Into the Abyss

The other night, I had a dream.  It wasn’t just any old dream, though.  It was extraordinary in several respects.

For one, I rarely even remember my dreams.  On average, I recall maybe one or two dreams per month, and even then, they are often fleeting, swift seabirds flying undetected, beyond the radar screen of my consciousness.  I might remember them for a few minutes, perhaps an hour at the outside.  The dream I had the other night, though, remains fresh and vibrant in my mind, holding on and unwilling to let go.

seabirdinflight

 

It started innocuously enough.  I was driving along a dirt road, somewhere in the wooded hills of rural Vermont, where I’ve lived for the past dozen years.  It was evening, the light of day fading, slowly, into dusk.  The road was isolated, off the beaten path–not another car in sight.  I had my window rolled down, and the sounds of the encroaching night were all around me:  the distant call of a hoot owl, returned moments later by a friend; the high-pitched, almost electronic song of the spring peepers as they stirred from their winter-long slumber; the whisper of the wind, rustling the dried-out fallen leaves from the previous autumn.  Early springtime in Vermont.

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The thing was–I had a sense of being lost.  I didn’t know quite where I was–not exactly–or where I was going.  I was just . . . driving.  But that was when a sudden realization dawned on me.  I was going the wrong way.  Why or how I knew this, I wasn’t sure.  No new landmark had cropped up; I still felt lost, uncertain where I was headed.  It was just a strong, forceful conviction:  I needed to turn around.

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That would be easier said than done.  Back roads in Vermont are notorious for their lack of turnabouts.  It might take miles to find one.  The stretch I was on contained no houses, no driveways, no intersections with other roads, and the road itself was too narrow to turn the car around.  I was forced to keep driving, in the wrong direction (or so I told myself), my heart rate increasing, an undefinable tension rising within me.

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Suddenly, I spotted it–a slight widening of the road just ahead.  It was apparently a man-made section designed specifically for turning your car around.  (Who would have gone to the trouble of putting that in, way out here?)  I didn’t bother signaling.  Who would see me?  The owls?  I doubted they’d mind the oversight.

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I veered to the left, toward the turnabout.  I just needed to pull in, then back out and head in the direction from where I had come.  But I didn’t step on the brake.  I just turned the wheel to the left, confident I wasn’t going too fast.

I was.  Immediately the car began to skid, tires sliding along gravel and dirt.  I slammed on the brakes–too late.  There was no way to stop in time.

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Just beyond the turnabout, the road gave way to a small, narrow depression, perhaps a foot or two deep, cut through by the trickling of a shallow stream and flanked by a thick copse of trees and shrubs, their still bare limbs reaching out as if attempting to catch the car and prevent a potential disaster.  If only they could . . .

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As the car’s front wheels left the security of the road, suspended momentarily in midair, I felt a sick sense of inevitability.  I was about to crash into the depression.  The car might even tip or roll over.  Would I be trapped?  As if in response, another hoot owl cried out in the rapidly darkening twilight.

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The car careened over the edge, and I braced myself.  The force of the impact would be significant.  The stream appeared to be only a few inches deep, so at least I wouldn’t be submerged.

Or so I thought.

There was no sudden, crashing jolt of fender and metal against hard, rocky New England earth.  There was only a sudden splash, and a complete and overwhelming darkness.

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The stream had somehow been something more, something it hadn’t appeared to be.  The car sank, deeper, impossibly fast, into what had become a bottomless pool of dark, still water.

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I’m sinking, I thought, looking for something, anything, to see, to grab hold of.  That’s when I realized.  My driver’s-side window was closed–no water was pouring in.  How had that happened?  I hadn’t remembered closing it.  But what good would it do me now?  It served as nothing but a death trap.  At the rate I was falling, I had probably sunk several hundred feet already.  There was no way to force open the door–the pressure of the water pushing against it would be far too great.  I took a breath, tried to open the window, knowing I had to make a break for it before I sank deeper still.  It wouldn’t budge.  I scrambled, looking for something to break it with, but the car continued to sink at an alarming rate.  Was I a thousand feet from the surface now?  Two thousand?  There was no way to tell.

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I felt a rising tide of panic.  I could see nothing–it was black, the most complete blackness I had ever experienced.  There was only absence–of light, of sound, of anything life-giving and life-sustaining.  And the air supply wouldn’t last long.

