It’s not that I dislike Paris, per se, it’s more that I never got to see it in a particularly pleasant light. Every time I went to the city, I was busy with the process of arriving somewhere else on time. This was just as true when I arrived on the 9 o’clock evening train from Nantes. My connecting train was in an hour at Gare de L’Est.
The Montparnasse Station had the welcoming air of an empty parking garage as I stepped off the train. The trickle of other late-night travelers made their way towards the metro station; I followed them until I spotted the doorway. There was one in most stations and airports these days; a simple wooden frame, without a door or even hinges. I pulled my suitcase up to the frame and then reached out and grabbed a door-knob that didn’t quite exist. The door opened, and I stepped into the world of dreams.
I had originally learned to enter the Dream Realm at a job training. I was working for an international business firm at the time, and the company had thought projecting our minds into the Dream Realm for long-distance meetings would be a more productive alternative to Zoom. The mind goes there naturally when it sleeps, though it’s a lot stranger when the subconscious is in the driver’s seat. With some basic materials and a few training seminars, it’s not too hard to get the waking mind there instead. Then, I figured out I could use the Dream Realm to actually move my body, and I realized how much I could save in taxi costs.
That’s not to say the Dream Realm was without danger. It was a labyrinth of odd sensation with little signage. It was easy to lose yourself without practice, and you couldn’t leave without a special kind of exit. Which means it was about the same as the Paris metro, but with less stairs and crowds.
The door opened to a blurred world of cubes, windows, and multi-colored vines, all growing out of each other. The busier a place was, the harder it could be to orient yourself. I closed my eyes and walked across the stone floor I knew was there, and so it was. When I opened my eyes again, I was back in Montparnasse station, but here, spindly things with too many wings fluttered between the ceiling-beams, and multicolored vines flickered in storefront windows.
I moved mostly by muscle-memory, after that. The journey passed as quickly as ever, until I reached Place de Châtelet. It was a larger road that circled a square, and even in the Dream Realm it had an air of business. I waited behind a little red glowing man, and beasts dragging arms and claws and other nightmarish things walked down the road in front of me. At some point it had started raining, though it had done little to change the atmosphere of the place. It was night in the real world, but the Paris of dreams was caught in a perpetual dusk; streetlamps covering parts of each street with a warm orange glow, and casting strange dark shadows on the rest.
There was someone standing beside me, at the stoplight. It wasn’t impossible to see other people here. I was hardly the first person to travel by dream. But the nature of the world made it feel lonely, and it was a bit uncommon to bump into someone by accident.
They were holding a clear umbrella, covering their head and shoulders. It was uncharacteristically blurred by the falling rain. I could only ever make out the vague shapes and colors of their face.
“Are you stuck here too?” They asked, as we waited for the light to change.
I was surprised by the conversation, much less the words. “No, no, I uh. I’m just going to catch my train.”
“Oh, which station?”
I was so caught off guard that I answered immediately and honestly. “Gare L’Est. And you?”
“Just wandering. I think I’m… lost.” They said, like they had just figured out the word for it. “Trying to find a door.”
“They have one at the stations, generally.” I offered.
“Oh! Then- ah, would you mind if I follow you?” They asked.
“Sure.” I answered.
The light changed, and a thousand red eyes looked past us as we crossed the crosswalk.
I’ve heard that it is common, in certain places in Paris, to see shopfronts and apartments with great bouquets of plastic flowers. I’d only ever seen the dream version, which grew wild over windows and doors, until it felt like you were walking through a strangely cuboid jungle. As my fellow traveler turned the corner with me, the flowers and windows wilted into thin stalks, until Paris had stretched into an unfamiliar field around us. Golden wheat and lime grass filled every horizon. It continued to rain.
The rattling of my luggage’s wheels turned to struggling clunks as the stones turned to dirt road.
“Sorry.” My companion said, and reached down to help me pull it out of a particularly resistant muddy patch.
“‘It’s fine.” I muttered, finally popping the wheel free. I noticed our feet were starting to sink into the mud as we stood still. I started walking again, and decided to just carry the suitcase. It was quiet here, in a way that made me a bit uncomfortable. I think I was trying to fill the silence. “Are you from the country?”
“No. I’ve lived in Paris my whole life. That’s my grandpa’s.” They said, pointing towards a distant cottage.
I hummed, and then turned and started walking towards the little house.
They seemed startled by the change in direction, jogging to catch up. “Why are we…?”
