Jacob McPherson's uncle died in a housefire. Alive, he'd been a rambling old character, an eccentric on the society's fringe, whom few could tolerate for long. The mainstream of the family didn't overconcern themselves with Jacob's uncle. A rumour had it that he owned a special house in the suburbs – special, because there was a separate rumour to accommodate it. But nobody had ventured to invite themselves over for dinner and see the property first-hand. Details about it were still veiled in mystery at the time of the owner's tragic death.
Jacob McPherson – his uncle's nephew – knew for the fact that he had been his uncle's nearest friendly relation. And yet, he had never visited the man in his natural habitat. Instead, they had held meetings at Jacob's house once in a month. They would sit at a dining table together, with Jacob's wife and his son, and they would talk. There was bound to arise some jovial conversational wrestling between Jacob and his vivacious guest. To show hospitality to his uncle was Jacob's moral obligation, especially after the death of the McPherson senior, Jacob's father, his uncle's big brother of yore. Hence the tablecloth for those dinners was charity. But the plates were filled with first-class impression of strong family bonds, which Jacob's resourceful wife prepared at least half an hour before the meetings. He assisted with moderation.
By a stroke of bad luck one of such family occasions coincided with the great fire which broke out in Jacob's house, consuming it like an angry devil. The destruction was total, ashes plentiful, the count of survivors amounting to two: Jacob McPherson and his twelve-year-old son Teddy. The wife had perished in the burned-down abyss with the uncle. The father and the son were left completely alone, covered under protective blankets, reclining on the doorstep of their scorched house, with nowhere to go, no place to call home.
Fortunately, they did find a place to call shelter. And then, after a week, Uncle McPherson's last will was read out. It was a miracle. The good Uncle McPherson bequeathed to Jacob his famous house, along with a thickish envelope addressed in the uncle's hand to his nephew. Immediately, without even reading the letter, the father and the son packed whatever belongings could be retrieved from the ruin of their old house, and moved four districts northwards. In a new place they would begin their lives afresh.
The house proved to be a three-storey redbrick building with a short stretch of lawn in front and some more greenery in the back. It was larger, prettier and located in an altogether more respectable neighbourhood than their previous dwelling. Despite the memory of sulphur still lingering in Jacob's nostrils, he couldn't help but to think the exchange advantageous to himself.
The house was rather compact on the horizontal plane, appearing higher than wider. A paved pathway led to a four-stair rise, which in turn led directly to the front door, without the progression of an outside porch. The windows were tall, but Jacob couldn't see through them into the house, even though he tried standing on his toes. From the steep slated roof there shot out a chimney. What was strange was that whenever Jacob endeavoured to concentrate on some small feature of the house, his thoughts would be distracted, sent into disarray, and in a few seconds he would regard the house again from the general perspective. He couldn't tell, for instance, what the pattern was on the carved embellishments under the roof. Similarly, he could only approximate the colour of the doorknob or the thickness of the window sills.
Those difficulties notwithstanding, he looked at the house with certain pride. All around him were houses of similar structure and appearance, and yet it was self-evident that the one belonging to himself could boast the most intense redness, the highest quality of pathos, and generally the beauty that had the maximum of shine and enchantment in it. Ugliness lies in details, Jacob decided. Hence, the inexplicable spell of not being able to scrutinise his house deeply rendered it, in fact, the most attractive in the vicinity.
Even the boy couldn't resist the redbrick appeal – and he still carried with himself a little gloom after his mother's funeral. "It's beautiful," he whispered, the house's soothing redness reflected in his dreamy eyes.
"We should see the interior. Come on."
The boy tapped his feet impatiently as Jacob set about unlocking the door. They stepped over the threshold simultaneously, squeezed in the narrow doorframe, until they emerged on the other side, deformed and misshapen by the pressure.
It was like falling off a cliff, with their sense of gravity diffused, some peculiar lightness introduced to their bowels. Jacob reproached himself for feeling this way. It was clearly absurd: he could stomp his feet on the floor, and the floor stood firmly in place. They weren't falling. What's more, he was positively sure he had neglected to close the front door on entering, and yet total darkness had swallowed them in one bite.
Instinctively and against his reason Jacob groped for a light switch. The shadow that was his son called out to him, frightened, "Dad, where are you?" Alas, not any nearer the light switch.
With time their sense of vision returned by itself. "And here's the vestibule," Jacob said contemplatively, surveying his surroundings. Under one wall stood a wardrobe for outer clothing, under another a shelf for shoes. Soon, the father and the son progressed onwards through a spacious corridor, with doors and pathways to the other parts of the house on both sides. It terminated in the kitchen, where Jacob and his son were heading.
Peeking right and left into the various chambers they saw everything with unprecedented clarity, remembering little of their former blindness. Their eyes had got used to the scarcity of light. More than that, the darkness had been reversed. Jacob and his son perceived the interior of the house as if in broad daylight, with the layers of ceilings and roofs magically dissolved. Even if the colours bleached out to some extent, they were still more poetic than mere shades of grey.
This was possible, because the eye had been bypassed in the process of seeing, made redundant. The entire workload had been transmitted to the brain, so that the sense of vision became a purely mental creation, very loosely dependent on the outside world. On the pitch-black canvas of physiological blindness the mind painted shapes, colours, sequences of them animated in time. This was a heavy burden on the brain, which being no perfect organ occasionally stumbled and froze. When this happened, Jacob and his son had to endure distortions and vagueness in their field of vision. But most of the time the final product came out believable enough, and it was fairly easy to lose oneself in the illusion.