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No longer thinking clearly, I tried breaking the window with my elbow, tried to pry open the door.  Nothing worked.  I gasped, the air already dwindling, and the car continued to sink . . .

That’s when I woke up, sat bolt upright, breathing in short, choppy gasps.  It took a moment to register that the darkness around me was nothing more than the soft curtain of night, and not the impenetrable black hole of a bottomless pool on the side of some preternatural back road in the hill country of Vermont.

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I got out of bed, walked around the house for a while, as if attempting to assure myself that I was still here, still alive.  I didn’t sleep well the remainder of the night.

****************

Later, once the sun came up and the songbirds greeted the day with a springtime chorus, I began to think of the dream in a new, less sinister, light.  The way it had unfolded was like a story.  It might have been the beginning of a novel (or the end!).  And where had it come from?  What had caused me to dream of such a scenario to begin with?  (Oddly, it resembled a dream from my childhood.  Perhaps my subconscious is telling me something about my feelings for water!)

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Where does any dream come from?  Are our dreams and nightmares merely chance occurrences, the whims and megrims of our slumbering mind?  Or do they originate from a more personal place, perhaps symbolizing deep-rooted fears, too long denied, or elaborate metaphors stemming from life experiences or long-held aspirations?  Maybe they are even offering us brief glimpses of alternate selves, parallel worlds, or previous lives.  Science may never truly know the answers.

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Or maybe, just maybe, they serve as reminders, teachers of a sort, guiding us along on the right path.  And perhaps, specifically, my dream was trying to tell me something about the storytelling process, a truth I sometimes forget.

The creative life, to a large degree, is much like falling into an abyss.  I learned early on that, try as I might, I cannot take the reins of the creative process.  I cannot force ideas that aren’t there or force characters to behave in ways they are unwilling or unable to.  Ideas come when they come, out of the ether–out of the depths.  Sometimes they resonate, sometimes they don’t.  But they are always capricious, even shy, revealing themselves only when they’re ready.

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I first took the plunge into creative writing years ago, when I was a student in the second grade.  Anytime I have tried to force the issue, to grab the wheel and direct the flow, to steer the car along that country back road of the mind rather than let the road take me where it will, I have hit the proverbial brick wall, mired in a tangle of undersea snarls and weeds.  It is only when I can swim with the current, fall gently into the deep flumes of my imagination that the story flows and the characters speak in truth and with sincerity.

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The abyss of the writing life isn’t a scary thing.  It may seem like a nightmare at times, but in actuality it’s not something to fight and resist and fear.  We just need to take that jump, go over the edge, and fall . . .

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. . . right into the waiting arms of our muse.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Swimming with the Sea Monsters of My Mind

When I was six years old, I had a nightmare that would stay with me for the rest of my life.  Even now, all these years later, I can still recall the dream, and the way I felt when I woke up.  I can’t remember what I did that long-ago day, or what I was thinking when I went to bed.  But the dream, yes.  I remember the dream . . .

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************

Somewhere in that universe we call dreams, that alternate reality that seeps into our own, the edges where the two overlap often blurry and indistinct, I looked into the water of an indoor swimming pool.  My two older brothers had just dived in, and challenged me to jump in after them.  But I had hesitated.  I was just six, after all, and the water looked deep, impossibly deep . . . I couldn’t see the bottom.  And I couldn’t see my brothers.  Why weren’t they surfacing?

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A sense of dread descended on me.  I knew, on an instinctual level, somewhere beneath the rational refuge of conscious reasoning, that something was wrong.  I called out their names.  Nothing.  Another few seconds, and they might drown!  How long would they be able to last without air?

I tried to tell myself that maybe they were just playing a joke on me.  After all, how could they vanish in a swimming pool?  But the reassurance rang hollow.  This was no joke.  And the body of water that lay before me was far more than an ordinary indoor pool.

I looked around.  The room was empty.  When I called out my brothers’ names, the echo reverberated against the tiled floor and bare walls, a mocking, taunting jeer.  Steeling myself, I jumped in to the pool.

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When I opened my eyes, I expected the harsh sting of chlorine.  There was no sting–and there were no boundaries, no poolside walls, no solid floor beneath my feet.  And no brothers.

