PodCastle 731: The Travel Guide to the Dimension of Lost Things
The Travel Guide to the Dimension of Lost Things
By Effie Seiberg
Have you ever felt so tired that you just don’t feel anymore? Where you wake up, burrowed under the covers with a shaft of light somehow piercing through them and right into your brain, and realize that here comes one more day you need to endure, to wait through, until you can blessedly sleep again and stop experiencing this whole existence thing?
This is where I am. I’m deeply considering whether it’s worth just snaking my hand out of my bed-burrito to grab my phone, bring it in, and then just play solitaire until I can fall asleep again instead of even considering what I need to get done today . . . until I realize that the light piercing through is bright green.
I shove down enough of the covers to pop my head out and wince as the light hits my eyes directly. I blink, trying to shake the sleep from my head. It’s one of those lights that projects moving stars or confetti or whatever, like the ones we had at the roller rink I worked at in high school. It’s floating in the air, bobbing as though it were stuck in a current, with its power cable floating behind it. It’s not plugged into anything, but it’s projecting with all its might.
And it’s not alone. In the adjacent airspace above my bed, high up in the sky, float several mismatched socks, a small plastic trophy that says “[Your Name Here] Completed Kindermusic”, a bewildered hamster trying its best to flail its way towards solid ground, a sticky-note with “Don’t forget! Friday lunch!” written in red Sharpie. Pen caps, jar lids, shoelaces . . . just floating detritus everywhere. Like an underwater junkyard without the water. It goes on in all directions.
Behind them is a gray sky, that sort of bright white that has the world laughing at you for ever thinking you might see the sun again. It’s consistent and uniform from horizon to horizon, where it meets an endless sea of flat concrete tiles. This sure isn’t where the sidewalk ends.
I don’t smell anything, which might be because projectors and sticky notes aren’t particularly fragrant, or maybe because it’s a fucking dream and who the hell smells things in dreams.
- Lucid dream means I should make the most of it. I stand up on my bed, stretch my arms out and try to fly. I jump, creaking the bedsprings. And fall to the ground, banging my knee on the hard concrete. It hurts.
You’re not supposed to feel pain in dreams.
Which brings us to: what the fuck.
I stand up shakily. My knee hurts and the concrete is cold on my one bare foot. (The other one still has the gym sock I’ve been wearing for a few days.) None of this makes any sense, and by god I am in no place to handle whatever it is. I’m so unbelievably tired. I haven’t gone to work in two weeks. They’ve probably fired me, but I haven’t checked my email to find out. I haven’t showered in . . . five, five days. And I’m wearing the same sweats I’ve been wearing all week, the gray ones I politely stole from my dad the last time I went home to visit and forgot to pack pajamas. Do I honestly look like the sort of person who can handle some kind of magical adventure? I think fuckin not.
And besides, magical adventures are supposed to be for like the spunky can-do eleven-year-old who suddenly is the only person who can save the kingdom from the evil dragon or whatever. It’s supposed to be magic and sparkly and maybe they get a shiny new sword or some shit. Not the loser thirty-six-year-old who winds up in what is this, some sort of floating trash-pile. Maybe that’s my special version. Sorry, you’re not cool enough or worthwhile enough to get the dragon adventure. But we’ll give you the hovering dumpster contents, cool?
I look down. My bed and I seem to have been zapped here exactly as-is. Nothing else. Which means I have nothing from my bedside table, which sucks in that my bedside table had my phone, to call a Lyft and get the fuck out of here. And a half-eaten sandwich from two days ago that was probably still fine. And my water bottle. And my glasses. And my antidepressants which haven’t been doing jack squat lately but still feel like I should keep at ‘em.
Fuck. Now what? I should be scared or angry or something, but I’m too numb and tired for that. I have no quest, no goal, and there doesn’t look like there’s anyone else here. Everything I can see in all directions is swimming debris and the cloudy gray skies that make everything look like it is and always will be terrible forever.
I sit back down on the bed and hear a rustle. There’s a worn fold-out map that must’ve been on top of the covers while I was sleeping. The cover, in yellowed letters that were probably once colorful, says “The Step-By-Step Travel Guide to the Dimension of Lost Things”.
