Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 13.2

            Lily had been moving for about an hour before the well-worn track ahead of her branched off to smaller paths to the sides; the hikers ahead of her didn’t seem to be expressing a preference, so she just kept going straight.  Soon thereafter, the path entered a pine forest, and she walked across a thick carpet of needles in the cool shade.  When a pine needle jabbed the sole of her foot, Lily realized that she was wearing the same outfit that she had on when Harte had administered the Visulex -- jeans, a light top, and sandals.  Most of the other hikers she had seen were wearing at least sneakers, if not hiking boots; she felt underdressed for a long walk in the woods, especially when the wind began to pick up. 
            She turned around and headed back along the path, but after several minutes she hadn’t emerged into the sunlight.  Lily didn’t think that she had missed a turn; the main path had seemed straight, and she’d avoided the branches she’d seen along the way.  The strange peacefulness that she had been feeling faded at thought that she might be lost; she took a deep breath of the forest air and tried to force herself to relax.  There was no point working herself into a panic by getting upset every time something strange happened here.
            Another hiker wearing a polar fleece passed by her, headed in the direction  the meadow lay.  He certainly didn’t seem worried; he gave her a cheery little wave, and she gave a cursory nod back.  Then, a moment later, she ran to catch up with him.
            “Excuse me...”
            The hiker kept moving, but slowed a bit as Lily fell in beside him.
            “Are you headed towards the meadow?” she asked.
            “The meadow’s back the other way,” the hiker said, pointing a thumb in the direction Lily had originally been walking.  “Can’t get there from here.”
            “Right,” she said.  “You know, you’re the only person I’ve seen headed in this direction so far.”
            “Miss, this is the only way you can go in the forest.  Never known anyone to try going the other way.”  And Lily saw that the others on the path were now all traveling the same direction as she and the hiker were moving.
            The hiker started moving faster.  “If you’ll excuse me, I should really pick up the pace a bit.  Long way to go, you know,” he said, and he moved off ahead of her.  A few minutes later, he took one of the branching paths off of the main path, and disappeared from sight.
            Lily kept moving, hoping that the path would eventually lead her out from under the canopy and into the warm sun.
            Instead, she began to sense a grade under her feet, an upward slope.  She couldn’t see the path rising, or dropping away behind her; yet, she found herself beginning to perspire, and her calves beginning to burn.  The unseen slope slowly increased with each step. 
            She turned around and retraced her steps...and still felt as if she were climbing upwards. 
            This must be it, Lily thought.  Grandpa said he walked uphill both ways to and from school when he was a kid.  Looks like I’ve found the hill.
            Most of the other hikers had not slowed their pace at all, not even seeming to notice the change.  Here and there, though, she saw other people lagging behind on the path.  The stragglers were, like her, inappropriately dressed for the forest.  One or two were in pajamas.
            Then the wind turned to ice.  The path turned to rocky scree on the side of a mountain, and she was exposed to a sky thick with mackerel clouds.  The slope became steeper, and there were no branches off of the path.  Lily wrapped her arms around herself for warmth and fought her way upward, trying to ignore the groans and sobs from the others who were struggling. 
            And yet, other hikers strolled right past as if the path were as flat as it looked, smiling as if they were still walking through the meadow.  As they passed, they voiced trite words of encouragement.
            “Keep going!  You can do it!”
            “Nearly there!”
            “Oh, come on, this is the easy part!”
            Lily’s face flushed with rage even as she tucked her frozen fingers deeper under her arms.  She bit back a retort.  Won’t give them the satisfaction, she thought.  She forced her way onward. 
            Snow began to fall.
            Soon, she had no choice but to use her hands.  The path became so steep that she was no longer walking it, but climbing it on all fours.  Finally, she was stretched out on the path, unable to move farther.  She watched the feet of the other hikers stepping around her as if she were a fallen log.  She looked down, or back, or whatever the direction was; her eyes told her that she was lying flat on the ground, but her inner ear told her she was clinging to a sheer face by toe and finger holds.
            So much for the path, Lily thought.  I can’t beat this.  It’ll just keep curving up until I’m trying to hang from the ceiling – and then what?  Fall off into the sky?  Her eyes began to tear in the howling wind.  How am I supposed to beat a world that makes no sense?
* * *
[Go to Chapter 13.3]

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sorry for the delays, folks...

My loyal readers will have noticed that I've been a bit slow with the updates recently.  My apologies -- I've just started a new job and it's been taking a lot of my time.  We expect normal service to resume shortly...