There were only fish, and coral, and strange, undulating shapes that floated past me like the severed remains of a mysterious sea creature.  I felt a wave of panic.  How would I ever find my brothers down here?  And how could they even still be alive, if I did manage to find them?  Already I felt a pressure building in my lungs.  I had a minute, maybe two, at the most, before I would have to surface.

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Suddenly a tentacle reached for me, and I yanked myself away just in time.  A giant eye, unblinking, stared at me, and more tentacles reached.  I gasped, nearly swallowing water.  But then the monster swam away, as if bored.

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Before I could process what I had seen, a Great White Shark emerged from the shadows behind an underwater cave.  It raced toward me like a bullet.  I closed my eyes, waiting for the pain, the blood, the evisceration, praying for a miracle.  A moment passed.  Than another.  And another.  I dared to open my eyes.  The shark was gone.

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But not for long.  It returned, and so did another shark, and an octopus, and a stingray.  Other fish appeared, too, as if out of nowhere, strange, exotic-looking monstrosities that science had yet to discover.  I wanted to scream, but couldn’t.  I needed to escape.  I needed air.  I needed to breathe.

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I swam toward the surface, the collection of man-eating sharks and squid and octopi following, just behind–predators circling their victim, waiting for the moment to kill.  I didn’t look at them anymore.  I was sure that if I did, my eye contact would be the impetus they needed to attack.  I focused my gaze toward the surface, imagined that I was inside a long tunnel, protected from the sea monsters that flanked me on all sides.

The trouble was, no matter how far I swam, I couldn’t make out the surface.  The sunlight that filtered through the water never grew brighter.  It remained a pinprick, a tantalizing slice, a pathway to nowhere.  I tried to swim faster, faster, as I felt a tentacle brush up against my knee.  The scales of it scraped away at the skin and stung.  I didn’t look down, but was sure the tentacle had drawn blood.

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It felt as though my lungs would burst, explode into bits of shrapnel that would float through the water in a million different directions.  The monsters closed in.  I could feel their eyes on me, their mouths opening . . . why couldn’t I reach the surface?  Why had my brothers done this?

I couldn’t stand it another moment, couldn’t hold my breath a second longer.  I opened my mouth and . . .

. . . screamed–in my bed.  The blankets were bunched up at my feet.  I was panting, gasping for air.  I blinked once. Twice.  Three times.  Taking in my surroundings.  I was not at the bottom of the sea, about to be ripped to shreds by a school of monsters.  No.  I was in my bedroom, the silence of the house at night surrounding me like a winter glove.

I got out of bed, my legs weak, nearly buckling.  I peeked into the room my brothers shared, just to make sure.  They were there, snoring away.  Finally, I allowed myself to take a deep, calming breath.

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*************

The next night, I fully expected to experience the dream again.  I worried that it might haunt me for weeks on end, as I swam, kicking and flailing but going nowhere, the monsters following, always there, ready to bite and rip and sting.

But I never dreamed of the bottomless pool or the missing brothers or the flesh-eating sea creatures again.

*************

I have always been fascinated by dreams, and The Eye-Dancers explores the world of dreams at some length.  The “ghost girl,” for instance, first appears in the nightmares of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton.  But as the boys soon learn, her visitations are much more than mere figments of their imagination, and she cannot be extinguished by the simple act of opening their eyes.  The line between the waking world and the dream world is not clear–not in The Eye-Dancers, and often not in our own lives.

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When I was six, when I dreamed of Great White Sharks and giant squid and multicolored surgeonfish whose sting would instantly prove lethal, I was trying to flee from them, put as much distance between myself and my pursuers.  With good reason, of course.  Who wants to be served up as a nighttime snack in their dreams?  But as the years came and went, as Time pushed on, turning the pages of life with its whisper-quiet fingers, I began to realize that the monsters in my mind were not things to run away from, but to confront.

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And write about.

The monsters we write about are not necessarily killer sharks or giant creatures of the deep.  More likely they are feelings of regret and loneliness, rejection and guilt, anger and loss.  If we write poetry, these monsters are let loose in verse form.  If we paint, they take shape on the canvas.  If we write nonfiction, they manifest as memoirs and soul-baring truths.  And if we create fiction, they inhabit our characters, our plots, the very fabric that weaves together, a literary embroidery, in the stories we tell.

So now, today, I can look back on that childhood dream, and see it in a very different light.

