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The Dreamer's Dreams Escape
A Credencium story
Kaolin Imago Fire
Start at the beginning of the Credencium series
Joshua kicked his heels against the curb, feeling his feet slide around in two weeks of accumulated grime. His heart wasn't in it, today. He didn't want people, but he didn't want to be alone, either. Phoenix had apparently gone on a walkabout, or soul-searching, or whatever it was she did—her crew didn't seem to be clear on that, though he couldn't tell if they were just shining him on. He didn't feel like they entirely trusted him, yet; but he couldn't blame them for that. He didn't entirely trust anyone else, either, except maybe Phoenix. His first night had been a little too traumatic for that; and he worried that even Phoenix had another face, that even she might turn on him. Hadn't she been there, that night? She wouldn't talk about it. To him it all seemed like a bad dream, the start of his adventure.
He was tempted to go up into the hills on a walkabout of his own; but he didn't want to go too far, didn't trust he wouldn't get lost. And he was kind of hungry, smells of fat and vegetables wafting out of the pizza place behind him. He kept hoping he'd feel her hand on his shoulder, pulling him out of his doldrums; he had a bad feeling without her around. She was younger than he was, but came off older, like a big sister. She was the mother of the group, pooling their resources, making them a family. It didn't feel right without her there; it made him miss his own mother, more than he had in years.
It didn't help that he was having a much harder time adjusting than he'd imagined. He wasn't up to asking anyone for favors, not people that he was going to get to know, but having his supplies ganked his first night had him at a disadvantage. And it was colder at night than he'd expected, and noisier. It wasn't like camping, or it was, but the woods were concrete, filled with chittering chimps and strange machines. It had been more than two weeks since he'd had a full night's rest, not to mention the nightmares he'd been having.
He didn't want to think about the nightmares. Every time he let his thoughts drift that direction, it was as if the nightmares were looking back at him, nibbling at the edges of his brain. That night, over and over, and all the parts he couldn't remember. He'd seen Cerb a few times, but couldn't find the balls to approach him; worse than fear, really, almost like there was something in his head keeping him from acting, something outside of himself. Or nestled deep, attacking his self from within. Spots would flash in his vision, precursing a migraine that never came; and his heart would race, his equilibrium shifted. And then Cerb would be gone, and life would speed back up around Joshua, his skin cold and clammy, like the sun had hidden behind a cloud, for a moment, letting the horrors out to play.
Joshua shivered, the sound of rats skittering away out at the edge of his mind. The shiver reminded him he really could use some food, whether or not he was hungry. His body was slowing down, learning to conserve energy, and that meant he was cold more often than not.
Another shadow fell over him, and stuck there. He looked back over his shoulder, and saw John Doe looking down at him, arms crossed, with a bemused smile on his face. "You're not getting any beer money like that, Dreamer."
Joshua wished people would stop calling him Dreamer, but Phoenix had started it, and it seemed to have stuck. "I'd settle for a fat slice of pizza," he groused.
"Beer's cheaper, and better for you, anyway. Need to stay hydrated, you know."
Joshua laughed. "So I've heard you say. I think the pizza they're serving here's got enough grease to keep me hydrated as any beer you've got."
"You could have a point, there. You could have, but you don't. Come on, beer isn't going to buy itself. Face the walk, and look interesting."
"What are you saying?" Joshua joked.
"I'm saying you don't look interesting." John smiled. "And now you're looking pretty dim-witted. That could be a good look for you, though. No wonder you can't get a job, they'll think, let's give the poor kid a break. Maybe he has mental problems. Let them go down that route too far, though, and they'll start to worry. You might be violent. Better to stay away from you, then, they'll think."
Joshua shivered again; maybe he did have mental problems. Who knew what hell those drugs had done to him? Were there drugs that could leave you permanently broken in one go, no physical pain, but mind oozing out your ear like a leaky faucet—metaphorically speaking?
"Come on, I've got your back. You're getting too serious, losing sight of the game."
Joshua sighed, and turned around. Once he was comfortably resting against the trash bin cemented to the ground, and facing the sidewalk, his mood started to lift. Something about all the life walking by him, parading before him, made him feel a little special. They had places they had to be, things they had to do. Things and places that owned them while he was free. And he got to watch them scurry around, day in, day out, like their game was the only one in town. That was John's schtick: the game.
John Doe was a traveler, and wouldn't admit to any other sort of life. He said he'd been a traveler in every life he'd ever had, even past lives back to the Middle Ages, and beyond. John said he was pretty sure he'd been one of the Jews who walked out on the Pharoah. Joshua just smiled, and nodded, at that. There was no harm in letting people believe what they wanted, if they weren't harming other people with it. And who knew, maybe it was true.
John said the game was to experience as much life as you could; and that there were more differences from state to state, and country to country, than you'd ever find across the social and economic strata. More fundamental differences, the kinds that opened your eyes, and your mind, your soul; not things like wealth, and food, and things, but actual being. John had been as far afield as Vietnam and Chile, working on farms or just passing through. If Phoenix was the mother of the group Joshua had fallen into, John Doe was the eccentric uncle, the Willy Wonka, showing up and disappearing for much larger swathes of time.
