When John was eleven, his mother said to him, "John, this is how you tell whether the world around you is real."
Up to that point, he hadn't considered realness as something which needed to (or could) be diagnosed, but they were driving home from an evening spent watching The Wizard of Oz at the old theater two towns over, and John was still feeling gutted by the ending of the movie. His mother, on the other hand, seemed thoughtful, and perhaps a bit angry; the illumination of other cars' headlights passed too quickly for John to read her expression.
"Remember, always, that the true world is endlessly complex, and not at all centered on you." Both of those seemed fairly obvious, but John kept his mouth shut and listened, because he never again wanted to feel this tearing ache that he currently was suffering on Dorothy's behalf.
"Dorothy was tired of grey and so she found herself--quite implausibly--in a world drenched in color, in which everyone was either devoted friend or desperate enemy, and her arrival prompted a spontaneous-but-choreographed song and dance extravaganza. And she simply accepted it all, never once stopping to ask why all the helpful coincidences."
At this point John decided that his mother wasn't angry but disappointed, though he couldn't tell why, exactly. Exhaustion had begun to dampen the knife-wound he felt across his heart. "So she should have guessed when the witch melted?" he asked sleepily, trying to find a position for his head that wouldn't leave his neck with a crick in it.
"Oh, long before then," his mother corrected. "But yes--if nothing else, that alone should have warned her."
"But then what?" John's eyelids had grown so heavy he could scarcely keep them open, but he refused to let them shut. The conversation, though odd, felt like it might be important--or perhaps become so, someday.
"Then? Then you begin to pick at the seams, because any false world has them." She paused, glancing over at John. The moon hung high and nearly full above the road, which now lay empty of other cars and anything else except the moonlight. It caught at the lines of her face, the curve of hair against her cheek, so that she seemed almost a statue for a long, motionless moment. For one breath, and then two, John thought that the current car ride might itself be a dream. But she looked back to the road before he could breathe a third time.
To keep himself awake, he tried to puzzle out why he would ever need to know if the world was really there or not. But every explanation he came up with sounded like something out of a comic book, so he let the hum of the road settle over him like an old, worn blanket and surrendered his eyelids to the force of gravity.
"That's the hardest part," his mother said just as the world began to slip away from him and into sleep. "Because you have to want to find the seams, but the dream will give you every reason not to."
"Why?" John yawned, almost accidentally.
"Because--" his mother looked over at him again, the line of her mouth softening when she saw how his head rested against the car window. "Because a dream exists only as long as there's a dreamer. And because sometimes you're not the one dreaming."
But John didn't hear her answer.