I can jump in and swim with the sea monsters of my mind.

stingray

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Shadow Play

When I was six years old, I had a nightmare. I have never forgotten it, even all these years later.  In the dream, I stood at the edge of a deep indoor pool.  I was alone, and knew something wasn’t right.  For one thing, my two older brothers were supposed to be watching me–but they were nowhere to be seen.  I called out their names. but the only reply was the reverberating echo of my voice as it bounced off the walls.

When I called their names again, and still received no answer, I became worried.  I instinctively knew they were in trouble, perhaps deadly trouble–trouble that lurked beneath the surface of the water.  I looked into the pool–I couldn’t see the bottom.  I shook my head.  How could I not see the bottom of an indoor swimming pool?

Nervous, thinking about the warnings I had received from my parents never to dive into a pool unsupervised, I jumped in.  As soon as I went under, I realized I had somehow switched locations.  I was no longer in a pool.  I was in an ocean, surrounded by coral and strange, green plants undulating in the current of the water.  Sharks swam past, menacing, threatening.  But where were my brothers?  How would I find them in this vast expanse of water?  I started to swim, but then realized, horrifically, that I wore no underwater gear.  I couldn’t breathe!  I raced for the surface, kicking and thrashing, passing exotic fish along the way, wondering if I would make it.

I never found out.  As my lungs burned and my heart thumped in my chest, I woke up–gasping, out of breath.  I raced down the hall and looked into my brothers’ room, just to make sure they were all right.

I wondered if I would experience the same dream when I fell back asleep.  I didn’t.  I never had another dream like it.  What did the nightmare mean?  I’m not sure.  But even to this day, the memory of it is so real–as if it really happened.

And, in a way, perhaps it did.

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***********

In a second-season episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Shadow Play,” a man named Adam Grant is sentenced to the electric chair for first-degree murder.

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When the judge issues the verdict, Grant screams, “No!  Not again!  I won’t die again!”  Adam Grant, you see, believes that this is all a dream, a recurring nightmare he experiences every time he falls asleep.  In his dream, he is always sentenced to die by electrocution–and the judge always says the same exact thing.  Grant actually mouths the judge’s words as the verdict is spoken.

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Grant tells everyone that if they electrocute him, they will all cease to exist.  Since they are merely figments of his dream-imagination, they will vanish into nothingness when he dies in the chair and wakes up.

One person who believes in the possibility of this story is the local news reporter.  After the courtroom scene, he visits with the DA, Mr. Ritchie, and talks to him about Grant.

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He says Grant’s dream theory makes a weird sort of sense.  Maybe this is all just a dream.  “Can we prove he’s wrong?” he asks.

Ritchie won’t hear it.  “I can’t prove the world isn’t going to end,” he says, realizing after saying the words that this is exactly what Adam Grant predicts.  Than, almost as an afterthought:  “But it isn’t.”

Ultimately the reporter urges the DA to visit Grant in his cell–to talk things over with him.  Reluctantly, he agrees.

Ritchie is escorted to Grant’s cell and begins talking with him, trying to get him to see reason.  It doesn’t go the way he wants.

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Grant tells the DA that things are all wrong here.  For example, he was tried and sentenced the same day.  “It doesn’t work like that!”  But in a dream, it can . . .

Ritchie counters with a bit of logic:  “You say all this is a dream.  When you’re electrocuted, you wake up, and when you wake up, we all disappear.  Well, what about our parents?  And our parents’ parents, and everybody who never even heard of you?”

“What about them, Mr. Ritchie?” the condemned man says.  “A dream builds its own world, Mr. Ritchie!  It’s complete–with a past.  And, as long as you stay asleep, a future.”

Ritchie, growing flustered, asks Grant why he doesn’t just sit back and enjoy his electrocution.  If it’s all just a dream anyway . . .

Grant laughs maniacally.  How can he enjoy it?  “Haven’t you ever been hurt in one of your dreams?” he asks the DA.  “Haven’t you ever fallen out of a window or been drowned or tortured?  You have!  Don’t you remember how real that it seemed?  Remember how you woke up screaming?  How do you like to wake up screaming?  That’s what I do!  Because I dream the same dream, night after night after night!  It’s this one!  I can’t go on dying, I can’t go on dying . . .”

That night, at the stroke of midnight, Adam Grant is electrocuted in the chair.  As the switch is pulled, the scene shifts to the DA, his wife, and the news reporter.  They vanish, one by one, just as Grant said they would . . .