That confirmed it; they were definitely here by accident. I said,
“Dream-space doesn’t work the same way. If a place is important, especially emotionally, it’s more likely to lead somewhere. Sometimes you can just make the world end up where you’re heading, but that’s harder with company.”
We’d reached the door to the cottage in half the time it should’ve taken us to cross the field, but that was the Dream Realm for you.
They looked at me (Or at least I think they did. It was hard to tell under the umbrella) before pulling the door open.
This time, we were somewhere I recognized. I frowned, but put my bag down and kept walking. The mud on the wheels had vanished as we crossed the threshold, and the sound they made on the concrete floor was blissfully smooth. My companion walked beside me, turning their head back and forth beneath the umbrella. We were on a large bridge, iron guardrails cluttered with dimly glowing locks. It was a rainy dusk here too, but the little galaxy of lights negated any need for streetlamps.
“This… isn’t Paris.” They said hesitantly.
I nodded. “It’s Frankfurt.”
“Are you from here?”
I nodded again. “Grew up in the city.”
We kept walking for a while, before my companion suddenly stopped. I stopped a second later, looking back at them.
“I don’t think we’re moving.” They said, looking out towards the river. Its currents were frozen, as if perfectly caught in a picture. We had walked for a few minutes on the bridge, but were no closer to its other side.
I looked up at the identical metal beams, and said. “Think you’re right. Dream Realm is feeling tricky, today.”
“Any place, uh… emotionally important there?” They asked, as if they were trying out a new language.
I thought on the bridge. It was one of my favorite places to go as a kid. It baffled my parents, given my normal dislike of crowds. I could never explain why; something about the way the water looked below it. “I liked the water.” I tried.
They walked over to the side and looked at the still surface below us. I joined them, and found myself annoyed by the water’s refusal to budge, even as the rain splattered against it. We just stood there, for I don’t know how long, just watching the reflection of the bridge lights on the still surface.
Like an old motor, sputtering to life, the water slowly started to move. I got the feeling that if I looked away, it would start to freeze again. I resisted the urge to glance at my watch. Faster and faster, the water moved, until it reached the speed I remembered. The spell was broken and, as if we were thawing ourselves, my companion and I left the sight. We had barely reached the end of the bridge before the world changed again- though it was still raining.
This time, we were back in Paris.
It was no place I recognized, but my companion froze in surprise. We were standing at the top of a small hill, with weeds all around us. Buried in the earth beside us was a bronze statue, but only the tops of its wings and head were now visible.
At the base of the hill was a concrete road in a small roundabout, with one path leading out in a line in front of us. Beyond that, as far as the eye could see, were tombstones.
My companion had not moved. I picked up my suitcase, and began carefully making my way down through the weeds. I reached the concrete without issue. As I looked back upwards, I saw my companion had still not moved. I don’t consider myself a blunt man, but I didn’t want to miss my train. I called up, “Come on!”
They startled before beginning to make their way down the same path of lightly trampled weeds I had carved.
“Sorry.” Was all they said.
“‘S fine.” I said quickly, and we began walking down the concrete path.
It was a bit busy for a cemetery, and very busy for the Dream Realm. Human figures, some ghostly, some proportioned strangely, and some seemingly normal, flocked the graves in small crowds. There was a dull buzz of chatter, but I carefully didn’t look at anyone. Some things in this realm got very embarrassed if you noticed their arms were a bit too long or they didn’t have a face. It was rude to stare, either way. Between us and the figures were alternating trees and street lamps, though their proportions were swapped. The tree trunks grew too straight, and the streetlamps curved oddly, some sporting low-hanging bulbs. It might have been frightening, between the rain, the figures, and the odd light, but the air had a peaceful quality. Like someone had turned the relief of accomplishing a long-delayed chore into a perfume, and then wafted it over the place. It smelled a bit like thyme.
We continued walking in silence, until the road led us back to the same hill we had climbed down on.
“I think…” my companion said, staring at the top of the almost buried statue, “I think this one’s for me. It wants me to do something.”
“I’m sorry.” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“It’s okay.” They said, sounding very small beneath their umbrella, “I’ll be right back.”
Their slippers made a strange padding sound against the wet concrete. I looked up at the statue, and wondered what it looked like in the real world. I don’t know how long I stood there, waiting for them. I told myself I should go, that I had a train to catch. However, every time I started to gather myself to leave, I’d feel absolutely terrible about it and instead return to the statue. I worried what would happen if they didn’t come back, and made myself swear to head to the train station before my train would arrive, no matter if they were beside me or not.