Presently, Jacob and his son Teddy stepped into the kitchen, whereupon the latter had one of those mental blackouts, as if his mind couldn't cope with the amount of data it had to reveal to him all at once when showing him into a new room. The sensation passed, but it hadn't been pleasant. "I feel weird, dad," the boy complained.
"So do I. But it's nice. Nicer than at home."
"Yes, I think so."
Beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder, but niceness is surely a less subjective ideal – for who would deny this agreeable term being applied to that kitchen? Roomy, modern, with polished surfaces and the atmosphere of cheerful productivity, it was the nicest kitchen they had ever had the privilege to see.
"It looks a little like our old one, doesn't it?" the boy observed. "The table is practically the same, only bigger."
"A little maybe. You hungry?"
"Well, I'm hungry anyway."
Jacob opened the fridge, and to his great astonishment he found there an amount of food that simply exceeded the limits of what one elderly person could consume alone! Moreover, all items were preserved in their original freshness despite its being over a week since Uncle McPherson's death. Only several cups of yoghurt might have been inedible. Jacob didn't know, because he couldn't read the expiration dates on their lids; they didn't make any sense to him, either because of his faulty seeing or for whatever reason. But personally, he hated it when yoghurt went bad, and he threw his uncle's away, just to be on the safe side.
Afterwards, he went on rummaging through the fridge, digging there all sorts of meat and sausage, cheese and jam. At the back Jacob discovered a secret stash of vegetables, which aroused his deep suspicion. They were green. When dining at Jacob's house Uncle McPherson would repeatedly avow his dislike of green vegetables, so that Jacob's wife stopped cooking them for his visits. What did he need them for in his fridge? Jacob conjectured that his uncle's life must have been less solitary than he had thought. His uncle may have had a tenant, or a classy vegetarian lover. Someone might still be living in the house, unaware of Jacob's arrival! However, this thought never went beyond the preliminary stages of reflection. Instead, Jacob proceeded to make his son a sandwich.
In a drawer he located a knife. He grabbed a loaf of crusty bread, and was about to cut it, when suddenly this activity was interrupted by the world as we know it disappearing.
The loaf was no longer held tightly in Jacob's hand: there was no loaf, and there was no hand with which to hold it. Everything was suspended in a formless void, diluted into nothingness, all substance imploding into individual atoms. Jacob felt himself transformed into a blurry collection of colours, which floated aimlessly in the cosmos. He had no other form but this, no material body to speak of, no lucid mind. Only a bit of consciousness remained, and it lingered there like a heartbeat.
"Dad, where are you?" a faint voice hit the remnants of Jacob's perception. Try as he might, however, he couldn't bring himself to respond. He had no power of speech of his own. He was a helpless phantom imprisoned in absolute darkness, which was interposed, if ever, by timid sensations only. Theodore had been reduced to this state as well, so that they were hovering in the void together, like primitive cells in the primordial soup.
After approximately ninety minutes of such miserable existence, the darkness released them. They landed with a heavy thud on the re-materialised floor, gradually regaining their shape, colour and sharpness.
"I feel dizzy, dad," said the boy, his hand at his mouth.
"Yes, me too."
"I don't feel well at all. I think I'm going to throw up."
"Go outside then. Get some fresh air."
Teddy tried to do as he was ordered, but soon he ran into a problem. "Where is the door?" he shouted to his father.
"How do I know? Same as before, I suppose."
"I can't see it."
"Can't help you," Jacob shouted back.
"Okay, never mind. I've found it." And he was gone.
Afterwards Jacob didn't continue preparing the meal for his son. The crusty loaf had vanished from his hand for good, and the knife had also failed to reappear. He observed, as a matter of fact, that he was standing in a living room, not in the kitchen anymore. Granted, it had its furniture arranged in a deceptively similar fashion, but on account of the tall floor lamp with a lampshade on top, and by evidence of the sofa facing a television set in the corner, this was a living room no doubt.
By and by Jacob fell prey to the impression that his son's absence from the house had stretched to a full hour. His electronic wristwatch didn't support him in this claim, as it had stopped working properly. The circular clock hanging on the wall above the sofa proved to be somewhat more reliable, with its hands pointing northwards without the least disagreement, but Jacob didn't want to found his accusations on the testimony of an unfamiliar timepiece. He brooded over the dilemma for long.
At last Theodore had returned to the house. He made no excuses for his prolonged absence, nor did he allude to it in any way. He looked as if having something important to communicate – something of a different nature – and so Jacob invested his focus in this, letting the other matter drop. What Teddy said was:
"Dad? Those red bricks ... I think they're asleep and dreaming."
But Jacob failed to respond to this revelation as a good father should. His voice had been taken away from him. For the duration of the next seventy-something minutes he and his son were being reintroduced to the unenlightened half-reality of figments, phantoms and peaceful nothingness.
By constancy and repetition Jacob promptly learned that there were two kinds of realities within the redbrick house's walls. In naming them he followed the rules of simple logic:
Sometimes, he was able to interact with the furniture and move about the house properly, in the realm of bathrooms, living rooms and bedrooms. He called this phase the room phase.
The other name was formed by negation. The non-room phase was to be the time defined by the lack of rooms – though not the kind advertised by the slogan "No vacancies". The non-room was to be the time when no material objects survived, only the shadows they cast.
The two phases followed on each other's heels, with the 'non' prefix added and substracted alternately. In each iteration the lifespan of the room phase increased at the expense of its counterpart, so that later in the day Jacob and Teddy could watch a full-length movie production in one go. The non-room phase directly after the viewing lasted for less than fifteen minutes.