Another scene shift.  We are back in the courtroom, and a judge is sentencing Adam Grant to die in the chair for first-degree murder.  It’s the same exact scenario as the one we saw at the beginning of the episode.  Grant was right all along.  It’s the next night, and he is asleep again, dreaming–an endless nightmare that won’t let go . . .

*************

This is certainly a theme explored deeply in The Eye-Dancers.  Throughout much of the book, the four main characters wrestle with the question:  Is this all a dream?  Or is it really happening?  And is there any difference?

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The “ghost girl’s” visitations, the journey through the center of her eye into the endless blue void.  The variant world of Colbyville.  What is real?

In chapter seven, when Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in a strange new place, they try to figure this out.

“‘You know what it felt like,'” Mitchell says near the end of the chapter. “‘When she [the ghost girl] was in our dreams, it felt real–like when I skinned my knee and Ryan hurt his wrist.’

“Ryan nodded.  The line between dreams and reality had certainly been blurred, if it existed at all.”

**************

Returning to “Shadow Play” . . . and Rod Serling’s closing narration  . . .

“We know that a dream can be real, but whoever thought that reality could be a dream?  We exist, of course, but how, in what way?  As we believe, as flesh-and-blood human beings, or are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare?”

Or, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe,

“Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?”

dreamwithinadream

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Falling . . .”

The Eye-Dancers deals with both dreams and parallel worlds, and in fact, brings the two together in very concrete ways.  It also takes on the concept of what we term “reality,” and openly challenges it.  Or at least it challenges the linear, narrow construct of it.  I have often been a believer that reality is much more layered, much more complex, than we often think.  And The Eye-Dancers is not the only story I’ve written that explores this idea.

I wrote the short story “Falling . . .” just last year, shortly after finishing The Eye-Dancers.  Clearly, parallel worlds were still on my mind!  As were dreams.

This story may hit just a little too close to home for Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski, after dealing with their own “otherworldly” adventure.  But I hope the rest of you will read “Falling . . .” and I also hope you’ll enjoy it. . . .

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hirise3

“Falling . . . ”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

Alex Tanner fell through the night.  Below him, the city street grew nearer, nearer, the moment of impact mere seconds away.

A car horn honked.  At him?  At another motorist?  The wind slammed into him, his shirt ruffling and billowing like a sail adrift at sea.  He closed his eyes, but then opened them, morbidly needing to look.  The neon letters of the pizza parlor across the street flashed in the window.  People were eating in there, calmly, unwinding after a long, tiring day.  They were just sitting there, oblivious, while he fell.

“No!” he shouted.  “This can’t be happening.”  The sound of his words rose, drifted, before dissolving into the warm, humid night air.

An absurd thought came to him.  Why was the pizza parlor even there?  It wasn’t supposed to be.  It should have been something else . . .

He looked behind him.  The high-rise where he lived was right there, almost close enough to touch.  There had been noise—way too much noise.  But why was he falling?  Had he jumped, or tripped, or . . .?  If he could just torque his body, twist in midflight, grab hold of a window ledge.

It was no use.  He didn’t have the coordination, the skill, to pull off such a stunt.  And he was out of time . . .

A second before impact, he closed his eyes again, tensed his muscles.  He heard someone shout, more horns honked.  And then he screamed, until the moment he collided with the hard, unyielding asphalt.

“Alex, Alex, please, wake up!”

He felt something shaking him, jarring him.  But how could that be?  He had fallen so far and so fast.  His body was a twisted, bloody ruin.  He was dead.

He screamed again.

A light slap to the face, hands grabbing his wrists . . . and then, slowly, the image of a face materialized before him.

“Alex?” she said.  “Are you awake?”

He blinked several times, and the face came into focus.  It was a beautiful face—his wife’s face.

He was breathing rapidly, too rapidly, as though he might hyperventilate.  Sweat beaded his forehead, drenched his shirt and the bedsheets.

I’m dead, was the only thing he could think.  I’m dead.  I hit.  I could feel it.

His wife stopped shaking him, exhaled.  She brushed a few rogue bangs away from her eyes.

“Alex, this is getting scary,” she said.  “You’re freaking me out.  I mean, three nights in a row?”

He swallowed, said nothing.

