This is a story fragment — one I wrote in the mid 1990’s.
It’s in my style. It’s in my files. It’s definitely one of mine from the Kinko’s years. And I have absolutely no memory of it.
It’s not impossible it was something I discussed with my friend Mason Kramer, or perhaps my friend Chris Angelini, or also perhaps my friend Gary Olson, as they were all writing for Superguy at the time — as was I, as has been detailed elsewhere — and both dealt quite a lot with dreamers and dreamweavers.
Though this doesn’t seem to be about the same thing at all.
I don’t think that’s where I intended to stop the story. I assume I meant to write more. But I have no idea. I don’t remember this at all.
So. I pass it to you, for your thoughts and impressions. Should I pursue this one? Should I not? Should I have… pie?
Let me know. And please enjoy.
*** *** *** ***
And then Michael woke up, and it was all a dream.
He swallowed a few times, drowning in the feel of it, noise forcing his eyes open in the dim haze of morning. He swam against it, fighting to hold himself in the dream, his arms around Elissa and his friends close at hand. The smells and touches and tastes fresh in his head and so real, feeling the bitter disorientation he always felt when waking up, but so much more this morning. Where was he, and who….
“–assic Rock keeps coming here at D101 FM. That was Don Henley, with the Boys of Summer. We’ll have four more in a row, right after this!”
“Bob, I’m worried about Tim,” the radio was saying near Michael’s head.
“What about him,” a male voice Michael had heard before on radio commercials asked. “Has he been playing with matches again?”
“No – but he’s been buying his garden hose from a store that isn’t Walter’s on Thirty-third….”
Michael slapped at the radio, missing it and shoving a book over onto it, which muffled it a little. He turned and slapped his feet onto the floor, stumbling through the grey light for the bathroom, the tile floor, the cramped shower.
Michael had made it past shampoo and rinse and was firmly into repeat before he could really claim to be awake. The dream had seemed so real. He was fighting to remember, to hold the details close. Elissa’s face and form, wearing an autumn dress of gold and red….
Michael walked back out into the studio apartment, stepping around the treadmill and grabbing his pants off the hook on the chimney. The daily routine far from wars and quests and beautiful wives stretched its arms out and took hold of him, guiding him to underwear and socks and a clean shirt for the day. It knew to make the cup of morning tea he always drank and the piece of toast he always ate. In the background, Meat Loaf was singing about what he wouldn’t do for love. The radio would play for two hours unless it were turned off. At night he could set its sleep timer to play for ninety minutes to lull him to sleep. It knocked him out shook him awake. One-stop shopping.
Her hair had been strawberry blond, and it had played over her back in waves. He remembered sticks in it. They had been in the wilderness, riding hard along the path, with Hector running before them and the old man behind. Who was that old man? He was important, somehow….
The office was usually loud in the morning. Jack and Alice shouting over the ringing of the phone while Anton ran photocopies and Gillian tried to route calls and people where they needed to be to keep the business rolling. It was the way it went here.
“You look real perky this morning,” Anton said, glancing up. “What’s the matter? Bowels keep you up all night?”
“You know, I could really do without bowel references this time of the day,” Michael answered, setting his bookbag on his desk and slapping the power button on his keyboard.
“Mine was terrible,” Anton persisted. “I think that fish we had at lunch yesterday was a little undercooked. I remember mentioning it to Gillian, and she said that hers was dry if anything, but I couldn’t see that. I mean, really–”
“I had the teryaki chicken,” Michael said absently.
“So really – where are you today,” Anton asked, leaning over the desk, mockups in hand.
Michael shook his head, clearing it a little. “Sorry,” he said. “I woke up in the middle of a dream. It’s hard to shake it off.”
“Oh, I’ve had those.”
“With Mel Gibson in swim briefs?”
“Be nice,” Anton said. “Besides, I’m more of a Kevin Costner man. No, this was entirely different. I remember being on stage – oh, this was an old theater. The footlights were candles with bowls in front of them to reflect the light back at me, and there was a smell – it was wet, I think. Maybe it was raining outside. But anyway, I was dancing and singing both, and they were laughing.”
