From the crow's vantage point the traffic hardly seemed to move at all. It circled and then sat on the bridge cables, watching for the one who would come. From the other end of the bay, where the road emerged from the trees to span out across the water, movement caught the crow's eye. It left the cables and swept down over the cars, heading for a closer look. It narrowed the distance quickly, the roofs of idling vehicles gliding past underneath it. There, between the cars, a man was coming up fast on a motorcycle. For an instant the man and the crow were on a straight line course for each other. Their eyes met, and then the crow made a tiny alteration in its course, so that it shot past the left shoulder of the man - He Who Would Come. The crow wheeled about, flapping its wings hard for more altitude and headed into the city to tell its employer. It was not an evil crow, but its services could be bought. And in this world, crows were given much more credit for their intelligence than they ever received in that other world - the world the motorcycle rider could not help but think of as the real one, no matter how hard he tried.
The motorcycle left the bridge and sped into the growing shadows of downtown. The rider slowed the bike a little, watching the side streets and alleys - especially the alleys. They were the places that few knew well, and so they changed the most. A shiver passed through Billy Wu, but he pressed on.
“You had your annual review last week.” Billy’s aunt had a habit of taking what should have been a question and turning it into an imperative. In his mind, he could see her carefully plucked eyebrows rising, her lips tightening, as she sat at her retail stand in the mall, cell phone pressed to her ear.
“Yes. I had it on Thursday,” he said into his own cell phone.
“Uh, it went okay, I think.”
There was a sound from the other end of the phone – a brief but forceful exhalation of breath like steam escaping from a valve.
“Did you get a promotion?”
“I don’t know yet, Aunt.”
“Hmmph… Did you hear about Mr. Lee’s son?”
Now it was Billy’s turn to sigh.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Nothing, Aunt. What about him?”
“He’s going to take over as head of the radiology department.”
“That’s great.” He rolled his eyes.
“Yes, he makes his family proud.” By family, he knew she meant not only his living relatives, but the spirits of his ancestors as well.
After a pause, she said, “I don’t understand why they don’t give you a promotion.”
“It’s just not that simple,” he said.
“What’s not simple? You’re smart. You work hard. Do they have something against Asian people?”
“No Aunt, but there are lots of other good people working there as well.”
But it was simple – terribly simple, and he knew it. It had nothing to do with being smart and everything to do with being happy, or rather, not being happy. What his aunt didn’t seem to understand – or any of his family for that matter – was that he would never be able to distinguish himself as long as he was unhappy with his work.
It wasn’t that Billy didn’t want to do well. He came to work everyday with the need to accomplish something useful. It was just that as soon as he sat down at his computer and began to think about the work he needed to get done, he felt a deep, dark malaise forming within him, like tar stuck to his soul. After that, it was all he could do to force himself to focus on his job long enough to get the minimum amount of work done.
The first time it happened, he thought he was just having a bad day. He took the afternoon off and came back the next morning feeling reinvigorated. But then it happened again. Billy was confused. He had never had a problem like this in school. In fact, he had been almost at the top of his class.
Then one day, the answer came to him. Janet, one of the other electrical engineers that worked there was telling him about her current project. There was excitement in her voice as she described the design work and the monetary value of the project.
“I tell you, Billy, it’s going to be really cool. I just wish we didn’t have so many of these stupid meetings to go to.” It was a familiar complaint for the engineers in the office. If only the meetings would go away so they could really get some work done.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” replied Billy automatically, but suddenly, he realized that he didn’t.
“Do you really hate meetings so much? I mean, off the record.”
“Are you kidding? I feel so frustrated when I have to stop what I’m working on just to go sit and listen to somebody talk for an hour. Don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “But don’t you ever feel, you know, relief?”
“Yeah – that you can stop thinking about work for a second.”
She frowned. “Well, sometimes on Fridays when I know the weekend is almost here.”
“Oh yeah, like on Fridays…” He forced a smile and tried not to think about it any more.
That night he dreamed. He was standing at the edge of a dock. It was nighttime, but the moon was bright enough for him to see by. He reached down and fastened something around his ankle. Then he took a step forward and fell into the water.
The swiftness with which he sank, pulled downward by the weight chained to his ankle, was like the steepest drop on the tallest water slide he had ever been on. Panic gripped him from the inside of his gut. He reached upward with his right hand, grasping for the surface and the edge of the dock, but it was too late. The light of the moon grew dimmer and dimmer as he slipped further away, endlessly falling into the deep.