“And it’s getting worse,” she went on.  “Each time, it’s harder to wake you up.  It’s like you’re not really here or something.”  She shook her head.  “Like I can’t reach you.”

That’s because I died.

He wanted to say something reassuring, for her, for himself.  But there were no words.

“Was it the same thing tonight?” she said.  “Falling again?”

He nodded.  Except for the pizza parlor.  Something about the pizza parlor . . .  “Did I . . . kick again?” he asked.

“Yeah.  You kicked, all right.  You were jerking like a wild man.  Look where the bed is.”

He swore under his breath.  He’d managed to force the bed a good two feet to the left.  What was the matter with him?  Other than the fact that I keep falling to my death every night in my sleep, you mean?  Was he sick?

He had just gone for his physical last month—he hadn’t been examined in several years, so he figured he needed to get checked out, make sure everything was still in proper working order.  The doctor told him he looked great.  “If all my patients were as fit as you, I’d be looking for another job,” he’d said, and laughed.  That had been reassuring, but maybe the doctor had missed something.  Maybe . . .

Stop.  Just quit it.  Besides, even if there was some pernicious disease silently lurking, how would that explain the last three nights?  How would anything?

“I’m almost afraid to try to get back to sleep,” he said.  “This is crazy.”

She leaned in to hold him, and the smell of her, the closeness of her, soothed his frayed nerves.  He buried his head against her shoulder, trying to get lost in the softness of her long, black hair.

“If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d think you were running around with someone else behind my back, and maybe your guilt is coming out in your sleep.”  She pulled away, looked at him. Smiled.

He smiled back.  She did know better.  That was why they could smile about it.

“You really need to try to relax, honey,” she said.  “If you don’t, you’ll be shot at work tomorrow.”

He couldn’t argue with that.  But he knew he wouldn’t be able to relax.  He’d probably spend the rest of the night just lying there, staring up at the ceiling.  Something was wrong.  He tried to reason it out, think it through, tell himself it was nothing to concern himself with.  So he’d had a nightmare, plummeting to his death—three nights in a row.  So what.  That happened to people sometimes, didn’t it?  A string of nightmares, for no good reason.  Harmless.  The dreams would pass.

Perhaps.  But he couldn’t shake the feeling he had.  The sense of loss, as if he really had died—tonight, and last night, and the night before that.  He’d had bad dreams before.  But they had never been like this.

“Hey, Alex?”

“Hmm?”

She gave a half-smile.  She looked nervous, uneasy.  He hated seeing that.  He had made her feel that way—him and his kicking and his screaming and his dreams of death and falling.

She asked him if he would help her push the bed back in place.  Once that was accomplished, she went to flick off the light.

“Wait,” he said.

“Why?”

“I . . .”  But what could he say?  That he wanted to look at her, at the swarthy, olive complexion of her skin that he’d always admired?  Hoping her beauty could distract him enough, and help him to forget?

“Nothing,” he said.

“Go to sleep, Alex.  I’m sure there won’t be any more dreams.”

Yeah, he thought.

Sure.

“So, what’s up?” Eckert wanted to know.

Alex sat across from him.  They were in a small diner downtown, away from the office, and, hopefully, from interruptions.  Eckert wasn’t a close friend—just someone Alex got together with on occasion.  But considering his fascination with dreams, the paranormal, and the “multiple layers of reality,” as he put it, Eckert was the only person he could think of who might have some answers to what was going on.  He’d sent Eckert an email as soon as he arrived at the office—“Doing anything for lunch later?  Need to talk about something.”  Eckert had responded immediately, suggesting the diner.

But now, sitting at a corner table, looking out the window at the congestion of downtown traffic, Alex wasn’t sure where to begin.  He’d done some research online.  The most interesting item he discovered was something called Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, a condition some people suffered while sleeping, characterized by violent kicking and thrashing episodes.  But he didn’t think that really fit.  He didn’t have a limb disorder.  He fell to his death while he slept.  What did they call that?  Other than insane.

Eckert prodded again, urging him to speak up, while at the same time ogling the redheaded waitress who rushed about from table to table like a waterbug.

Alex took a deep breath, and told him about his dreams, or his memories, or whatever they were.

“Well, it’s good you sent me that email,” Eckert said, just as the waitress arrived at their table.  Eckert had ordered two egg salad sandwiches and a side order of fries.  Alex just wanted a garden salad—his stomach wasn’t up for anything hearty.