OK, that’s something. I open it up, nearly giving myself a paper cut on my cheek in the process. The map is nearly three feet in each direction, and is completely empty other than a little yellowy star in the middle, and the words “You Are Here”. I flip it over, and it’s blank on the other side except for the title.
Hardy fuckin har. Someone sure has a sense of humor.
This probably is just a dream. I can get back into bed, curl up in the fetal position pointing away from the stupid party projector (which is floating high enough I can’t exactly bat it out of the way to adjust its angle), and get back to “sleep” which means I can wake up properly and dammit I don’t want to wake up properly in the first place. My knee twinges, and I remember that this isn’t a dream at all.
A gift receipt flutters by, eel-like, and brushes the top of my head. Gross. I snatch it out of the air and see it’s from 1997, for a sweater from the Gap. I release it and it continues swimming on its merry way.
Maybe this is fine.
All I’ve been wanting is for the world to leave me the fuck alone, and it looks like the world wants that too. Maybe I can stay here and not be a burden to anyone. Here my partner doesn’t have to take care of me, ask if I’m taking my medication and getting enough sleep. Work doesn’t need me — I’m obviously fired. Family and friends don’t need me — I haven’t talked to them in weeks.
So, better I stay here, banished to the shittiest of all fantasy worlds. That feels right. Maybe when I was eleven I would’ve deserved the world with the dragon and the shiny sword. Hell, I bet I’d’ve even gotten a talking animal pal to cheer me up and make wisecracks through the transformative journey. Maybe even something cool like a badger.
I slump back into the bed and fling the covers over my head, but I’m awake now and staying in bed without a phone or a laptop gets real boring real fast. And something smells really bad.
Shit, it’s me.
I really do need a shower. I take stock, just to see what I’m working with. My pits smell like the bottom of an old gym locker, and my hair smells like one of those old bus terminals that people pee in. My body feels like I’ve had a fever for a week and it finally broke — weak and shaky. My stomach is growling and my pulse is pretty low considering I probably should be panicking about this whole situation. And I feel so tired, and a bit . . . hopeless? With a side of distant panic, in that I’m aware it’s there but I can’t quite connect to it, like what may or may not be the outline of a ship in the fog.
A loud papery rustle.
I shove the blanket down to see the guide on the ground, but this time, it has a new yellowy smear on it. And it’s fluttering one of its corners despite a complete lack of wind. I bring it close enough to my face to see, and now the “You Are Here” star is surrounded by an oblong wiggly ring that looks like a height layer on a topographic map, labeled “Mindfulness Flats”. And within the ring is a teeny illustration of what can only be a shower. The star has changed too, and now one of its five points is much larger than the others.
I rotate the guide like a steering wheel, and the illustration within it stays put. I turn myself around side to side, and the illustration turns as well. OK, it’s sort of a compass and map. And a shower seems like a good idea. If nothing else, my therapist would approve.
I have no idea how far this is, because why would a map have anything like a scale? That would be far too easy for this inscrutable trash-float. But I might as well start walking in that direction, I guess?
It’s so hard to get up. I sit at the edge of the bed and think of excuses to not move. I’m tired. What if it’s far? What if it’s not actually there and I put in all that effort for nothing? What if everything I’ve ever done has been effort for nothing.
My therapist always used to say that I should learn to half-ass things. If a job’s worth doing well, it’s also worth doing poorly. Rinsing your hair is better than not washing it at all. Putting plates in the sink when you can’t bring yourself to wash them is still better than leaving them around the house. So why not, here we fuckin go.
Of course I’m sans glasses, no shoes (and only one sock to speak of) and no way of knowing much of anything, so this feels like a great start in the spirit of half-assery. I take the pillowcase off the pillow and plunge my bare foot into it, then take the excess fabric and tie it off. There, another sock. I grab the blanket and sheet from the bed because I might as well have something to towel off with, add the mostly useless map to the pile, and start walking.
Every step is hard. I keep checking the map to see if I’m going in the right direction, and it kind of looks like I am, but I don’t seem to be getting very far. Just like in life, hardy har.
