by Evan Anderson Bliss
Jacob was walking down a street. It was a typical mid-Spring midday; the sun was over his shoulder and there was enough of a breeze that his sweatshirt was zipped up. His best friend Ayden was walking one step behind him, and they had just passed the new wine bar that had just opened. The one with the tiny tables on the sidewalk.
He recognized this dream. Once they turned the corner, Rachel and Nadine would be walking out of the corner store. The two pairs would avoid each other as they passed, but Jacob would turn around to sneak a peek at Rachel as they walked away. Nadine would catch him in the corner of her eye. Nadine would say something to Rachel, and Rachel would turn, look him up and down, and laugh.
The laugh was the worst part. It had none of the bubbly sparklyness that carried her laugh around the circle of friends in the hallway during passing periods. This laugh was shrill and grating; it was crystal clear that it was a laugh aimed at Jacob, not shared between friends.
This time would be different.
They turned the corner and saw the door start to open. Jacob concentrated and saw the edges of his vision start to blur. The girls walked out of the store, just like always. They turned up the street and walked towards Jacob and Ayden just like always. But this time, they stopped.
“Hey, what’s up?” Jacob stuttered out, as they stood just a few feet apart.
“Ummm… nothing really. What are you up to?” Rachel responded after a brief pause. Controlling the dream was harder than Jacob was planning for, but there was only one way to get better.
“Hey Rachel, let’s hold hands and make out or something,” Jacob blurted out, while simultaneously cringing inwardly. Even in his dreams, he was going to miss his shot. Typical. Classic Jacob.
“Sure!” Rachel laughed the effervescent laugh of acceptance and reached out to pull him into her arms. It was working!
He felt her hands on his shoulders. He felt them pull him in. If only Mr. Gibbs could see this…
The scene blurred from the edges inwards. In an instant, Jacob was in his seat in the back of Mr. Gibbs 4th hour AP Anatomy course. Mr. Gibbs was in the front, and he was pointing at his notes on the brain, which were neatly printed on the rolling whiteboards behind him.
They had been on the brain for a week, and they were on day two of the subconscious. Jacob was sitting back in his seat, just like he had been about three weeks ago.
“…and some people can do more than remember their dreams, they can control some of them.” Mr. Gibbs had been in the middle of boring his students out of their minds again, ironic due to the subject matter. But this idea stuck with Jacob through class and beyond.
After three increasingly refined failures searching on his phone at lunch, Jacob hit on the phrase lucid dreaming, and he soaked up page after page of content. It seemed simple enough. Record your dreams when you wake up and you get better at remembering them more often. Keep it up and you end up getting more control over your dreams over time.
Jacob doubted that he was getting exactly what Mr. Gibbs had intended from that lecture, but he was motivated. The old composition notebook from Ms. Nagle’s English class last year was rebranded J’s Dream Journal in highlighter and did not leave the side of his bed.
It was slow going at first; dreams are flighty, weightless things and his first notes were incomplete at best. They got more detailed after a week, and Jacob found he had to either eat a faster breakfast, or get up earlier to write. He chose to do both.
Jacob woke up and immediately opened the journal. He recorded the familiar beginning, the success of talking to Rachel, and the disappointing losing focus and ending up in Mr. Gibbs room. He walked downstairs a few minutes later with a new spring in his step, grabbed his breakfast and lunch, and walked to the bus stop eager to get back home and try again.
The bell rang and Jacob followed the stream of kids out of Mr. Gibbs room and into the hallway. He almost always passed Rachel and her friends in the hall on his way to Civics, and there they were.
“It was a dream. Don’t stare. We can talk tonight,” Jacob muttered to himself. He slowed down, just a bit, to hear her laugh again. Like in the dream, the good one. There it was. Nadine had said something; he didn’t catch it. And she laughed. A warm familiarity flowed over him as he heard it. She laughed like that with him just a few hours ago.
Jacob felt the shoulder through his backpack as it collided with him and shoved him forward. He felt his left foot hook onto the back of his right, and he was down on the tile floor before he fully got his hands up to brace himself.
His knee was throbbing. His hip and side had been mostly insulated by the backpack. The laughter coming from above and in front of him cut through all of it. It was the harsh, derisive laughter again. The other voices laughing or offering insincere condolences faded into the background, but Rachel’s enveloped him and strangled the air out of his chest.
He accepted one of the outstretched hands, got to his feet, and brushed off his backpack.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. All good here,” he stammered. He casually snuck a look in Rachel’s direction. She had already turned back to her circle of friends. The indifference only dug the knifeblade of her laughter deeper as Jacob walked off to class.
Jacob was on the bus to the aquarium. This was a common dream that was already in the journal a few times. He was at the middle of the bus, sharing a bench seat with Randy. Randy was nice enough, and decent enough to partner with in class, but he was large, and the seat was mostly his.
