Graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern

On the day 70-year-old Perri Robinson died, she watched her husband, Andy, telling her that everything would be alright with his warm smile when he faced her. Yet, when he looked away, for a moment, the mirrors surrounding them reflected a somber, panicked face struck with guilt.

He told her she didn’t need to talk if it was too difficult for her to, that all that mattered at the moment was that they were together. However, she tried her hardest to talk anyway, as she mustered in some of her last breaths that she wanted him to know that she would miss him if there was anything that came after her life.

As Andy reached out to grasp Perri’s right hand, he sighed and told her he would miss her too. He told her he wasn’t sure if he could ever love again.

“No-” Perri gasped out. “Don-don’t say that.”  

“It’s true, though,” Andy said.

In between coughs, Perri tried to tell him that he was wrong, that he had so much life ahead of him, and she asked him to promise to try to love again. As Andy kept shaking his head, refusing, some tears dropped from his eyes. Perri felt guiltier than ever before.

She whispered, “Andy, I’m sorry I can’t stay longer.”

“Oh, don’t you ever say you’re sorry for that. I loved every moment with you, and if there are more lives after this one, I want each of them with you,” Andy said.

Perri slightly chuckled until the chuckles turned into a coughing fit, and Andy patted her back. He continued to hold her hand throughout, doing the best he could to not let go even though he knew he would have to in a few minutes.  

“What if I’m not good?” Perri suddenly questioned.

“What do you mean?” Andy said back.

“What if I wasn’t a good enough person?”


“I don’t know.  All I can think about right now is all the mistakes I’ve made. What if I could have saved Priscilla somehow? What about all the times as a kid I yelled at my parents even though they were the best? Or the time I snuck out of school? Or the time I accidentally dropped a plate at a buffet?  What if I really am a bad person?”

“You were a good person. I know I can’t promise you much right now, but if there is one thing I can, it is that you are, truly.”

Andy held Perri’s hands together and looked directly into her eyes. “There’s no one else I’d rather be with right now. Nobody! You were an amazing person, and you will continue to be, no matter where you go next.”

“What if I can’t believe that?” Perri asked.

“Well, how about this? You told me I need to open up myself once you’re gone, and I said I couldn’t. How about we play a game, just like old times? If you promise to believe you’re a good person, then I promise to open myself up again.”

Perri chuckled and said, “You got a deal. Go live your best life. I’ll count the days till I get the chance to hear about it, and I look forward to it.”

As Andy smiled back and was thinking about something to say, Perri started coughing even more heavily while Andy gently patted her back in support. He tried his best to pretend that everything was okay, but as he spoke to Perri, his voice had a hint of desperation.

“You’re going to be okay, everything’s okay. You’re fine, you’re fine,” Andy said, now having to take longer moments to look completely away, in hopes that Perri could not see more tears coming out of his eyes.

“Andy, I-” Perri said in between coughs. “I- I lo-”

70-year-old Perri, who was lying in her hospital bed, soon found herself in total pitch darkness. She suddenly woke, jolted up, and looked around her. She stepped out of the bed and walked around, trying to figure out where she was, but it didn’t help. She couldn’t interpret space in the darkness, and she had no idea where she was going. However, after walking around aimlessly for a few more minutes, she soon found herself suddenly dropping through a hole and falling.

Suddenly, Perri bolted right up from her bed, out of breath and sweaty. Everything in the room was eerily white: the walls, bed, bed sheets, tables, cupboards, plates, the list could go on and on.  The only object not white was surprisingly her pillow, which oddly looked like the combination of a drum, ham, and yam’s shape. She looked at her hands using a nearby mirror and was surprised to be 45 years old again.  

