She'd been thinking about kittens. People loved kittens. She liked them too, all small and awkward and fuzzy that they were, but she laughed about how other people loved them, because she'd seen a kitten's dream once.
Stifling a yawn, she pawed an Odwalla bottle from the door, shut the fridge, and shuffled out of the kitchen. Everything was grey and black; at one in the morning, with the lights off, the apartment was colorless, but to Claire, that was usual. The colors she knew couldn't be found. Sweatpants scuffing her small bare feet, Claire went back to the couch and sat down heavily. Automatically, she peeled the Odwalla open, tilted her head back and downed the whole thing without pause.
She felt a tingling sense of gravity return to her neglected body, a sigh of relief that she'd finally taken in some nourishment. Hunger had woken her up from a vivid dream... it hadn't been a kitten-dream of tormenting something smaller, tasting fear, feeling flesh come apart, the struggle on the claws... she'd been collecting sunrises, making all of them come together. It was practice.
Yawning, Claire scratched her belly absently, and stretched out on the couch again.
She was well practiced at this; she was asleep almost immediately, and she shed her body with ease. There was a faint fog of her own subconscious around her, but it quickly placed her in an old paint-peeled house, leaning and grey with thin carpets and old windows that made the world outside melted.
Grandma's house, Claire thought. She could hear her grandmother tapping around upstairs, but she didn't feel like dealing with the old woman, so she dreamt herself leaping from the porch in a great arc, the old stubble of the cornfields whistling beneath her feet, and she landed in the next nearest dream she could reach.
It was a hospital, and a man was running around naked, panicking because everyone was staring at him. The man was Mr. Jackson, who lived two floors down from Claire. His dreams were never very creative, but they were always very clear and solid, full of the clarity he probably wanted while awake.
Claire thought Mr. Jackson's naked dreams were hilarious; he was a doctor, she knew, and she didn't like doctors much. Sometimes, she would chase the naked dreamer around his own mind for a while, and sometimes she would put clothes on him, and he would wake up trying to remember what she looked like. She only ever left her eyes, wide and blue-grey, and sometimes a few words.
But Claire was being serious that night. A month of time had gone by, only a few moments awake, deep dreaming in her own subconscious, building sunrise on sunrise on sunrise, forcing herself through nightmares of cold punishing hands and immobility, choked to silence by a thick wad of fear. It had been hard to stay asleep long enough, but she'd set the foundations. She just needed the bricks now.
"Sorry, Mr. Jackson, but I have to borrow this."
"What? What? How am I here? They're looking at me!"
Claire couldn't help it. She giggled, and poked Mr. Jackson's promising belly. "I'm sorry. That's all. You won't feel anything tomorrow, 'cause I have to borrow it. Don't worry, it'll come back."
"Where's my wife! She was supposed to pick me up at the airport."
"Sorry, Mr. Jackson, but I have to hurry, ok? Otherwise I'd tell you."
"I can't find my briefcase!"
Claire thought of her box, and it was there, small and lacquered and black, with the faded remains of some dancing girl on the top. Picking it up, she opened it, and all the color in the dream poured in like smoke, twining in time to the gentle waterdrop waltz that the box sang to itself.
Mr. Jackson floated in shifting grey, as asleep within as he was without, drifting on the billows of his now-calm subconscious. Claire shut the box, tucked it under her arm, and smiled warmly at him.
"Promise I'll send you some clothes next time, okay? I'm leaving now."
Turning, Claire half-shut her mental eyes, reached out with a hand, and tugged a thousand silvery humming cobwebs towards her. Feeling along one strand, she traced it through the tangle until she found the dream she was looking for.
Claire leaped again, flying with an effortless bound, over the prickly wasteland of cornfields, and then into the thick amber and blue perfume of Sofia's dreams. Soft fits and starts of cello music rolled through the exquisite colors like the murmur of lovers, and Claire saw a great hall with a long red plush rug, and giant windows that were the sparkling surface of an ocean. Flying fish that trailed tiny violets would leap like arcs of living electricity from window to window, and she tiptoed weightlessly through them as if she were falling through rain.
Towards the far end of the translucent hall, near a wall of writhing pink bodies, Sofia pirouetted in midair, her thin body wrapped in a blue dress and her arms wide.
Claire knew Sofia wouldn't see her; the dream was too heavy. Sofia used drugs a lot, and it made her subconscious explode through her mind in a thousand impossible sentences. She had too much to listen to to hear anything Claire might say.
"Hi, Sofia," she said anyway. "I need you for now, but don't worry, you'll come back!"
Claire smiled and opened her box.
When Claire finally returned to her own dream, three other dreams later, she thought about the hill in the fields, and standing there in the rippling auburn of the grass, she turned a complete circle, clearing the horizon of everything except the hills. The sky was blue enough to be a copper fire, with only a few scattered white pauses, clouds made afterthoughts. Wind hummed and purred in her ears, blowing her simple braid around her shoulders, and making the hills seem like the ocean made liquid gold.
Content, Claire remembered her house, opened her box, and set it on the ground.
She danced like tragedy when it was still young. She danced like her feet made crop circles, like a child skipping after a cat. She danced away the rough, slovenly skins of her anger and her shame, and danced like fire whipping through oil.
The palette of dreams in the box danced around her, a whirlwind of impossible color, and instead of sucking in debris, it assembled and solidified in her wake walls and doors and windows and rooftops.
Skipping weightless from wall to wall, Claire flailed herself through the half-formed hallways, which sprouted paintings of the dreams she could not quite recall, warped and bent to the sketches of her favorite house, which had never been built. When she was finished, standing in a harlequin of hallways, she stood next to the box, and the whirlwind faded like a coil of prismatic smoke as she shut the lid.
She turned, looked up at the domed ceiling, dotted with cameos her imagination had scattered through her mind years ago, and smiled.
"Open," she said, and every sunrise she'd ever had bloomed in the oculus, spreading to fill the chamber, which had become the horizon, and had become a dream that did not need Claire to sustain it.
Claire was looking forward to the day she could live there.