The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 13.1

            Stepping through the portal into the brilliant void, Lily had felt herself fall in all directions simultaneously.  As she did, the other Lily merged with her.  It was a seamless combination; she understood at once that she was not gaining any knowledge or traits she did not already possess.  Yet she sensed that something had shifted...her point of view, perhaps.
            She fell apart, she fell together, and for a timeless moment of equilibrium she hung at the center of everything.
            And then she stood next to the path.
            Tall grass swayed on either side, sweetening a breeze that pleasantly balanced the warmth of the sun overhead.  The path was a narrow track mowed through the meadow, and apparently kept clear by the tread of countless feet.  Solo hikers and couples holding hands strolled along the path; a couple straight off of a sporting-gear website passed her, smiling and nodding at her as they went.
                The meadow seemed to go on endlessly, and, if she decided to follow the path, there was no obvious difference between left and right.  She wondered whether Matt had come this way, and what he would have decided to do.  (She smiled to herself; Matt, not Matthew.  Was the other Lily, or maybe the new Lily, speaking?)  In her sessions with Matt, Lily had found him reluctant to express preferences; when she pressed him, he would provide snap answers that seemed calculated to surprise or occasionally shock her, rather than let her know his true feelings. 
            It was irritating, and that was probably his intent; his inner self was heavily guarded, and no wonder, given his background.  With home, family and school all stripped away, all he had left was what was inside.  That was strong enough to pull him through his past more or less intact, and passionate enough to pursue a future, but it was not something that was shared easily.
            She realized that she hadn’t thought much about how Matt must have felt about his portrait of her.  She had been so embarrassed herself that she hadn’t considered how disturbing it must have been for him to be exposed in that way.  His other Visulex creations were in some sense coded, abstract rather than concrete images and phrases; they required translation through the medium of their sessions.  In contrast, the portrait was striking in its clarity.  It must have been horrifying for wonder he had hidden it.
            Yet, he had still kept it, and in the end he had showed it to her.  She smiled at the thought.
            Lily realized she was drifting, and tried to focus.  She looked at the path again.  This couldn’t happen in the real world, she wouldn’t be a question of left or right – it would be east or west, or north or south, directions that had meaning because they told you not only where you were but where everything else was.  In the dream world, it was just left or right, which told you nothing.
            But what signposts should she be following here, anyway?  She had been floundering since she first arrived in this world, Harte’s “aleph-two,” because there was nowhere to begin.  It was futile to try to track Matt as if he were a missing person in the real world.  How could she pick up a trail, when there was no reason to believe that there was even such a thing as geography here? 
            Symbols and transformations, juxtapositions and double meanings, these were the signposts of dreams, but there was no frame of reference.  What did the meadow mean, what did the hikers mean?  The dream world tantalized her with signs and prophecies, but provided no way to follow them, no path. 
            Lily blinked.  No path...but of course there was a path directly in front of her.
            Of course left or right told her nothing, she realized, because they didn’t matter.  They couldn’t matter.  The only thing that made a difference in a dream was choosing, one way or the other, to follow the path that was offered.  She wanted to find Matt, so she chose to follow the path.
            At the completion of that thought, without a transition or any sensation of movement, Lily found herself standing in the middle of the track.  She couldn’t tell which direction she was facing, except forward.  So she began to walk.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 13.2]

