A pause before the blackness. As he leaned back on the pillow, he had an image of row after row of shelves lining a mauve wall that stretched on forever, each armed with a horizontal bar for two-handed gripping. Too late to register on his consciousness, he would not recall the picture when he awoke. He slipped into the familiar darkness. No sound, no vision, no tumult, no tossing in his bed, no picture show to disturb his sleep. Just a tiny thing. An ever so slight rattling coursing through him, as though one of those shelves was opened, the drawer pulled smoothly over well-oiled runners. The gentle rocking of something heavy that lay within.
Outside in the old days, his dad gardening, Brian doing nothing in particular, just hanging around his father. The perfume of petrol fumes mingling with cut grass. Deep blue sky your eyes could swim in, grass growing back straight away, getting ready for next week’s cut. Not today. An electric mower, and the GM grass didn’t have the same odour. Something to do with the chlorophyll.
Once, when he was older and took the job over from his father, he mowed over a frog. Its insides were exposed and a leg was missing. Worst of all, it was still breathing. A front leg thought it was swimming, stroking through the air.
He hesitated, then stomped on it. The frog, a little further into the soft earth, a little more distressed, continued to breathe. Brian bent his knees and jumped and jumped again and again, before checking his progress. There was a mess, but the frog was out of its misery. And he his.
If there were still frogs anywhere, they weren’t in this yard. Still, each time he mowed, he saw the opened animal in the spread stump of each broad leafed weed he demolished, in the contrast between red and green grass blades. Men’s eyes, he guessed, looking for patterns, for aberrations that mean food or danger. No dead frogs today, and very little grass, but what there was, was tidy.
7am and he was back beneath the shade cloth, before the sun grew too hot.
Three kids – no, two — eating breakfast. His vision blurred in a moment’s dizziness. Big bowls of pastel fibre to get their day off to a healthy start.
“Dad, the dog has a new lump.”
“Yeah, good on it.” I warned you, lumpy dog. Shouldn’t go out in the sun without your 200 plus on, not these days.
“You have to take it to the vet.”
“Later.” Don’t be in a rush kids. Remember the last time we took a dog to the vet?
“It’s on your list.”
“Eat your sugar.”
He walked through to shower while he still could, sure that he heard one of them mutter “Mr Cranky.”
That he was left a list. How had that ever come about? Would the world change if he wrote his own list? Or if he wrote one for her? A slight smile arose at the thought of several things he could put on it.
Still damp from his shower, he lay down for a moment, and slipped into unspoiled blackness. From far, far away, a vibration carried to him of a distant weight settling after being disturbed.
Imagine a world where I grabbed a beer instead, Brian thought as he pulled a can of Coke from his neighbour’s refrigerator. White fabric billowed out about him, reflecting away the sunlight, giving the illusion of Bedouins camped in suburban Sydney. George had tried to explain it to him more than once, how he took advantage of changing temperatures and closed parts of the house at different times to keep air flowing, but Brian’s mind closed down. He did not understand it, but it worked. Imagine a world with George in charge. Rational, efficient …
George looked up from his bed, where he was propped against the wall, supported by pillows. Papers were strewn about. “Hello, Brian,” he said with a rising voice and genuine smile, and Brian’s heart lifted at the greeting. His nose tickled as he entered the room. He had learned the smell was incense. Beneath it lurked something vaguely medicinal.
“Come in, come in. No, wait.” Brian pivoted at the door, ready to come or go, whatever he was told. “Would you do me a favour?”
“Sure,” he answered, but he wasn’t. Was this going to get personal? Was there some particular itch George couldn’t scratch?
“Could you grab a beer?”
Weird. “Sure.” He turned to go, then turned back. “Should you? With your medicine?”
“No, it’s for you.”
Weirder. “Janice wouldn’t like me drinking when I’m looking after the kids.”
“It would mean a lot.”
The sight of the cans tucked at the back of the fridge took him back to when he’d fetch one or six for his father. Steel, with a proper join down the side, and a ring pull to toss away. Had George been storing these for decades? He was pretty sure beer didn’t mature like wine. What would decomposing beer taste like? The can felt wonderfully cool though, as he rolled it across his forehead.
“Do you like the cans? I found them on the internet.”
“Sure. They still make them?” With more pressure required than he remembered, he pulled the ring. Froth bubbled. He went to swig from the can, then paused. “Would you like some, George?”
“No, no I bought them for you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh. Maybe a little. Is that ok? Just a mouthful. In that glass, if you don’t mind.”
Only one way to measure a mouthful, Brian thought, but kept his trap shut. He tipped the glass and half-filled it, thinking he was generous with more than a mouthful, but then wondered if he was being stingy, so he poured a little more. Then he wondered if he was doing the wrong thing by pouring more than had been asked for. But he couldn’t pour it back, so he quickly replaced the glass without looking, so that it rocked and nearly fell. Shit. Stop worrying all the time. He kept his eyes down, embarrassed.
