Friday, February 25, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 7.4

Great Barrington, Massachusetts
            Harte pulled into the driveway of his house in Massachusetts, a grey barn of a place near a large lake.  The windows seemed disproportionately small for the size of the place, and Lily realized that it was probably well over two centuries old.  Normally, Lily liked old buildings; she enjoyed the sense of history, so different from most of the architecture back home in California.  This bare structure, though, standing isolated among the pines, was forbidding.
            The thought of San Jose reminded her of the messages from her mother she had yet to return.  Lily checked her phone, and found she’d lost the signal.  Probably as they’d driven into the Berkshires.  At least she’d have a break from that pressure.
            Moving her suitcase into the severe building, Lily was struck by the built-in bookcases lining virtually every wall in the place.  Most of the shelves were filled with psychiatric and psychopharmacologic reference works, or volume after volume of professional journals, the earliest dating from the late ninteen-sixties.  However, several unusual titles on one shelf caught her eye: "The Structure of Magic in Stage Performance, Vol. 1"..."Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming"..."Pure Effect: Direct Mindreading and Magical Artistry with a Live Audience." 
            When she asked about them, Harte muttered that they were “from another life,” without turning his head.  It struck her as uncharacteristically metaphorical; in her memory, he had never used so much as a euphemism.  But he refused to be drawn when she tried to pry further, just shaking his head and beckoning her to follow him to the examination room he intended to use for the administration of the Visulex.
            The room was remarkably well equipped for a rural practice.  In addition to the normal accoutrements of a practicing psychiatrist, there was a variety of other equipment that Lily thought would have been more fitting in a research lab.  There appeared to be a full set of electroencephalography gear amid some less identifiable devices, as well as a small collection of cameras and other recording devices connected to a set of monitors mounted on the wall.  Rather than a table, there was a rather odd but comfortable-looking chair in the center of the room, with head and foot rests, like the offspring of an overstuffed recliner and a dentist’s examination chair.
            She dropped her suitcase in a corner, while Harte began puttering around the room, setting up an intravenous feed and plugging in the EEG sensors.  Lily realized that he intended to take the drug immediately, and that she was out of time to debate the idea that had come to her during the drive.
            So she spat it out.  “I’ll take the Visulex.”  She was amazed that she said it without stuttering.
            Harte stopped mid-putter, and turned to look at her.  His face was unfathomable.  “In good conscience, I could not possibly allow you to take that risk, Ms. Breckenridge.”
            “We’re co-conspirators now, so you can call me Lily.  Look, I worked most closely with Matthew, and if he’s where you think he is, then understanding him is probably important.”  She gestured at the equipment around the room.  “Besides, I’m not even sure I’d know how to operate all of this, especially if something goes wrong.  You’re the most qualified to administer the drug, monitor my progress, and deal with any problems.”
            A dark look crossed Harte’s face.  “Out of the question.  What you say makes sense, but I cannot allow you to put yourself in harm’s way in an attempt to fix a prior mistake.  It would simply compound my error.”
            “It has to be me, Professor.  I’ve been seeing Matthew in the real world for the past few days.  I think – I think we’re connected somehow.”
            Harte stared at her.  “Why didn’t you report this earlier?”
            “I thought, I don’t know, it was just my eyes playing tricks on me,” she said awkwardly.  “You know, guilt or something making me think I saw what wasn’t there.”
            “But you no longer believe that.”
            “No.  I can’t explain why.”
            Harte picked up a notebook and started flipping pages.  “If Mr. Larkin is in aleph-two...,” he began, and trailed off.
            “Then what, Professor?”  Lily asked.
            “If Matthew is in aleph-two, then what?”
            “Well, a single object in aleph-two can be conceived of as a superordinate abstraction of a series of objects sharing a similar characteristic in aleph-one.”
            Lily thought that through.  “You mean every object in the dream world is equivalent to multiple objects in the real world?”
            “Essentially, no; but, solely for practical purposes, yes.  If a person's ontological state is shifted from aleph-one into aleph-two, then it is possible that multiple coordinate instances of that person will be projected into aleph-one.  Indeed, must appear, most likely as fragmented sensory images.”
            “So that’s what I’ve been seeing,” Lily said.  “Projections of Matthew from wherever he is, split up into different places like light through a prism.  Professor, that has to mean something.  Don’t you see, I’m the only choice to do this?”
            He shook his head, and she thought he would refuse again.  Instead, he said, “I’ll need to adjust the dosage for your body mass.  How much do you weigh?”
            In for a penny, in for a pound, Lily thought, as he began fussing around her.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 8.1]