Then, there was something else. He wasn’t sure if he heard it or felt it. It was like a vibration or an electric pulse moving through him at a high frequency. Then, in an instant, it went from strange to familiar like the feeling he got when he finally saw one of those hidden three dimensional pictures. He knew what it was. It…
And then suddenly he was on the street near where he worked. He was still dreaming, or at least he thought he was, except now he felt tremendously clear headed – much more than he had in his dream of leaping off the dock. The other odd thing was that nothing was happening. He was just standing there, looking around at buildings he saw everyday – even feeling a cool breeze on his face. Normally things happened in his dreams. There was no idle standing about. He waited, but still nothing happened. Finally he started walking.
At the end of the block, a bag lady crossed the street in front of him. Her hair was a curly grey mass like a hedge that had grown wild, and her clothes were a layering of faded colors. She was pushing a shopping cart that had been painted purple and was full of what looked like golden treasure. He had a fleeting view of gold coins, goblets, and even crowns, but when he looked again, there was only trash. The bag lady gave a mad shriek and leaned down to stare at the trash in concentration. A second later the cart was full of gold again. Then she turned to face him, an angry look carved into the worn lines of her face.
"It's not polite to change other people's things!"
"What? I...I didn't mean anything. I mean, I wasn't trying to change your things...uh..." he trailed off. Her mouth relaxed its frown a little and her eyes narrowed.
"You're new here, huh?" she asked.
"Hmm...Call me Yvonne."
"Nice to meet you. My name's Billy Wu."
"Chinese?" she asked, raising her left eyebrow and tugging at her right one with slender fingers.
"Taiwanese," he said. "My parents moved here when I was seven." Her right hand stopped its tugging.
"Do you know where ‘here' is, Billy Wu?" she asked.
"Well, I'm pretty sure this is just a dream, Miss Yvonne," he said.
"Ms. Yvonne," she corrected him. "And you obviously know very little. Don't worry. You're new - it's not your fault. I will explain it to you." She pressed her hands together in front of her face and closed her eyes. A long moment of silence stretched out, and then she opened her eyes and began to talk, peering at him over the top of her hands. As she spoke, her words became clearer and took on a different tone, as if in order to remember the words, she had to say them the exact way that she had heard them.
"It's all a dream, Billy Wu, and I mean literally. But it's not just your dream here, it's everyone's. This is the way it was explained to me by Martin. He did his thesis on lucid dreaming, and he's been coming here for a number of years now." She paused for a second, her eyes unfocused and staring at her cart.
”When the brain is no longer receiving sensory information from the usual sources like your eyes and ears, it begins to look for that same information elsewhere. If it finds that sensory information coming from some other part of the body, it will re-map itself to the new signal. Right now there are scientific experiments in which the blind are learning to see with man-made optical sensors that send information just like the optic nerve would but to an undamaged part of the body. With time, their brains pick up on the new signal and begin interpreting it just as if it was coming from their eyes.”
She paused and looked at him. "Now, do you know what electromagnetic radiation is?"
“Good," she said. "Then you know that a radio signal is just an electromagnetic wave. The music you hear on your stereo is information added on top of one of these waves. You see, there’s electromagnetic radiation pulsing all around us all the time. When you dream, there's a part of your brain that's feeling this energy. Whatever impressions you've accumulated about the world around you imprint themselves onto this energy the way a radio broadcast gets added to a carrier wave, except it’s not just sound but information from all of your senses. And all of the impressions left by every person who dreams give shape to places like this - places that some of us can find our way to."
"How?" Billy asked.
"It takes a bit of talent. For most people, the information carried in the energy that runs between us has only a weak influence on their dreams. Only an occasional image or idea will creep in. But people like us can read the underlying shape left by the memories and conceived notions of everyone that is asleep, and our minds use that information to build this dream around us. We share the same...frequency, for lack of a better word. That is why you and I can see each other."
"So you're saying that you're asleep somewhere right now, just like me?"
"Good boy, you've been listening," she replied. Then, with no warning, she began to push the cart down the street once more. He watched her take a few steps, then she stopped and turned back to face him.
"Make a choice Billy Wu. Are you coming or not?" The words were rough, but her expression was open and calm. He looked around for a second at the empty street, then jogged a few steps to catch up with her.
