That was the only word for it.
Aina couldn't understand how it happened. One moment she had been on the bed reading, and the next she was standing next to the highway, looking at a crashed car that was mangled beyond belief. The front was crumpled in, the sides looked like they had been rammed repeatedly, and the back of the car had been squished. Throughout it all, she could see a hand hanging outside the window.
"No, this can't be happening," Aina whispered, staring at the hand.
Her breathing was ragged. She was aware of the sweat on her body, and her heart was beating wildly. The scene in front of her was a nightmare and she could not understand how it happened.
"Bing! You are now awake."
An eyeblink, and Aina found herself in bed.
"What the hell?" she found the source of the voice: her phone.
She sat up in a daze. Her phone read 6:45am. The room was dark, but she could just about make out the glow from her mouse on the table nearby. She always put her laptop to sleep, never switching it off. The floor felt cool yet rough; it was definitely night.
She looked back at her phone.
A quick tap on the fingerprint sensor and her last used app appeared. It was the Lucid Dreaming Learning app. The message was comforting, somewhat.
"Congratulations! That was session 3 of 14. Please record your dreams below."
Shivering, Aina began swiping quickly into the entry, recounting all the elements of the dream. The accident was horrible, but even more so was the hand that had hung on the edge of the car window. For some reason, Aina thought she recognised the smooth hand, but then she didn't want to. What if it were someone she knew?
When she was done, she headed outside for breakfast, joining her cousin, Kak Su and the rest of her extended family. She left the phone charging next to her laptop. If she had taken it with her, she would have seen the notification.
"Next Lucid Dream Awakening session in 14 hrs and 38 seconds," and then the message disappeared naturally from her screen.
Aina remembered going to bed. What she did not remember was switching on the Lucid Dreaming app. After that mangled dream, Aina decided that it was not for her.
"I want to control my dreams, not let it control me!" she thought as she uninstalled the app and then played a game to relax her mind.
As she switched on her sleep tracker app, Aina took note of the time: 11:50PM, with the alarm due to go off in 6 hours. She would not be getting enough sleep tonight either.
"Dammit! Never mind," she thought as she closed her eyes.
This time it was wind chimes. Aina looked up to find herself sitting on the steps of an old kampung house, looking up at a wind chime gently tinkling above the stairs. She recognised the wind chime and the house, but she was confused.
The wind chime came from Kak Su's house, but Kak Su had never stepped into Aina's grandparents' house. In fact, Kak Su had come into Aina's life long after her grandparents had died and the family home was sold to a hungry developer.
"You have got to be kidding."
This had to be a dream. The house and the wind chime could not exist at the same time.
"C'mon, Aina, wake up!" she thought, pushing herself to stand against an immense pressure.
She felt her body sway as she got to her feet, and suddenly she was back in the forest.
In front of the same car.
This time she could make out blood on the hand, and there was a faint thuck, thuck, thuck sound.
Aina was now standing much closer to the hand, and there was someone calling out to her. She turned, seeing her grandparents wave at her. Her grandmother was the one calling out.
"Aina, sini sayang. Ikut nenek," the old woman called out to Aina, who began moving towards her. It was something Aina did automatically, not fighting it at all.
"But what had happened?" Aina thought to herself as she began to climb up the slope. For some reason, Nenek did not come down to help her, and Aina found herself slipping on the grass…
To find herself rolling off the bed.
"Mak engkau!" she cursed and got to her feet.
"Bing! Session 8 of 14 completed!" went the annoying voice.
She reached and tapped the notification, which asked her to unlock her phone. Muttering another curse, Aina did just that and her eyes widened as she was confronted by the Lucid Dreaming app screen.
"Congratulations, you have completed session 8 of 14! Upgrade to complete your trial now. Record your dream below," the notification was split into two screens with huge buttons, one for upgrade and the other record.
"MCB," she cursed, using a swear word a Chinese schoolmate taught her. As Aina began to write her dream down, she stopped halfway.
"Who taught me that?" she looked up, terror seeping into her soul.
She could not remember now. None of the faces that flashed into her mind was familiar. It didn't occur to her that she had uninstalled the app a few days prior… or had she?
"NURAINA SHAH RAHMAN WHERE ARE YOU!" an angry voice shouted into the canteen as Aina queued up to get food.
"Urgh, no," Aina muttered under her breath but did not turn her head. She bought curry puffs and a canned drink; they were expensive but if the owner of the voice made a ruckus, it would be relatively easy to clean up.
"NURAINA SH-" the voice stopped as Aina came out of the queue and confronted her.
"Hua Mei, you think my name so cheap you can scream is it?" Aina let fury into her voice.
"I don't care who your dad is,” came the angry reply, “you stay away from Chin Meng!"
The Chinese girl stepped up and grabbed the front of Aina's blouse, along with Aina's tudung. Aina reacted impulsively.