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 7.3

716 Teldile Street, Chapel River, Connecticut
            “What do you mean, you’re going away?” Lily asked Harte, as soon as the door closed behind the housekeeper.  “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of running out on all of this.”  She grimaced inwardly, thinking she had been a day late with her resignation.  It would be just her luck to be the last person left behind to clean up the mess.  With the FBI involved, no less.
            Harte winced.  “No, no, not at all.  I should have said, we are going to be going away, you and I, but Nina would have misconstrued the nature of the trip in question.”
            Lily frowned.  “I’m not sure that I’m not doing some misconstruing myself.  What are you thinking?”
            “It has become clear that we cannot simply sit and wait for this matter to resolve itself.  If Mr. Larkin has become dangerous, then he is a danger that we...I...have created.  So we must take action.”  He reached into his pocket and took out a large glass vial of purple liquid.
            “You ordered us to destroy the Visulex supply,” Lily said.  “I flushed it myself.”
            “Apparently, you missed some.  Not enough to disturb the University about, I think.”  Harte’s tone betrayed no subterfuge, but Lily knew that his use of the word “apparently” was deliberate.
            “So, what’s your plan?” she asked.
            “With the data we gathered from Mr. Larkin before he disappeared, I believe I’ve been able to refine the dosage of Visulex necessary to allow a person to at least view and interact with aleph-two, the perceptual environment in which Mr. Larkin now exists, while retaining a physical presence in this environment, that is, aleph-one.  I’ll take the Visulex and see if I can find him, while you monitor my condition.”
            There were so many problems with that plan that Lily didn’t know where to start.  “How can you be sure you’ve got it balanced correctly?  We’re not even sure what it really does, let alone how to manipulate the dosage.  And why leave town?  We need the lab’s resources to do this properly.”
            Harte shook his head.  “We can’t do anything more here; the University is keeping too close a watch on me.  I need you to come with me up to Great Barrington.  I have a small office there; I do consulting in conjunction with a school for troubled adolescents in the area.  The facilities should be sufficient.”
            She shook her head.  “You haven’t answered my question about why you think you can prevent a repeat of what happened to Matthew.”
            “Does it matter?  Whether we know what it really does or not, it’s the only method we have of trying to find and to retrieve Mr. Larkin.  And yes, I will admit to a large amount of guesswork, but I will take that risk.”
            Lily sighed.  This was beyond anything she had signed up for.  She hadn’t come up with any other options herself, though, and his idea made as much sense as anything else.  And she couldn’t just walk away.  Matthew's portrait of her would haunt her forever.
            “Look, I need to pack a bag.  Pick me up at the lab in, oh, an hour.”  She opened the study door, then looked back.  “Meanwhile, if you know what’s good for you, I’d eat whatever it is Nina left for you in the kitchen.”
* * *
            Harte handed Lily a newspaper clipping from the Nantucket Beacon when she clambered into his aging station wagon for the drive up to Massachusetts.  Lily scanned it as they left Harkness.
Seaside resort has ghostly guest
by Jessica Green
It is still two months to Halloween, but the spirits have already come to visit the tony beach resorts of Nantucket, according to guests and staff at the Cliffwalk Hotel.
“We’ve caught glimpses of him several times now,” said owner Mary Homans.  “Usually in the kitchen.  We can tell when he’s been there overnight; he likes to hide knives and other sharp implements in the high cupboards.”
Reaction to the ghost, who reportedly appears as a young man, has been mixed among the Cliffwalk’s more tangible guests.
“It wasn’t exactly the atmosphere we were expecting,” said Stephen Lawner of Dix Hills, New York.  Lawner and his wife claim to have encountered the ghost in their hotel room, where, they say, he silently indicated that they should leave the room through the window.  “He seemed very frightened of something.  When we didn’t move, he just vanished.”  The Lawners terminated their stay early.
Despite multiple alleged sightings of the spirit, there is no photograph or other tangible evidence of his presence.  Homans claims that she tried to take a picture of the ghost, but says he disappeared in a burst of light when the flash went off.  The ghost was apparently upset, as Homans says all of the carving knives in the kitchen disappeared at the moment of the flash.
Local stage magician and self-avowed skeptic Bernard Kalman says that the lack of evidence proves that this is nothing more than a hoax.  “Without concrete evidence of the supernatural, we must assume that this is just another trick, either by the owners of the Cliffwalk, or upon them.”
Homans disagrees.  “He’s here, all right.  We just hope he returns our cutlery.”
            At least she wasn’t the only one seeing Matthew, she thought.  The article was describing something more like Matthew’s full dream appearances rather than the fleeting glimpses she had been experiencing, but it was still reassuring.  She wondered what his manifestations meant; there was so much that had still been hidden away in his mind when he disappeared, dark spaces she hadn’t been able to reach in their sessions.
            There was a sticky note on the back of the article in Harte’s handwriting:  “Called 9/6.  No sighting since 8/31.”  Presumably Harte felt the trail had gone cold, or else they’d be off for the island.
            Lily had been so certain that the Visulex program would be effective to discover what was troubling him, to cure him.  Damn Harte, she thought, advancing the program to Stage Two before the Stage One results had been fully analyzed.  Still, Lily herself had been convinced that Matthew would be the one to make the transition successfully, and had found nothing in her after-the-fact review of the Stage One data that would have stopped them.
            She hadn’t told Harte about her own visions, yet.  Lily wondered again if those had been guilt, or something else.  She found herself thinking that Matthew wasn’t that much younger than she was.  Just a few months.  And he was cute, in that vulnerable sort of way...she thought about his easy humor while they had been discussing the images he had drawn from his unconscious mind, even while the effects of sleep deprivation were taking their toll on him.  And the portrait he had done...
            An idea came to her suddenly.  It plagued her for the remainder of the ride.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 7.4]