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 12.4

He knew, Elizabeth thought.  He knew she knew.  Then why was he asking?  Why wasn’t he commanding her to speak?  If he yelled at her, she’d talk.
But the FBI agent hadn’t raised his voice.  His face was serious, but it wasn’t the dead-eyed stare that Doug gave her when he was quiet, when his voice dropped to a hissing whisper just before he burst into a rage.  Chavez would stay quiet, she realized, even if she refused to talk.  She thought he might just sigh, or turn away, disappointed.
For some reason that thought upset her more than the thought that he’d shout at her.
            “Do you trust me, Elizabeth?”
            Trust.  What’s trust? she thought, a long-suppressed edge of bitterness creeping into her mind.  She trusted Doug, after all.  Trusted him to behave like he always did.  She had no problem trusting that people would act in their own interests, and treat her like dirt.
            But from Chavez she had seen something different.  He had his own agenda, she was sure of that, but he didn’t act like everyone else.  He showed her respect.  She wasn’t really sure why.  She’d made so many mistakes.  Not even Matt respected her, she thought, even though she knew he loved her. 
            “I don’t know,” she said, sighing.  “But let’s give it a try.”
* * *
When Elizabeth Wright spoke then, it was if a different person had taken her seat at the table.  Chavez heard new emotions in her voice: contempt and anger for her husband, disbelief and confusion at the things she saw.  She told them how she believed she was still asleep when she watched her brother, ten feet tall, reach in through their bedroom window with impossibly extending arms and drag Douglas Wright screaming across the lawn.
“I closed my eyes and tried to wake up, or get back to sleep, I don’t know.  Eventually the shouting stopped, and I woke up the next morning.  That’s when I found Doug in the tree.  Oh, God, I thought I was going crazy.”
            Chavez sipped his coffee, letting it sink in.  Ojeda asked, “Had Matt appeared in one of your dreams recently?”
            “The night before,” Elizabeth said.
            “That’s it, then.”
            “What’s it?” asked Chavez.
            “Well, she dreams of Matt, she’s in the dream state, right?  But he’s lucid in the dream state.  They meet, she’s dreaming, he’s awake.”
            “Still not following you,” Chavez said.
            “Well, they meet, he starts thinking about his sister, right?  Matt dreams about her the next time he goes to sleep.  But when he’s dreaming in that world, he appears here, in this world.”
            “Where exactly is he?  I mean, you’re talking about dreams like they’re an actual place.”
            “Wish I knew.  Maybe it’s another dimension.  Maybe it’s the collective unconscious.”  Ojeda shrugged.  “Maybe he exists as a pattern of recurring thoughts in all of our minds, a purely conceptual being.  The professor had some ideas, but I never really understood them.  Bottom line though, wherever it is, the walls between there and here are clearly permeable.”
            “So he dreams of beating the crap out of the husband there, and it actually happens here?”
            “He’s the Red King, man, this is his dream.  Matt’s a good guy, but he has issues.  Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that his insomnia started because there were things he saw in his sleep that he was avoiding.  It’s not a surprise that some of his dreams will be violent.”
            “He was protecting me,” Elizabeth whispered.
Chavez tried to wrap his mind around it.  If Ojeda was right, Larkin could wreak havoc in any place, at any time.  And he might have no idea he was doing it.
“All right,” Chavez said.  “How do we stop this?”
Ojeda looked at Elizabeth.  “I have an idea.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 13.1]