When a doctor came into the room and introduced himself as Dr. Joe John Johnny Jonathan Johnson the Sixth, Perri felt sure she was having weird hallucinations in her last minutes, but he assured her that what she was experiencing was real. He explained the complete process, how she had agreed to be a willing participant in an experiment for a new product, a medication that helps you dream a life you wanted and a pillow, which could collect moments and play it back to you like a film, called the Drumhamyam. He promised her that her memories of her real life would return over the next few days as her brain tried to process both her real life and her dream life.

For nearly three days straight after that, Perri did nothing except stay still in her hospital bed. The only things she did were to say hello when Dr. Joe John Johnny Jonathan Johnson the Sixth came in, ask how he was doing, drink the water he gave her, and stare at the white wall in front of her. He tried often to get her to eat the meals they prepared for her, but she often ate very little to the point where all the researchers decided they needed to hook her up to an IV until she agreed to eat willingly. She only complied with the meal schedule after the third day.

As she stared at the wall, piece by piece and layer by layer, memories of her old life returned.  She could remember what her real-life daughter’s name was: Wiley. She could remember her ex-husband and how they had gotten divorced right after Wiley left for college for the first time. She could remember her job as a journalist and all the different people she met. As she recalled more memories, she felt angrier. She couldn’t stop thinking about how better it all was in her other life: how she enjoyed being a professional runner, how much she missed Andy and her kids from the other life, and how she did not want to believe that she made them up.

As she slowly got more used to the facility, she began to venture out and hang out in the lounges for the study’s participants. At first, she found it completely unenjoyable as Perri was disappointed to see most of them seemed to feel exactly the same as her, and it made her feel horrible. She wished that she could take away their pain so that none of them had to know what it was like.  

She saw one participant constantly muttering to herself that she had to get home soon.

Another participant was in tears as he shouted, “Was it something I did, God? Why is it that the more I believe in you, the further I feel? Please, I pray for some answers. Why, God? Why?”

Another participant was slamming his fists on the table constantly as his face became redder and redder. “Take me back! Take me back! Take me back, take me back, take me back!”

He soon began to stand up, his arms out wide almost like he was a predator as his eyes shot red. “Why do you all play us like this? Stop playing with our lives and hiding the truth from us. Take us back!”

In anger, he yelled and flipped over the table he was at, nearly hitting several participants at the table next to him. They began to run away and scream as several researchers rushed into the cafeteria and began to take him away.

He looked at everybody as he was being dragged out, slowly beginning to laugh as tears dropped from his eyes. “All of you are living under lies! Our lives were real, they mattered! They mattered!”

As it became more and more uncivil throughout the rest of the time Perri was there, soon, even the researchers began to fight each other. One day, Perri saw Dr. Joe John Johnny Jonathan Johnson the Sixth and Dr. Mike Michael Joe Joseph Pete Peter Peters the Fifth get into a big fight after Dr. Mike Michael Joe Joseph Pete Peter Peters the Fifth claimed that his favorite part of this job was watching all the participants get shocked that their dream life wasn’t real. Dr. Joe John Johnny Jonathan Johnson the Sixth called him heartless and disgusting, and the two started to insult each other to the point where Perri could hear them yelling at each other from inside her room.

Once all the ruckus slowly disappeared over the course of about a month, and the researchers ensured the participants were ready to be released, Perri went home. Afterward, she found herself stuck in a rut for nearly a month. She would wake up, cook breakfast for herself, sulk, and skip work. She worked hard every morning to attempt to get dressed, follow her morning routine, and leave her apartment. However, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get herself to do it knowing that the paper she worked for really wanted her to write about her experiences as a participant in the study. She knew she didn’t feel ready to talk about it with anyone, let alone write her entire experience with the world. What if it would cause everyone to shun her if they knew how much she wanted to go back to her dream life? A part of her wanted to believe someone would understand, but she hadn’t had the most luck finding people who are supportive when she talked about her feelings in the past.  

