Time to dream

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

A man faces reality after tragedy where dreams can ask for help.

It was fate, she had said so often. Fate. So many times after they had met again as adults, she had said it must have been fate for them to be together. After he had cradled her bloody head in his lap on the street, screaming for help and crying tears of helpless panic, and now as he sat in a chair next to her hospital bed, just as helpless but dried up from crying, he cursed that word, fate.

A ten-year-old Peter Priest had first met her in fifth grade, and even then Cheri was radiant. An easy smile and contagious eagerness to laugh made it easy for her to be the first crush of his burgeoning attraction to pretty girls, though as far as she knew they were just friends. In fact, his preference by adulthood for long black hair and dark green eyes may have been based on those features that she shared. Perhaps most people don’t remember their first childhood crush, but Peter did. Perhaps it was the dream he had right before she moved away, the dream child Peter had had that he could still remember vividly.

They were at the neighborhood pool. He could remember watching her frolic in the water, when her mother told her it was time to go.  He hopped on his bicycle, still dripping, and rode behind their car, which slowly pulled away from him no matter how hard he pedaled, though it never failed to kick dust and rocks into his face.  Eventually he lost it in the cloud of dust, and he stopped, covered in a light film of mud now and gasping for air.  The dream taunted him for thirteen years. She moved away that summer and he never saw her again.

Not until last spring, thirteen years later. Another dream, one in which he met a fellow in a bright red top hat at a costume party, made him think of the dream of Cheri moving away. Peter didn’t know why. But as the age of social media had dawned, he made up his mind to find her. Cheri Byrne was, happily, an uncommon name, and there happened to be one two hours away. Fate, she said, led him to her.

The night of the accident, he had waited on the sidewalk near the restaurant, a cozy Italian place, the type of place only the locals knew about. Peter looked older than twenty three, with dark, thinning hair, who, with a smile which seemed to hide just behind his lips, might be considered roguishly handsome, if not for the seriousness about his dark eyes. She was only a little late, but he didn’t mind waiting. As she approached her hair shone in the lamplight that washed over her skin like magic. Her face burst into a joyous smile.

“You haven’t been waiting long have you?” she asked.  She might have texted him, but then she and her phone had a special relationship.

“Thirteen years,” he responded, earning a giggle.  It was their little joke; he had told her about the dream when they started dating, and that’s when she made her first appeal to fate.

"Shall we?" she asked. He held out his arm and they started down the sidewalk toward the restaurant. His blissful reverie was interrupted by the harsh screech of tires, followed by a terrible crash.

When he tore his eyes from the wreckage he found Cheri crumpled on the ground like a discarded coat.  He rushed to her, and saw the jagged gash on her forehead where the pool of blood was coming from.  With a backdrop of shouts and terrified sobs that seemed to come from somewhere else, he cradled her head and tried to stop the bleeding with his shirt. Everything after was an unintelligible blur.
Now time had returned to its normal crawl, and he found himself in a hospital room sitting next to her bed, hearing the harshly comforting sound of a half-dozen monitors, a blood pressure cuff, a strip-chart recorder, all making the white noise that bespoke of keeping her alive.  He told her he loved her in a broken voice, and prattled about disconnected things if only to hear himself speak to her, as though his words were the only frail line keeping her from plunging into the abyss, though the room seemed to swallow the sound of his voice.

Fresh tears had replaced the stale pools in his eyes when disaster struck.  An urgent tone emanated from flat-lined heart monitor, bringing the world into horrible focus.  He launched himself from his chair and ran to the door.

“Help!  Somebody help!” he cried from the doorway, his muffled words imploring any doctor or nurse, even the janitor to come.  He ran back to her, mashed the call button desperately, and looked at the implacable monitor.  No one came.  He tried calling for help again, and tried CPR.  No one came, and the harsh tone rang in his ears like a taunt, seeming to slowly fade as her life ebbed.  He brushed the side of her cold, soft, lifeless face, but she did not stir.  Peter’s knees buckled, and he collapsed.

As he lay slumped over her bed, Peter became aware of a presence in the room.  Rising just enough to look behind him, he gave a start, for behind him stood a familiar face, one he hadn’t seen since he was a child.  Her jet-black hair lay limp beside her childlike face, and her pitying expression brought a fresh flow of tears, but it was those most gentle, sorrowful brown eyes that gave her away.  Death tried a weak smile, but it quickly faded and she resumed her remorseful visage.  Peter forgot the advice given him long ago and did not greet her with joy.

“Why?” he croaked, knowing she would not answer.  She moved silently to his side as if to comfort him.  “Take me too,” he implored.  “Take me to where she is.”

