You’re back in the restaurant.
It’s closing time after another long shift.
Bussing the last four-top, you watch your hands (a habit, now). Piling unclean plates and half-empty glasses, they appear smooth—no callouses, oil burns (or fingernails)—they aren’t so much hands as the idea of handling things, which are also just impressions, simulacra of memory: like brush strokes of a painting viewed too close.
But is this enough to wake you up?
There’s the sound of running water, clanging dishes, and whistling—she always whistles, washing dishes—
The sound is no longer coming from behind, but right in front of you.
She’s standing at the sink, facing away. Beneath her sweat-damp shirt you see the shape of her birthmark, the one you memorized like maps of places too far and costly to go.
Meghan? you say.
She turns her profile toward you and whispers, Clara, are you dreaming?
You hear her without listening, just as you’d watched your hands without looking. Only now you do look. Her expression is familiar, the one she wears when imagining her escape.
You step closer.
Now you see it: the uncanny smoothness of her skin, the dimness of her eyes.
Clara, are you—
You lurch back, dropping a tray of plates and glasses (had you been holding it all along?) and remember:
Meghan talking of escape: from her suffocating marriage, this job and town. How she sometimes glimpses freedom, biking home in the cool night air, but only ever feels truly free lucid dreaming.
Your coworkers mocking her for how she studies her hands, whispers to herself, Am I dreaming? and whistles at work, reinforcing habits to trigger lucidity later, when she’s asleep.
You asking her to teach you. Hoping to become closer to her, to become her waking escape.
Her asking what you’d do if you ever finally have a lucid dream, and you lying because the truth is telling her how you feel.
Hear the dishes shatter!
See Meghan turn.
Now you’re sure: you’re lucid dreaming. But all you can do is focus your attention on painting back in every detail of her face before you awake into the world where she’s gone, her life taken by a drunk driver while biking home in the cool night air after a closing shift. Perhaps one just like this.
You look into her eyes, brightening them. And for a moment you swear they look back.
* "The Last Shift" won third prize in the 2022 Dreamers Creative Writing Magazine Flash Fiction Contest.