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Gagged

By:Aubrey Parker

CHAPTER ONE

AURORA


I CAN TELL I’M DREAMING.

My feet are bare, and I’m in a plain white nightdress, not terribly different from what I was wearing when I fell asleep in my real room in the real world. Not terribly different from the nightdresses I always wore back when I lived at home, when I was little and everything was easier.

At first, I think my feet are on grass. The dream feels meadow light, and I can smell something crisp, like morning air. But things shift in my dreams, always changing. And chasing imagery is like trying to define a cloud’s shape before the wind weaves it into something new.

But it’s not grass underfoot. It’s a floor covering, soft like carpet. But not like the carpet in the apartment I share with Jasmine. That’s synthetic and carries that benzene odor that passes for new-carpet fresh. Manufactured, and assailing the senses by its mere presence, though I’ve been trained to associate the scent with fresh starts.

What’s underfoot now isn’t like that. It’s plusher. Richer. Its tendrils are long, and if I were to grip with my toes, I’d find myself rooted in nap. But the dream hasn’t fully resolved, and I’m still half-convinced this is real, so for now I focus on the carpet.

But it’s not truly carpet. I look down and see it’s a lush rug. If I were to lie down, it would push against my cheek like the press of soft lips. It would smell genuine rather than fake. It’s white like fog, blended with imperfections in the way only something real can be.

I’ve never had a rug like this in my house. I can tell by looking at it and by feeling it on my soles that it’s hand woven. I can tell it’s expensive. Probably fantastically expensive. The kind of thing you only buy if you have nothing else to spend your money on. The kind of thing that lets the world know dollars mean nothing to you.

The kind of precious object that declares wealth in the most straightforward way: by showing the world that you can spend a fortune on something one of a kind … and then throw it onto the floor and tromp all over it.

Around the time I start to wonder where I am, I realize there’s someone behind me. A man. I won’t see him until I turn, but something in me violently rebels at the thought of doing so. He frightens me, whoever he is. He’s the kind of person whose very presence casts a shadow, the way a cold object can siphon warmth from the room. Without looking back, I know he’s there. I feel him. I can sense his height. My mind measures the breadth of his chest and shoulders. I can tell where his hands are. I know that whereas I’m simply dressed, he’s in formal wear. As if he’s here to watch, then judge me.

I turn. The dream still hasn’t shown me the room, but it does reveal what’s behind me.

Nothing.

I turn back, now unsettled, aware I’m dreaming and yet scared as if this were real.

And yet my skin prickles below the thin fabric of my nightdress. It’s a summery thing, with spaghetti straps over my shoulders. I wish I had sleeves. I wish I’d worn something more adult, like a simple tee and shorts. Because the man, whom I can still sense in the air like a ghost, is plenty adult. In my little girl’s bedtime outfit, I feel defenseless. He will tell me what to do, and I will have no answer but yes. Because he is in charge. I can feel his judgmental breath on the back of my neck. I feel watched. Weighed. Measured to determine my worth.

I walk past the rug and find myself on cold wood. A ballroom, perhaps, or maybe an office floor. As with the rug versus my apartment carpet, I can tell this wood is somehow different than floors I’ve walked before. I’m sure it has an exotic name and origin. Something that looks like other woods and yet is impressive in a way someone like me would never see.

I’m at a window, staring out at the sprawling city beyond.

My bare neck and exposed shoulders prickle at the unseen man behind me.

This time, I don’t turn. He’ll vanish if I do. Instead, I remain still, bare feet on hardwood, two feet from the glass. The window runs floor to ceiling, wall to wall. It’s so clear, it gives me a sense of vertigo to look through it. I don’t mind heights while inside, but they terrify me if I feel open and exposed, like walking beside the railing of a rooftop observation deck. The glass seems rock solid, and I’m inside. Yet I find myself afraid, as if I’m teetering on the roof’s edge, looking down.

The feeling of presence swells behind me. Because it’s a dream, I can almost see places other than where my dream eyes are pointing, but not quite. I should be able to, but something is diverting my inquisitive gaze. Avoiding my glance by force of will. It’s like being blindfolded, except I can still stare out at the city ahead.

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