“Drink up, Brian.”
“Sure. Here’s health,” he toasted, then paused, embarrassed again.
“Health. Yes, health.”
“It’s a bit early for me, but I s’pose it’s afternoon some place.”
“Yes. Half the world, in fact. Do you like it?”
“Just what I felt like. You read my mind.”
“Good. Good. I was thinking about what you were saying the other day.”
Brian blushed. “I don’t remember… ”
“About your dreams.”
“Nah, I wouldn’t have been. Speaking of interesting, I read this thing though…”
“I found what you were saying very interesting, Brian.”
“I read about this bloke who went to the doctor with a rash. The doctor checked him out thoroughly, on the off chance.” Brian wasn’t looking directly at George’s face, but he still caught the old man’s eye roll, and his face burned in response. Who does he think he is? “The doctor prodded his stomach and it was firm and tight. Turns out, it was because he only moved his bowels every six weeks. He thought that was normal, but no one had ever told him otherwise.”
George waved his hand dismissively. As he did, his face seized as though the pain inside him was taking a moment to look out. Brian knew that he had missed the point. Something read would never do; it had to be something experienced. George had read everything. Brian should have known beer is never free.
“Saw a rat the other day, running along the back fence,” he tried. “Never seen that before, not in broad daylight, not in this heat…”
“Listen,” George commanded in a cutting-through-the-bullshit voice, then relented. “Yes, I’ve seen them. They must be under a lot of pressure to come out in the day.”
“Oh. I haven’t noticed you out in the yard.”
George paused. “Barbara sets up cameras for me. In the night, when it’s cooler.” Of course. Doesn’t everyone’s wife do that for them? “The other day — you said your dreams were ‘rickety.’”
Brian rocked a little in his chair, and decided on the short answer. “Yes.”
“So you do dream?”
He rocked a little more, but stayed on the same course. “No.”
“But you must. Everyone dreams. It isn’t an optional extra.”
Brian found he was standing. “Not like how people say they do. There’s just blackness.”
Brian didn’t know where to look now, and paced the floor. “The bloke who only did a shit once every six weeks— if it was me, no one would be reading about it in the paper. No one would know. Once I realised he’d caught on that I was weird, I’d have just changed doctors and kept my mouth shut.”
This time George looked down, and ruffled the tartan rug at his knees. “I understand. Brian, it’s just me. I’m stuck in here all day. It’s tricky for me to even walk around much inside. You and John and the few others who take the time to visit— you’re very special to me.
“Do you want to know what I think?” George asked, then continued without pausing for an answer. “I think…”
That was when the screaming started.
“Listen,” George commanded, but it was futile. Brian was gone.
No. Not again.
Brian could not make out the exit from the tent. Material billowed and blocked his way, obscuring his landmarks. The fridge was there, and then it wasn’t. Outside, the children, all of them, both of them, were screaming. Fumbling, he grabbed at the fabric, pulled, but it would not give. Just as he was about to scream himself, daylight flashed, showing him the way, and he forced himself out.
The sun’s glare was dazzling, swallowing him in a lake of white, bouncing off everything, pavement, rocks, walls, as though he was surrounded by mirrors. Screaming surrounded him too, as he brought his elbow up to shield his eyes with the crook of his arm, and stumbled in what he hoped was the direction of his house.
“Kids, what’s wrong? What’s happening?”
Under the sailcloth the day was duller, and he squeezed his eyes shut, forcing his pupils to adjust. Impatient, he counted to ten and opened them, to see that the children had been playing with knives.
Blood was everywhere. Someone had been here. Something had been amongst them. Still they screamed, but it would not go on much longer. His eyes went from one child to the other, the world swirling. Where to start? Who to help? What to do? He hadn’t seen this coming, hadn’t detected this danger while he was drinking beer with the old fart next door. Fuck. Ambulance, he thought. Stop screaming, he thought then realised it was him now, he was the one shrieking.
“Dad, Dad.” His youngest was tugging at him, insistent, cutting through. There was a diagonal red line bisecting her face. “Dad, it’s the dog.”
Lumpy dog was lying on his side, fur matted with blood. Relieved, horrified, Brian didn’t want to go near it, but shuffled over in a hunched walk that would have raised a laugh from him if he saw anyone else doing it. “What hap – happened?”
His daughter held up a spongy mass, black and bleeding, roughly circular, about the same size as the base of a beer can. “His new lump fell off.”
Vet. Quick. After all, it was on the list.