Death, who would not, could not, answer, reached down and touched his chin.  Her cool touch and mournful, sympathetic gaze brought him standing, and, shedding a single tear, she kissed him tenderly.  From her lips, a cold stillness infested his mouth, his head, and then his body, and his vision quickly went.  He was dimly aware that he was collapsing, and tried to thank her, but he wasn’t sure if he even mouthed the words.

Peter awoke suddenly on a cold floor, his lips still numb with cold.  He shuddered, thinking the meeting with Death had been a hallucination, but quickly realized that he was not on a hospital room floor.  A thin coating of dust tickled his nose, and the world around was dim, dusky, as though he was in a cave.  He arose and looked around.  In fact, Peter found himself in a cave of sorts, a domed enclosure; an igloo of rock.  An opening let in the suggestion of light, a brownish glow from outside that only augmented the pronounced dankness. Peter attempted to sift through his confusion when a shadow, or more properly a ghost, appeared in the opening.

“Peter, you made it!” the winged man exclaimed. In two moments, two specters from the strangest event of his childhood had appeared. Death, introduced to Peter by the winged man, he had only seen once, but the winged man he had seen countless times as a boy. Far from wings, two deformities had grown from the poor man’s back, and he had removed himself from society to become a sort of mystic recluse. Peter, as a boy, had watched Death come for him, watched him spring from his empty body and, unbound by physics, fly with those ridiculous little fleshy wings.

It was with those grotesque, absurd wings that he flew now.  The winged man flew while Peter stood, gaping, joy or fear completely overridden by confusion.  The winged man alighted in front of Peter, smiling, and stuck out his hand.  Peter shook it, and waited silently for an explanation.

“You look confused, Peter. Don’t you know where you are?”

“I thought this would be the afterlife.”

“Oh no, no, Peter. This wouldn’t be much of an afterlife at all, would it? Dry, dusty, bland everywhere, like a sepia photograph. No, this is what happens when the past and the future get tangled up together. Do you see, Peter?”

“I’m afraid I don’t sir,” Peter said, feeling like a boy again.

“You know that I’ve been dead a long time, but here I am! Your memories from the past are supposed to guide you, but the future is for you to decide. Right behind me is a path leading out of here, and it should be your future, but right now you’ve got it all twisted up with the past. It’s dusty with guilt and disappointment, the feelings of a dried up old man who can see his end. If that is your future, that is your choice, Peter. You’ve got to untangle time, or else you’ll be stuck here, between life and death, between free will and destiny, in this no-where land.” With that, the winged specter of Peter’s past took flight.

“Wait!” Peter cried, but he was already on the wing.  Peter collapsed on the dusty floor and sobbed.

Wiping his eyes at last, he arose and investigated the doorway.  The rocky room opened to a path etched into the side of a cliff that rose as high and low as Peter could see, though he could only clearly see ten feet in any direction. That area was illuminated inexplicably by a dim yellow glow that seemed to emanate from Peter’s own body.  Lacking any other choice and taking small comfort in the ease of the decision, Peter started cautiously down the path.

He might have been walking on a treadmill; hours of marching yielded nothing in the rocky path that was any different than the path behind him.  It seemed at times that the trail slightly descended, at others ascended, but otherwise wound its way to nowhere.  His caution waned as the monotony of the never-ending track began to wear down his sense of sanity; each muffled footfall in the consuming emptiness drove a bit of madness into his mind.  He broke into a run for a bit, until drawing in the dusty air overcame him, but still he found nothing.

Peter yelled into the darkness, but the darkness did not answer him.  The silence outside his ten-foot universe was absolute.  He peered over the ledge into the impossible darkness, and briefly wondered if falling could be any worse than endless walking.  Shaking the thought away and backing into the face of the cliff, he resumed walking.  Then running. Then shouting. Just moments before the monotony would have fractured his now fragile psyche, he saw a pane of white light breaking from the cliff.  He approached, and found that it was an opening, a great crack in the cliff wall leading to somewhere.

Peaking around the corner of the opening into the cliff, Peter found a man sitting on a ledge overlooking a great green field.  The man had long salt and pepper hair, and a leather jerkin studded with steel rivets, all polished to perfection. The field was populated with a vast display of lights, all moving in a sort of pattern that Peter couldn’t quite figure out.  Lights would come together, wiggle a bit, and break apart.  The man sitting on the ledge slouched over a longbow watching the field, and as Peter watched, the man slowly rose, nocked an arrow, aimed, and fired.  One of the lights faded away.