The hamster trying to swim through the air has made some progress and is now about a foot to my right. It’s flailing and I can’t tell if it’s in a panic or it’s just bug-eyed and that’s how hamsters roll. If it’s the Dimension of Lost Things, someone must’ve lost the hamster. I remember how crappy that felt. I once hamster-sat for the six year old that lived upstairs. The little critter got out through a poorly assembled cage and I lost like two days’ worth of sleep looking for him. Never found him, broke the little girl’s heart.
“Fuck off,” I mutter under my breath as the little thing lays its eyes on me. “I can’t even take care of myself. Sure as shit not taking you on.”
I plod on. The hamster flails away next to me, keeping pace. It’s kind of the same coloring as the hamster I lost all those years ago.
And I guess it wasn’t my fault? I did everything I could humanly do, and it was the kid’s parents who’d set up the cage wrong. But still. Another failure to add to the pile. Can’t even trust me with a goddamn hamster.
I walk and I walk, because honestly what else am I gonna do? I’m tired — it’s bananas how much deconditioning sets in when you’re more-or-less in bed for several weeks straight. I pass something that looks like it might be my missing scout badge from when I was eight, and then pass more papers fluttering by. One receipt is easily ten feet long — must be from CVS.
After a my-feet-hurt amount of walking (time is a blur — my watch has confirmed this by running out of battery) I finally see the shower. It’s standing in a small patch of blue bathroom tile sticking up like a misplaced TARDIS that landed in a foreign land, surrounded by the same floating detritus I’ve been wading through this whole time.
Ugh. There’s something horrible about the fact that when you’re nice and warm and dry the last thing in the world you could want is to get into a wet shower. But when you’re in a nice warm shower the last thing in the world you could want is to leave.
The water comes out strong and hot immediately. I’m kind of taken aback by this, trying to wrap my mind about this unexpected luxury. Sure, weird nowheresville with floating garbage, no problem. But easy hot water? I can only assume they’ll switch it to ice-cold at just the wrong moment.
I fold the bedsheet over the map and drape it on the bar sticking out parallel to the ground out of the side of the shower. Should hold and keep the map dry. Toss the blanket over it, toss my clothes to the ground, and get in.
It feels . . . kind of good, actually?
I can feel muscles start to unknot. I let out a breath and a tension in my shoulders I didn’t even know I was holding. And I notice that the little shower ledge has my usual soap and shampoo. Thanks, I guess? I lather up and really work the bubbles into my head, scratching and kneading my scalp as I do.
The water pressure and heat stay great through my whole shower, and I kinda hesitate to get out. Getting out means needing to figure out what the fuck to do. But eventually I turn off the water and reach for my blanket.
It feels more towely than blankety, and as I pull it into the shower I recognize it as the ratty old beach towel I’d lost in college when some asshat stole an entire load of my laundry. It’s old enough that it’s not amazing at its job — feels by the end like I’m just rubbing wet cloth on myself — but it’s kind of nice to have something familiar around. And probably this is better than the blanket would’ve been.
I step out of the shower and see my stinky clothes. They somehow smell worse now that my nose has gotten used to the clean scents of soap and shampoo. I wish I had clean clothes around. Not like I was going to wash these by hand in the shower or anything — no reasonable way to dry them and I didn’t feel like being stuck naked in a towel in a strange land.
Another rustle of the map, which is nearly drowned out by the “BANG!” sound a dryer makes when it falls out of the air to land about five inches from your foot. The hamster makes a little “eek!” sound and does its best to scamper away, flailing like it’s trying to swim through Jello.
But seriously, though. Seriously? This is how this place works?
“I wish I had clean clothes and an entire chocolate cake!” I yell into the silence.
But I guess now I gotta clean my clothes. I put on the (dripping) towel, give my clothes a bit of a scrub with shampoo, rinse ‘em out, and toss ‘em in the dryer. There’s a “fast-tacular” mode which promises to get this done and dried in fifteen minutes.
I sit on the warm dryer as it tumbles and consider my options.
I could just thrash and flail against the ideas of “why am I here”, “what is this place even”, and just a general all-purpose “what the actual fuck”, but none of that seems useful right now. It doesn’t matter why I’m here. What matters is how to get out. Which means I need to figure out how the map works.
