You know, half an hour ago, I was a nearly wasted, exhausted mess sitting beside my would-be boyfriend’s hospital bed. Twenty minutes ago, My mother told me the horrible details of what said possible boyfriend’s diabolical father had done to the kids of the town when my parents were in high school. Less than ten minutes ago, a pair of new friends opened a hole in mid air that literally lead into the dream world so we could poke around inside my would-be boyfriend’s head to see why he wont wake up.
And you thought your life is fucked up.
First of all, I can say that for my first conscious trip into the Dreaming, things were kinda, well, odd. I had pulled myself over the edge of the portal and dropped into it like a chimney and immediately landed on my side on a road that seemed to be made of silver bricks. Fell about three feet too, which kinda made my sore ribs creak a bit.
I looked around and was just plain amazed by what I saw. The colors were bright and vivid, the shapes were kinda distorted and seemed a bit off. There were cartoon like animals walking about, airplanes having duels in the sky where they seemed to ignore all the rules of physics. The landscape was primeval, forested but with wide gaps in the canopy where the sun smiled down on open grassy patches. Literally, I mean the sun had a face. It all seemed weird. Off in the distance, I thought I heard the roar of Power Rangers style artillery.
Kenny was by my side, leaning over me as I tried to regain my feet. “All in one piece?” he asked grinning. His body and face had changed. He didn’t look entirely like the little 13 year old pipsqueak in the real world. He was dressed like some Hollywood movie actor doing a fantasy desert anime movie. Around his eyes was that Egyptian make up stuff, doing the Eye of Ra thing. His tan was darker and his eyes practically glowed.
“I think so. Why is this place all…”
“Like a little kid’s coloring book?” he grinned.
“Yeah.” As I watched, a crayon knight riding a what looked like a really big German Shepard went by chasing a bright pink dinosaur. Nearby, also noticeably crayonic, a lemon yellow sun shown down on a family who were having a picnic in a field of really large flowers. Overhead, squiggles that looked like clouds and birds passed through a cloud-scape drawn in gray and sky blue. A diamond shaped kite without a string floated by the smiling sun, a tail of many colored bow ties flying out behind it. A small school of goldfish in many colors swam behind me, in midair, one of them flicking its tail against my shirt sleeve as it went, a trail of bubbles floating upwards.
“This portal is near the pediatric ward. It’s the closest place that the Dreaming can touch places like this, steeped in science and technology. The dreams of sick children flourish here, giving them strength.”
“When all this is done, I really need to learn more about this stuff. I get the feeling that my life is now permanently stranger.”
“Yup, sorry ’bout that,” Kenny replied. “Things here are based on thought, imagination and will. Keep that in mind. Now, we need to find where Jack’s dream sphere is. This road is called the Silver Path. It can lead to many places. While you’re on the Path, you can influence where it will take you.”
“Yeah, so, focus on Jack. On everything you know about him, about how you feel about him, about what dreams you want to share with him.”
“Uh, are those dreams gonna, idunno, show up?” Lately, dreams I had about Jack had been, uhmm, personal. Very personal.
“Like clockwork,” Kenny said, grinning. “Don’t worry. We’re here for Jack, not for me to peer into your night fantasies.”
“That’s comforting. You and Robby, uh, you do this kinda thing all the time?”
“Not especially. We have our own dreams, no need to usually mess about in other peoples’.”
“Good to know,” I said, not sounding convinced. “Okay, here goes. Embarrassment express.” I closed my eyes, even squinted them closed, and tried to think about Jack.
Images flooded my mind. Jack in the garden, staring up at the sun and simultaneously writing in his weather book. Jack’s arms as he helped me through my baby-ass crying fits. That night on the couch when things were getting warm. How calmly he would tell me about climbing up on the roof of his father’s house. Jack pulling off a trick while skating, getting it almost perfect the first time, every single time. Jack nose deep in a book or four. His sorta half shrug that day he picked my sad ass up off the ground and treated my wounds.
But when I opened my eyes, I saw many other things walking around, like scenes from a movie walking in reality. Jack watching me look at myself in the mirror in the bathroom. That look in his eyes when he’s finished a book. The way I sometimes catch him staring off into space while listening to me blather on about music or movies or shit.
And one image of him with his shirt off, staring out the window at me while I’m fresh from a shower and don’t know he’s watching me. The look in his eyes in that image made my breath come up short. I recognized that look. Hunger.
Like I said, Jack does have emotions. Sometimes when he chooses to show them, they startle people. Even me.
“Oh yeah. You guys got it bad,” Kenny grinned. “Now, reach for him.”