Peter searched for something to say, when the man broke the silence for him.  “It’s about time you showed up,” the archer said in a gravely voice.

“Excuse me?” Peter asked.

“Oh, you aren’t who I was waiting for,” the archer said without looking away from the field.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Peter responded.  “Who are you?”

“I’m the General.”

“You’re a General of lights?”

“Ha ha, sure I am. The General of lights. I like that,” The man chuckled, perhaps just a hint of sarcasm.


“Well, General, which set of lights is your army?” Peter asked lightly. He did not earn a chuckle this time.

“I am the General of both sides. Both sides came to me, to command their armies, and both had equally compelling arguments. Neither side would agree to seek elsewhere for military command, nor would either agree that both sides should seek elsewhere. The only thing they could agree on was that I should command both armies rather than one or none,” the man, whose voice seemed to grow older, drier, more gravelly as he spoke, said.  He rose again, loosed another arrow, and another light went out.

After a moment of reflection, Peter asked, “they’re men, aren’t they?” He didn’t need to see the General’s slight nod to know that he was correct. “Why don’t you pick a side, so that the fighting can be over?”

The General of Lights turned to look at Peter. He had strong, masculine chin and a stately, aquiline nose, but it was his piercing gaze that seemed to command a heightened sense of wariness, as though one were being stalked by a predator.  Still, Peter did not back down. “I command both sides, not one. A General that intentionally loses his war is a coward and a traitor, and I cannot be that man.”

“What about a truce, then?” Peter asked, growing increasingly desperate as more man-lights replaced the lights that had winked out forever.

The General rose again and fired, speaking as he did so. “Diplomacy is the job of diplomats. I am a soldier; fighting is what I do.”

Peter could no longer watch the senseless slaughter and departed to his path.  He was loath to leave the only thing on the path that was different, but sensed that he did not belong there. The dilemma of the General of Lights was not his to untangle, at least not now.

After monotonous hours of endless walking, Peter succumbed to the fatigue in his legs and sat.  He groped for any of the things that he had had in his pockets, but none of them seemed to have traversed the veil with him, and so he sat, unthinking, unmoving.  At last, as he contemplated plummeting over the side, he saw a tiny spark, like a pinhole in his dark bubble to a bright outside.  He strained his eyes to see it better, but it was very distant, and so he forced himself to get up and walk.

Another eternity of walking brought the pinhole of light no closer, and he decided that it was a trick; some malevolent force was tormenting him for its entertainment.  He peered over the side, closed his eyes, and tried to build enough courage to step over the side.  Suddenly a rush of air sucked him toward the never-ending blackness.  He rocked back on his heels and fell backward, but not before catching a glimpse of something falling below him.  He sat, giving his heart a chance to slow before beating itself to death, and after a moment got up and walked again.

The pinhole gradually became a firefly, and then two fireflies, one stationary, the other wiggling and dancing about the former.  Every so often a giggle would penetrate the stifling blackness.  Gradually he came close enough to see that the dancing firefly was the light of a distant woman frolicking about a small fire, dancing this way and that on a wide part of the path.

He watched her as he cautiously approached; wondering why she hadn’t noticed him yet. He soon was close enough that there was no way she couldn’t see him, and still she ignored him.  Soon he was nearly upon the heedless woman and her small fire.

Her body was covered in swirling brown tattoos, long curving lines wrapping around her arms and legs, and extending from her neck to below her waist, disappearing behind a cloth wrap that barely covered her, ending in hooks and surrounded by tiny stars.  Her face had its own network of swirls and stars, some extending even behind her wild green eyes.  Her thick unkempt dark hair might have reached all the way to the ground, were she to stop moving long enough for it to hang.  Her dance broke down into merely running circles around the fire and laughing, and finally falling to the ground in a fit of breathless gaiety.

“Excuse me,” Peter said politely.

She turned surprised, delighted eyes to him, and was on her feet before he could blink.  She leapt into the air and knocked them both on the ground.  Peter recoiled, not knowing what she would do, but she kissed him lightly on the end of his nose, giggled, and was up dancing around the fire again.  Peter picked himself up and brushed himself off, with no idea what just happened.

She girl stopped suddenly. “I,” she said, striking a dramatic pose, “am Dreams,” she said melodramatically.  The she grinned at him and resumed dancing.  “I am Dreams, I am Dreams, I am Dreams!” she sang as she danced.

“You’re a dream?” Peter asked.

“No!” she screamed painfully, stopping.  She dropped to the ground and hung her head in her hands.  “I am Dreams.”

Peter’s mouth hung open, but she didn’t seem to notice when she lifted her head from her hands.  “What do you want to talk about?” she asked grumpily.