“Oh, very nice dream. Were you naked?”
But Anton wasn’t listening. “I had them in the palm of my hand,” he said, eyes looking distant. Every pratfall and sidestep had them howling, because my moves were expert, they were perfect. I was really alive up there. Everything was perfect and beautiful, and then something hit me.”
“Hit you,” Michael asked, suddenly interested.
“Yes… yes, I don’t know if I missed a step and stumbled or… maybe I had a stroke. Or maybe someone shot me from the orchestra pit. If it was it was probably my wife – now don’t say it. In the dream it made sense. But that woke me up all disoriented….”
But Michael wasn’t saying it. “With me,” he said, “it was… some kind of fantasy epic. I don’t know much more than that. I was married – her name was Elissa, and we were at war with… well, someone. I’m not really sure whom. There was another warrior, like me… and….”
“And clearly you’ve been reading too much Lord of the Rings,” Tom said, walking by and dropping three project folders on Michael’s desk. “I need the mockups on the Babbage Technology business identity by the end of the day, and all of these are new – needed by the end of the week.”
“What – oh, come on,” Michael said. “I can’t design another three projects by the end of the week – I have layout work due for Thursday as it is. Get Christa to do it.”
“Christa’s overbooked too,” Thomas said. “But one of these are just a business card design and plugging in names.”
“Four color,” Michael asked dubiously.
“Single color,” Thomas said. “Thermographic, so we’ll need a four-up for pre-press after approval.”
Michael sighed and nodded. “Guess I’ll talk to you later, Anton,” he said. “Keep dancing.”
Anton looked wistful for a second. “I don’t know a step,” he said. “Have fun.”
Thomas shook his head at Anton as Anton made his way back to his own desk. “You know, he means it,” he said. “I’ve seen him watching Riverdance. It practically breaks his heart.”
“Huh,” Michael said, looking at the project folders with something close to contempt. Three more vital projects for the world. Letterhead, business cards, maybe even brochure work today. There was such a feeling of importance in the dream. The whole world depended on them….
“I’ve had one of those, you know,” Thomas said, still watching Anton.
“What – dances?”
“No no. One of those dreams you wake up in and it seems real.” Thomas smiled, which was a rare thing for Thomas. “I was a bookbinder.”
“What? A fifteenth century sort of thing?”
“I don’t think so,” Thomas said. “There were people walking around my booth in jeans and tee-shirts. It’s hard to remember, but I think I was working at a Renaissance festival or the like. Or else there were just odd things in it. You were there, I think. You bought a tan leather bound book that had a thong and button to close it.” Thomas smiled a bit. “I remember the smell – the smell of paper and cloth and the dryness of the dust. And there was the smell of horses – from the jousting field or the like. And I remember drinking coffee out of a hand-thrown ceramic mug. It was very nice.”
“I… see,” Michael said.
Thomas snorted. “I’m sure you do,” he said. “Anyway, let me know if you have trouble making those deadlines.”
“I will.” Thomas moved on, more folders in his hands. Michael watched him go. He turned back to his computer. It had booted now, and downloaded six mail messages. All spam. He closed his eyes, thinking about Renaissance festivals, and found himself picturing Elissa, riding her horse, her face ernest and the wind in their faces as they ran….
“Two messages,” the electronic voice of the answering machine chirped as Michael walked inside his apartment. He slapped the button almost aimlessly. He was behind now, and probably should have stayed late in the office, but it was hard to focus. He was trying to piece everything together….
“Michael,” the first message said, “it’s your mother. Give me a call – if you’re coming home this weekend we need to put your bed together and make certain we do a laundry of towels. Call me, all right? I mean, really call me.”
Michael sat down at his desk in the corner of the studio apartment. His computer monitor and piles of books faced him. Including a good number of fantasy novels and series. The Belgariad. The Lord of the Rings. Sunrunner’s Fire. Grist for dreams. Dreams of women with strawberry blond hair and malevolent forces spreading out across the land….