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 7.2

716 Teldile Street, Chapel River, Connecticut
             Night was falling as Lily drove to Harte’s house on the outskirts of campus.  She had left the radio on the last time she was in the car; it had been prattling away beneath her notice until part of a news report caught her attention.
            “...And in news of the weird, an Australian merchant ship in the Southern Pacific has reported the sudden appearance of a previously uncharted island.  The mysterious island is located near the so-called ‘pole of inaccessibility,’ the point in the Pacific farthest from any land.  At least until now.  Sailors on the Australian vessel claim to have seen a city on the island, but the United Nations Security Council has declared the entire region off-limits to landing until a team led by researchers from Miskaton...”
            Lily jabbed at the off switch.  Every time something odd occurred lately, she had the sickening feeling that it was her fault.
She slowed to a halt when she neared the street number Harte had given her.  In the months she had worked with Harte, he had never invited her or any of his other grad students to his home; it wasn’t the sort of thing he’d think of doing.  She looked up at the gables and trim work on the Victorian mansion that matched Harte’s address.  Who knew that books about the psychological ramifications of applied information theory were so popular, she thought.
            She walked up an intricately inlaid stone path to the front door, a work of art in carved oak and cut crystal.  Looking for the doorbell, she found instead a panel of multiple buttons, each with a neat calligraphic label beside it. At first she thought that this must be a subdivided home with multiple residents, but then she read the labels:
“I am expected by Dr. Harte, and I am requesting entry.”
“I am not expected by Dr. Harte, but he knows me and I am requesting entry.”
“I am not expected by Dr. Harte, and he does not know me, but I am requesting to speak with him. (Salespersons/evangelists please select this option.)”
I am here to meet with Dr. Harte for a secret and possibly illegal purpose.
            The last was written in ballpoint on a piece of bright white tape stuck over an older label.  Lily shook her head.  Of course Harte wouldn’t feel that a simple doorbell could provide enough information.  She tore the new label off (underneath it, the older label read I am here to burglarize these premises), and pushed the last button.  A complex series of chimes and bells rang behind the door, and a moment later it opened to reveal Harte in a flannel shirt and faded jeans.
            “Come in, come in,” he urged, and she stepped into the front hall.
            She handed him the label from the doorbell.  “Advertising what you’re doing probably isn’t the best way to keep it secret.”
            “I just wanted to be sure you knew which button to press.  I was intending to remove it after your arrival.”  He closed the door behind her.
            “It could just have said, ‘I am Lily Breckenridge.’”
            “I did not think that the fact that I was expecting you should be a matter of public knowledge.”
            Lily tried to wrap her mind around that, gave up, and looked around her.  The opulence of the exterior of the house was matched by the decor inside.  “Nice place you’ve got.”
            Harte turned and beckoned her to follow.  “Actually, if you mean ‘got’ in the traditional sense of ‘own’ or ‘possess,’ it would be more accurate to say that this residence is owned and maintained by the Harte Family Trust, which permits me to live here.  I am of the opinion that the benefits of having assets are outweighed by the tedium of looking after them, so I have someone else do both for me.  But as to the primary intent of your comment, thank you.”  He led her up a grand stair with elaborately carved banisters, and opened a door leading into a book-lined study.
            A sunny-faced woman who looked to be in her late forties or early fifties was shelving books on the other side of the room.  She turned at their entry and raised an eyebrow at Harte.
            “What?” Harte said, sounding slightly startled.  “Oh, yes, Ms. Breckenridge, this is Nina, who acts in various capacities in my home, including but not limited to...”
            Nina interrupted him, and extended a hand to Lily.  “Nina Rodgers.  Housekeeper, librarian and translator for the general public.”
            “She has an MLS, so she is actually a librarian,” interjected Harte.  “I wouldn’t let anyone else touch my books and files.”
            Lily smiled and took the hand.  “Lily Breckenridge.  I serve pretty much the same function at the lab, but I’m still working on the degree.  Good to meet you.”
            Nina nodded.  “Nice to meet you too.  Glad to know he’s got someone looking after him out there as well.”
            Harte coughed.  “Yes.  Well.  If you’ll excuse us, Ms. Breckenridge and I need to talk about a patient matter.”
            “As you like, Doctor.  It’s about time for me to head home anyway.”  She moved toward the door.  “Just remember to eat tonight, all right?  I don’t want to get here tomorrow and find your dinner cold on the counter again.”
            “Oh, yes, about that.  I will most likely be going away for a few days, possibly a week or two, starting tomorrow.”  Lily looked at Harte in surprise.
            “You could have told me about that before I stocked the refrigerator, Doctor,” Nina said.  “Ah, well, it won’t be the first time that we’ve made an impromptu donation to the soup kitchen.  Do you have contact information for where you’ll be staying?”
            Harte rummaged around in a drawer of his desk and came up with a blocky cellular phone, which Lily estimated to be at least ten years out of date.  “Does this still work?”  Harte asked.
            Nina sighed.  “Yes, we still pay the bills on it, though heaven knows why.”
            “All right, you can reach me on this then.”
            Nina reached into her pocket and pulled out a slimline cell.  Flipping it open, she said, “Yes, I’ve got the number here.  But I’m sure the battery in that brick of yours is dead by now.  Be sure to charge it and take the adapter with you.”
            “All right.”
            “Whatever he’s doing, look after him,” Nina said to Lily.  She turned to Harte.  “Take care, Doctor.  I hope you have a good trip.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 7.3]