“What is this place?” he asked.

“Well I want to talk about stars,” she said, standing up gracefully, staring at him angrily.  “Millions of them, packing the night; a million wishes a night.  I’ll never see one, not even one.”

In an instant her demeanor changed again, and she eyed him seductively, closing the gap between them and backing him into the cliff-face.  “What would you do to see one star in this soulless night?” she asked, pressing herself against him. “What would you do to see possibilities and wish wishes again?” Peter inwardly pushed away the feeling of her mostly exposed body against him, laid his hands on her cool, bare shoulders, and forced a gap between them.

“I don’t know what you mean” he said resolutely, fearing that she would turn angry again.  Instead, she cart-wheeled away from him, singing, “Dreams, Dreams, Dreams; stars, stars, stars. I dream of stars, and star in a dream.”

Millions of tiny points of light suddenly formed over their heads resembling stars, clustered in areas and sparse in others, though it seemed to Peter that they hovered not far above their heads.  After a moment it struck him that they gave no illumination to the world around him; all light came from the fire, his soft yellow glow, and the girl’s brightness; nor did they twinkle, as stars do.

“It’s not the same, Mother,” the girl said, suddenly sullen.  The points moved together at the ground, and coalesced into the figure of a middle-aged woman with long, stringy blonde hair and pale gray eyes, which glared at Peter in a reptilian gaze.  Her slacks and blouse reminded Peter of a lawyer, but something about her looked even more sinister, and sent chills down his spine.  He would rather have found himself trapped in the afterlife with a crocodile.

“I am Fate,” she announced.

“He’s nice, Mother.  Boring, but nice.”

“I see you’ve met Dreams,” Fate said.  “Irritating, isn’t she?” The girl assumed a pout of silent indignation.

“But you need her,” Peter said, failing to hide his contempt.  “Without dreams, how can you build up a man’s hopes only to crush them utterly and forever?”

“Oh, have I hurt you in some way?” she asked in mock sympathy. 

“Why did you take Cheri away from me?” he demanded.  “Was it mere spite?  Answer me!”

“Don’t tempt me, Peter!  The barest portion of my will can destroy you.”

Something clicked in his mind.  What had his ghostly friend said? The future is tangled up with the past.

She noticed his attention focused inward, and spoke again.  “This is my world; you are subject to my will.  I am Fate.” Fate snapped her fingers, and the ground around Dreams and her fire began to tear, sending the girl into a panicked scream, but before she could move, that portion of the cliff dropped into that eternal blackness that shortly muffled her scream.  Peter was alone with Fate.

How to untangle the future from the past, Peter thought. What separates the future from the past? Choice, the winged man had said. My choice.

“This is not your domain,” Peter said, with a forcefulness that did not seem entirely his own.  His vision turned red as his glow intensified.  “You don’t belong in the future. Your power is in the past, except what I give to you.  This is my domain!”

Fate sneered at him, and the ground in front of him began to crack and break apart. Peter spread his feet apart and steadied himself.  Abruptly the chunk of rock on which he stood broke loose and fell, and he with it. As he plummeted into the darkness, he willed his descent to slow, and upon wings of will he ceased his fall.  The piece of cliff disappeared into the void, but with a few beats of his invisible wings, he flew to where he desired.  He ascended back to the broken path, now barely wider than the ledge that led to it, and landed near Fate.  The contempt in her eyes burned like sulfur.  He felt numbness return to his lips.

“You can destroy the entire world around me, until there is no place to stand, but I will always prevail.  You can shake the heavens and the Earth, but you can’t shake me.” He approached her; she stubbornly stood her ground.  Her gray eyes burned with cold fury, but his anger and bitterness were well beyond their power.  The numbness in his lips spread to his whole mouth, and he understood what Death had given him.  His nose was inches from hers, and he breathed heavily with anger.  She remained resolute, poised to resist whatever attack he made, unable to retreat even an inch.  Suddenly he kissed her, passionlessly, his eyes open.  Her eyes went wide with surprise as the numbness surged from his mouth and lips into hers.  Her reptilian eyes glazed over, and she stiffly fell from the ledge into the blackness, limp and lifeless.

Yet even as she fell, he felt dizzy.  The forcefulness and confidence waned, and his ten-foot universe began to fade.  He sank to his knees, and leaned back against the wall.  He labored to breath, like someone was pushing on his chest, and arms and legs lost all strength.  He felt a hand against his face, and there stood Dreams, her impossibly swirling tattoos seeming bright and animated, though he was losing the ability to focus.  He could no longer hold up his head, and he slid to a laying position.  He felt her kiss him lightly on the cheek, and whisper “thank you.”  He fought to remain conscious, but the implacable blackness drew him away.