“Which one of him?” I said, looking around at the images of him. It was like being in a Jack museum with different flavors of Jack all around. I have to admit, my eyes did keep drifting back to his shirtless, longing form. I even almost touched the image.
“Not these. These are dream echoes. The real Jack is near. Follow the Path. All of these strong images have connected you two. Now we just have to go.
“Follow your heart, Paul.”
How do you follow your heart? How do you walk on a path made of silver bricks, through a portal in open space into a realm of dreams to find the personal dream world of a specific person? If I thought about it, none of it would have made sense.
But when I closed my eyes, thought of Jack and just walked, I felt like I was getting closer to him. As we walked, different images of Jack manifested and melted away into smoke on either side of the Path. Occasionally, I’d feel the need to stop and look, but Kenny urged me on.
As we walked on, the landscape was littered with distant, or at least seemingly distant, bubbles of pastel colors with fuzzy edges. Some were bigger than others, some brighter, some darker and wiggly. Kenny explained that these were the dream worlds of the kids in the hospital ward nearby. I thought of asking him more, but he urged me to keep thinking about Jack. I was the bloodhound, it seemed, and to keep us on track, I had to focus. Seems I wasn’t the only one with hunger.
A few of the dream-smoke images of Jack took on more of my personal, frankly sexual dreams, and I had to refocus on the aspects of Jack I knew rather than the ones I secretly wanted.
It felt like we’d been walking for hours but we came to a squared off structure of flowing bits of glowy stuff. It was tall, seemed perfectly cubical and well, the dancing of colors and shapes and rays of light all seemed a little too well regulated for anything I’d consider a dream. The edges seemed somehow sharp and set at right angles to each other, even if there was a bit of, like, waves traveling through the straight lines. The entire thing had the feel of a heartbeat or, idunno, like some kind of energy pulsing or something.
“Well, that’s new,” Kenny commented. “Normally that’s more globular, kinda shapeless.”
“Is that bad?”
“I dunno. This is where you feel drawn though, right?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“Then call him.”
I have to admit to giving Kenny a weird look when he said that. But with all the other crazy things going on, I guess this was the least of the things I should question. After all, we came this far.
“Jack!” I shouted, hearing and feeling my voice echo off of other nearby squishy globes of dream stuff.
“There’s no need to shout, Carver,” Jack’s voice said from beside me. I turned to look and he materialized beside me, still seeming kinda smoky and transparent, but definitely Jack, down to the dirty tee shirt, cutoffs and rumpled looking hair.
“Jack! Migod! You okay?”
“Why should I not be?” he said, his accent suddenly flat.
“Well, you haven’t woken up in like three days. The doctors are sort of worried.”
“I see. Maybe I don’t want to wake up,” he replied.
“Yeah, and maybe monkeys might fly out your butt,” I tried to joke.
“Unlikely. The volume required for multiple simians, much less any capable of flight, greatly exceeds the expected volume of the human lower digestive tract.”
“Yeah, I heard what you said, Jack. It’s the meaning behind it that confuses me.”
“I could draw you a chart and show the volumetrics involved,” he offered.
“No, not that meaning. About the not wanting to wake up. That big confuses me.”
“Ah. I see.” His image wavered a bit, the clothing shifting to Jack wearing what looked like my backwards bathing suit, and no shirt. I felt my own heart thump a little at the sight of his bare chest.
“Do… do you want to stay asleep?” I asked, sort of fearing the answer.
“I don’t know,” Jack replied, and the look in his eyes changed. Normally Jack is very self-assured. He has all the answers or plans to research the tits off them. He either knows or tells you he will find out. Direct questions on the funny stuff usually get extra questions or that, “let me check on that” attitude.
I guess it was just the way he said “I don’t know,” that threw me. He said it in such an un-Jack-like fashion. It almost seemed, idunno. Cold. Distant.
Kenny was by my side as I watched Jack’s appearance change again. His clothes, anyways. He shifted into a pair of khaki carpenters shorts, again stained with dirt from his garden, a plain olive drab green tee shirt and a bright yellow raincoat and hat. Noticeably, he had only his left rain boot on, the right foot totally bare.
“He’s dreaming,” Kenny offered.
“How can you tell?” I asked, got a sarcastic look from the changeling then said “Oh, right.”
“While dreaming, the mind does a lot of things to protect itself, including sending gate avatars to protect its dream sphere, er, well, in this case, dream cube.”
“So, this is like, what, the automatic voice mail thing?”
“You could say that. If you want the real Jack, you need to go in there.”