Balance, however, is crucial in nature. When one would have expected the more solid room phase to prevail, to push the other down to zero minutes and zero seconds, or even, against all common sense, to thrust it down into the realm of negative amounts of time, an unforeseen thing happened: the house's foundations trembled, the teacups rattled, and the plaster crumbled off from the ceiling. Jacob's ears were filled with an ominous sound – a snore emitted by someone disturbed in his sleep, but not quite awakened. In this commonplace scenario, the sleeping person gives off a startling snore, but then turns to the other side. The universal tranquillity is restored. And so it happened with the house, whose centre of gravity had been swept to the other end in one momentary motion. The room phase was shortened to fifteen minutes again, and the non-room stretched back to ninety. This was the end of Jacob and Teddy's first cycle at the house. The existence of those was one of the house's fundamental laws. They had to respect it.
Truly, though, the non-room phase wasn't such a dreadful experience at all – barely a neutral one. After all, generations after generations, millions of people, have for ages strived for this blissful suspension between life and death, for the mythical mindframe of nirvana, often devoting their entire lives to this end. And those two – the father and the son – had this condition forced on them in a highly regular manner! Still, they accepted it purely as one of those irrefutable human experiences, having few spiritual ambitions of their own.
Theodore had only last year discovered the pleasures of the written word. It was Uncle McPherson who had convinced the boy that books had an intrinsic value reaching far higher than the school towers and much farther in the future than the deadline of writing assignments. It was Uncle McPherson, too, who had heaped Theodore with recommendations of high-quality children books. Jacob's wife was delighted when her son Teddy had caught the reading virus at last. She believed it a healthy occupation for children his age. She might have died in a housefire, but her belief survived unscathed.
On the second day of their permanent stay at the redbrick house, when the dust of their lives – stirred by the recent tragedy and still whirling in the air – seemed to have reached the high point and was now drawn weakly back to the floor, Theodore realised he was starving for a book to read. He didn't have any on him; books burn well, and so had his in his old room. But there must be a library in Uncle McPherson's house, Teddy reasoned with conviction. He went upstairs to the second and highest floor, and he found it.
He went for the book with a boy about his age on the front cover. Somehow, he missed the title and the author, had forgotten to read it. It wasn't important. The book seemed like a safe read, and it was safety Teddy needed most, these days. With high hopes he sat down in one of the chairs with pillows, in the green and brown library, opened the book, and tried to read it.
The protagonist of the book turned out to be the same person as the boy on the cover. He and his friends were on a trip of adventures in the mountains, where a disastrous accident happened: one of the boys, not the main hero, had slipped and fell from a mountaintop. He fell, and Teddy accompanied him on his journey down, floating and flying over the hills. They landed on a meadow in a forest. Everywhere were people digging holes. What for, Teddy didn't know. The workers wouldn't tell him, but a girl from his school, whom he secretly fancied, informed him that they were planting trees for charity, because there had been a fire, and the forest had to be rebuilt. That made sense, now that she'd mentioned it. Teddy seemed to discerned some young seeds and stems in the blackened ground, now that she'd mentioned it. Would he help them, perhaps? They could use a strong and muscular man like himself. There's a shovel, come on, Teddy. Save the planet.
"But no, no, no," protested the Theodore who was bent over the book and not grabbing a shovel. He caught himself reading the same line over and over again. "I have fallen asleep?" he questioned himself disbelievingly. "I have made that up?" he asked. In point of fact, when he read anew the first paragraph of the book, it said nothing about any boys. What it said about was a mother who shouted at a man for not helping her do the laundry. He never helped her, she accused him. He was a wicked man! He was driving her to tears, she said, and she cried, whereupon Teddy, who felt for her strongly, stepped forward and offered his services. "I'll do the laundry," he said. But shortly after, he withdrew his proposal. "No, no, no." He shook his head. He'd been re-reading the same sentence for one hundred and fiftieth time.
Teddy was devastated. Every single book in the library functioned in this faulty way. The letters and interpunction floated before his eyes, eluding careful perusal, and even the most promising stories blurred and lost their sense after several pages, and played out too quickly for Theodore's taste.
Baffled and dejected, he had to acknowledge the terrible truth about the redbrick house: having a roof over his head meant not having one to protect his passion.
Meanwhile downstairs, on the ground floor, Jacob was familiarising himself with the secrets of the redbrick house. He half-expected to stumble upon mountains of gold stashed away in one of the cupboards, but so far he'd uncovered only non-precious things he didn't know the meaning of. What was the point of storing a collection of men's underwear in the top closet in the kitchen? Or five sets of cutlery under the bed? Jacob didn't have the slightest clue. Not that he took the time to stop and wonder. He simply proceeded to the next hiding place, hoping to find something valuable there.
His nimble hands were in a drawer. They were like active search dogs, highly effective, but trained for specific purposes. Treasures of various kinds – money, antics, jewellery – were among their specialities, not documents, papers or brochures. For this reason, he almost failed to react to the sensation of touching a very special envelope.
Jacob knew it was the letter from his uncle – still unopened and unread, decaying in some forlorn drawer, somehow. He recognised it instinctively, without reading the name of the sender. In truth, he couldn't decipher it, for which he blamed the poor illumination he had in the house (it was bright, but how else to explain his failure?).
And his bladder swelled with his curiosity about the letter. He had to read it within seconds, and so he crossed the corridor, the vestibule ... he opened the door – he was lucky. A few seconds later the non-room phase would have trapped him inside, delaying his endeavours for the next half an hour. He had escaped by a hair's breadth, stopping just beyond the threshold. The neighbours might be watching, but he didn't care.