It didn’t help that she experienced mostly sleepless nights, which left her extremely tired.  Everything in her life started to blur too. She slowly became unsure what was real and what was a dream or a figment of her imagination. For example, one night, she had a dream that she was with Andy again on her deathbed, and this time, she could finish and tell him she loved him. But once she did, she woke up only to see someone who looked like herself sitting in her chair, looking back at her, laughing, and telling her that her dream life was useless and that Andy does not love her.

It didn’t matter how many times Perri asked “herself” to stop. The other imaginary Perri wouldn’t leave her alone. Some nights, there would be more than one of herself trying to get her to question reality. It soon got to the point where most days, she could not tell whether she was sleeping or awake. Her friends and Wiley worried about her whenever they called her as Perri struggled to even recount memories from her day or share anything going on in her life.  

By the second week of Perri skipping work, she received an angry phone call from her boss, who demanded that she return to work and asked why she had been gone so long. Perri, mistakenly believing she was speaking an alternate imaginary self, uttered that she had better things to do than to talk to her and that she wanted to be left alone. It shocked her to learn that she had been fired from the paper the next morning, which made her rut significantly worse.

It didn’t help that when she finally told her friends why she had been in a rough headspace lately, they laughed at her and accused her of acting childish for being so interested in her dream. She had never felt so alone, despite spending so much of her life independently.

There was a part of her that felt bad for it, but she couldn’t help but blame the medicine and Drumhamyam’s creator. The fact that this invention had completely flipped her life enraged her, so she decided one day that she was going to confront and sue her.

As Perri marched past the secretary’s desk to confront the creator, Esther Park, the secretary rushed towards Perri, trying to get her to leave.

“You can’t go in there! You don’t have an appointment!” the secretary said as Perri refused to comply.

When Perri pushed Esther’s office’s door open, she pushed it so hard that the door hit the cabinets it was behind with a loud “thud,” and Esther became so startled that she jumped up from her chair and fell to the floor.

As Esther got a hold of herself, she stood, trembled, and asked, “Hi, how can I help you?”

Perri shut the door immediately and walked right in front of her. “‘How can you help me?’ I think it’s a little too late for you to be asking that.”

Esther looked both to her left and right before looking at Perri again, unsure what to say next.

Perri continued, “Whatever sick mind game you’re playing with all of us, you’re playing life, and you need to shut this down. We’re not pawns for your amusement, okay? You messed us up, you messed me up!”

Esther gulped as Perri yelled at her. Perri shouted about how she would do whatever it took to come for everything Esther had. Perri threatened that she would take Esther’s company, money, and life, claiming that in her eyes, that’s exactly what Esther had done to her and all the other participants.

Esther could see the pain in Perri’s eyes as if it were her own. It was the look somebody would give you, not when they wanted to hurt you, but because they were so hurt that they didn’t know what else to do.  She had once been in Perri’s shoes. In fact, she often felt like she was even if she wanted to distance herself from it.

Some days, she would think about what it was like living with the family she dreamt of when testing her inventions out. She had two parents who cared about her deeply. She could remember the smell of the bread they liked to cook on Saturday mornings after she would finish her homework as quickly as she could the Friday evening she came from school so that she could spend time with them.  They used the same ingredients every time: flour, butter, and yeast.  She remembered she would joke to her parents that the flour looked like sugar to her, and she wondered what would happen if they used sugar instead, and her parents laughed and would tell her that that would ruin it.

She remembered one day she wanted to find out, and one Saturday night when her parents were sleeping, she tried to operate the machine herself to make sugar, butter, and yeast bread. When she messed up and accidentally caused the smoke detector to go off, her parents woke up in a hurry, rushing down the stairs so quickly they nearly fell down, shouting her name.  

Luckily, Esther was totally fine. It was just excess smoke coming out of the machine, nothing serious. As her parents asked her what she was doing, she tried to explain it all, and feared punishment or rejection. Instead, they wrapped her in an embrace, glad to see that she was okay. They told her if she was curious, they could try replacing the flour with sugar together next time.