“Okay,” I said, ready to move.
“There’s a few things you should know before you go in there.”
“Woulda been nice to know these things before we jumped off a perfectly good building.”
“Granted. We didn’t really have time to go through Dreaming protocol. Look, inside there may be completely chaotic. The rules of physics, logic, all of that, may be constantly shifting. Reality will warp around and react to what Jack wants it to be. Some things will seem symbolic, others will be cryptic and difficult to understand.”
“Okay, but, he’s like the most organized person I’ve ever met.”
“Yeah, he’s definitely not the usual Dreaming encounter. The most important thing to remember is that whatever happens to you in there, can be permanent.”
“What do you mean? Like if he…” and I checked myself from continuing that exact thought, editing it. “If I get hurt or killed in there,” I started, watching Kenny’s face carefully.
“You could die for real.”
“That’s so not right.”
“Yeah, well, dreams are powerful things. You should consider how powerful your own dreams are sometimes,” Kenny grinned. “I have to stay out here, so you can find your way back and we can get out. Take this,” Kenny said, handing me a glowy line of something. It felt warm and spongy in my hand. “Tug hard three times and it will show you the way back out.”
“Okay,” I said, looking Kenny in the eyes. “Look, dude… in case I don’t come out, I just wanted to say…”
“Just bring him back to us, okay?” Kenny said. “I have a good feeling about this.”
“Still, I, uh…”
“Yeah. I know. Robby does too. Go save your boy,” Kenny said, clapping me on the shoulder.
I tied the glowy line around my left wrist and approached the “gate keeper” image of Jack, dressed now in sweatpants and a tee shirt clearly three sizes too big for him, hanging on him like he might shrug a shoulder and have the upper garment slip off his frame and pool around his feet.
“Take me to your leader,” I told the gate keeper, who turned to look at me with an appraising eye, raised his head a little higher and then stepped towards the pulsing surface of the cube. Without missing a beat, I followed, stepping through in the exact same place the gate keeper did.
Green light flashed around me for a second and from there things got… normal.
I stepped into the back yard of Jack’s brother’s house, his elaborate garden, perfect in every detail. It was a perfect summer’s day. Clear sky with just a few clouds skipping along, warm but not too hot, humid but not enough that your body drips in sweat just standing around. The sound of his old hand crank water pump at the far back corner drew me that way. After winding my way through the switchbacks between his ingenious irrigation system, I found him.
And I had to stop and take in the sight. He was nude. Not naked, which in my mind has totally different meanings. He wasn’t being sexual or teasing or anything that the word naked sort of brings up. He was simply Jack as nature made him. Natural, in his native surroundings.
He was operating the pump, carefully monitoring how much water was flowing into the upper trough of his irrigation pipes. All around me I could hear the gurgling and surging of water as it fed down into the various flowerbeds, vegetable patches and herb gardens. The spray of droplets over the strawberry patch caught my attention briefly before I looked back to where Jack stood, looking up at the sun.
“Jack?” I asked, which earned me a quickly rising finger. Apparently, he was deep in contemplation of and communion with the weather. For several long moments, he simply held still like that, only occasionally giving the hand pump a quick crank to keep the flow going.
“You… should not be here, Carver.”
“Because I tried to summon you here many times. I got no response.”
“You were injured. Do you remember?”
“I…” he started, but it was clear that he was struggling. Something was blocking him. “I remember father captured you. He displayed his strength in doing so. He is far more than he seems.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied, unconsciously rubbing the spot on my head where I earned my most recent ding. That wheelbarrow is probably twisted like modern art after Stamos threw me into it head first.
“Then you escaped. But you came back. Why did you do that?”
“I had to come back for you,” I said. His eyes turned from the sky to lock with mine.
“Ah, programming. I understand.”
“No, not programming. I had to come back because I…”
“Yes?” Jack asked as I faulted on the word.
“Because you would come for me. Because you mean more to me than just a friend.”
“You are valuable to me as well, Carver.”
“So you understand?”
His gaze returned to the sky and he started pumping water out of the Mill Stream and into his irrigation system. His expression was squinty and unreadable. I had to focus him, get him thinking logically about waking up, or at least getting him to think about why he should logically wake up.
“Why couldn’t you summon me?” I asked. “You have my cell number. You could have called me on the house phone.”
“I could not… connect to any outside lines. All my access has been severed.” He turned to look at me. “Father no longer can monitor or control my behavior. He cannot stop things like that night on the couch.”
“You didn’t want that to stop, did you?”