Uncle McPherson wrote as he had spoken, with that lively vibe of a family spin-off. In close to a thousand words he told, among other things, about his affection for the dearest nephew. "You are the only person on earth I could entrust my peculiar home," claimed the deceased. For all Jacob knew, his uncle's circle of friends could have had the radius composed of only a few persons, but the sentence inspired him with slightly immature pride anyway.
In the next paragraph, the letter assumed the tone of didacticism. "Reading is of crucial import, Jacob," it opened. "Your son – it thrills me to see – seems to realise this." Uncle McPherson wouldn't desert his lifelong crusade even beyond the grave. "Why not take up reading?" the letter entreated. "It gives you peace, it gives you closure, it helps your life enormously." And the enumeration went on, effortlessly like a never-ending ribbon.
"I'm not asking this as a favour. Don't feel obliged to me, because a dead man's will is not something to constrain a living one. We must admit it – you've got that one gigantic advantage over me, don't you. But I hope I'm able to motivate you, or that my house will do that in my stead. Remember, the consequence of not reading is a life wasted, life unexamined, withering away with every minute. Just saying. By the way, I regret to be such a prick in this letter, but I have to keep in mind that I won't get many more chances after this one, will I? I am dead, after all."
"I've just realised that I am at a loss to say whether or not you're a religious person, but for the argument's sake let us assume that you are. I might ask you next time. Now, if you choose to move into my house – and I don't see why not, for it is far superior to your mediocre dwelling in the neighbourhood where people get oftentimes mugged for entertainment – the books from the list will be even more relevant to you than the Holy Scriptures. That's the long and the short of it. The redbrick house demands spiritual insight procurable only from books of the greatest rarity and genius."
Hoping for the best, Uncle McPherson had scribbled at the foot of the page a list of books he deemed invaluable for any future inhabitant of his house to read. Once upon a time he had hoarded them at home, but the perversity of inanimate objects was such that all of those ten books went missing, vaporised, and they left much unelegant space on his library shelves. Perhaps it was for the better. Reading them in the redbrick house had been quite a struggle, anyway. For those reasons, Uncle McPherson took the trouble and registered Jacob at the local library. Jacob obtained free access to his uncle's recommendations (all of them available and reserved for him!). The last missing element was Jacob's will.
The letter ended: "I leave you to think it through. Don't rush anything, and I should rest in relative peace. And please, say 'hi' to Betty and Teddy from me, and generally have a nice life!"
Signed: "Your uncle."
Jacob stared musingly at this signature, and when he had completed the inspection, he ascertained that there indeed lingered a library card at the bottom of the envelope. It'd been decorated with Jacob's identity all right, bearing proudly his name, his address and a fairly-recent black-and-white photography of him. Uncle McPherson had been a resourceful man.
But that wasn't yet the whole of the message, and Jacob read on. The aforementioned list constituted of ten positions, numbered and enumerated in a column, one per verse. On the head of it, Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners by Sigmund Freud. On the neck-level, Carl Gustav Jung's Dreams, which was in turn followed by eight more publications by authors who had rarely failed to include words such as 'sleep', 'dreams' or 'dreaming' in the titles of their works. On the foot of the list was sitting, for instance, Stephen LaBerge with his book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming.
He had read the letter three times in all, and then five times the list. He faced it with mixed feelings, but predominantly he was inspired and resigned simultaneously. Guided by Uncle McPherson's wonderful list Jacob might conquer that large mass of literature one step at a time, and although it was months of studying that awaited him, maybe it was worth it. Certainly, the search for Wisdom required a lot of dedication.
Suddenly, Jacob was struck by an irrepressible urge to move, and so he walked alongside the circumference of the front lawn. Feeling marginally better, he re-entered the redbrick house and shut the door with emphasis.
"Son, come here for a minute," Jacob called out to his boy.
It took Theodore less than an eye's blink to descend from the second floor. When he showed up, he had a very sour face, but Jacob did not address it. "Yes, dad?"
"Dress up, we're going to the library," Jacob announced.
In Theodore's head a silly voice sung, "Hurrah!"
"How is one to take reading seriously?" Jacob asked himself, examining the overburdened shelves in the library. Surely, that was straight road to madness. But he had to try. While the boy flew off to other books of interest (free at last to indulge in proper reading), Jacob hunted down Mr. Freud's masterpiece Dream Psychology, and sat with it at a solitary table in a corner. By and large he procrastinated. Unwilling to start from the beginning, he scanned random paragraphs, random sentences, even random words, if he stumbled upon ones unknown to him. Eventually, however, he bit the bullet and dived into the reading head-first, with the Introduction as his point of entry. Otherwise, he understood little of what he was reading.
It turned out, dreams are highly deceitful creatures. When naked, they are the dreamer's innermost wishes, urges and longings; they look ugly and they are shameful. We don't want to see them, because they'd serve as a painful reminder of how flawed and irrational we are, and so we repress them into our subconsciousness.
But dreams are much cleverer than that. They put on whatever articles of clothing they can find, however silly-looking and absurd, and they parade in front of our mind's eye in disguise, unnoticed when our caution is subdued with sleep. From early on Mr. Freud's jargon had been difficult for Jacob, but that much he understood. Dreams tend to wear trousers on their heads, gloves on their feet, and they cover their faces with capes worn back-to-front – so offensive to the dreamer's aesthetics that the dreamer prefers not to see them. In this way they aim to conceal their dreadful nature, of which they are too ashamed themselves.
The function of the dream analysis is to frustrate their evil plans. Given adequate learning in the field, one can distinguish the outline of a dream's hideous body under the layers of superfluous clothing; one can approximate the shape of the hand in a large winter glove or of a skull under a tightly-fitting cap. If carried out with success, this operation gives one a profound insight into the depths of one's soul.