Jacob watched the edges of the dream crinkle up as he stood up. It had never occurred to him to stand up before, even though the bus never got to the aquarium before he woke up.
He swayed his way up the center aisle towards Rachel; the physics of the dream were spot on. He approached her back as she swayed with the bus and talked to another one of her friends.
“Hey Rachel, I think your laugh is the best. Want to hear a joke?” Jacob said as she turned at the sound of his voice.
“Sure,” Rachel replied. She was already giggling as she leaned forward to hear him.
Jacob leaned forward just as the bus changed lanes. Jacob looked on helplessly as the edges of the bus shimmered inwards and were replaced with the hallway. He was on his side, and the laughter was surrounding him again. Each titter cut like a razor swirling around him. He struggled to get up, but the floor kept adjusting to keep him down.
He woke up on his side, scrabbling to get up. It all went into the journal.
Jacob kept his head down after Mr. Gibbs’ class and walked to Civics. The girls were circled in the hallway as they always were, talking about what sounded like Nadine getting her license. This had been a topic on and off since she got her permit and hit a parked car the next day. Apparently, she had barely passed the behind the wheel test over the weekend and had managed to not hit anything since.
Jacob ached to jump in and offer his own compliments to the chorus among the circle of girls. He held his tongue. He had time to reflect on his experiments during Mr. Gibbs’ class and had reached a few conclusions. He had more control over himself in his dreams, but the scenarios were still based on recent events. He would not risk another embarrassment that might hijack tonight’s dreams.
He was on the bus again. He stood up and stagger-walked his way forward. He was almost to Rachel when the bus jerked hard to the side. Jacob rebounded off the thin padding on the iron bar of the seatback, onto the side of Nicole Bowers’s lap, and ended up partially eating his left knee on the floor.
A background murmur of excited noise rose up as the mostly faceless students all crowded towards the front right side of the bus. Jacob picked himself up and directed the students out of his path. He reached the front and saw the crumpled hood of a white SUV sticking out of the slightly dented engine of the bus.
The door on the SUV opened and a bloodied leg planted itself on the pavement, followed by an equally red dappled hand on the top of the doorframe. Nadine struggled out of the car and looked around dazed. Her gaze settled on the hood of her car, and she threw her head back laughing. It was Rachel’s laugh. The grating, bad laugh that only got louder and as Nadine turned to stare directly at Jacob.
The laugh surrounded Jacob and pushed him to the floor. Instead of the compacted rubber of the bus, Jacob hit tiles and was back in the hallway. He looked up at the sea of laughing faces from the day before yesterday, each hurling Rachel’s laugh down on him from above.
Jacob twisted and turned over to stand, but the laughter held him down. Without touching him, the wall of noise stopped him from planting a hand or foot and getting steady.
A hand grabbed him, another cupped his shoulder, and together they pulled him up. The voices faded away by the time Jacob was back on his feet.
Jacob looked around at the now empty hallway and tried to regain control. He was still dreaming, but nothing was wavering. Also, nothing was happening. The hallway was still and quiet, almost as if it was waiting. Jacob suddenly remembered that he had a hand, and it was still being held by something. Jacob looked down and, following his arm, ended up looking at an entirely new face.
There were several unsettling things about the person in front of him that competed for Jacob’s attention. The arm was attached to a teenaged boy in a crisp, new suit, but the suit looked like a style his grandfather would be wearing in an old picture on the mantle. Jacob tried not to stare as different parts of the person’s face moved out of sync with each other. If the eyes blinked, the hair was frozen in place; when he opened his mouth to speak, everything above his nose was unnaturally still. Finally, there was his overall look. Jacob wasn’t looking in a mirror when he looked at him, but there were enough similarities to consider that this person might be a cousin.
“Jacob, this isn’t going exactly how you planned. Is it?” The person asked, “Control is never easy. Desires compete with other distractions, and everything ends up all muddled.” Jacob heard the words, but was stuck on the realization that when the person’s mouth was moving, nothing else was. Once he stopped talking, he resumed blinking and all of the other microfidgets that people do.
“Jacob, what if you could skip this tedious baby step and jump right into the big leagues? Get real power, over real people?” His mouth closed, and his hand released Jacob’s. It idly waved next to him, and an unmoving Rachel appeared, standing next to him. “With time and effort, you could exercise complete control over her, or anyone else your fancies turn to… But it would be hollow,” His hand flicked towards her, and Rachel popped and retreated like a punctured bubble; vanishing into nothingness.
Jacob reached out and tried to bring her back. The image wavered back into the hall for a moment; it reached out for Jacob before dissolving again.
“It would be hollow, Jacob,” they repeated. “I can help you gain mastery of more substantial things. You could achieve whatever you dream, but in real life. Wouldn’t it be nice to get what you want for once?”