She specifically remembered in that memory, how she never wanted them to let go, how it felt like despite her just being eight-years-old, she was running out of time with them. She couldn’t figure out why, and when the realization came to her once she woke up, the memories on why she even created the special medication and pillow returned to her. She found herself reveling in her own creations, both in celebration that it worked and could work for others, but also fear of what she would do with her life next, scared that the life she’d lead now, no longer in her control, could go in any direction, and possibly get worse and worse.

So Esther felt she knew what to say next to Perri as she said, “I know it may not seem like this now, and I completely understand why. But trust me, I know how you feel. I’ve been where you are.”

Perri shook her head sideways, gritting her teeth. “No, don’t you tell me you know how I feel.  No, you don’t! You sit here playing scientist without thinking about what it’d do to us, and all you care about is that your invention succeeds without giving a damn about the rest of us. You and me, we’re not the same!”

“You know what?” Esther partially conceded. “You’re sorta right. We’re not the same. You’re right: one of us is the scientist, the other is the participant. Sure.”

“Then what’s your point?” Perri barked.

“It’s just, even if we may be different people, I made this all because I wanted to escape my life too,” Esther said.

“What do you mean by that?”

“My parents, they expected the most from me all the time. It was constant pressure since I was born. To always study, to be serious, to set myself up for success. I still loved them, and they weren’t abusive or anything, but the truth of the matter is that they took away a lot of my childhood, the chance to act like a kid sometimes.”

Perri sat down in the chair on the floor, slowly taking in. Esther took it as a sign to sit across from her. She explained how her parents had been killed in a car crash when she was eleven, how the foster system ate her up and led her to abusive foster parent after abusive foster parent. She recalled the people who complained she cost too much, shouted at her for making noises, upset that she wanted to spend time with them. It pushed her to be more independent to the point where she had trouble forming connections with others. Esther explained to Perri how, even after becoming an adult, a part of her had always wanted to know what it’d be like to actually be like a kid: to actually go to the playground and use the monkey bars while pretending the mulch was lava, to actually make friends, to play house, to make a pretend family during recess and be confident she’d have pretend family to return to the next day, to know how it is to find food after school every day and feel like she could eat it without feeling like a thief, to have parents who actually loved her and lived longer, to have parents who lived long enough to see everything she had accomplished so far. Maybe most of all, she wondered about having parents who she could share more memories with, ones where they made dreams more like their lives.

Esther admitted to Perri that even though she was just in her thirties, she felt like she was constantly running out of time to make her dreams come true, and that led to her creating this pillow and medication. She wanted to try it on herself, give herself a life where she had everything she wanted: loving parents, safe and stable home life, and caring friends.  

Moved by Esther telling her about her life, Perri in near tears opened her arms wide for her. Esther accepted the hug, and they wrapped their arms around each other.

Perri kept repeating that she was sorry, and Esther assured her it was okay, that she had made peace with everything that had happened to her. Perri tried to remind her that it was okay if those feelings ever changed and that she had the right to mourn the childhood and life with her parents she could not have. In return, Esther appreciated hearing that from somebody other than the voices inside her head and the people she had met from her dream.

Perri asked Esther a few questions after that. She wanted to know how Esther designed her dream like all the participants and what had happened in her other life, and Esther obliged. Esther explained how in her ideal world, she got what people may consider a “normal” relationship with her parents. They didn’t pressure her too hard, but they pushed her enough to teach her what was right and enough to convince her to work hard. They spent quality time together. When they weren’t cooking bread together, they’d watch a movie or go out to restaurants to eat. Esther didn’t struggle with loneliness as much. Since she didn’t have to move around constantly like she did when she lived in the foster system, she could develop long-lasting friendships that lasted beyond just her childhood, and instead of moving from rural New York to Chicago like she did in this life, she could stay there and enjoy a peaceful life with those she cared about and wanted to be close to.