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 12.3

            When Chavez ran into the hallway a moment later, gun drawn, he found Elizabeth, quivering and seething, standing over a large man with a poleaxed expression and a bloody nose.
            Staring at her and the man on the floor, Chavez fought to stifle a laugh.  He holstered his pistol, took out his badge, and said, “FBI.  Why don’t you just stay there a minute?”
            The man put his hands up.  “Yeah, okay, dude.  No worries.  Figured you guys would be around sooner or later.”  He slowly brought one hand down to his nose.  “Jeez, lady, you’ve got a good left.”
            “Who are you?”  Chavez asked.  “You can put your hands down.”
            “Hector Ojeda.  One of the professor’s Igors.  At least, I was till I escaped the asylum.  Got a tissue?”
            Bemused, Chavez reached into his pocket, pulled out a white handkerchief, and handed it to the man.  Ojeda pressed it to his nose.
            “I’m Agent Chavez.  This is Elizabeth Wright.  We’re looking for Professor Harte.”
            Ojeda took the white cloth away from his nose, looked at the bright red stain, and sighed.  “He’s gone, dude.  No idea where.”
            “What are you doing here?”
            “Can I stand up?”
            “I wouldn’t advise trying to run away again.”
            “What, and give Gail Grandchamp here another swing?  Don’t worry, no sudden movements.”  Ojeda got to his feet. 
            “So why are you sneaking around?” Chavez repeated.
            “I came here looking for Harte, same as you.  But the lab on campus was cleaned out, so I came here.”
            “How did you wind up inside the house?”
            “Poor judgment?  The door wasn’t locked.  When no one answered the doorbell, I went poking around to see if Harte had left any data on the project behind.”  He shrugged.  “Shouldn’t have bothered.  There’s nothing left; it’s been totally scrubbed.  The hard drive’s been pulled from the computer, there’s nothing but old tax returns and appliance manuals in the file drawers.”
            “Why didn’t you open the door when we knocked?”
            “Didn’t want you to think I’d ransacked the place.”
            “Did you?”
            “Do I look like I’ve got a hard drive tucked in my shorts?  No, man, I’m just trying to help Matt.”
            Elizabeth took a step towards Ojeda at the mention of her brother, and the big man flinched.  Chavez waved her back.
            “Where is Mr. Larkin?”  Chavez asked.  “We’d very much like to speak with him.”
            “What do you mean, where is he?”  Ojeda looked back and forth between the two of them.  “How much do you actually know about what happened?”
            “Not nearly enough.  Perhaps we should go somewhere that we can talk more comfortably?”
            “What, back to the station for a little good cop/bad ninja with your friend?”
            “I was actually thinking about a late dinner.  My car is outside.”
* * *
            Chavez’s car pulled away from the curb in front of Harte’s house, and cruised down the street toward the center of town.
            Half a minute later, a second car backed onto the road, its headlights off.  It, too, turned and headed down the street.
* * *
 “I’ll tell you, the weirdest part about it wasn’t the special effects or the costumes,” said Ojeda, his voice cottony as a result of his swollen nose, a forkful of lemon meringue pie hovering as he spoke.  “It was the way you felt when you were around him.  He’s floating there, in this total dream state, right, all vague and surreal, but somehow you feel that it’s you that’s a dream.  This whole sympathetic abnegation of self sets in.”
“Didn’t you think about calling the police, or talking to someone at the school?”  Chavez asked.
            “Harte said he had it under control.”  Ojeda said around another mouthful.  “Besides, they’d have believed me?  You’re not even sure you believe me.”
            “What makes you say that?”
            “You’ve picked up your coffee every time the story got strange, to hide the expression on your face.  Don’t sweat it, I’d worry if you did accept this story right away.”
            God save me from psychologists, Chavez thought.  He knew it was unfair, since getting inside the minds of witnesses and suspects was so much of what Chavez did himself, but he hated being on the receiving end.  Still, he thought Ojeda was telling the truth, or some version of it.  He didn’t sound like someone making up an outrageous story to get out of trouble, or a paranoid nutjob.  Instead, he sounded relieved.
“I felt like an idiot,” Ojeda was saying.  “All of the studies indicated that Visulex was safe.  I told Matt it would help him.  Then when things started to go wrong, I tried to tell him to quit.  By then I think the drug was affecting his judgment.
            “After the accident, when Harkness froze the project, most of us left – it didn’t seem there was anything left to do.  But I still felt guilty about convincing Matt to be involved, so I came back.  Not sure what I was trying to accomplish.”
The waitress reached over Chavez’s shoulder, and poured more coffee with a quick splash that half filled his cup and half filled the saucer.  Chavez lifted the cup without thinking about it.  It was halfway to his mouth when he looked at it, and put it back down without taking a sip.  The corner of Ojeda’s mouth twitched.
            Chavez turned his attention to Elizabeth.  She hadn’t reacted like he had expected she would.  No anger at hearing a nonsense story about her brother.  No outrage about wasting time while Larkin was still missing.  Instead, she was just listening, rapt.
“You’ve seen it, haven’t you, Elizabeth?” Chavez asked.  Ojeda looked up from his pie.  “You saw what Hector is talking about, the night your husband was attacked.”
            Elizabeth looked at him with horror, and Chavez felt his conscience twitch.  She started to rise from her seat; he waved her back down.  “Elizabeth, please.  You saw your brother that night, didn’t you?”
            “He’s a good person.  You’re going to lock him up.”
            “That’s not likely to convince him,” Ojeda muttered.  Chavez frowned at him and turned back to Elizabeth.
            “It sounds like what your brother needs right now is our help.  We can’t give him that unless we know what’s really going on.  I need you to trust me.  Do you trust me, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth’s eyes roamed over his face.  Please, thought Chavez.  Please see something other than your husband.
* * *