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 7.1

            “Got a new file for you, Chavez.”
            A stack of paper landed on the desk of Special Agent Paul Chavez of the Albuquerque field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Chavez glanced up at the special agent-in-charge.
            “What is it?”
            “Domestic dispute, A’n’B.  Referred from the Santa Fe PD.”
            He stared at the mass of police reports, forms and photographs.  “Since when do we clean up their domestic cases?”
            The SAC shrugged.  “They say the suspect might have fled interstate, or come from another state, or something like that.  Look, just wrap up that angle, so we can kick it back to them, all right?”
            Another late night, Chavez thought, and started to go through the documents.  Sam would be upset.
            In fact, it didn’t take long before Chavez himself started to get riled.  The reporting officer’s description of the crime was bizarre.  “Victim found suspended by feet from tree limb in front of residence, covered in brightly colored paper” ...  “extensive bruising, mostly on the chest, back and stomach” ... “various hard candies and small toys found on the ground beneath the victim.”  What the hell was this?
            For a moment, he thought about walking into the SAC’s office and throwing the file back on his boss’s desk.  He’d had enough of his colleagues’ stupid pranks, and if it wasn’t them, it was the local PD playing a joke on the Bureau.  But then Chavez saw the photos of the victim, one Douglas Wright.  He had never seen someone that badly beaten who was, apparently, able to speak afterwards.
            Wright had identified his assailant as his brother-in-law, Matthew Larkin.  The potential motive was obvious; there were a disturbing number of police reports in the file about Wright himself.  They all involved alcohol and domestic abuse directed toward Wright’s wife, Larkin’s sister Elizabeth.  Not unusually, the wife had refused to press charges. 
            This wouldn’t be the first time, Chavez knew, that a family member took matters into his own hands when a victim of spousal abuse seemed unwilling to stop her abuser.  But according to the city police detective’s notes, the victim’s ID of Larkin didn’t square with the facts.  Larkin was supposedly at school somewhere in Connecticut at the time of the assault.  In addition, Wright was a large man, and, according to his wife, Larkin was the starving-artist type...hardly likely to have overpowered the victim, let alone been able to haul him up into a tree.  The detective’s notes suggested that, given Wright’s past track record of alcohol abuse, they might be able chalk his injuries up to a drunken brawl which Wright couldn’t remember.
But rather than run it down themselves, the local PD had passed the buck to the FBI.  Chavez sighed, and started making calls.
* * *
Harkness University
            Lily was trying to convince herself to leave Visulex, Professor Harte, and probably Harkness University itself far behind.  Two weeks had passed since the debacle of the President’s visit to see Matthew, and he hadn’t reappeared in the hospital since.  It was beginning to look like he wasn’t coming back.
            That concept caused her mind to spiral for a moment, and she tried to get a grip.  Really, Lily thought – forcing herself to view matters logically – there was no point in remaining.  The balance of the project had been put on “indefinite suspension,” meaning that all of their data was worthless.  The rest of Harte’s grad students were gone; David, Hector and Gloria had all left on “academic leave.”  Lily had been particularly disappointed in Hector. 
            You can always tell when a situation has gone bad, Lily thought, when people start using phrases that need quotation marks around them.  The euphemisms were flying thick and fast these days. 
Classes had started for the fall, and everything was moving on.
            It was looking more and more unlikely that Harte himself would be around for much longer, tenure or no tenure – especially now that he had compounded the disaster by seriously irritating the adminstration.  Apparently, the University had planned to shop the Visulex project to DARPA or some other government agency, and had ordered the stores of the drug packed up for shipment; but Harte had “coincidentally” ordered their supply of Visulex to be destroyed the day before.
            If she didn’t leave, Lily had thought, she would just find herself sitting in an empty room.  So she had drafted a resignation letter, intending to leave it on Harte’s desk.
            Then, on the way to the lab that morning, she had seen Matthew at the coffee shop.  There was no question that it had been him ahead of her in line; he even looked back at her and smiled.  But when she had pushed her way to the front, he was gone, leaving her to be growled at by a queue of caffeine addicts who hadn’t had their first fix of the day.
            If that had been the first time, she would have dismissed it as a trick of the mind, her feelings of guilt coming forward.  But she had been catching glimpses of Matthew, or someone who looked like him, out of the corner of her eye for days.  In the parking lot at the Trask Center.  In the audience at a campus event.  In the back row of a precept class she was teaching.  He was always gone when she looked closely.
            So instead of leaving the letter for Professor Harte, she’d spent the morning going back through her research notes at the lab.  Could she somehow be seeing Matthew, wherever he was?  She pushed a dark tress behind her ear and turned another page.  Lily didn’t know if she believed Harte’s theory, that Matthew had traded his waking and sleeping lives and was now on some other plane of being.  Matthew had not appeared in over a week, and they had no idea why. 
But if Lily was really seeing him, then maybe there was hope.
            And she had to be involved.  Would Harte have decided to advance Matthew into Stage Two, if she hadn’t asked to be transferred to another patient?  It was her mistake, no matter what Hector said, and she couldn’t leave it for anyone else to fix.  She was clearly the most qualified person to deal with him.  After all, even Dr. Harte hadn’t spent as many hours poring over Matthew’s creations.
The phone rang, startling her.  She stared at it a moment, dreading another long conversation with one of Harkness’s lawyers. But it was either that, or have them over here in person, poking and asking unanswerable questions.  She picked up the receiver.
            “Lab 4A,” she answered, not bothering to hide her weariness.
            “May I please speak to, ah, Dr. Timothy Harte?”  She didn’t recognize the voice; it was too polite to be one of the University’s suits, too tentative to be military.
            “Dr. Harte isn’t here at the moment.  May I ask who’s calling?”
            “My name is Special Agent Paul Chavez; I’m with the Albuquerque Office of the FBI.  I was calling with some questions about one of Dr. Harte’s patients.  Maybe you can help me.”
            Lily felt a sudden chill, but tried to keep her voice normal.  “Can you tell me what this is regarding?”
            “I need to know whether a patient is still in your hospital, a student by the name of Matthew Larkin. I spoke to your Dean of Students, who said Larkin had been there.  He referred me to Dr. Harte for his current status.”
            “All requests for information regarding Dr. Harte’s patients have to go to Dr. Harte himself,” she extemporized.  “I can take a message if you like.”
            “All I really need to know is if Larkin has been there for the past few days. Federal privacy law allows you to tell me that much.  Look, Miss...I’m sorry, what was your name?”
            He’ll figure it out anyway, she thought.  “My name’s Lily Breckenridge, I’m his assistant.”
            “Ms. Breckenridge, I’m investigating an assault and battery that occurred in Santa Fe about a week ago.  A man by the name of Douglas Wright was attacked, and beaten up pretty badly.  He claims the assailant was his brother-in-law, Matthew Larkin.”  Lily heard papers rustling on the other end.  “The wife, Elizabeth Wright, said that it couldn’t have been Larkin, since her brother was in school there. 
            “What’s best for Mr. Larkin would be for him to come forward now so we can get this straightened out.  So,” Chavez sighed, “would you please tell me if Matthew Larkin is still there so I can close out this line of inquiry?”
            Lily’s mind raced, and she tried to put on her most bureaucratic tone.  “He has not been discharged yet.”  That’s true at least, she thought. 
            There was a pause on the other end of the line.  Then, “Are you sure, Ms. Breckenridge?  You sound like there might be something you’re not telling me.”
            “That’s how his status is listed,” she said, resisting the urge to slam down the phone.  “If you want more information, you’ll need to speak with Dr. Harte.”
            Another pause.  “All right then.  I may call back if I have additional questions.  In the meantime, let me give you my cell number.”  He rattled off a string of digits.  “If you or Dr. Harte thinks of anything else that might be important to my case, please give me a call, day or night.”
            She thanked him and hung up the receiver.  Then, she immediately picked up again and dialed a different number.
            “Dr. Harte?  It’s Lily.  Matthew has made another appearance.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 7.2]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 6.4