There was no reason not to bring the dog home. The vet wanted to keep him, of course, watch him overnight, put him on an IV drip, give him a blood transfusion, raise the deposit for another investment property. Dog chemo. Puppy palliative care. Canine hospice. None necessary. Nor Neddy the Needle. Not this time.
His headlights illuminated a black station wagon parked in George’s driveway, and Brian sunk inside. Before he had fully stopped, a passenger door swung open and the dog jumped out barking, leading the children into the yard. His wife stepped out of the shadows, surprising him with a hug.
“Hey,” she said quietly, her breath warm on his ear. “Umm, George died.”
“Oh.” What to feel? What to say? Nothing about the beer. “He seemed … alright. Earlier.”
“He hasn’t been alright for a long time.” She shrugged, and Brian remained motionless. “Still sad though. You OK?”
“I’m glad you rang about the dog. I wouldn’t have known what to think if I had come home and seen all that blood. What did the vet say?”
“Nothing. It’s fine. All the lumps are gone. They don’t think it was cancer after all, some kind of weird rash.”
“They make it up as they go along, I’m certain.” She toed some lengths of timber by the front door, pointing her foot as though she still studied ballet. “What’s all this, the rope and stuff?”
“Oh. They had free delivery. Hope that’s everything.”
“From your list. With the jobs.”
The station wagon pulled out slowly from the kerb. Brian’s eyes tracked it as it travelled the length of the street at half the speed limit, bearing his friend away, the only movement in the night.
Did George dream now, he wondered. Was there movement in his darkness?
Brian enjoyed the funeral. He could not remember the last time he had been in a church, though a vague recollection nagged at him. It smelled like George’s bedroom. Everything was old: the building, the priest, most of the other people there. Maybe he should have been a church person. He didn’t pay attention to the words so much, just followed the other people as they rose and sat, rose and kneeled. It felt peaceful in the big subdued space. Too late now, he supposed.
The letter was safe in his breast pocket. He carried it with him everywhere. In another world, another time line, he would not have received it at all. His wife had been out the front of the house, under the awning. She could not see him, he was sure, standing in the hall behind the doorway of the front room. An old lady came from nowhere, and his wife jumped, startled, bringing her hand up to her chest. It was like a pantomime. They both appeared to laugh, but he knew that his wife was not happy, getting caught out. The old lady wore a big sun hat and gardening gloves that came to her elbows. She bent and fumbled in the bag, the gloves causing her difficulty. Something spilled on to the ground. After a long moment, his wife bent to help her. Janice handed papers to the old woman, but the woman was pushing one back at her, smiling forcefully. It was embarrassing. Just take it, Janice. Eventually she did. She passed the garbage bin on the way back to the house, and he knew Janice would throw whatever it was in there, the pamphlet or tract or whatever it was. That used to happen a lot in the old days, weirdos going door to door. He could see her eyes move to the bin, saw her shift her path slightly, but then she copped out. Maybe she thought she was being watched, though the woman had moved on, tottering out of sight.
“Who was the old bird?” he asked as Janice walked in.
She stared at him. “You saw?”
“What was she up to?”
“You didn’t recognise her?”
Brian faltered, the ground suddenly uncertain beneath him. “I … didn’t have a good view.”
She thrust the envelope at him. “Barbara. George’s wife. How many times have you been over there?”
He recognised her later at the funeral though. She was the old lady dressed in black. That was a giveaway. Same big hand bag.
The letter was on mauve paper. He could not fathom why. It started off in letters printed from a computer.
“Thank you for being my friend. Sorry you had to run off. One does not know the hour or the day, so I keep notes of my thoughts, in case I don’t get a chance to pass them on.”
What if it had never been delivered? What if he had never received this gift?
“You say you don’t dream. But what if you have been dreaming of darkness all these years? Smooth, sleek, uninterrupted darkness. But now there is change, Brian, like an interstellar vehicle decelerating as it approaches a star system. Cargo begins to shift. Hull plates stretch and shrink while their joins complain. A slumbering beast extends its muscles as hibernation ends. Systems reboot and diagnostic programs start to run.
“What if the darkness of your dreams was to split at the seam, to reveal a foreign world beneath an unknown sun, with you looking on as the von Neumann machines go to work?”
Then the handwritten scrawl at the bottom.
“Or Brian, what if this is the dream?”
The wake could not hold him. He drifted away. He was supposed to know these unfamiliar faces, strangers talking at him as though he shared something with them, until he stood with a plate of chicken in a corner of the tent, head down to avoid attention. Finally, he wandered into the backyard, missing the one person who could not be there.