They walked through the city, turning down streets at random, and she talked about things she had seen and people she had spoken with while in the dream. There were the High Rollers who lived for the wild, lascivious bashes that took place every night. There were the Sundays, who got their nickname for spending every dream barbequing in a park or picnicking at the beach. There were the Cordless Bungee Jumpers (CBJs for short), adrenalin junkies that no longer needed safety gear. There were the Philosophers, like Martin, who gathered to discuss the nature of dreams and reality. Then there were the Spirit Guides.
"They think that the dream is a gateway between our world and a world of spirits. Mostly they seem to avoid people. I've only ever seen them alone or with the animals."
"The animals?" Billy asked.
"Crows, owls, coyotes, foxes... Martin has a theory that the reason some animals appear in our myths more often than others is because they're the ones that have the strongest presence in the dream. Perhaps, they leave an impression that makes its way into our subconscious."
Billy rolled the motorcycle to a stop at a light. There were plenty of cars around on this street, but most of them were Empties - cars that appeared only to fill the impressions that dreamers had of the roads being full of vehicles. If you looked closely at the drivers you saw only a hazy image of a person. It was just enough to match the idea of traffic. There was a sound like the ruffling of feathers overhead, and then a crow landed on top of the streetlight. They watched each other for a second, the bird turning its head from side to side.
"He waits for you," the bird said, sounding a bit like a Halloween witch doing a bird impression.
Billy raised his eyebrow at it, then throttled the bike up, letting it leap forward through the intersection.
"I have a question," Billy said. It was the second night in a row that they had walked together.
"I know," she said without looking at him.
"You already know what I want to ask?"
She turned towards him, the lines on her face becoming harder, more defined.
"You want to ask about me." He nodded. Her eyes became unfocused for a second. "Life has been...easier for me since I found my way here. There are problems that I have when I am awake. I - I don't always remember...Sometimes it is hard to think when I am awake." Her right hand rose up to tug at her eyebrow. Then suddenly she turned and began pushing her cart of treasure in front of her again.
"Come along, Billy Wu. There are many things to see tonight."
The next morning, Billy Wu took his bike to work as usual. It was a black Yamaha XJ600 - a lightweight street bike that he had purchased with his bonus last year. His family didn't know about the bike. It wasn't that they would strongly disapprove; it was just that the idea of having something in his life that they didn't know about had appealed to him.
He drove across the bridge, heading towards the building where he worked - one of many tall office complexes on the east side of downtown. He was still several blocks short of his destination when traffic slowed to a standstill. He could see some sort of accident blocking the street, so he decided to cut through the alley to try to get around it.
Up ahead, a familiar purple shopping cart was stopped against the back of a brick building. He slowed to a stop.
"Yvonne?" he called. There was no response. He throttled the bike forward, and when he passed the cart, he saw Yvonne sprawled out on a bed of cardboard. Her eyes were open, watching him, but the rest of her was still.
Billy parked the bike and got off, kneeling down in front of her. She looked exactly like she did in the dream except for an old, ugly white scar on the right side of her forehead where her eyebrow should be.
"Yvonne?" he asked again. Her lips moved a little, but there was no sound. He reached out and lifted her hand. Her arm was completely limp. When he looked back at her eyes he could see tears welling up in them.
A sudden fear swept over him. He felt for a moment as if he was falling off the dock in his nightmare again. He thought back to a conversation that they'd had on his first night in the dream.
"Most of the well known places are stable because everyone has such strong memories of how they should be. But the secret places, the ones that few remember well, those are the places that can change with a thought. Alleys, backstreets, abandoned buildings - you have to be careful in those places."
"Why? What can happen?"
"Anything. If you get caught there by someone who means you ill, then all sorts of bad things could happen to you."
"But even if something bad happened, none of it would matter once I woke up, right?"
She squinted and her right hand went up to tug at her eyebrow again.
"Why don't your arms and legs move in bed while you are dreaming?" she asked.
"Uh, I'm not sure," he said, confused by the sudden change in direction.
"It's because a part of your brain tells certain neurons to fire and others to stop firing because you are dreaming, and your muscles go limp. What would happen if your mind woke up, but your body still thought that you were dreaming?"
Billy made an "ugh" face, imagining the helplessness of waking up paralyzed.