“Michael,” Anton’s voice said from the message machine. “Gillian’s freaking out again, and she could really use people around her, I think. Look, could you come and have coffee with us or something? Just get her out of her apartment for a few minutes? It’d mean the world to her. Okay? Thanks.”
Michael registered the message absently. Gillian had been feeling self-destructive for maybe the last eight years of her life – certainly longer than Michael had ever known her. He opened up one of the drawers of his desk – it was a fake granite looking formica. He’d bought it at a Warehouse store – it was designed as cubicle furniture but it suited his needs perfectly. He dug through it, and pulled out his journal. At least, it was supposed to be a journal. He was going to write in it every day and always have a record of his thoughts. He had only written six words in it. ‘Well, I suppose I should start.’
Elissa and Hector and Manlius (the old man had been Manlius, a mighty wizard who held the key to driving back the ancient Thull… or was he from Manlius?) were a dream. Just a dream that he’d awakened in the middle of, when he’d been hit in his chest (Hit? Yes, he’d been turning his face forward from looking at Elissa, and the bowman had nailed him – practically threw him off the horse, and how could he forget that….) A dream, just like the dream Anton had about dancing or the dream Thomas had about bookbinding. They weren’t real, just flotsum churned up by the subconsciousness as a kind of brain optimization. It defragmented the mind, like a hard drive. He *knew *this.
He looked at the tan leather book in his hand, closed with a thong, and a celtic knot stamped on the front. He remembered the Renaissance festival where he had bought the thing. Andrea – that was when he had been going out with Andrea – had mocked him about spending the money for it. Like she ever wore the bodice she bought, and that had been twelve dollars more….
He tried to remember what the bookbinder had looked like. He could remember the old man’s hands as he slowly laid the pages of his book down, sewing them together without glue. It had been fascinating. But what had his face been? He remembered the EMTs had been to the festival later – they’d brought a stretcher through, covering it with burlap so it didn’t break the illusion of the festival, but had it been the bookbinder they’d brought out? He couldn’t remember….
The phone rang. Almost automatically, still cradling the book in his hand, Michael walked back to the phone and scooped it up just as the third ring began. “Hello,” he asked.
“Michael?” It was Anton.
“Hey there,” he said. “Just got in. I was just about to call you.”
“Oh, good – she’s really freaking out, Michael. She went out with Horace last night–”
“I thought she broke up with him after his last set of mindgames.”
“Look, I don’t pretend to understand her, Michael. If it were me, I’d have smacked Hell out of him and moved on with my life. But she feels stupid and afraid and isolated right now. If there’s anything we can do–“
“Right, right. I’m on my way. Coltrane’s?”
“Sure. Thanks, Michael. I appreciate it.”
Michael said something about it being no problem, and then looked at the book in his hand as he hung up. The Thull would sweep over the mountains and destroy Concordia town by town. They had to be driven back. Elissa and he had been the leaders of the army, until the Thull had driven them away with lightning and death magic. The man from Manlius had been leading them to a weapon that could stand against the horde. He remembered this, more clearly with every passing second. A weapon Michael had been destined to wield, that no other mortal man could hold. But then he was shot. Shot and killed….
Michael shook his head to clear it. This was insane. He grabbed his coat and headed out the door. He’d need the coat, he figured. It had been looking like rain.
The jazz wasn’t all that good tonight – a local band with a little too much sax on drugs for Michael’s tastes, but the crowd hadn’t come in yet so they were really just jamming as background noise.
“It looks like it’s getting fierce out there,” Anton said, craning his neck to look at the window. “I thought it was supposed to be partly cloudy all weekend?”
“You’re not listening,” Michael said, frustrated. He thumped his hand down on the book. “Don’t you see what this could mean?”
Gillian half-laughed, gulping down one of those coffee smoothees Michael could never stand. “At what? Your psychic fair experience with your supervisor?”
“Renaissance festival, not psychic fair. Gillian….”
