded blanket sitting under the seat of Ezekiel’s cart. I gently lifted Thomas’s head and set it on the ground, pining the now soaked cloth in place. I grabbed the blanket and used the scissors from my bag to cut it into five large blocks. I used each block I had the first piece of cloth, and by the I was on my third bandage, the bleeding began to slow.
    Ezekiel suddenly appeared from behind me, breathing hard. He handed me the water and I used it to clean Thomas’s wound. After I was sure the bleeding was down to a minimum, I stitched up the cut and then pulled out a roll of gauze to dress it. When I was done, Ezekiel lifted his son off the ground and carried him over to the cart.
    “ Thank you, Helen. When I saw all the blood, I just got so scared. You saved his life,” Ezekiel said.
    “ Your welcome,” I replied, “ There will be no charge. Seeing your boy safe is pay enough for me.”
    We rode to Ezekiel’s home, Thomas in between us with his head on my lap. He would have nasty headache in the morning and I would have to sentence him to a few days of bed rest, but in a week he would be up and running around with all the other children.
    After we both made sure Thomas was safely tucked away in bed, Ezekiel ushered me into his bedroom.
    “I can’t make the woman who saved my son’s life sleep on the floor,” he said.
    Too tired to reply, I simply nodded and collapsed on to the mattress.
    “Goodnight, Helen,” I heard Ezekiel whisper as he closed the door. Within seconds, I was asleep.
    A slight itching sensation on several spots of my scalp woke me up. I reached to scratch the itch away to never-never land, when my hand felt the cool rubber of a coated wire. My eyes snapped open and I looked around. I was laying on a cot in a laboratory illuminated only by the faint green glow of the machine behind me. I had fallen asleep with my left knee bent up to my chest, and it was aching fiercely.
    My name is a mystery to me. I have several, but I am attached to none. I am a scientist, a mother, a principle, and a nurse. But above all, I am lost. I have reached the place where dreams and reality meet and I no longer know what’s real and what is simply in my head. Nothing makes sense, yet everything makes sense. I have several pasts and presents, none more real to me than any of the others. As I sit here in the darkness, one thought continues to play through my mind like a broken record.
    “If I can dream of waking up and living, how can I be sure I’m not dreaming now?”