Once the waitress left, and Eckert eyed her retreating figure, he said, “I’m just the guy to help you out.”  He took a huge bite of his sandwich, then spoke with his mouth full.  “You said this happened three nights in a row, right?”

Alex nodded.  “My brother used to say you can’t die in your dreams.  If you did, you’d really die.  You’d never wake up.  Guess he was wrong about that.”

But I did die.  I did.

“But you did die.”

“Huh?”

“Who said you didn’t die?  You said it yourself.  Your dreams didn’t feel like dreams.  They felt real.  Correct?”

In his mind’s eye, he could see the street as he fell, ready to collide, and then he felt nauseous when he recalled the moment of impact, his body slamming into the asphalt.

He nodded.  “Nothing in my life ever felt more real.”

Eckert nodded back, stuffed three fries in his mouth.

“But what’s it mean?  I mean, yeah, it feels like I died.  But I couldn’t have.  I’m still here.  And three nights in a row?”  He laughed.  “What am I, a cat?  Do I get nine lives or something?”

“Nine?  Try a thousand.  A million.  A hundred million.  There’s no end.”

Alex just stared back at him, not comprehending.

Eckert finished the first of his sandwiches.  On the sidewalk outside, someone yelled, then laughed.  That’s what Alex felt like doing.

“Maybe the last three nights have been more specific for you,” Eckert said.  “But c’mon, man, think about it.  Haven’t you ever had feelings like this before?  Say you’re taking a walk, and you just feel a chill for no reason.  Maybe you’re sitting at your desk and you get a sense that something just happened—maybe a feeling of déjà vu, or maybe just an awareness that something is different than it was a second ago—for no reason you can see.  An unexplained feeling of dread, a bout of panic when there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Haven’t any of those things ever happened to you?”

Well, of course they had.  Didn’t they happen to everyone, at one time or another?  “I don’t see what that has to do with my dreams,” Alex said.

Eckert wolfed down a handful of fries, took a long drink of his water.  “It has everything to do with your dreams.  Because what we label as dreams are often anything but.  Just like ‘random’ feelings of panic aren’t random.”

“Then what are they?”

“How is everything?” the waitress said.  She had zipped over to their table so fast, Alex hadn’t even noticed.

“Delicious!” Eckert said, and winked.  The waitress smiled, but rolled her eyes, and walked away.

“Anyway, like I said, there’s no end to the number of lives you have,” Eckert said.  “Nine?  That’s nothing.  And forget about just one.  That’s archaic.  Quantum physics is the way, man, not the old Newtonian stuff.  Reality isn’t as cut-and-dried as we like to think.  You think you’re the only Alex Tanner?  There’s an Alex Tanner in every universe in existence.  And there’s no end to the number of those.”

He’d already known Eckert was a believer in parallel worlds.  But he didn’t see the connection.

“The connection?”  Eckert finished his second sandwich.  “The connection is elementary, my dear Watson.  If you live in an endless string of worlds, it makes sense that you die in some of them, right?  When you get that feeling of unexplained dread, it’s because something must have happened to you in another world.  You don’t know exactly what, but since it’s you, or another version of you, you feel it.  Now, with the nightmares you’ve been having, I believe they’re more specific for a reason.”

“Look,” Alex said.  This had gone far enough.  “Maybe we should just get out of here, huh?  We should get back to the office.”

Eckert held up a hand.  “Alex.  Those weren’t just dreams you had.  That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.  They were portals.  You didn’t just dream that you fell to your death.  You did.  In another universe.  In your sleep here, you were able to tap into that other reality, and you witnessed your own death.”

He shook his head.  “But why me?  I mean, you just said there are countless versions of myself, right?  Well, if one of those versions died somewhere else, going splat on the pavement, why should I be the one to dream about it?  Why not some other versions of me, in other worlds?”

“They probably did, too,” Eckert said.  “Well, at least the ones who . . .”

“The ones who what?”

Eckert took another drink of water.  “Since we each have an infinity of selves, there’s bound to be some overlap.  Your life here may be identical to your life somewhere else—except for maybe one detail.  Maybe you live in a different apartment, or on a different floor.  Maybe you have a different wife—a blonde, or a redhead.”  He eyed the waitress again.  “But in other universes, your life would be very different.  And the dreams you just had here wouldn’t necessarily be relevant.”