“What exactly are you suggesting,” Anton asked. He was drinking a thick, strong coffee. More intense than Michael himself liked. “In simple words.”
Michael looked down. “Look, I know its crazy… but that dream seemed so real. I remember everything. Smells, colors – I thought you didn’t dream in color, but she had strawberry blond hair and everything.”
“I dream in color,” Gillian piped in. “I always have.” She giggled again, a giggle from the edge. “But then, I’m nuts, so you can’t tell by me.”
“You are not nuts,” Anton said firmly. “No no no. We’re going to drive that self-negativity right out of you, do you hear me?”
She was nuts, Michael thought. Screwed up by society, her boyfriend or herself, he didn’t know. But screwed up nonetheless. Two or three times a month Anton organized these interventions to keep her from going over the deep end, and Michael usually got pulled along as the anchor into mundane normality. He wasn’t playing that part very well tonight.
“It’s… just think about it. Thomas had a dream where he sold me a leather bound journal at a Renaissance festival – a dream like mine, where it all seemed so incredibly real. That really happened. If that happened… maybe….”
“Maybe what,” Anton asked. “Maybe you’re really some kind of crusader fighting to save a country from the barbarians? Michael, that’s insane. You had a dream. With all that stuff you read, that shouldn’t surprise you.”
“It seemed so real,” Michael said intensely. “Like you said your dancing dream was.”
“But I don’t think I was a dancer in a past life or anything,” Anton said. “I had that dream maybe two years ago. I didn’t have time to reincarnate – or do you suppose that when you go to Heaven instead of becoming an angel you become a copy-jock for a desktop publishing firm? That’s obscene. When I die, I expect to make a higher living wage.”
“I don’t…” Michael sighed. “I don’t know what it means. Maybe we live in many different places at once. Lives in many worlds, but our direct consciousness travels from one lifetime to another as we die. So even while Thomas was working at A-Frame he was also a bookbinder who traveled to Renaissance festivals. Only he died, and his consciousness jumped into another body.”
“Oh please,” Anton said. “That’s beyond a leap of logic. You just want to believe in that redhead of yours, so you’re willing to say anything. Besides, by that logic, we all live in Hell now.”
“Hell?” Gillian asked.
“Well, sure,” Anton said. “Take my dancing dream. I loved dancing. I was a star, and I was incredible, dying on stage even. But when I died I woke up here and I was making seven seventy-five an hour to be a glorified clerk. Thomas clearly loved bookbinding. That simple life, the smells, the women in bodices and flyaway skirts. What’s not to like? And now he’s overworked and overstressed. He almost never smiles. And you, Michael. Come on. It’s not enough that you were married and happy – you had to be the Messiah too? Of course you want to go back.”
“It’s not Hell,” Gillian said quickly. “I know.”
“What?” Michael asked. Anton looked stunned.
“I know because I remember mine, and I was glad to be dying.” Gillian sipped her ice drink, then looked at the two of them. “What? We’re talking about waking up from dreams that seemed so real they could have been other lives, right?”
“Riiiiight,” Michael said slowly.
“Well, mine was terrible. I mean, I’ve had other dreams, but this one seemed… well, as real as this frappacino. It was horrible. I was some kind of peasant girl, and I was running for my life. And there was this thing after me. It looked like a spider, but with extra legs and it jiggled, like it was made out of Jell-o or something. It wanted to breed with me, I think. At least, my clothes were torn. I ran and ran and ran, so scared I was ready to die, and then I reached a cliff, and I turned and it was almost on top of me and it was reaching for me, and I could smell it….”
Michael took Gillian’s free hand carefully. She was shaking like a leaf with the memory, almost spilling her smoothie. “And I fell backwards,” she said, “and I remember falling, and I was looking up and staring at that thing as it looked down, howling at me, and I remember crying with relief and happiness because I wasn’t going to be that thing’s, and I hit, and my whole body jerked and I was awake, and it was all a dream! I was awake and alive, and it couldn’t get me. I was crying and laughing at the same time, so hard I woke Horace and he yelled at me but I didn’t care. I showered and got to the office early and I was so happy.”