He continued to fight the blackness as it took him, and cracked open his eyelids a hair, enough for brightness to sting just a bit.  He heard a distant buzzing, and fought harder to regain consciousness.  He opened his eyes further, and saw only bright blurry white.

Peter groaned, and vaguely heard a door open and a distant voice gasp some surprised word. He opened his eyes, and saw a blurry figure.

“You’re awake. How are you feeling?” he heard an unfamiliar voice ask. Peter focused his eyes as well as he could and saw a nurse watching him, smiling. “You’ve been stirring for a while; you look like you’re seeing me now. Do you understand me?” He nodded. “What is your name?”

“Peter,” he whispered, his throat throbbing from dryness and weakness.

“Peter, are you feeling any pain?”

“Cheri,” he managed to croak before his voice failed him.

“I’m so sorry, Cheri’s not here anymore. But I’ll tell you what, why don’t you let me make a phone call, and we’ll see if we can get any of the people that have visited you in here right away. You’ve had a lot of visitors,” she said with a wink. “Go ahead and get some sleep.”

Peter groaned something that he thought sounded vaguely appreciative. It seemed he had closed his eyes for just a minute when he heard beloved Cheri say his name. He forced his eyes open and saw ten-year-old Cheri’s face, young, hopeful and full of innocence. He blinked, more than once, unwilling to let his depressive psyche induce such a painful hallucination. He heard Cheri’s voice say his name again, and when his eyes focused he saw Cheri, in the present, real and alive, standing next to his bed, a concerned, cautiously hopeful look on her face. The nurse he had seen before stood at the doorway, beaming. He couldn’t doubt that this impossible vision was real, and a tear rolled down his cheek.

“Aha, so this is how past and future got tangled up,” he slowly croaked after she had lightly hugged him, his voice raw but better. There was a tube in his nose that he was distantly aware wormed its way down his throat. Cheri burst into joyful tears.

The nurse said “Press the ‘call’ button if you need anything,” then left the room. As she closed the hospital room door Peter saw Death, her peacefully mournful visage unmistakable, in the corner, and he started, a fearful gasp lodged in his throat. Cheri looked concernedly at the corner.

Death looked at Peter, her deep, dark, compassionate eyes full of hope, smiled slightly and silently shook her head, the way she silently did everything.  Peter understood that she was not here to take him, wasn’t here to take anyone in this room, just stopped by to pay a visit to one who knew her and understood her. He took the winged man’s advice and smiled at her. She smiled more broadly than he had ever seen her smile before. He blinked back a tear, and she was gone.

“Cheri,” he said when she looked back at him, concerned. The barest of drizzles from the cloudy outside lightly tapped the window of his room as the doctor walked in.

“Mr. Priest,” she addressed him. “How are you feeling?”

“I could use couple of martinis, but I’ll settle for a beer,” Peter replied, earning a laugh from the room. Cheri wiped a tear from her eye.

“Is he going to be,” Cheri looked at Peter, not sure exactly what she wanted to ask, “ok?”

“Mr. Priest, you’ve sustained a traumatic head injury,” she said to him but addressing both of them. “The bleeding and swelling in your brain put some pressure on your brain stem, where the reticular activating system, the area responsible for consciousness, is located, causing you to go into a coma. It’s common to experience some confusion, as well as some retrograde and anterograde amnesia, which is to say problems with memories. Do you understand what I’m saying?

“No, but if you write those words down, I’ll look them up on Wikipedia later.” This time there was no serious laughter.

“We’re going to have to keep you for a couple of days to monitor for signs of infection and post traumatic delirium before we discharge you, but I have to say, Mr. Priest, that considering the short amount of time you were in your coma and the awareness I’m seeing right now, I’m hopeful for a full recovery. After discharge I’m going to recommend you to a cognitive rehabilitation therapist, and a physical therapist if needed. You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Priest.”

Peter looked at Cheri. “Don’t I know it.”

The doctor left the room as Cheri smiled at Peter. “You see, I told you it was fate.”

Peter’s face turned deadly serious. “No,” he said. “No more fate. Fate lives in the past. I don’t want to be with you because fate says so.” He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “If we have a future, it’s a future of choices. Don’t answer me now, but think about this. Every day I want you to choose to be with me, or else I want you to leave. If you don’t choose me, then please, don’t stay, there’s no future there.”

“I don’t need time to think about it,” she said, smiling. “I choose you.”

Submitted: July 14, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Benny Burns. All rights reserved.

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