And what would he tell his friend now, if through a sheer act of will and sinew (and presumably wire and silicon and quantum chips) he could conjure him afresh? He stood in the shade and closed his eyes to clear his mind, as though a moment’s determination could overcome a lifetime of neglect. The tiniest of breezes tugged at his suit jacket. What would be different? Would he act better, if given another chance? What randomness could he offer up to grant a moment’s distraction to his bedridden friend? A dream of an apparent coherence in the transmissions of a new pulsar in sector 60? A difficulty in the roboservers in a hangar door? He shook his head, recognising the persistent loneliness beneath his surface sadness. The voices from the house reached him as the barest murmur, the last lapping of a distant sea.
The strange gift his friend had left him, the mauve pages of it tucked away in his breast pocket. Standing in the dappled shade, he imagined his boring tomorrows, easy to do because they would be the same as his boring yesterdays. Picturing the moments— kids creating havoc; wife checking on him from work; refuse cycler backing up— kept him busy so he did not remember the absence. In those moments, some of them anyway, he would remember the gift, and he’d smile inside, pretending that soon dawn would break, and he would see for the first time the day flooding, a sea of light pouring out across an alien world, as the hangar doors opened onto a crystal sea, a hue of blue never seen before.
“This is your dream,” his friend had written, and he looked forward to the night when it would manifest itself, the night when the darkness ceased to be rickety, when the light would flood in. The night that like tomorrow, never comes.
It’s the little things that get you through the day, even if it is just a dream that one day, he will dream.
Through the scrub, he saw straight lines that did not belong in nature. Dragging himself between the bushes (knowing there would be hell to pay later for any burrs he caught in his suit), he found the planks he had ordered— the first a fixed ramp, the others hanging loose at oblique angles, secured from higher branches by the rope from his list. A mechanism led upwards, but made no sense. At the bottom of the ramp lay a bundle. He bent and found six speckled doves, soft in repose. He put down his plastic plate and lifted one. Brian stroked its down, then ran his finger against the grain, separating the smoothness into individual feathers. Its head was tucked under its wing. He freed it and it hung loose, the neck broken. He remembered doves from before, pigeons, birds of all colours and descriptions, images of them flitting through his mind, thousands and thousands. Shush, he calmed himself and stopped and focussed on the moment. The softness of the feathers against his calloused hand. The lightness and limpness of the bird in death.
Shush. Sneaking amongst the branches, flowing like a stream, the breeze picked up. The pattern of shadows on the rubbly ground changed below him, as though small moving bodies darted back and forth, occasionally eclipsing the sun. Removing the letter from his breast pocket, he returned to the last part, hearing his friend speaking in his head as he read:
“What if all of this is your dream, Brian, while you slumber out amongst the stars, too far away to communicate effectively with anyone else? What if you are the most important person in our universe, dreaming us into being, holding us in place, and you are about to wake up?”
Everything was happening much too fast. High up, far above the whisper of leaves, he heard the chiming giggles of one too many children as they chased each other, swooping to tag, ducking to avoid. Above them, more distant, a familiar throaty bark, answered by another further away. A drawer slid open. Brian tugged at the wing of the dead dove, stretching it. Dare he look up? Would it take a moment for the pixels to resolve themselves into the brilliant blue of sky? What would he see dancing up there? Craning his neck, would he topple into it and be lost?
Food for Thought
I see this is as my Philip K Dick story, and the philosophical issues are fundamental to it.
What is reality? Is the world as we see it as it is? This is not just the brain in a bottle question of, say, Descartes (or The Matrix), but even how perceptions differ from person to person: that is, before we even get to flying dogs and George’s letter, there is for example, the fact that to Brian, George is an interesting neighbour he is drawn to, whereas to his wife, he is a sick old man whose suffering has been allowed to drag on.
What is truth, and how committed are we really to its pursuit? One of the stories Brian tells himself each day is about how his wife leaves him lists of work to do, yet that may all have been a lie. But how interested would Brian be in pursuing that, when he has confessed to George that he would change doctors rather than be embarrassed at being abnormal? Dare he look into the sky? Would a beautiful lie suffice to get him through the day? And if George’s suggestion is true, does it matter to those who inhabit a construct – after all, don’t we all inhabit various constructs, with a massive universe out there, at the macro and micro levels, and still, we have each to get through our own day?
What are dreams and what is the distinction between waking and dreaming? Is the dream of blackness a dream within a dream? After all, what is the sliding drawer; how many children does Brian have; what are the images of sickness and hospital treatment? Is dreaming a fundamental part of consciousness – if George’s suggestion is right, would an AI dream, and if it did, would it be of the mundane?
About the Author
David Stevens (usually) lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and children and dog, near the scrub that Mr Cranky wanders into. His stories have appeared in Crossed Genres, Aurealis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Pseudopod, Cafe Irreal, some Australian literary magazines, and the anthologies ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘At the Edge’. He blogs irregularly at davidstevens.info. One day he will finish his novel.
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