She immediately swung her left hand into Hua Mei's face, the same hand that was holding her canned drink. As the hand moved, Aina's eyes grew wide as she realised her left hand was not her own. It was the manicured hand from her dreams, except without blood.
Before she could stop, her hand connected with Hua Mei. Aina saw Hua Mei's face distort from the force of the blow.
"Oh god, no no no," Aina stepped back and began to mutter and when she next looked up, she was back in front of the mangled car.
Except this time Aina was almost next to the car door and the thuck sound was much louder. The bloody hand had nails that reminded her of…
The train of thought was interrupted as the rhythm of the thuck sound changed. Aina looked up. She saw a man with horrendous blood-stained teeth looking down at her. He had an evil grin as he reached out to her.
"Aina!!!" she heard her grandmother's voice as her own childish voice screamed.
The alarm went off.
Aina opened her eyes, chest heaving. She looked up to see a bloodied female face in the ceiling, its smile crooked. Aina reached out to pick up the phone and silence the alarm, never taking her eyes off the face. Despite its horrifying look, it was fundamentally different from the man in her dream. This one radiated… gentleness.
Aina nodded, her eyes tearing. She sat up and reached out to the creature in the ceiling.
"Mak!!!" she cried out.
The creature came down and enveloped Aina in a warm hug. Despite the blood that covered her, the incredibly messy hair and the bloodstained clothes, the woman's scent was familiar. Aina cried long and hard as the woman held her, cooing softly. Long-repressed memories came back in a rush, overwhelming Aina.
They had been on a family trip with their grandparents and her uncle. Her father had left the car idling at a rest stop for a quick chat with her uncle in a second car, while Aina's mother had kept her company in the back.
Suddenly the car door opened and another man rushed into the driver's seat. He immediately put the idling car in reverse and drove out. Aina's mother had shouted and pulled at the man, but he had shrugged her off and shouted obscenities in retaliation.
There was a high-speed chase as her grandparents, father and uncle had raced after them. Her mother was screaming and shouting at the man, shaking his seat and more or less screaming into his ear.
In the chaos, the man had lost control. The car skidded off the road.
Aina's mother had been prepared. She'd grabbed Aina and held her tight. As the car hit the barrier and made the short jump from the road shoulder into the forest, her mother had opened the door and leapt out. Aina was shielded by her embrace as they rolled on the ground.
Then Aina was being pulled to her feet and they began running up towards the shoulder of the road but Aina's mother slipped. She pushed Aina away. The last memory Aina had of her mother alive was of her being dragged into the forest.
"MAK!" Aina screamed.
"Aina!" her grandmother had called her, and Aina suddenly felt someone pick her up.
"Mak! Mak! Mak!" Aina screamed for her mother, but it was futile.
Her uncle had snatched her and took her to safety, putting Aina into her grandmother's hands. As Aina was retrieved, her father had dashed past them into the forest after his wife. They never saw him alive again.
The police arrived hours later. By then Aina had fallen asleep, exhausted from crying. The police had brought some firemen along, and they all descended into the forest as a group.
A few hours after that, they had carried out Aina's father's body, mangled beyond recognition. Aina's mother's body followed not too long after, and Aina happened to awaken then. Her mother's hand had fallen out of the stretcher, and the image imprinted itself on her. A hand with manicured nails, broken and bloodied.
"Aina dah ingat?" her mother asked gently if Aina remembered.
Aina asked her mother what had happened in the forest.
"He caught me. Your father came to my rescue, but suddenly there was a tiger. The man shoved me and escaped but the tiger pounced on me. Your father fought bravely but…" her mother shivered and held Aina close.
Aina asked her mother why she had appeared now, after all these years.
"You should know the truth. We love you."
Her mother kissed Aina's forehead lovingly. No more was her face bloodied and mangled from memories. She was as beautiful as Aina remembered, kind and loving. There was a peacefulness to her smile.
"Look after yourself, alright?" her mother said, as a farewell.
Aina blinked and woke up again. This time she didn't even look at her phone. She just laid on the bed and cried. A life's worth of pain stabbed into her, remembering what her mother had done, what her father had tried to do… and her grandparents' odd looks at her with Kak Su's comfort throughout the recent years.
It all made sense now.
Aina curled into a ball and cried herself into exhaustion.
The most popular feature of the Lucid Dreaming App isn't really stated upfront. You’d have to do some digging on the developer’s website. On the “About” page, under the “Goals” tab and the “Vision” subsection, you’d find a short paragraph written in a casual, almost cheeky manner. It’s fairly innocuous and easy to miss.
"The LDC helps you come to terms with your past and creates a safe space for you to resolve all your past traumas to move on to a better future. Just USD14.99 for a 3-month subscription to lay your ghosts to rest. Not literally, of course! But who knows? ;)"