The Mists
     The Cliff House vanished above me.  After a few moments the wind rushing past stopped, and I seemed to hang in a grey void.  I was sure that this was just an illusion, and that I was going to hit bottom any second.  But the impact did not come.
     The mist thickened, until I couldn’t see my hands when I waved them in front of my face.  I don’t know how long I drifted there, neither warm nor cold.  I could hear nothing, but the sense of my heart beating and my lungs filling with air set up a cadence in my mind.  I floated, my idea of self fading away to nothing more than a vague sensation of that double rhythm.
     Eventually I started to see flashes of light, multicolored blobs on the edge of resolution.  They pulsed, each pulse bringing the vision closer to coherence.  As my mind accepted the images, I came back to awareness; but I still could not sense my body, other than that same cadence of blood and breath.
     And then a scene coalesced before me, and I saw myself in the image.  I was in my bedroom in the cheap apartment I had shared with my sister after my parents were killed.  I watched myself seething and cramming random items into a backpack.  This was nine years ago – the day I ran out on Betsy.
     One day, I’d just had enough of her drunk loser boyfriend taking swings at her, and at me.  I was frustrated and pissed off that she’d never stood up to him or kicked him out.  So, I packed a bag and left.  I wouldn’t hear from Betsy again until I after started at Harkness.
     Seeing myself go through those motions brought back the host of recriminations with which I’d berated myself ever since.  You should have protected her, I thought angrily.  You’re such an idiot, packing t-shirts and CDs – what are you going to do with those come winter?
     I could take care of myself, that’s what I’d told myself back then.  Wrong.  I’d spend the next five years moving between friends’ homes, shelters, and the streets, finishing high school by the skin of my teeth.  Only with a stroke of luck and the charity of others that I in no way deserved did I find my way to Harkness.  And once you get here, I thought at the image of the younger me, you’ll forget all about Betsy and just worry about yourself. 
     But somehow I found it tough to stay angry at this skinny, wild-haired kid with the bad acne and worse temper.  Ever since our parents’ accident, I had lived day to day, the difference between one day and the next not really making much of an impact (even before I stopped sleeping and time became one long blur).  I never really thought about how much I’d grown since then.  Looking at him now, I felt like he was being stupid, but no more so than any teenager.  And while it might have been wiser for him to call the police, he was showing a lot of courage in getting out. 
     And as I watched, I realized that it wasn’t true that I’d forgotten about Betsy after I left, as much as I’d beaten myself up about it.  I’d never stopped worrying about her, but I was starting to realize that there had been nothing this kid really could have done to help her. 
     That had changed now, of course.
     The thought had come out of nowhere.  What had changed? 
     The mist swirled in front of me, the image of the past dispersing as I once again started to feel the wind on my face.  There were other images now, fragments whipping by as I fell – Betsy asleep; her slimeball husband Doug, being dragged along the ground by his ankles – but they were gone too quickly to make any sense.  The mist parted, and I found myself plummeting toward a wide expanse of deep blue.
     I had just enough time to recognize it as the ocean before I hit.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 7.1]

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 6.3

The Cliff House

            I lost track of days after that, waking, sleeping and eating without schedule.  My time at the Cliff House became a nightmare of endless repetition.
            Then the House started to tremble. 
            It might seem like a difficult thing to forget, but I had actually become used to the fact that the House was perched on a cliff.  It had been as steady as a rock since I first set foot inside.  But when the shaking began, my precarious position came back to me, and for a sickening moment I felt certain we were about to go over the edge.
            The expected lurch and tilt never came, but the trembling became more pronounced and I could hear a distant rumble like thunder.  An earthquake?  Did earthquakes happen in dreams?  Why not?
            Then I noticed that all of the dreamers had stopped eating, and were looking up and towards the front of the House. I made my way to the front hall.
            Racing up the hillside in the distance was a massive horde of...things...driving a straggling line of dreamers before them straight toward the House.  As the horde drew closer, I got an impression of claws and fangs, twisted and looming human shapes interspersed with monstrous beasts, and...was that a giant McDonald’s shake on wheels...?
            The dreamers were pumping their legs as fast as they could up the slope, but while they managed to keep a short distance from the horde, they couldn’t seem to pull away.  Every so often a dreamer would drop behind, and vanish in a frenzied blur of motion amongst the pursuing horrors.  As they approached the House, I tried to wave them inside, but they kept going – straight over the edge of the cliff, screaming as they fell. 
            I knew (or at least hoped) that the dreamers would wake up at the end of the fall, but the image of the mass suicide left me stunned.  So stunned that it took a few seconds before I realized that the horde had stopped and was now looking at me.
            They moved as one, streaming forward and blending together into one long line of hideous shapes aimed directly at me.  I tried to slam the door, but it felt like I was pushing it through water, taking forever to close.  No sooner had the latch clicked shut than I heard clawing and scraping, loud bangs as something tried to force its way through.  I turned and ran into the House; the hallways felt like they were becoming longer as I pelted down their length, the stairs for which I was headed receding into the distance.  The splintering noise behind me came too soon. 
            I gained maybe a yard or two when the horde passed the dining room, and I heard the panicked cries of dreamers as a column of beasts split off from the main group.  The stairs were suddenly just ahead of me...with a lurch, I reached out and grabbed the banister, and hauled myself up the steps three at a time.  It was like trying to race up a down escalator, except the creatures had no difficulty swarming up behind me.
            Somehow I stayed ahead of them.  Panting, I reached the second floor.  Had to find somewhere to hide.  I had no idea what would happen if the horde caught me, but I doubted I’d wake up.  In my second or two of lead time, I picked a door at random, closed it behind me, and threw the latch.
            Disaster.  I was in a small bedroom, no closets, just a window looking out of the back of the House.  The room smelled of incense, and there was a stone Buddha sitting on the dresser.
            The door shook and I heard claws on the wood.  Couldn’t hide under the bed, I thought, probably a monster underneath.  I glanced at Buddha; he looked heavy, but there were hundreds of those things outside, and I didn’t need the hit to my karma.  I threw open the window.  There was a narrow sill outside; to one side, a drainpipe running down from the gutters above.  Maybe I could swing to another window...
            The wooden door began to crack and splinter, and I was out of time.  I clambered out of the window, and swung myself down, holding on to the sill with my fingertips.  The sickening abyss dropped away beneath me, and I couldn’t for anything in the world bring myself to reach out a hand to the drainpipe on my left.  Instead, I just hung there.  Maybe they’d think I jumped, like the dreamers outside.
            The crash came a moment later, and I heard the scrabbling and snarling and slavering of the creatures in the room.  Amid the bestial noises I caught snatches of human speech...
            “going back to the camp...”
            “get you for what you did...”
            “get the value meal for only fifty cents more...”
            “take your beating like a man...”
            My arms started to burn.  I was used to lifting paintbrushes, not weights.  For a long minute the sounds continued...and then, with a last scrabble of paws or claws, the room above grew quiet. 
            Had they gone?  I waited a moment or two longer to give them time to clear out, and then forced my aching limbs to haul me back through the window.  I pulled my head back over the edge -- and a nightmare with the head of a decaying eagle, waiting just inside, snapped its wicked beak inches from my face.
            With a cry, I pushed myself back.  My hold slipped.  I fell away.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.4]