Sigmund Freud had written:
"I contrast the dream which my memory evokes with the dream and other added matter revealed by analysis: the former I call the dream's manifest content; the latter, without at first further subdivision, its latent content. I arrive at two new problems hitherto unformulated: (1) What is the psychical process which has transformed the latent content of the dream into its manifest content? (2) What is the motive or the motives which have made such transformation exigent? The process by which the change from latent to manifest content is executed I name the dream-work."
The scientific term dream-work satisfied Jacob so well that he stopped reading and decided to call it a day. "Dream-work", he sampled the word under his breath. It contained behind its syllables the perfect mixture of hard work and leisure ... leisure after hard work, that's what Jacob was after.
But before he went to fetch Teddy and ordered him out of the library, Jacob lingered in his seat for a while, relishing the eerie silence of his mind. Dream Psychology was lying closed on the table before him. An adorable woman was depicted sleeping on the front cover, but Jacob was looking straight ahead. His eyes rested on the spine of the thick book he saw directly opposite on a bookshelf, compressed in-between many others. Absent-mindedly he kept staring ahead. He did not quite notice the golden letters engraved there, but even without his conscious regard the title On Establishment of Small Businesses, Enterprises and Tourist Attractions was drilling deep into his mind.
Driving back in his car Jacob had the fruits of his learning slightly confused. He remembered about the dream-work, but something was missing in the picture: the work had to be performed by someone. From this he reasoned the existence of a person called, for convenience, the dream-worker, and his common sense detected no blunder there.
Back at the redbrick house, Jacob had scarcely taken his shoes off when he shot upstairs in search for this mythical figure. It would be lovely to catch the man red-handed as he manipulated their dreams, to blackmail the dream-worker or to offer forgiveness in lieu for his favour – because the dream-worker might be influential and have many connections. It was even possible that he had been Uncle McPherson's longtime tenant, very experienced and knowledgeable; it must have been for him that the green vegetables in the refrigerator had been reserved. Yes, contact with the dream-worker had to be established, information exchanged, and appropriate housing arrangements agreed upon.
Jacob's enthusiasm waned, however, as many sleep cycles later the dream-worker's hiding place was nowhere to be found. He grew disheartened, bitter, annoyed. Of course, the dream-worker was a fox of extraordinary cunning, but he wasn't supposed to be faultless, dammit. Otherwise, thought Jacob, the practice of dream interpretation on Freudian principles would be futile. Years of psychoanalysis depended on the dream-worker erring and betraying his presence. And yet, though Jacob tried shouting, pleading, bribing and even creeping in on his toes, he encountered no signs of the dream-worker's presence. The worst part was that the dream-worker was probably observing Jacob's foolishness from some secret den in the floor, or in the light switch, or wherever – much to his amusement.
Shortly after this disappointment Jacob organised another outing to the library. He picked up Dream Psychology from where he had put, and he sat down on the selfsame chair he had occupied before. He wanted to continue his reading from where he had left off last time, from the dream-work onwards, but he couldn't concentrate. It takes a lot of good will to read something through, and the recent episode with the dream-worker had had a very discouraging effect on Jacob's motivation. For the time being he cold-shouldered Sigmund Freud's book; he raised his eyes in resignation. That was when he spotted On Establishment of Small Businesses, Enterprises and Tourist Attractions lying on the bookshelf opposite him. He gazed at it with full awareness and meaning. In seconds an ingenious business plan was pieced together in his imagination.
It goes without saying that Jacob read the book from cover to cover. He had borrowed it from the library and spent long hours studying it on the front lawn of the house. He felt his obligation to Uncle McPherson was being fulfilled, and it wasn't such an ordeal after all, because Jacob found he could apply the wealth of new information directly to his life. By virtue of all this reading he could improve – if not necessarily himself – then at least his financial standing and status.
He set about turning the redbrick house into a profitable tourist trap. He was intensely passionate about it and who knows if not divinely inspired. A partnership with the dream-worker would have been a great help in the technical bit of his operation, but Jacob had his dignity and wouldn't beg for the other to emerge from his hideout. He'd sooner work solo – and he did.
One of his final tasks before the grand opening was to determine the hours in which the redbrick house would be open to visitors. It was an interesting challenge in itself, because the room and the non-room phases were to be marketed separately: the former aimed at those looking for an extension of their daily reality; the latter recommended to the quiet types who just want to get away from this all. For days in a row Jacob studied durations and intervals between the phases, emerging eventually with a complex but fairly reliable mathematical pattern. It wasn't easy to memorise, and the hours would be different every week; however, this was the best he could achieve in the circumstances.
The admission fee for adults would be fifty pence for a minute, and half this amount for children. Jacob didn't see why children shouldn't be allowed into the redbrick mansion. He wanted whole families to benefit from the unique sensations inside, and after all his own son spent a majority of his time in the building, with no harm or injury done.
On the opening day Jacob hung on the front wall of the house a huge black-and-white banner reading "Real-life dream experiences!" The two upper corners he suspended from the windows farthest on the right and farthest on the left. Nothing spectacular, but it got the business rolling, and within two days Jacob procured his first client.
It was a businessman in a suit, employed either in insurance or in banking, possibly one of Jacob's neighbours. He pressed the doorbell forcefully. There was a challenge in his visit. "I have the money, now amaze me or die," he seemed to be thinking, but Jacob withstood the threat bravely. Having pocketed a twenty-pound banknote and produced a five-pound change, the host and owner invited his guest inside with a courteous sweep of a hand.