And as if on cue, the map rustles again. I squint at it, and the Mindfulness Flats now include a dryer. But off to their northwest side (where I’m making the huge assumption that “up” is north) is a new squiggly area that wasn’t there before — the Radical Acceptance Valley. My therapist would have a goddamn field day with this place.
But wait, instead of the automatic snark, maybe I can use this. Mindfulness, Radical Acceptance . . . these were steps we’d worked on over and over and over each time I came to a session with depression.
It’s the Dimension of Lost Things. Which means I’m a Lost Thing or else I wouldn’t be here. And what is depression if not losing yourself.
Hardy fucking har. Whoever made this place has a real fuckin twisted sense of humor. Maybe it is my therapist. This is some kind of weird new VR therapy I definitely never consented to. Asshole.
I should just trudge back to the bed and see how they like it, ruin their whole experiment. I mean, I fail at everything, so why not fail at this sooner rather than later? Bed feels so good . . . I’ll just head back as soon as my clothes are dry.
I look back at the map and the Radical Acceptance Valley is nowhere to be found. Even the Mindfulness Flats look half worn away.
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.
I take a deep breath. FINE. Fine. This is how it works? I’ll go through the steps. Not like they’ll help but I’ll fucking do them.
The map rustles again, but instead of the Radical Acceptance Valley it’s got the Emotion Regulation Glen straight north from Mindfulness Flats.
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. That’s what Emotion Regulation is all about — faking it. You pretend to not be depressed and act un-depressed until your mood actually changes. Or you pretend to not be INCREDIBLY ANNOYED AT THIS FUCKING MAP and take the steps to do what it says until you’re somehow magically not annoyed at it. I remembered asking my therapist, wasn’t this the same as just repressing your feelings? And apparently no, you do this while acknowledging your feelings.
The dryer finishes and I put on the surprisingly warm clothes. I am annoyed at my situation and also I’m walking towards the Emotion Regulation Glen. I’m depressed and also I’m trying to act like a functional human being to get out of this mess. I’m dismayed by the existence of the hamster that’s paddling alongside me again (now that I’m not near the spooky dryer anymore, I guess) and also I’m acting as though I don’t mind. It chirrups at me.
The debris and detritus that’s been floating around starts to take shape. Instead of a uniform mess, where every bit of lost trash has about a three-foot radius of empty space around it, things are starting to clump together. Papers are making nebulous floating piles. Clothes start chaining together to make long waving flags extending yards and yards into the distance. Small plastic rubbish spins together into little collected balls.
And the tiled cement floor is getting less uniform. I’m getting small hills and dips and eventually I find myself in the bottom of a little V-shape. Too shallow to be a ravine, but not by much. The landscape of clumps slowly shifts until it’s clumps among low greenery. Little weeds sprout in cement cracks and between cement tiles. Low swaths of creepers (is that ivy?) cover some cement and some piles of forgotten stuff. I smell hints of forest, that pine-needle-plus-wet-earth smell you get when you’re hiking in the Adirondacks after the rain.
It’s almost peaceful. Something tells me that I’m on the right track. Surely nobody’s misplaced a weed or a net of ivy . . . they can’t be true denizens of the Dimension of Lost Things. And like clockwork, the map rustles.
Back comes the Radical Acceptance Valley, and it turns out I’m right at the edge of it and the Emotion Regulation Glen. But even with the map expanded, I still don’t really know what to do. Which one gets me closer to reality? Why is this so hard? I’ve been walking all day and I’m so tired. SO TIRED. One thing they don’t tell you about depression is how tired it makes everything. It’s a million times harder to put one foot in front of the other because depression ties a hundred-pound weight to each one.
And nobody acknowledges it. Come on, just take a shower, it’s so easy. Come on, just wash the dishes, no big deal. Come on, just juggle your life as an adult with a job and a million responsibilities, everyone else can do it, why can’t you? And it’s that much harder trying to juggle when there are hundred-pound weights on each wrist, and as a special fucking bonus they’re invisible so nobody else knows they’re there or even gives you credit when you manage to pull yourself together to do something. I even showered and washed clothes today! Before going on this epic trek! But nobody’s giving me credit for it.