Thankfully for both of us, they did come back. Just a soft padding of feet, and then someone standing beside me, looking up at the statue.
I pulled out my handkerchief, and handed it to them. I could never see their face, but there was only one reason to come to a cemetery. “It’s a bit messy, sorry.”
They chuckled, and it came out wet and strained. “Thank you. I- should we continue? We’re farther away from Gare de L’Est now.”
I shook my head. “No, I think we’re almost there. The Dream Realm doesn’t bother making physical sense, most days.”
In the blurred silhouette under their umbrella, I could just make out them nodding.
We started walking again. The shift was more gradual, this time. The path grew fewer lampposts and more trees, and the gravestones and their companions started getting less and less frequent. Concrete eroded into packed sand. The path began to meander and curve around green patches of grass, lit by twinkling fairy lights that were strung through the trees. We passed by a dark teal statue made up of mermen and some seraphic figure, and my companion made a little sound of recognition.
“I know where we are!” They said, with obvious excitement. “This is Jardin Villemin! We’re right by the station! It’s only a couple blocks, at most!”
I smiled, and tried not to get my hopes up. “Do you know which direction?”
“Does that matter, here?”
“Probably not.” I said, “Lead the way.”
As we made our way faster through the curving tree-lined paths, small blue and purple flowers began blooming beside us. The air smelled sharply floral, and my companion stopped at a particularly prolific bush.
I heard them breathe in the smell and sigh. Almost like an afterthought, they murmured. “This place isn’t so bad.”
Out of politeness, and trying to ignore my watch, I repeated their action. The smell was floral and rich, but also calming. The smell and colors combined made the place feel as if I’d just woken from a full-night’s sleep. I sighed as well and said, “It definitely beats the Metro.”
I hadn’t meant it as a joke, so I jumped when my companion burst out laughing. I joined them a moment later, laughing at my own startlement.
The laughter devolved into giggles, and then they raised a hand towards the path in front of us, still lined by cool colored flowers. “Shall we?”
I smiled, brighter and more genuinely than I had since I’d started my journey home. Together, we walked down the dwindling sand path and through the arches of Gare de L’Est, and the flowers followed our steps.
Even once we were out of the rain, my companion didn’t lower their umbrella. We walked a straight line to the little empty door frame, only stopping once we were directly before it. It suddenly loomed, growing large enough to fit us both, and little blue and purple flowered vines grew up its sides.
“I suppose this is it.” My companion said quietly.
I nodded, and reached for a doorknob that wasn’t quite there. The door was open, and suddenly I was standing beneath the towering vaulted ceiling of Gare de L’Est. Above me, I could hear the sound of rain hitting glass, but my clothes and suitcase were completely dry. Another nice side-effect of traveling by dream.
A moment later, there was someone beside me.
She was maybe five years younger than me, but her eyebags looked like she was chewing up that time with double the speed. She had a t-shirt and pajama pants, patterned with little multicolored cats.
“Hi.” She said, smiling at me. “I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but did you just walk through another world with me?”
I chuckled, before reaching a hand out. “Mengü. Nice to meet you in person.”
She shook my hand vigorously. “Annette. Thank you, Mr Mengü, for the walk. I don’t know if…” She suddenly looked a bit nervous.
“No problem at all.” I said quickly. “Can you get home alright?”
She nodded. “I don’t live too far from here. I know the neighborhood; I’ll be okay.”
We looked at each other for a moment, before I finally glanced at my watch. Forty minutes, which meant I had about twenty minutes before my train would arrive. Time to find my platform.
“Thank you.” She said again, obviously noticing my watch. “Good luck with your train, Mr Mengü.”
I smiled. “Thanks. Look me up if you’re ever in Frankfurt.”
She laughed a small laugh, and then gave me a nod as I walked away.
I made my train on time, but I never did see Annette again- in this world, or any other. I slept the second part of my journey from Paris to Frankfurt, but for the first few hours I just stared out the window, watching the gray silhouettes of the country-side rush past; speckled with distant streetlights like lost stars. I wondered what it would look like in the Dream Realm, and came to the conclusion that it would be a lot more colorful, but not quite as pretty. I didn’t realize until after I’d arrived in Frankfurt, the next day, that I never got my handkerchief back.