"That's horrible. Can someone do that to you here?"
Yvonne didn't reply at first. She stood there for a few seconds, staring at a spot on the ground.
"It happened to a friend of mine - James Peyroux. He went off by himself one night and never came back. A few days later, there was a story about him in the paper. He'd been found paralyzed in his bed. He'd gotten so dehydrated that he'd had a brain seizure. Now, he's a like a zombie. His body is still alive, but his mind is gone."
It seemed to Billy like it took forever for the ambulance to get there. When it left, he followed it on his bike to the emergency room. He wasn't family, so they made him sit in the waiting area. The doctor came out once to say that they were going to run some tests, but so far they hadn't discovered the cause of her paralysis. Billy kept waiting. Eventually, he fell asleep in the chair.
As soon as he realized that he had found the dream again, Billy set out to find Martin. He didn't travel on foot the way he had with Yvonne. Instead, he visualized his motorcycle, telling himself that it belonged there with him. Between one instant and the next the bike appeared, just like the trash in Yvonne's cart. Yvonne had said that an experienced dreamer could travel almost instantly between places that he or she knew well, although Billy had yet to try it. But since he expected that almost everywhere he went would be new to him, tonight, he would be better off sticking to the bike.
Finding Martin wasn't hard. Billy just kept asking where the Philosophers were until he found them, seated in a café, drinking tea, and talking. Martin was in the middle of the group, a thin man in his thirties with hair so short he must shave it. Billy told him everything about Yvonne and about how he suspected that whatever had happened to James Peyroux was happening to her as well.
Martin frowned and rubbed his hand across the stubble on his head. He raised an eyebrow at the woman seated across from him, a tanned brunette with a green scarf around her neck. She gave a little shrug, and then nodded.
"There is a man you need to see," said Martin. "He's a Spirit Guide named Isaac. You'll find him downtown - across the bridge from here."
"Can he help Yvonne?" Billy asked.
"Possibly... A few hours ago, he sent word here that he would be waiting to help He Who Would Come. That wasn't very specific, but I'm guessing that he meant you."
"So he must know something about what is going on," Billy said.
The woman leaned towards him, watching his eyes as she spoke.
"Or he may be the cause of it..."
Billy had only a moment to register that the animal had run out in front of him, before he hit the brakes. He hadn't been going very fast, but still he thought that he would slide into it. At the last moment, the animal leaped off to the side, and the bike slid past it before it came to a stop. Billy let out a shaky breath and turned back to look at the animal.
It was a coyote - an animal that until now Billy had only seen in pictures. The coyote watched him, dancing from side to side as if it wanted to be running.
"This way," it said in a raspy voice. Then it hopped off down a side street. Billy stared at where it had been for a second, then spun the bike around and rode after it. The coyote led him down progressively smaller and darker streets, a shifting blur of red, brown, and grey ahead of him, until at last they turned a corner into the open square of an empty parking lot. As soon as they where in sight of it, Billy felt something strange pass over him, like he'd just ridden through the curtain of a waterfall. He looked about, but he could not see the cause of the sensation. The light in this place was different. Everywhere else that he had been in the dream, the sun had seemed to be at twilight, but here it was night. There were stars overhead as well, despite that fact that they were not normally visible in the city.
In the center of the parking lot, there was a man standing beside a steel drum that had a fire burning in it. He was a taller than Billy, with a lithe build and dark black skin, and he was dressed in a leather hat with a brim and a leather jacket, both of which looked dark red in the firelight.
"You have come," he said, a slight accent that Billy couldn't place, coloring his words.
"What happened to Yvonne?" Billy asked, spooked out of his usual politeness. Isaac didn't seem to mind his abruptness.
"She came in contact with the spirits," he said. Then he turned and crouched down until his eyes were on a level with the coyote's.
"Thank you," he said to it, and it turned and ran off.
"What spirits?" Billy asked. Isaac stood and looked at him.
"They are not dead people, as you are thinking. They are only the intentions and memories left by people who made a strong connection with the dream." He held his hands up in front of him as if he was reading something written across his palms.
"The spirits are more like journals, left by those that once were here. They contain the stories of what happened to them in their lives."
"Why did they hurt Yvonne?" Billy asked.
"I do not think that they intended to. Sometimes a spirit has a message for someone still alive. They wander through the dream, seeking the person who will understand their message. If someone disturbs them who does not understand the message, the spirit will try harder and harder to make them understand."