The hallway shimmered and the walls of lockers dissolved into the air. They were outside, on a tile balcony. Jacob looked down on a lower deck with a pool, and continued down to the waves crashing against the rocks. Without any confirmation, Jacob knew that this was all his. The warm breeze ruffled his hair as he took it all in. It was a perfect distillation of every want Jacob had ever momentarily had.
“The problem is that most people are really afraid of getting what they want. They think that they will find the experience hollow, or that there is some kind of monkey’s paw situation,” the voice opined behind him, as Jacob slowly turned and collected the details around him. “It’s really very simple,” Jacob turned as he heard a door open, “a person just needs to be specific in what they want.”
The door opened and out walked Rachel, wearing the bikini that Jacob saw on the cover of Maxim last month. Jacob stopped and stared. It was all so clear now.
“How can I do all this? Just want it? I’ve always wanted it, and she doesn’t want anything to do with me,” Jacob stammered.
Jacob tried to turn to face the man, but his focus was pulled to Rachel, who was now seated in front of the stone half-wall overlooking the ocean. It was an idyllic scene, and every time he managed to turn himself away, his gaze slipped off of the seemingly featureless man and back to Rachel. From the corner of his eye, Jacob thought he could make out a smile.
“She could want everything to do with you. Everyone could have exactly what they want, as long as we can come to an agreement. For the life you want, I only ask for your life after you are done with it. You will be fully satisfied when you are alive, and we have uses for your life when it is over.” The man stepped slightly forward, almost, but not quite, intruding on the scene in front of Jacob.
He held out his hand, and Jacob felt its pull. His hand was already reaching out when he processed what the man had said.
“Wait, if my life is over, what am I giving you?” Jacob tried to focus, but felt a constant tug towards the house and view and Rachel.
“It’s nothing to you, but something for me,” the man said over Jacob’s shoulder. “When you are done with your life, it continues, but not in a way that is too useful to you. You have had your time, and you become a part of something much bigger. I would like to ensure that your life assists me… after you have the life you want. Most people don’t get the choice.”
His hand hung in the air. Jacob thought for a moment, looked at Rachel, took the hand, and shook it.
Jacob woke up with a jerk. He reached for his journal out of habit, and he was hit with two almost simultaneous waves of emotion as his hand grabbed his pencil.
First, a deep sense of unease began to radiate from his stomach. It felt different than what Jacob had started calling the dream residue that had become more common since he had started documenting his dreams. He was used to some carryover from dreams as he woke, but this felt deeper.
Before he could reflect too closely, he felt a wave of what he best compared to confidence. The syrupy, warm feeling of knowing what would be around the corner spread over Jacob as he finished writing the dream down.
He wanted eggs, and there were eggs in the pan as he walked downstairs. It was a bit unusual for a Wednesday, but not impossible that his mother had woken up early.
“Hey Mom, what got you up early today?” Jacob asked, as he sat down to two eggs freshly plated and slid in front of him.
“I don’t know. I just woke up and thought that we should all start our day off strong,” his mom smiled. “After all, you are my special little guy! Off to the bus stop; you slept in a bit today.”
He was late out of the door, but so was the bus. It rounded the corner down the street as Jacob arrived. As he sat down in a miraculously unstained seat, he felt a warm surge of confidence and tried to track down where it came from. The day was off to a solid start, but he kept circling back to his mother. She had called him her “special little guy.” She had not called him that in at least two years.
As the bus took him to school, he took a trip down memory lane, back to when he was his mother’s special little guy. He had felt better about himself back then. He could take on anything just a few years ago; what had happened?
Maybe that was the point of the dreams that were slowly filling up his journal. He had been focused on controlling his dreams, and he had not given much thought to what his dreams could mean. Maybe all of these dreams were pointing him towards recapturing that confidence that he had lost. He was not getting what he wanted in his dreams because he was hesitating and not reaching for what he wanted. It could not really be that simple, but another one of Mom’s old phrases came back to him, “Don’t get in your own way. Just tell me what you want.” That was usually on smaller topics, like which snack he wanted, but it could apply now. When would it have stopped applying?
He stepped off of the bus and walked into school feeling like he had woken up on the right side of the bed for the first time in so long he had forgotten that he had been doing it wrong. There was nothing to it; just take the first step and the rest would be a clear path to all his desires.
Jacob looked down the hallway. There were the circle of girls with Rachel as their centerpiece. He slowed down, took a deep breath, and took that first step.
As he got closer, Rachel and Nadine broke off from the group and started walking towards him. The bell was about to ring, so they must be headed towards their first hour English class. Jacob adjusted his approach.
Jacob only had seconds to mull over his options. What would he say or do to start off? He knew where he wanted it to end, but the first line was tricky. He started to panic inwardly and lost track of his approach.