“Whooooa,” Anton said. “That’s….”
“I remind myself with it sometime,” Gillian said, sipping her smoothie. “When I really can’t take it, I tell myself it could be so much worse. I could be living an eternal Hell with a creature from beyond the pit – not even allowed to die. Just to breed.” She shivered. “You know, after that Horace doesn’t seem so bad….”
“Horace isn’t a dream,” Anton said. “He’s a nightmare.”
Michael squeezed her hand. “I’m glad you got away,” he said quietly.
Gillian smiled slightly. “Thanks, Michael,” she said. “I’m sorry you lost your wife.”
Anton shook his head. “Why do all my friends turn out to be complete nuts? Maybe it’s me.” He jumped as another thunderclap ripped around the café, the lights flickering this time. “That was close!”
“So what’s your theory,” Gillian asked. “That you go to sleep and live another life?”
“Huh? No. No, it’s… I’ve had too many dreams about sitting in class naked or flying or being trapped by Thomas carrying project folders to believe that. But maybe… oh Hell, I don’t know.”
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all night,” Anton said. “If you kept this up I was going to have to suggest getting something stronger than coffee just to sedate you.”
Michael glanced at the time. “I wouldn’t have time for anything stronger,” he said. “And sure wouldn’t have time to sober up for it. I’ve got work I need to do tonight to stay ahead of Whipmaster Thomas.”
Anton snickered. “We should get him a leather collar and some studs,” he said.
Gillian laughed, her eyes twinkling. “Well,” she said to Michael, “you sure took my mind off my idiot boyfriend tonight. Thanks.”
Michael nodded. “Look, I’ve got to go.” He pulled out a few dollars and set them on the table. “Catch you tomorrow, Anton?”
“I suppose – unless you wake up and it’s the Roman empire or something.”
“God, I hope not. I hate olive oil.” He grabbed his coat. “See you later, Gillian.”
“Yup.” She grinned. “Take care of yourself.”
Michael nodded, heading outside. His car was across the street, but in the deluge there wasn’t much traffic. He dashed for it, thumbing his key fob to unlock the doors. He still managed to get soaked before he got inside – there had been a quarter-inch of water flowing throuh. Rain was slapping against the windshield, a torrent of fat drops slapping hard enough that Michael thought the grass would crack. He didn’t think it would hail.
The radio crackled when he put it on. “–thunderst… giving way to partly cl… ndoors tonight, for sure. Now, here’s Sl….”
Michael slapped it off, and started the car. He glanced either way but he didn’t see any traffic. Why would he? What fool would go driving in this? He expected to see an ark float by. He pulled out, flipping on his lights and seeking the ripple of light along the driving rain as he went.
It was slow going. Even at twenty miles an hour, driving up Foster’s Hill, Michael could feel the car shimmy a bit. He peered into the gloom – streetlights must be out around here – and swung around a curve. The backroads were usually faster getting to his neighborhood, but tonight–
He saw lights cresting the hill, and flipped his own lights down to low beam. Gillian had seemed so frightened, remembering her Lovecraftian dream. Even with all the crap she brought on herself and others brought on her, that dream seemed to hound her. Seemed to….
Michael winced. The other car’s high beams were still up, and it was hard to see. He swerved away from it, but it seemed to follow him. It was weaving, hydroplaning in the rain. Michael swore and tried to gun the engine – pull forward of it before anything happened. His own wheels lost purchase and the car wheeled to the left, the glare of the other car – no, it was a truck of some kind – hammering through before the entire world seemed to explode, to shatter….
Darkness. Everything seemed to hurt. Everything. Michael couldn’t move. He couldn’t even feel his body. It was as though he were trapped in it, but it wasn’t his. It was just where his mind was… and now it… he… his mind was fallling… falling….
And Michael hit the ground, and his eyes snapped open.
“My love,” Elissa moaned, leaning over him – but not touching him. “My love, can you hear me? Is it you?”