"Hey! wait a minute, I'm blind," the businessman hollered as soon as the door behind him closed.
"No need to be. This is a side-effect that will pass. This way, please."
Jacob guided his guest by hand to the living room. There, the man recovered from his blackout, so it was as if Jacob had led him through the corridor blindfolded and presented him at the end with a shocking surprise – a birthday party or something of this magnitude.
"But this is just a living room," the businessman observed, baffled and unappreciative. "What am I supposed to do here?"
"Well, you can marvel at the differences between here and there," Jacob said, indicating some point beyond the walls of the house.
"To be honest, I might have paid too little attention to be able to compare now," the man said. There was genuine sadness in his voice.
But this dramatic exchange was suspended, when they heard footsteps behind them, and Theodore entered the living room. He was taken aback by the sight of a stranger.
"Teddy, say hello to our guest," Jacob encouraged.
Theodore obeyed. "Good morning, sir," he said.
"Hello, hello ... Teddy," answered the businessman, but presently he returned to Jacob, signs of impatience showing on his face. "I'm sorry, but I think I have bought myself the right to demand. At home I can stand in my living room for however long I wish, and it is much nicer than yours. But for fifteen pounds I demand entertainment."
Jacob hadn't prepared for an emergency. "Well, maybe the other option will be more to your liking. I have a time of peaceful relaxation on offer as well. If you could wait another hour I would gladly reschedule you to that. All at my expense, of course."
"It's a pity I'm a busy man, then. I'd like to get my money back."
At this point Theodore climbed up to his father's ear, saying, "Dad, tell him to try flying."
"What? Yes!" Jacob exclaimed to his astonished guest. "Try flying."
"Just jump up and think no thought," Theodore eagerly instructed.
"I suppose," Jacob said, "it is because an empty head is lighter than air. It lifts you up."
The businessman surrendered to this combined attack. Not quite believing what he was doing he hopped shyly, fluttered in the air for a few seconds, and then fell gently to the floor. With animal-like stubbornness he repeated, and they watched, Theodore commenting on the technique and dispensing advice. Eventually, the time the businessman had paid for had elapsed, and although he hadn't achieved any level of mastery in aerial evolutions, the total of a few minutes' hovering over the floor had changed him tremendously. He bid Jacob farewell smiling, and he promised to tell his friends all about the redbrick wonder. And Theodore he patted on the head, smuggling a ten-pound tip into his breast pocket. The visit had been a success.
From then on, the redbrick mansion prospered and mushroomed as a local tourist attraction. Arguably, it had won city-wide recognition, when Jacob decided he needed an office to issue tickets and collect money. He hammered together a wooden shed in front of the house. In this makeshift ticket booth he received guests from all walks of life: from solitary thrill-seekers, through families of four on a weekend outing, up to artists and designers hungry for inspiration. Moreover, Jacob had signed profitable contracts with nearly all sport clubs in the vicinity. It had been noticed that bruises, sprained ankles and injuries were not for real in the redbrick house – a great asset in practicing contact sports. At the appointed time a van or a bus would pull over at Jacob's curb, and an army of spirited wrestlers would rush headlong into his humble home. Such practice sessions made up a safe percentage of Jacob's income – even if he had to combat disorder in his living room afterwards.
But the bumpy first tour with the businessman had foreshadowed also a negative aspect of Jacob's enterprise. Complaints were many, accompanied more often than not by requests for a refund. It turned out that on exiting the redbrick house a worrying proportion of visitors had their brains magically washed clean, their memories erased. Understandably, they felt cheated when Jacob told them, "Be sure to come back someday!" But they hadn't been in in the first place, they argued. Sometimes they remembered again, mid-sentence, apologised and walked away feeling really stupid; at other times, Jacob relented and granted the accusers their refunds; but mainly the grumblers stuck to their delusions and he kept the money – albeit after an interval of shouting and calling names.
But with people disappearing it was different. The war was waged not for a fifteen-pound banknote; living human beings were at stake here, who had been witnessed to enter the redbrick house, though never seen to exit.
The families – widowed or orphaned – were relentless. They demanded immediate action, threatening with a lawsuit, with the police, or even with a personal vendetta. Times innumerable Jacob placated them, vowing to look into the matter right away, assuring them that the disappearances lay at his heart as much as at theirs. Biding his time, he begged them to leave his office, while he would go on to scour the redbrick house without delay. They left, but saying they would return. And delay there was, because Jacob spread himself on the desk and indulged in some quiet moaning. He knew his dreams of world domination were on a slippery slope. The public was maddeningly slow to catch up with his bad reputation, but they would, eventually. And unless he found a way to solve the disappearances, he might be held responsible and put in prison for years.
The problem gained on even more urgency, when one day Jacob's son had vanished as well.
It was around lunchtime – quiet hours – and they were together at a kitchen table. They ate in silence, and even then they ate their meal only in half, because suddenly the non-room phase invaded their privacy like an evil ticket collector. The darkness surrounded them. It electrified the atmosphere; it paused. It sucked them in. According to Jacob's timetable that wasn't supposed to happen for the next forty minutes. However, he wasn't disquieted by this – much because he'd been deprived of critical thinking and a big chunk of his intelligence. He felt he controlled the situation. The non-room had swallowed them countless times already, and each time it spat them out again without lasting damage. He was confident that this would be no exception.
But his confidence had been ill-invested. When he re-materialised it wasn't his fork that floated in the air inches from his face, but a cold brick wall. It was dark, and he was trapped in a backalley of sorts, having hit a dead end. Theodore, he concluded, was bound to be on the other side. But there was no hole nor cleavage in the mighty obstacle for Jacob to join his son; he had explored its vast surface with his hands, finding all the bricks and cement joints equally rock-solid. At last he made an abrupt turn and started in the opposite direction.