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 6.2

The Cliff House
            It stood at the top of a swell of land, the image of a wave about to crash sculpted by the hand of a titan out of earth and rock.  The House’s front door looked down upon a view that reminded me of Vuillard’s “Window Overlooking the Woods,” lush countryside that rolled down and away before it into the distance.  The back side of the House teetered over a vertigo-inspiring fall of thousands of feet, before mist obscured whatever bottom there might have been -- if there was one at all.
            I have to admit, I felt bad about pushing the girl over the cliff when I first arrived here.  She disappeared before she hit the mists, so I suppose no harm was done; just someone having another falling dream.  I had freaked out a little when I realized that I’d somehow been transported away from the school.  I had some intuition that while I was in the school, I had a connection with Harkness in the real world.  Now that was gone.
            I explored the area around the Cliff House (the capital letters clicked into my mind involuntarily) to confirm my sense that the exterior could not possibly be large enough to contain the sometimes cavernous rooms inside; after a while, I ranged farther afield to see if it was possible to reach any other landmarks on foot.  However, no matter how far I walked, I never reached the outer edge of the sprawling field that lay outside the door of the House.  The other features of the landscape retreated as I approached, and I gave up when I saw the length of the uphill hike behind me and the color of the sky, and felt the chill wind carrying the scent of snow on the wind.
            Inside, the Cliff House was rarely the same from one day to the next.  Vast, steaming kitchens; dining rooms for a hundred; opulent bedrooms; bathrooms with rococo tangles of bright brass plumbing; libraries and drawing rooms; laundries and linen cupboards: any of these might be behind any door.  Dinner at the Cliff House was the only constant, inasmuch as it never ended.  Elaborately decorated tables, polished silver laid out around chargers decorated in gold leaf scrollwork, before huge platters and tureens of Rockwell-esque holiday fare.
            I was starting to become heartily sick of it.  There was nothing else to be had, not even for breakfast or lunch; no matter how much food was served from the constantly busy kitchens, there was never anything in the cupboards when I searched but tins of cranberry sauce and pureed pumpkin. 
            As boring as the food was, the company was worse... every variety of family drama that ever took place around a holiday table played out every night, with a rotating cast of drunken fathers, bitter mothers, groping uncles, and grasping cousins.
            Even so, my memory of being hungry in the School was still strong, and I didn’t want to be far from the only source of food that I knew of.  Just waiting wasn’t going to work forever, though.  Soon I would need to come up with something else.
* * *
On my third day at the Cliff House (I was guessing; the sky neither brightened nor dimmed here), I was in one of the libraries with two or three other dreamers.  That’s when I saw my sister. 
Before I had arrived in the dream world, I would have expected a dreamer to be a vague sleepwalker through a surrealist landscape.  But apparently people don’t dream in Picasso.  In fact, most of them act with urgency and purpose, just not always a purpose which is obvious or comprehensible. 
Questioning the dreamers, as frustrating as it was, had provided some interesting information.  Apparently, they all saw the Cliff House differently; while it was always a house of some sort, to some it appeared as a cottage, to others a tin shack, and so on.  From the limited occasions on which I could overcome the language barrier with dreamers from other countries, I gathered that they saw the house as something fitting for their own culture.  I suspected that I saw the Cliff House as a mansion because that was how the girl I came with saw it, but there was no way to be sure.
I was hoping the volumes in the library could tell me more about this dream world – specifically, how I got here, and if I could get somewhere else.  Most of the books, though, were blank after a few pages of random text, while others were filled cover to cover with meaningless symbols.  I suppose it would have been too much to hope for a tourist’s guide to the dream world.
When I turned to leave, Betsy was standing there.  But gone was the haggard look she perpetually wore; no tell-tale bruises marked her cheeks or arms.  A delighted smile instead graced her face, the kind I hadn’t seen since before her marriage.  A diaphanous gown of fairy colors swirled around her.
“Matthew!” she said.  “There you are!”
A little bit of an art lecture is in order.  Corot’s “Wounded Eurydice” is a disturbing, heartbreaking painting.  It shows the doomed wife of Orpheus, moments after the snakebite that would send her to Hades.  She is seated, examining her stricken heel, and the sweet and mild look on her face makes clear that she has no idea what has just happened.  Corot, however, assumed that the viewer would know what had happened and realize the inevitable events to follow; the painting inspires a horror far more gripping than a mere depiction of Eurydice in death could convey.
I felt a similar sensation seeing this numinous vision of Betsy, when I knew the misery that her real life held.
For a moment, I could not find my voice.  Then, I stammered, “How did you find me here?”
She tilted her head to one side, the same gesture she made when she looked after me as a kid. “Don’t be ridiculous, Matt.  You know I can always find you when you’re hiding.”
“I mean, did Dr. Harte send you here after me?”
“Doctor who?  Matt, we don’t have time for your games.  Mom and Dad are having our horses saddled; you’ll be late for your lesson.”
Of course, she was dreaming.  Like so many of the others I’d seen at the Cliff House, she was dreaming of a rich life that she’d never had. 
And of me, I realized.  She was dreaming of me, so here she is.  I hadn’t seen her in nine years, and we met again like this.  At least I know she hasn’t forgotten about me.
I blinked away the moisture in my eyes.  “You go ahead.  Tell Mom I’ll be down in a minute.  I just need to find boots.”
“All right.”  She turned to go.
She turned in the doorway.  “Yeah, Matt?”
Tears started down my face.  “You look wonderful.  I miss you.  Come see me soon.”
An puzzled smile quirked her face.  “I won’t have to if you get your butt downstairs.”  And then she was gone.
I wept as the dreamers continued their browsing.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.3]