Relevant?  What was that supposed to mean?

“The dream might be a warning,” Eckert said.  “In a world similar to this one, you fell to your death.  That might mean . . .”

“What?  That I’m gonna go skydiving here, too?  C’mon, Eckert, get real.”  But then, wasn’t his heart beating a little faster now?  Wasn’t that fear he felt?

“Look, it’s just a theory.  But watch your step, Alex.  Be careful.  There’s a reason you’re seeing these things.  It’s suggestive.”

“I can’t believe this.  What do you want me to do?  Never climb the stairs?  Never use an elevator?  Always stay on ground floors?  That’s gonna be hard.  I live in a high-rise, remember?”

Eckert shrugged.  “I’m just saying . . .”

“And another thing.  Why should I dream this three nights in a row?  If I died somewhere else, wouldn’t one night be enough to watch my own funeral?”

“You’re still not thinking of it in the right way,” Eckert said.  “Each night you had your dream, you were seeing your death somewhere else, in some other layer of reality.  There were no reruns.  Each time was different, each fall, each death, was different.  Think about it.  In the dreams you had, were the details always identical, in every way?  I bet they weren’t.”

That’s when it occurred to him.  The pizza parlor—that was why it felt out of place.  The night before, it had been a Chinese restaurant, the night before that a barbershop.  But the conclusions Eckert were drawing—that he had seen himself die in three separate universes, on three consecutive nights—couldn’t be true.  He didn’t even really believe in this parallel worlds gibberish to begin with.

“Just be careful,” Eckert said again as they got up, ready to leave.  “Don’t just brush it off, Alex.”

He couldn’t eat that evening.  He just pushed his food around the plate.

“Alex, this has got to stop,” his wife said.  “You’re a nervous wreck.”

He considered telling her what Eckert had said that afternoon at the diner, but thought the better of it.  It was all a bunch of nonsense.

Then why can’t you stop thinking about it?

“Sorry, honey, I guess I’m just not hungry,” he said.

She frowned, her black hair matching the dark shadows and concern in her eyes.

“I hope you sleep well tonight, Alex,” she said.  “You look so tired.”  She smiled.  “And if you kick and thrash around again, I may have to exile you to the couch.”

He smiled back.  It was good to smile, even if he didn’t mean it.

The noise was intolerable.  How was anyone supposed to sleep?

He sat up in bed.  Beside him, his wife stirred.

“Alex?”

“What are they doing down there?”  No doubt the people who lived directly below them.  They sometimes hosted loud, wild parties.  But never like this.  The yells and laughter, the music and conversation sounded much too close—they must have been outside, on the balcony.

He stormed to his feet.  He wasn’t going to put up with it.

“Alex, where are you going?”

He didn’t answer.  He just headed for their own balcony.  All of the stress and strain of the last few days boiled over, heating his blood, scalding his nerves.

When he opened the French doors, the doors his wife had fallen in love with when they had first seen this place four years earlier, he stepped outside.  The noise rising up from the balcony below was cacophonous, an erupting volcano in his ears.  He rushed headlong for the railing, eager to tell the people to shut up, go inside the apartment at least, didn’t they have any consideration?

That was when he tripped over something—what?  He didn’t have a chance to look.  He lost his balance, falling toward the railing, over the railing . . .

It happened so fast.  One second he was on solid ground, the next, the force of his momentum had thrust him out into the night.  He heard a scream above him.  His wife, no doubt.  Below him car horns honked, the city lights flickered, the dark surface of the street grew closer, closer.

He thought of Eckert’s warning.  Why didn’t I listen?  Why wasn’t I more careful?

“No!” he screamed into the night.  “This can’t be happening.”

“Alex!  Alex, wake up, please!”

He felt hands shaking him, and then a face appeared before him.  A beautiful face—his wife’s face.

“Thank God,” she said.  “You’re getting harder and harder to wake up.  This is so crazy!  What is going on, Alex?  Four nights in a row . . . ”

He felt his forehead.  It was soaked with sweat.  A dream, just a dream.  But it had felt so real.

“I know,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

He looked at her, and she came to him, hugged him.  He nestled his head on her shoulder, porcelain-white—he’d always admired the fair complexion of her skin—wanting so much to lose himself in her softness, her fragrance, her nearness.

In the luxurious golden fall of her light-blonde hair.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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