Esther asked Perri if she had used the pillow yet to watch some of her dream again. Perri told her that as tempted as she was to do frequently, she tried to make it a boundary she wouldn’t cross out of fear that she’d become addicted to her dream life and be unable to adjust to reality. Esther respected that, and understood why Perri would feel that way. Esther, however, did offer to show some of her memories from her dream life to Perri if she was interested in watching them, and Perri agreed. They watched some of Esther’s memories together and somehow, even though everything wasn’t fixed, of course, Perri found her broken heart mended a little more than before, a work in progress.

After they watched, Perri admitted to Esther that the biggest reason she had been struggling ever since the study had ended was that she was terrified the fact that this alternate life was a dream meant all of her feelings about it and everything she learned from it didn’t matter.

Esther sighed and said, “Just because it isn’t real to others doesn’t mean it can't matter to you.”

“But no one else will understand,” Perri said. “No one except people like you and me.”

“Maybe, but think about it like this. You made all those people. You wrote the events of what would happen, and you lived through them all, so doesn’t that make Andy and your dream kids all a part of you?”

Perri had never considered this thought before, but Esther’s support gave her an epiphany. She thought about all of Andy’s hobbies, all of her alternate kids’ interests, and was surprised to realize the ways they reflected parts of her: how Andy had loved listening to the same music or how her kids played hopscotch the same way she did when she was their age.  

Of course, it didn’t make her suffering completely go away, and a part of her realized it was possible losing these people would always hurt her, even if they weren’t technically real. But, it provided some peace knowing that they were maybe still alive, and they lived through the ways they changed her and the story she could tell to Esther. So, for the first time, she opened up to Esther and talked about her dreamland.

When Perri returned to her apartment that evening, she was shocked to find that Wiley was sitting on the sofa, waiting for her. Perri’s smile grew even bigger.

“Wiley!  You’re, you’re here!” Perri said.

Wiley turned around and laughed. “Hi, Mom.”

“I- I thought you didn’t plan on coming.”

“Yeah, yeah, I wasn’t, but I needed  to stop by the area for a bit, and I knew I couldn’t leave without seeing you. Thought I’d surprise you.”

Perri offered Wiley a hug. “It’s good to see you, I’ve missed you so much. Tell me more about college. I know you told me some of it during our calls, but I wanna hear everything.”

“Hey, Mom?” Wiley asked.

“Yeah, Wiley?” Perri said.

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“You can ask me anything, always. That’s what I’m here for.”

“Do you regret that I’m your daughter?”

The color and warmth in Perri’s face suddenly vanished, completely flabbergasted by her question. “Wiley, of course not! Why, why would you ever think that?”

Wiley looked down on the ground, suddenly unable to look up at her mom. “I don’t know.  It’s just- I know you had the chance to turn down that experiment, but you did it, and I know a lot of people did it because they wanted to make their lives better, and- I-I couldn’t help but wonder if you wanted me to be different than I am.  I don’t ask that out of offense, it’s just-”

“Wiley,” Perri softly whispered as she laid her right hand on Wiley’s face softly. “I never ever regret having you as my daughter.”

Wiley stifled one of her tears and laughed. “Really?”

“Really,” Perri said.

“But what about your dreams to become a professional runner?”

“I mean, would it be cool if I could be a full time runner? Yeah, that’d be cool. But that’s not what’s most important to me. Watching you grow, being here for your first words, going with you to the park, saying goodbye to you when you go to school and saying hello when you come home, kissing you goodnight and tucking you into bed, all of that is so much more. You don’t even know how much more.”

“I’m sorry, Mom.”


“If I ever made you feel like I don’t love you enough, if I made you feel like I don’t appreciate you enough that it drove you to live a dream life, I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have to say you’re sorry. I already know. And I want you to know that no matter what happens from here on out, you will always be my daughter.”

As Perri and her daughter hugged each other, they stood across from a mirror that reflected two people who had become one, their stories and imaginations combining as they brought their dream lives and real lives to merge together.