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 6.1

The therapist forced his eyes to remain open as Kitty Weathers, née Arbuthnot, spilled out the petty annoyances of her week.
“There was no way that ball was out.  I hit it long, but there’s no way it was past the baseline.  And Cynthia actually agreed with Dierdre, the traitor!  I’ve been playing doubles with Cynthia for years!
“So, I had the dream again last night, but this time it was different.”
(This was a classic Kitty non-sequitur.  The therapist checked in long enough to determine that nothing new was coming, then let his mind wander again.)
“It was the same test I told you about before, junior year algebra, that’s a funny word, isn’t it, algebra, I heard it’s Arabic - fancy that, those desert people coming up with something like algebra, well, they’re all crazy anyway, all that sand.  So, anyway, I hadn’t studied, as usual, and I was beginning to freak out a little bit about finishing when this boy, early twenties maybe, woke up from where he was sleeping on the floor at the front of the room with his head on a rolled-up jacket.
“Well, I remember thinking he was kind of cute.  Surely Arnold couldn’t hold that against me, right?  The boy cursed when he sat up, and I’m sure I never heard such language before.  He stood up and looked around, took the apple off the teacher’s desk, and bit into it.  Then with his mouth full of apple, he said, ‘Why don’t any of you people ever dream of a sandwich?’  Which I thought was very odd, since I was the only one in the classroom.  He put the apple core right on my paper, and asked me, ‘Does this place have a cafeteria?’
“Well, I’m sure I didn’t know, so I tried to keep working on the test, but then he grabbed my arm -- actually grabbed my arm -- and made me stand up.  Then I saw that there had always been lots of other students sitting at the other desks, all working on tests like mine, all looking miserable.  It made me feel better about the whole thing; I remember thinking that I’d be all right if they graded on a curve.”
(Kitty’s therapist perked up.  He rarely bothered taking notes, especially when it seemed she was just going to be relating another variant on the same tired stress dream, but this was new material.)
“So, this boy then puts his hands on either side of my face and makes me look him straight in the eye.  He told me that I needed to go to the cafeteria, it was incredibly urgent that I eat.  You know how sometimes it’s suddenly very important in a dream that you go somewhere or do something?  Well, it was like that, all of a sudden I had to get to the cafeteria, so I left the classroom, and the boy followed.
(The therapist wrote in his notepad: “Male figure directing subject to eat – subconscious progress with body image issue?”)
“I then realized that the school was a huge building, entirely made up of these classrooms, all of them filled with students from all over the world.  Some of the time there was English on the blackboard, sometimes French or German, sometimes one of those cute little Oriental languages with all the funny lines and circles.  But I couldn’t find the cafeteria, and I was starting to cry, so I sat down.
“The boy came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.  He said that he was sorry, and that he hadn’t eaten anything but apples in a week.
“Well, I thought that if he needed food, Cook could make him something nice.  As soon as I thought that, we were in the kitchen at home, and these faceless people were putting together this huge buffet table for Thanksgiving dinner.”
(“Juxtaposition of multiple room schoolhouse w/ mansion (also mult. rooms) – building as metaphor for mind/body?  Head vs. stomach/mental vs. physical needs?”)
“The boy looked startled, but then went to the buffet and started stuffing his face.  He didn’t even use a plate.
“Between mouthfuls, he said thank you.  Then he got this weird look on his face, and said, ‘This isn’t school food.’  I remember that in particular; he sounded angry or scared.  I was going to tell him that Cook’s food was the best, but he ran to the window, cursed again, and then ran outside through the deliveries door.
“I followed him outside, and where we were standing I could see that the whole house was on the edge of a cliff.  He told me to take us back to the school.  But I couldn’t do that, since it was Thanksgiving and school was closed.”
 (“Pressure at home not to excel at school?” the therapist jotted excitedly.  He had not expected Kitty to have the depth for such insights.)
“He then said the F-word, and paced around for a minute before telling me I needed to wake up.  He told me that he had a message for someone.  What was it, ‘Tell the heart I’ve left school and can’t get back,’ something like that.  I started to tell him that he shouldn’t drop out of school, like all those people on TV say. 
“Then he grabbed me, shouted at me to wake up.  After that he threw me over the edge of the cliff.  He apologized as he did it, but I ask you!  After I fed him and everything.”
Kitty tilted her head to the side to look at her psychologist.  “So, Doctor, what does it all mean?”
The therapist nodded thoughtfully.  “I think perhaps we’ve made a breakthrough, Kitty.  I’d like you to think about whether adding some additional sessions each week might be helpful...”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.2]