“I… I enjoyed it. I never really understood physical enjoyment of that kind until we started touching. I’d read about it, or see it on television programs. But I never got it until I started helping you. And then I came to realize that I wanted it more than just when you needed it. But I didn’t know the right way to ask.
“When you landed on me that night, on the couch, and your body stayed on mine, I was…”
“Happy?” I offered.
“Enthralled. Desperate. I wanted to let you lead me.” He turned to look at me again, and this time I could see he was silently crying.
“I hardly knew where we were going that night as it is,” I replied, blushing. “All I know is that I really liked kissing you.”
He blushed in that moment, but I don’t think he knew he was blushing. “I liked that too, Carver. I’d never felt anything like that before.”
“Jack… you have to wake up. Back in the real world, you’re laying in a hospital bed, hooked up to wires and tubes and crap. They say your body is fine, that you just wont wake up.”
“I’m… I’m scared, Paul. All my connections are gone. I can’t feel my radio signal anymore.”
“You told me how to break that. You told me how to free you from your old man’s control. Remember?”
“I remember… yes. And I remember… we did it together.”
“But, it hurt me. I took an excessive amount of voltage.”
“So did Stamos. Left him so screwy he kept trying to kill me even after the cops burst in.”
“I’m afraid. I feel so isolated. My memories took nearly 30 seconds to reformat. That’s an eternity for my internal processors. I couldn’t feel anything. I… I thought everything was gone. That this was death. Or afterlife. Or just the last ebbs of my programming.”
“No! Goddamnit, no! You’re alive. Remember? We had to destroy the machine’s connection to your brain. It was the only way to break Stamos’ control over you.”
“I thought… you had abandoned me.”
“Jack, I could never abandon you. I… I love you.”
His entire head swiveled in my direction, his hand slipping off the pump handle as his body shifted my way. I took a step up the embankment, still about six or seven steps away from him. Overhead, the slowly moving clouds came to a complete stop. The sounds of water rushing through the various PVC pipes and troughs slowed and ceased as well.
“I… I think I love you too, Carver. I want to know for sure. But I’m scared. Everything is changing.”
“I know. Change can be scary. When we came to Canterbury, it was because my whole world had changed, too.” I ducked under the irrigation pipe at eye level and took another step towards him. “But then I met you. And things started changing again. For the better.”
“I’m lost,” Jack said, his eyes dropping. “For the first time in my life, I don’t have a plan, a program… a direction, or even a place to start from.”
“Then wake up. Come back to me and we’ll figure it out.”
“What will become of me. Without Father I have no support. I’ll be carted off to some state home or foster care, maybe miles from you. Or worse, opened up as an exhibit on a lab table. A government study for scientific research. Then I’d be lost all over again. I’d be less than nothing.”
“Your brother said he’d take you. He’s old enough and makes enough money. Plus, you’ll be able to keep your garden,” I said, gesturing around. “Mom and Aunty are dying to meet you. And you can always come see me whenever you want.”
“See? Is that a euphemism for dating?” he asked.
“It’s whatever you want it to be, Jack. Dating, going steady, whatever. I just need you go come back to us. Wake up, Jack, please.”
“I’m scared,” he reiterated, this time I could see the fear in his eyes.
“I’m scared, too. But without your father around, we don’t have to be alone. We can face the fear, and so much more, if only you wake up.”
“How are you here?” he asked, looking around at the garden, as if looking for flaws. “If this is my dream, or inside my head, then how come I couldn’t get you here before?”
“Because… because I’m not part of your dream here. I’m from outside it this time. Some friends helped me. They’re helping us. They know what it’s like to be alone, separated from the ones you love. So, they helped me come here, to ask you to come back.”
He got his thinking look again, taking a step down the embankment towards me.
“So if you are from outside my dream, then there are ways to connect beside my radio frequency?”
“God, yes! I’m discovering so many more ways. Look, just like I found out how high I can jump and how strong I really am, and like, my reflexes and stuff, there are things, well…”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy?” he said, sort of quoting Shakespeare.
“Yeah, something like that. But it only works, we can only find them together… if you wake up. Please. Please, please, please, Jack. Wake up.”
“Paul. You need to go. If I understand anything about this process from the theoretical and medical journals I’ve read, you can’t be here when I do wake up.”
I took another step towards him and found him taking a step towards me as well, we were just a hand’s reach apart. He reached out and touched the side of my face. The smile that came to his lips was tinged with some trepidation.
“If this is only a dream, and I don’t ever wake up, let this be the moment that I die remembering,” he said and leaned over slightly. The slight difference in the embankment elevation made it so that he actually leaned down to kiss me.