It was a dreadful alley in a ghastly neighbourhood, much as the ones in which he'd got lost in the days of yore. Blocks of houses barred his way on both sides, but on the ground level there were no entrance doors – and above, rows and rows of windows, barely alighted from inside. Up there, ominous presences were watching Jacob's every step, waiting till his foot slipped.
He progressed in silence, anticipating evil to emerge and confront him any minute now. It didn't, however, and he made it safely out of the lane, where it fell into a busier and less scary street. Some shops were open even at this late an hour. He wanted to cross to the other side, ask his whereabouts, but as soon as his foot descended from the pavement onto the asphalt, he woke up.
He was standing on the doorstep out of his house, rubbing his blood-shot and tearful eyes. He heard hubbub, and he saw crowds of people gathering on his front lawn for the belated tour at two eleven. But he was sleepy and he was mad with grief. He drove them out of his property, oblivious to how this might affect his business.
Jacob brought down the large welcoming banner from the front of his home. Instead, he furnished a small notice on the door that the redbrick house was closed to visitors indefinitely. His plans and ambitions had fleeted like a dream, and within days an uninformed client looking for a way in had become a rarity.
Jacob wasn't geared up for a crisis of this magnitude. Scouring the corridors and rooms, he had a sense of futility – because he tackled so serious a disaster with such amateurish devices: shouting, crying, punching the walls in partial insanity. Once he strayed into a room he hadn't seen before, and there were heaps and heaps of clocks: round, flat, ticking; but melting, made of rubber, as if taken out of Salvador Dali's paintings. Jacob thought he had discovered his uncle's store of clocks – that his uncle was a wise man to keep so many of them in case of an emergency, especially seeing that the other type of timepieces (electronic) did not function at all in that peculiar house. But unlike his uncle, Jacob was no wise man: he didn't know what to make out of the fact that the clocks were melting away. He exited the room.
It was the biggest search operation Jacob had carried out since the day of his birth. While the chief objective was to retrieve his son, in reality Jacob was on the lookout for all three of them, his wife and his uncle, too. Uncle McPherson especially he'd come to remember as a lifelong mentor and advisor. Jacob regretted not having him at his side, because he would have known what to do. And he felt guilty for not reading those ten enlightening books Uncle McPherson had so painstakingly listed for his benefit. But now was time for action, not preparations.
Many a time he risked his life when he searched for his missing family. When he happened to be on the first floor, upturning blankets and covers, he was disturbed by an indescribable noise upstairs. He hurried there and fell into the room which had emitted the deceitful sound.
These days it was not unusual for a room to be missing a large part of the floor. The state of the redbrick residence was a mirror held up for Jacob's soul, with new holes, crumbles and ruptures punctuating the structure on a daily basis. So – falling down into the abyss under the second floor – Jacob wasn't so much surprised as disappointed.
He had plunged into the darkness like a rocket. Again, it was the darkness of the infamous backalley, Jacob facing the blank wall. He didn't have time to lose, so he reversed, walked, broke into a run to reach the busy main street for salvation. On this occasion he was pursued – by a monster whose footsteps resounded in his ears, and whose gurgling exhales made him feverish for his life. Their sprint seemed to last forever. Jacob kept out of the monster's range – albeit by inches – and he escaped; he had left it behind in the backalley, himself running onto the street without looking.
As before, he woke up swaying to and fro on the threshold. Fresh air was enveloping his heart. He fell down on the grass and tried to regain his balance there. However, this was a false awakening. He should have realised this, but he was too preoccupied with his sorrows and fears. The tufts of grass might have seemed to be brushing against his face, but in truth he had never left the redbrick house. This dawned on him only when in due time the non-room phase snatched his soul for an hour.
This little episode might have taken a different turn, if Jacob hadn't been unfaithful to his uncle's list. If he had made it to the number ten in time, he would have been advised by the author Stephen LaBerge in Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming that the monster had better been confronted than out of cowardice evaded. It might have been pursuing Jacob because it had an important message to impart. For all we know it might have been the most altruistic creature on earth, and had Jacob stopped to listen, he might have heard a valuable clue as to his son's location. Chances are he'd have been torn to pieces, but at least he would have tried.
But Jacob couldn't have known about this. What he did know, however, and what he regretted, was that he had failed to communicate with the dream-worker. With his knowledge of the house's complexity the worker would have known where Jacob's family were held hostage. Why, Jacob suspected that it was him who had kidnapped and imprisoned them! Why else the dream-worker had remained in hiding if not because he intended to cause them monstrous harm and misery. Still, this train of thought led nowhere: the dream-worker was simply a child of Jacob's imagination, created by mistake, to whom he had grown overly attached.
Many others shared with Jacob the plight of having lost their loved ones. They had organised themselves into a formal group, electing representatives, holding meetings and seeking legal assistance. A common cause united them – to reclaim their friends and relatives from the redbrick house; and a common enemy – Jacob.
They had issued a decree among themselves, which stripped him of his human rights. To them he was an inexcusable evil-doer, a criminal mastermind annihilating such values in the society as love, peace and happiness. Jacob did not clarify the misunderstanding, because he invariably refused to open the door and negotiate. This was a mistake. He hadn't shown them his human face, so they could freely imagine him as an inhuman devil.
The pressure was not yet unbearable, but that was because he was tucked away safely in the redbrick house. He was under its protection, where external forces could not reach him: they all smashed against the outer shell of the house, pushing the four redbrick walls, squeezing them closer together, until finally the tension culminated, and the shell cracked. The house couldn't stand it any longer.