My therapist would ask why I can’t just give myself credit for it. And I say because depression, that’s why. Honestly this shouldn’t be complicated for a therapist to understand.
It’s just . . . it’s HARD, is what it is. And I’m so so tired. I wish my bed wasn’t so far away. I wish I’d never gotten out of it. I could’ve stayed there and pulled up the covers and slept for a million years. It’s not like anyone would miss me. I just bring everybody down.
I grab a long, tied-together rope of clothes that’s got one end snagged on some scrubby brush, the other end flapping in the air far far away. Fuzzy socks tied to ratty hoodies tied to worn pajama pants tied to fraying underwear . . . I haul it in and coil it up until it makes a bit of a nest for myself, and I lie down on my back. It’s not particularly comfortable, especially since a hard denim-and-sweatpants knot is pressing on my back.
So I could just stay here. And die of thirst or starvation or whatever.
Or I could keep walking. But for how long more? And who would care enough for it to be worth the effort?
The map rustles, almost certainly erasing something because I’m backtracking. I don’t care.
The hamster has slowly been swimming at lower and lower altitudes as I’ve been walking, and it now finally hits the concrete floor. It seems relieved as it scurries into the nest I’ve made, then pops up out of it and scrambles onto my chest. Its beady eyes stare straight into mine.
The upstairs neighbors wouldn’t give a shit if I never came back. I lost their six-year-old’s hamster. The hamster which is currently staring at me. I guess I could try to bring it back or something.
My friends wouldn’t care if I never came back. I’ve been sort of self-isolating anyway, and it’s not like they’re all hopping mad at the lack of time with me. The hamster stares me straight in the eyes, unblinking. Fine. Probably they’d be a little happy to hear from me. A little.
But my partner wouldn’t care if I never came back. I have NOT been keeping up my end of the relationship. I’ve just been a drag on everything — on joy, on household finances, you name it. We didn’t sign up to be caretaker and dependent — we signed up to be partners. The hamster keeps staring at me. FINE! Fine, my partner is probably at least a little worried about where I’ve gone and part of partnership is picking up the slack when the other one’s having a hard time.
Uuuuugh fucking FINE. The hamster closes its eyes and gives a little chirrup, its job apparently done. It doesn’t have to be so damn smug about it, though.
The map rustles again and this time I go check it. A little dotted-line path appears to the Portal of Cognitive Defusion, where you get rid of all the cognitive distortions depression-brain makes, because depression-brain is a fucking liar.
It’s hard. But I can do this. I slowly push myself out of the clothes nest and do a few stretches, feeling joints crack and sore muscles release. A path blinks into visibility on the ground. Alternating cement tiles are now painted yellow. The same pale sun-bleached yellow as the map, not yellow-brick-road yellow. But there are little yellow dandelions sprouting along their sides, their color so bright against a sea of gray concrete that it almost vibrates.
I put the hamster on my shoulder and start walking, feeling every gritty grain of the sidewalk through my sock and not-a-sock. The portal isn’t far, and looks suspiciously like my bedroom door. There’s no place like home, and all that rot. But as I get to the door, which is propped up without any walls or gates around it, just more piles of debris and ivy, I hesitate.
Yeah, OK. I’m depressed. But I’ve been here before. Not like HERE here, on a magical fucking adventure trip without so much as a singing sword and sarcastic badger for company. (And no, judgy smug hamster here does not count.) But I’ve been depressed before, and I’ve come out of it.
It might not be OK right now, but it’s going to be. I’ve done this before.
And I turn the smooth cool handle and open the door.
About the Author
Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in all four Escape Artists podcasts, as well as “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” (winner of the 2015 British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology), “The Best of Galaxy’s Edge”, Analog, and Fireside Fiction, amongst others. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. Follow her on twitter at @effies , or read her work at effieseiberg.com.
About the Narrator
Summer Fletcher (they/them) has written for major and indie games, and narrated over 30 short stories for various fiction podcasts. More at summerfletcher.com