And it was just that, a gentle kiss. No tongue or sideways noses. Something simple and clean. Something entirely Jack.
I broke the kiss, very reluctantly, and stared into his eyes. “You better not make me wait too long,” I said, reaching up to touch the side of his neck.
“You came in here to find me. I will do what I can to come find you again. I love you, Paul Carver.”
“I love you, Jack Thomas.”
“Go,” he said, standing upright and closing his eyes.
“See you soon, Toothpick!” I said, and I reached back to the glowy rope tied to my wrist and gave it a firm series of tugs, and closed my eyes.
The world faded around me as my arm nearly yanked out of socket. I sort of fell, sort of collided with Kenny, who had a coil of the glowy stuff in his hands. When we disentangled, he looked at me with that curious grin of his.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense.”
“He’s gonna wake up.”
“Good, then let’s get out of here,” Kenny said, taking my hand.
Suddenly, we’re like falling. We drop about 15 feet and then land, back first, on the grassy area in front of the hospital, just 3 feet shy of the concrete walkway. And while it didn’t “hurt” it was not an experience I’d recommend. Fortunately, we didn’t find any rocks, butt first.
Robby hollered something from the roof, but I didn’t hear it. I think my brain was still echoing around inside my skull from the drop. But I did hear Kenny say something back. My hearing cleared enough for me to catch Robby call down a louder “What?”
“Mission Accomplished,” Kenny called back, cupping his hands.
“Great! Get back up here!” Robby replied as I found my feet.
Kenny looked at me. “Need a lift?” he said, looking up at the top of the building.
“What, here? In public?”
“No one’s watching,” he smiled in that knowing way.
I looked up at the edge of the building, where Robby leaned over, grinning broadly. The portal collapsed above us and left only a tiny ripple in the air to mark its passing.
“I think I wanna try this one on my own. Could use the practice and well, if I screw up, at least we’re already at the hospital.”
“Good point,” Kenny said and then farted, loudly, almost juicily. Almost immediately, he bounced up to the rooftop.
“Cheater!” I shouted, then took two steps and sprang up into the air, easily leaping over the top of the building and landing a little harder than I’d like. I had to go to all fours upon landing.
“Wow, you’re getting good at that,” Robby said, watching as I stood up. “You’ll be awesome at Jedi class.”
“Yeah, well, I think I’ll hold off on Jedi class until Jack’s all set. We’ll join together.”
“Now that sounds like the right path,” Kenny quipped as we made our way down into the building. They talked back and forth as we rode the elevator down to the ground floor so we could get snacks, as planned. I kept thinking Jack loves me.
I swear, when we walked back into Jack’s room, past his brother, and our combined parents and families, when they all looked at me, smiling like an idiot, they must have thought I’d lost my mind. Then when I sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand, they must have thought we were such tight friends. Other smiles reluctantly lit up the room.
But the smiling was short lived when the heart monitor suddenly went flatline.
The nurses entered the room quickly, one calling out, “He’s coding! Get the crash cart!” Three more medical people entered the room, and all sorts of jargon was bantered about as they tried to restart Jack’s heart. I glanced around horrified as Robby and Kenny flanked me, and my mom held me back from the room.
Dr. Saunders came into the room and immediately made several demands for information as he checked Jack over. Injections were administered, a hand pump ventilator pressed over his mouth and nose. All controlled chaos.
“Anything?” the doctor called out, his hands pressing down through Jack’s sternum. My own heart felt every one of those compressions, willing Jack’s heart to start beating again.
“No pulse!” a nurse in green scrubs called out. One of the medics handed the doctor those electro paddle things. They split open Jack’s hospital gown and the doctor applied the paddles. Tears blurred my vision as they pumped electricity into Jack, his thin body arching up as they shocked him. But the heart monitor didn’t stop its monotone drone.
This can’t be happening, I remember thinking, every muscle in my body tensing against each other. I mean, we’d just gone into his dream cube, I’d just talked him into coming back. Why was he suddenly dying?
They shocked him again, and I felt like I was trembling. I tried to rush the room, but Mom’s hands clawed on my chest from behind, keeping me from rushing in, as the doctor called for another “Clear!”
“Jack!” I heard myself scream.
Robby and Kenny both grabbed my arms, as I tried to take another step in. “No response!” one of the floor nurses called out. The doctor called, “Maximum charge! Clear!” And he pressed the paddles to Jack’s narrow chest, pumping electricity through him again.
And yet again.
And yet again again.