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 12.2

            It was almost dark when they approached Harte’s residence near campus.  It was a nice area, Chavez mused.  When Connecticut had first changed its law, Sam had tried to talk him into moving across the country, waiting out the residency period and getting married.  But life had intervened, as life always tended to do.
            Elizabeth sat quietly in the passenger seat, drawn and withdrawn.  She gave the impression of trying to curl into herself, just another shadow as night fell.  What could have motivated her to drive across the country to see her brother, Chavez wondered.  Mere concern for him wouldn’t have sufficed, not in the state her husband had left her.  What was it she had really seen? 
            He had to be careful.  Too much pressure to talk, and she’d keep withdrawing until she wouldn’t speak at all.  Only a monster like her husband could get anything out of her then, someone who wouldn’t scruple to break her. 
            Chavez felt a flare of disgust toward Douglas Wright.  He had seen too many abusive relationships in his time.  Whatever happened, he would have to see what he could do to keep Elizabeth from going back to that man.  But that was a problem for later.   
            He hoped that by bringing Elizabeth with him, pushing her to assert herself and giving her a role in the investigation, she would eventually volunteer what she knew.  He had told her the truth when he said that he didn’t believe Larkin was responsible (or, at least, solely responsible) for what happened; he had a gut feeling that the boy couldn't be the driving force in something this weird.  There was no question however that Larkin was involved, and he needed to know what Elizabeth was hiding. 
            A second floor light was on in Harte’s surprisingly large house when he eased the car up in front, into the shadowed gap between two street lamps.
            “Well,” he said to Elizabeth, “we’re here.”
* * *
            She trailed behind the FBI agent as he walked up the flagstone path.  Elizabeth couldn’t figure him out.  Agent Chavez frightened her; when he looked at her with those dark, stern eyes, she was certain that he was reading her mind.  She had been sure she was going to jail when he confronted her at the hospital.  But he didn’t arrest her; he didn’t shout at her, or threaten her, or tell her she was worthless. 
            Instead, Chavez was polite.  As they had driven to the doctor’s house, he had asked for her opinions on what they had seen in the hospital ward.  Doug had never asked for her opinion on anything, unless he wanted to hear how great he was after the booze had blinded him to their wreck of a life.  When Doug looked at her, it was with disgust, or dumb lust, or, when she was lucky, indifference. 
            Agent Chavez was also far, far more intelligent than her husband.  Elizabeth herself was not stupid, she would not have survived Doug if she were, but the fact that she was smarter than Doug infuriated him more than anything else. Elizabeth had learned to keep her mind to herself.  She was not used to someone like Chavez, who wasn’t afraid to use his head.  And somehow, the FBI agent seemed most intelligent when he was asking questions, unlike Doug, who wouldn’t ask questions in case he let people know what a fool he was.
            It had taken all of Elizabeth’s strength not to blurt out what had happened on the night Doug was attacked.  The one thing she was certain of, however, was that she was not going to let Matt down again.  It was the only thing that she was certain of, anymore, but it was a certainty nonetheless.  It gave her the will to tell Chavez that she had been asleep and had not seen anything. 
            Elizabeth could tell that Chavez had not believed her, and she suspected that he was letting her tag along in case she gave something away.  But that meant that as long as she kept her mouth shut, she could follow him and maybe learn what had happened to Matt.
            Chavez had stopped now at the foot of a wide stairway leading up to the front door, and was examining a bicycle partially hidden behind a row of ornamental shrubs.  She didn’t see anything special about it.
            “The professor has a visitor,” Chavez said in a hushed tone.
            “Oh...”  Elizabeth kept her voice low too, though she didn’t know why.
            “I don’t think he’d crush his own topiary to hide a bike, do you?  Not when he’s got a perfectly good garage in the back.”
            “I don’t know.”
            “Mmm.  And none of the other lights are on besides the room upstairs...”
            Then Elizabeth understood.  “He wouldn’t have all the lights out if he had a guest, would he?”
            “Maybe, but probably not.  I think perhaps you’d better wait in the car, Mrs. Wright.”
            He stepped up to the front door.  She stood there for a moment, but then she grasped at that stone inside of her and followed him.
            “Please, call me Elizabeth,” she said.  He nodded gravely.
            Then he turned back to the door.  “Look at this,” Chavez whispered, pointing to a set of multiple-choice doorbell buttons with little brass plaques.
            “Which do we choose?”
            “None of the above.”  He pounded on the door with his fist.  They waited, but there was no response.
He tested the large doorknob.  “Not locked,” he said.
            “Don’t you need a warrant or something?”
            “No one came to the door.  Either we’ve got someone inside who isn’t supposed to be here, or someone who might need help.  Exigent circumstances, Elizabeth.”
            He eased open the heavy door, revealing a shadowed hallway.  Yellow light spilled down into the hall from somewhere upstairs.  The house was silent.
            They moved up to the second floor, their footsteps muffled by the lush carpet.  A door stood open onto the upstairs hallway, the source of the light.
            As they approached the open door, Chavez waved her back, then glanced into the room.  “Office,” he mouthed, and went inside.
            Elizabeth exhaled, realizing she’d been holding her breath.  She had expected some huge thug to burst out of the room and kill them both.  She leaned against the wall to catch her breath.
            Elizabeth’s nerves had been strung out for days, keyed to a fever pitch over the past two hours, and stretched to their utmost limit for the last ten minutes.  When a huge figure did in fact charge out of the shadows directly at her, they snapped.  With a scream that was equal parts terror and fury, Elizabeth lashed out with her fist at the man, striking him squarely in the nose.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 12.3]