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 5.3

Harkness University
            Half an hour later, Dr. Harte, the President and the others reassembled on the fifth floor of the Trask Center.  Harte missed his office in Eldridge Hall; the dark wood and classical style had always felt pleasantly organic to him, a place for ideas to spring forth naturally.  But some overgenerous alumnus had decided to fund a hospital, all of the professors with actual medical degrees were shifted into clinical white boxes, and Eldridge was razed to make way for yet another gymnasium.
            Dr. Harte spoke briefly to the duty nurse, and started to head down the corridor.   “We’re in luck,” he said to the small band of academics following him.  “He’s here.  He is in aleph-two about sixty percent of the time now, maybe a little more, so the odds were against us.  Which makes sense.”
            “It doesn’t make sense to me,” said the University's chief counsel.
            “Um, you understand that as far as we can tell he’s dreaming when he’s here?"  Harte asked.  "Most people spend the third part of their lives asleep, and the dream state can occur throughout those times.  As his condition progresses, it would be logical that Mr. Larkin would come to spend only about a third of his time as you’ll see him now.”  He stopped at an open door, and peered inside.  “Yes, here he is.”
            They gathered at the door and peered at the young man sitting on the bed.  Harte heard one of the others groan nauseously; he had forgotten the effect Larkin had on first sight, having become accustomed to the boy’s appearance himself.  There was, after all, nothing superficially wrong with the way Larkin looked: a young man, in his early twenties, his spiky brown hair unkempt.  He was in the jeans and red button-down shirt again, for which Harte was thankful – all he needed was for the boy to be in one of his more elaborate outfits.  Even in this basic attire, however, it was difficult to focus on the details of his clothing.  The shirt might have five buttons or six; the denim might be deep blue or bleached; it was impossible to decide for sure.
            What really tortured the vision, though, was the lighting.  The light in Larkin’s room was the same fluorescent glare as the rest of the hospital, washing out everything it touched.  Larkin himself, however, seemed to be illuminated by the rays of a setting sun, tones of gold and rose that were definitely not coming from the bluish tubes above him.  The shadows on his face were all wrong, and the whole inspired vertigo in the unprepared, as if you were going to fall into him.
Larkin gazed back at them vaguely.  “Can we speak with him?” asked the President in a thick voice.
Harte nodded.  “But the interpretive filter through which he experiences the world is not standard, by any definition.  As far as we can tell, he comprehends his environment as if the elements of his perceptual matrix were archetypes drawn from his own unconscious, and treats them accordingly.”
The President looked across at the department chair.  “Did you get that, Otto?”
            The chair nodded.  “He can hear you and see you, but he might not understand who you are.  He’ll see you as part of his dream, just like you perceive people you dream about.”
            Harte held his breath slightly as the President stepped into the room, but Larkin did not seem to react adversely.  His eyes did follow the President’s steps, though.
            “Matthew?  Can you hear me?” asked the President.
            “Yes.”  The boy nodded.
            “Do you know where you are?”
            Larkin frowned slightly.  “In your office.”  And around them, the walls seemed to recede and ghostly shelves seemed to appear; a vague suggestion of a large desk appeared behind the President.
            “What...?” said the President, startled.  The chief counsel gasped.
            Harte quickly said, “Please, um, try to remain calm, sir.  It’s imaginary, we think.  Or perhaps pseudo-real is a more accurate term.  But it’s probably not wise to become too agitated around him.  His actions are somewhat, er, unpredictable.”
            “Is he violent?” the President hissed in a whisper, the implied threat of violence against Harte’s own person spiking on the connotative axis.
            “Not in the sense you mean, sir.  At least, not that we’ve seen.  But he is unlikely to be bound by societal restrictions on behavior.  He is dreaming, after all.”
            “Wonderful.”  The President gingerly turned back to Larkin.  “Matthew, I’d like to ask you a few questions; is that all right?”
            “I’m not going anywhere without Betsy,” said Larkin.  His face creased with a deep frown.  “You can’t send her away.”
            The President shot a look at Harte.  “What is he talking about?”
             “He appears to be interpreting you as one of the social workers with whom he met after his parents were killed,” Harte said quietly.  “Mr. Larkin harbors severe anxiety over those events, more severe than would be explained by the family history he provided.  It is likely that he has repressed memories, but he is emotionally unready to cope with whatever he is hiding from himself.  Essentially, his subconscious was trying to communicate via his dreams while at the same time his conscious mind was refusing to listen.  His conscious mind is preventing him from sleeping in order to prevent him from dreaming.”
            “And how does that explain this?” the President hissed in response.
            “One of those undisclosed factors in his psyche appears to have resulted in an atypical response to the treatment.”
            “‘Atypical response’?  You old fool, you’ve...”
            “Stop whispering!” Larkin shouted, and the floor trembled.  “I want see my sister!”  His words were thunderclaps of sound, and the assembled administrators covered their ears in pain.  Phantom objects shattered.
            “Your sister isn’t here,” the President shouted desperately.  “Mr. Larkin, we’re in the Trask Center at Harkness University.  Can you see that?”
            Larkin frowned.  The illusory furniture faded slightly.  “What?”
            “This is not...this is not a good idea,” Harte said.
            The President ignored him.  “There was an accident in an experimental treatment you were receiving for your insomnia.  Do you remember?”
            “Don’t do that, sir!” Harte warned.
            Larkin’s mouth opened slightly, and he shook his head.
            “As I understand it, Matthew, you’re sort of dreaming right now; none of this is real.”
            Larkin shook his head again.
            “So if you could just try and focus...,” the President started.
            The weird illumination around the boy suddenly grew more intense.  Harte grabbed the President’s arm.  “You have to leave, sir!” he shouted, and dragged him out into the corridor as the entire room filled with a silent explosion of light.
            When they stopped blinking, they stepped back into the room, or what was left of it.  Part of one wall was gone, and they could see into the next room.  The bed appeared to have melted slightly; the sheets which had been white linen now had patches of paisley.  The black and white checkerboard linoleum was swirled, as if it were stirred paint.  There was no sign of Larkin.
            The President whirled on Harte.  “Where did he go?  What the hell happened?” he demanded.
             “You woke him up,” said Dr. Harte.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.1]