He looked Billy in the eyes. "I fear that it was the energy of their efforts that inadvertently hurt your friend."
"How do we undo it?" Billy asked.
"That, I can help you with, but first you must do something for me."
"What?" asked Billy, frown lines creasing his brow.
"You must speak to the spirit who did this."
Billy's eyes widened.
"Why me?" he asked.
"Because you are the one that this spirit is searching for."
Billy let out a long slow breath, wondering if he should believe any of this.
"Why do you think that it is looking for me?"
"I listened to them. I am a Spirit Guide, and they can not hurt me simply by touching me the way that they did your friend."
"For the same reason that I can help your friend. It is a gift that we possess - a talent for consciously using certain parts of our brains that normally are only a part of the subconscious."
"And you will help Yvonne recover the movement of her limbs if I agree to speak with these spirits?"
"How do I know that this is not a trap? Maybe you lured Yvonne and James Peyroux here with the same type of story. Maybe you prey on people this way because you are sick. How do I know that I can trust anything that you say?"
Isaac reached up and adjusted his hat brim, his movements slow and purposeful.
"You do not..."
Once more, Billy followed the coyote, this time on foot. Isaac had said that the spirit was not far. In fact, it was less than a block away that the coyote suddenly stopped in front of a boarded up storefront.
"In there," it said. Then it leaped away and disappeared into the dark.
Billy tried to peer through the boards, but all that he could see was a bit of green light somewhere inside. He reached out and tried the door. It opened with a creak, and he stepped inside. It looked like the bottom floor used to be a bakery or cafe of some sort. There were dusty tables and chairs and a glass display counter against two of the walls. At first there was no sign of the green light, but he found that he could see well enough even in the dark.
Then suddenly it was there in front of him, a glowing, green bend in the air like a bubble in the dream. It moved before he could think, rushing into him. A pulse ran through his body like a concussion blast. And then suddenly everything was different.
He was standing in the same place, but the room was new instead of old, and the darkness had been replaced by bright sunlight. Menus in Chinese hung on the walls. Behind the counter, an elderly Asian man was rolling a dumpling. He looked up and smiled when he saw Billy.
"Great grandson," he said, and in his voice were a pride and an acceptance that Billy could feel in a way that he had never felt from his family before. That was the message. It didn't come through the meaning of words - it came in a feeling that filled Billy up from the inside. All of his life, his parents, his aunts and his uncles had each drilled into him how important it was to do well in school, get a good job, and make lots of money to make his ancestors proud. And now one of his ancestors had traveled through the dream across an ocean to show him that he was proud of him, and he would always be proud of him - not for the job that he had, but for the person that he was.
He looked at his great grandfather, smiling at him from behind the counter. Then there was another pulse that rocked through his body, and everything went black.
Billy jumped awake, inhaling a huge gulp of air and falling completely out of the hospital chair onto the floor.
"I'm sorry to startle you sir, but the doctor wishes to speak with you."
Billy looked up at the nurse standing over him with an uncertain look on her face.
"Thank you," he managed, picking himself up off of the floor. He hurried across the room to where the doctor was scribbling something on a clipboard for another nurse.
"Hi. I have good news. Your friend has regained movement in all of her limbs."
"That's fantastic," Billy said, a smile broadening across his face. "What did you do?"
"Actually, we didn't do anything. She went to sleep, and when she woke up again, she could move..."
Billy Wu and Yvonne stood on the bridge, looking out at the dream twilight reflecting on the water. Yvonne's purple cart was beside them, gold treasures gleaming.
"So," Billy began, "Isaac kept his promise."
"It would seem so," she replied. "Did you understand the message?"
"Yes. I called my family and told them that I'm going back to school. They didn't understand why, but that's okay."
"Hmm... And what will you study?"
"I'm not sure. But I'm going to try things until I find something that feels right."
She turned and looked at him for a moment, her right hand tugging at her eyebrow. Then she turned back to the water.
"That's good, Billy Wu. That's real good... Come along, there's much to see tonight."
posted by D @ 5:00 PM
I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.
If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at podiobooks.com.
Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart
The Great Puzzle Part III
The Great Puzzle Part II
The Great Puzzle Part I
Late Shift at the Soul Eater
[The next two weeks...]
[About The Man of Adventure]
The Man of Adventure
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