The confederacy of the grieving families had orchestrated a police raid on the redbrick house. First thing in the morning it was surrounded by Jacob's enemies, backed up by three carfuls of police officers and a growing congregation of onlookers. The authorities wanted Jacob to walk out with his hands in the air; they used megaphones to inform him of this. Nonetheless, he needed a few minutes before he opened a first-floor window and yelled back to them: he had been trapped in the non-room phase, unable to hear, unable to move. He stopped the police just before they would have broken open the front door.
"We demand our relatives be returned to us," said the official representative of the besieging party.
Jacob gazed back without understanding. Then, as if going on despite an interruption, he said, "I can't seem to find my son."
Down there on his lawn people shivered. Concern travelled from mouth to mouth for the boy who might or might not have been abused.
The representative took up his negotiations. "Release all your hostages without putting up further resistance. We've come for them. Not to harm you."
But apparently there were disruptions on the line, because Jacob started talking about some great, great fire, in which his wife and his uncle had died. Great man. Very wise. Taught him a lot.
"Okay, just go downstairs and unlock the door for us. We'll take it from here, just open the door and stand back. We'll find them ourselves, just stand back."
Jacob looked as if awakened with a start. "Find them? But you can't find them, that's the point. Don't seem to be finding my son. You think I haven't been trying?" Afterwards, he fell into his curious sleep again, while down there on his lawn people were positively anxious about their missing friends and relatives. One woman lacking hope started to sob uncontrollably.
A new character entered the scene, assuming the leadership of the group. It was an affluent-looking woman who snatched the megaphone from the previous speaker's fingers and called Jacob a bastard. "You bloody swine," she went on, "We'll bring your house down straight on your head. Raze it to the ground. Leave no brick standing."
But Jacob responded in a languid voice. "I didn't expect this," he said, "but I feel lonely, you know?"
Someone's nerves failed him. He picked up a heavy stone from under a bush and hurled it at the open window. Once inside the redbrick house, however, the stone proved harmless to Jacob's face. He only blinked, as if the sun had dazed him, while down on the ground level the police appeased the long-distance fighter with handcuffs.
But the red bricks had had enough of this madness. To them, a dose of healthy sleep was of paramount importance. Regular sleep was what counted in life. The secret of life: sleep undisturbed – there lay health, happiness and sharpness of mind. A good long sleep was before anything else, and without it nothing else was worthwhile. The red brick reacted strongly against all who deprived them of their drug.
The curtains were shut on the first-floor window, and Jacob was sent flying across one room after another. He was bent double at his waist, pulled on a tow by some fundamental power. His arms and legs were fluttering like ribbon in the corner of his eyes. He saw the rooms through which he had flown in a flash. The doorframes faded away one by one – of a study, the bedroom, and upstaaairs ... where Jacob crashed his back against a rock-solid bearing wall. He slid down onto the floor, but did not have a concussion. He looked up. In front of him there stood a wall; in every direction there was one; he was completely walled off from the outside. He had sixteen square metres of carpeted floor at his disposal and nothing else.
The quiet time began – time of loneliness and silent contemplation. The shifts to the non-room phase ceased, demolishing the last bastion where Jacob could have had his pain numbed and forgotten for a few minutes at a time. Or, perhaps, the two phases had become indistinguishable, blurred into one unremitting streak of nothingness. In either case, his only means of escape was in the book on top of which (he now realised) he had been sitting for the past few days. It might or might not have been there from the very beginning – it didn't matter. He wanted very much to read it. He was desperate for a piece of wisdom to interpret into a personal advice – for a reality in which he didn't have to be himself.
But no. The text kept eluding his senses. It deserted his memory as soon as his eyes lost sight of it. And he couldn't possibly embrace with his mind all the pages at once!
Behind the walls he heard muffled cries of the police and overzealous citizens. He didn't understand the words, so it wasn't difficult to filter them out and persist in his isolation, still trying fruitlessly to read. And he tried until he could try no more, when he had hit the limit not even of his character but of his humanity, beyond which there is no willing anything, no practical endeavours. He felt rejected, nullified. His emotions peaking, he pitched the book into a wall, where it disintegrated into two thousand individual pages, which whirlpooled slowly downwards, like snowdrops, landing on the carpet. Once there, like snow, they thawed, they vapored, releasing into the air a strong scent of old paper. Jacob breathed it, deeper and deeper into his lungs. He was intoxicated. He breathed and breathed, until he became very good at breathing. His confidence grew, and he blocked his nose and mouth with both hands, and he could breathe still, with no extra effort!
When the wall started to crumble, his first thought was that it was because he had tinkered with his breathing.
On closer inspection, however, it was because of the book smashing into it. The volume must have hit the wall with the sharp, pointed corner, leaving a mark, which then developed into a proper fissure. Paint peeled off of the wall. Bricks, which had been unsettled, fell out of their places one by one, like drops of water, until suddenly the entire structure collapsed in a full flow, and the wall was reduced to a dusty heap.
Jacob was hopeful. Last time he stood face to face with a wall was in that dreadful backalley, when he knew for sure that his son was on other side.
He stepped over the redbrick pile with caution, wary not to bruise himself, straight onto the narrow set of stairs which had been revealed to him. If he did his math correctly, he was on the second floor, ascending onto the third. He was surprised to learn there was an attic in here.
His climb terminated near a wooden door, higher than he'd ever been in the redbrick house. The police would never find him if he stayed there. Even better, this must have been the last place in which he hadn't yet searched.
With a good outlook for the future he opened the door and entered.