He snapped back into reality about one step from walking into Nadine.
“Hey! I’m not a parked car; don’t hit me!” he blurted. His heart sank into his stomach as he processed what he had just said. It did not sound smooth at all, and he did not know where to go next. He braced for the dismissal that had to be coming.
Instead, beautiful, twinkling laughter was spilling out of Rachel’s mouth. Nadine had already opened her mouth for an undoubtedly devastating comeback, but it was cut off when she turned and stared at Rachel.
“Oh my god, Jacob!” Rachel giggled, looking at Nadine, “She is so bad at driving. Aren’t you going to English? We shouldn’t be late.” Rachel stepped passed Nadine, gently pushed Jacob around by the shoulder, and started walking down the hallway towards their classes. Jacob took a jerky step to follow her once he realized what had just happened. He never looked back, but he could feel Nadine standing in shock.
Rachel was waiting for him when he walked out of his English class 47 minutes later. Jacob did a double take as her hand found his. He felt his heartbeat start to race as she squeezed his hand and led him down the hallway.
“Let’s skip second hour and get a coffee or something. There’s something new about you, and I want to know what it is,” Rachel said as she led them towards the nearest door outside. They walked past the slightly smaller circle of girls on their way out, and Jacob thought he saw more than a few eyes widen as they passed.
J’s Dream Journal sat unopened on the corner of his nightstand. It was getting close to falling off the edge after a few weeks of neglect and half awake fumbling for other trivial items nearby. Like the journal, Jacob had stopped tending to his dreams. With the waking world living up to his desires, his dreams had been allowed to wander like he assumed everyone else’s did.
Jacob and Rachel had been inseparable. When they were not in class, and a few times when they should have been, they were somewhere, together, getting to know each other better.
There had been a whirlwind of milestones: first date, first kiss, first foolin around. No first argument yet. Rachel was perfectly in tune with Jacob’s mood. When Jacob aced the Bio exam, she was outside the classroom door with hugs ready. Last week, she showed up with the haircut that Jacob had liked the year before.
The next milestone was the weekend trip. It wasn’t far, but that was not the point. There was a river with some nice beaches and trails only an hour outside of town, and the weather was going to be unseasonably perfect. Jacob had planned it all, and it was quickly approaching. It turned out that Nadine’s big birthday party was the same weekend. Jacob had expected some pushback, but Rachel had not even brought up changing times. Nadine had been an easier conversation as well. She had gracefully accepted their alternate plans and made nothing of it. Perhaps, Jacob thought, Nadine’s car getting returned from the body shop had put her in a good mood that day. Jacob wasn’t going to give it any more thought than Nadine, and had continued planning their trip.
Jacob and Rachel were walking down the street. The mid-Spring sun was shining over their shoulders and the breeze was just enough that they had zipped up their matching sweatshirts. There was not much left to plan, but they were filling in unnecessary details as they walked. The topics wandered as they did. There were an impossible number of things that they wanted to do now that they had found each other.
They approached, greeted, and passed Ayden, Jacob’s friend that he had been meaning to text. They promised to do it and hang out soon. Jacob turned his attention back to Rachel, who was pulling him along.
As Jacob’s head turned, he heard a split second of tires squealing and caught a flash of green before it felt like Rachel pushed into his side.
Just as quickly, Rachel’s touch was missing, and Jacob was standing inside the crumpled up hood of a familiar green car. This should upset or at least confuse him, but Jacob instead looked over towards the wall.
There, pressed in between the car and the wall, were a tangle of arms, hair, clothes, and blood. More blood that he expected considering how much was out of sight under the hood. Like a television playing in another room, Jacob thought he heard Ayden scream. Jacob ignored it and turned around to face the car.
Fighting with the airbag in the driver’s seat was a panicked Nadine. In the passenger’s seat, with no airbag to contend with, was a familiar figure in the outdated suit.
“It looks like you had fun while it lasted,” he said through the shattered windshield. He looked over Jacob’s shoulder. “She was nice, wasn’t she?”
Jacob turned back around to look at the end of his life. With effort, he could focus well enough to distinguish parts of Rachel and himself. Jacob took it in with a fading sense of interest. It felt like so long ago that he had been walking down this street with Rachel at his side.
“Yes. It looked like you were really hitting your stride, but word came down to marshall the forces. Plans are in motion and all that. It’s time to take your place in the eternal order of all things. Hop in.” Jacob turned at the direction and saw that he was now in front of the car instead of partially in the hood. Nadine and the air bag were gone, and the young man was in her place. The seat next to him was now empty, and Jacob was already reaching for the door handle when he realized he was moving.
Jacob sat down and closed the door. As he looked up and out through the windshield, there was only open road in front of them.