John sat down beside him, putting his bedroll behind his back as support, and pulling a piece of cardboard from his jacket. He held it up over his head as if announcing a boxing match from the ground, and began to chant, "We need beer! We need beer!"
Joshua laughed again, harder. It never ceased to amaze him that this actually worked, or well enough, anyway. Most heads turned at the spectacle, shook, and moved on; occasionally with a smirk, or honest smile. But enough people went for it that you could have a beer in hand, a forty, an incredibly cheap forty, in a couple of hours.
A student stopped with a bemused look on his face. "You're really going to buy beer with this?" He was juggling some coins in one hand.
John gave him a performer's grin, setting the sign down to talk more comfortably. "Well, my friend here wants some pizza, so I expect we'll arm-wrestle over it once the universe sees fit to answer our prayer."
The student laughed, stumbled forwards for a second, then pushed back against the stream of people elbowing around him. "Some people, huh?"
"All people, all the time," countered John. Joshua just shook his head.
The student smiled. "This is all I had in my pocket." He dropped the coins in front of where John sat.
"We'll count it as a blessing. Dayenu. Though we'll take what's in your wallet, if you're willing to believe it's doing you more harm than it would us."
"I'm not that far around the wheel, friend. Namaste."
John pressed his hands together, and bowed slightly. "Namaste."
Joshua looked at him, quizzically, as the student merged back into the stream of people.
"Dayenu? Wheel? Isn't namaste a yoga thing?"
"See, you need to travel more. Live more. Dayenu is Hebrew; it means, essentially, it would have been enough. The wheel is Samsara, which is Sanskrit, the cycle of birth, and death, and rebirth, slowly leading to enlightenment. Buddhist, mostly. Namaste's also Sanskrit, a blessing. Well, more a salutation. It's polite, anyway. So: thirty-five cents down, and a couple dollars to go. And oh so much more for you to learn…over beer." John held his sign back up, and resumed chanting.
They walked out of the market with a forty between them, already wrapped in a brown paper bag. Joshua couldn't quite get over the incongruity of it all; it seemed so…cliche, except that really was how the world worked, or at least one way it worked. He still didn't like the taste of malt liquor, but he was getting used to it, a little, and it was about as hard a drug as he was up to doing at the moment.
His food woes had been assuaged by another student who had just gone and bought him a slice of pizza. He felt a little weird, like he was taking advantage of them, but at the same time, it was their choice. And if it made them feel better about their lot in life, then so be it. Win, win. John Doe seemed to be wrapped in win, or good luck at any rate. John claimed it was his positive outlook on life, though Joshua wondered if things weren't the other way around.
The food sat heavily in his stomach, warm, but just as greasy as it had smelled, and undercooked, the bread still doughy. It was early in the afternoon, but what Joshua really wished was that he could find someplace warm and quiet to sleep. He'd bought some earplugs a week ago, but they didn't cut out nearly enough; and he worried, still, that they cut out too much. There were violent people out there, among the homeless as well as the homed; for every Samaritan, there was someone else looking for a good time at your expense.
They sat down near the basketball court, where the park was least shaded, and watched a pick-up game run up and down. The air was mostly still, with light eddies stirring debris. The sun shone unimpeded by cloud, warming his skin as the food had warmed his core. The beer was cool, but felt good with the pizza, and fuzzed the cold edges of his mind.
So that was nice, but quiet was another matter entirely. It seemed like there was nowhere in the city that paused for a moment's breath. If it wasn't people walking by, shouts from a block away, horns honking, and sirens rushing past, it was just the slow, erratic thrum of the city itself. Still, he thought he might grow used to it. He hoped he could.
Joshua lay back in the grass, let himself sink into the ground, and closed his eyes. The rhythm of the ball bouncing up and down the court merged with the beating of his heart, and he stretched out, trying to work out the kink in his back from sitting all morning. Maybe he could take a nap, after all. At least he didn't have any more stuff to lose.
Joshua heard himself screaming, as he woke. He was being shaken, roughly, and drew breath to scream again, confused and disoriented.
"Man, calm down, okay? Just…okay? Shh. Shhhhhh!"
The shaking stopped, and Joshua bit his scream back. He was breathing heavily, a cold sweat making his clothes damp in the even-colder air. So he'd managed to sleep, at least. More nightmares, though.
It wasn't dark out, yet, but the sun had disappeared below the horizon of the city's buildings, its rays bouncing up into the atmosphere, lending a surreal glow to everything while stealing away color.
"Yeah, man. J.D. said you needed looking after."
Joshua tried to fit that into his head, but there were still too many images from the party, images that couldn't have been: tentacles dancing around pillars of stone, green ichor seeping out from the skin of a hundred sacrifices. Phoenix, with a halo like the golden dawn raising from her, trying to hold the horrors at bay but cracking under their indomitable pressure.
He could almost make out a hint of those rays coming from the north, from campus. "Has…has Phoenix been around any?"
"Naw, man. You know she's out. She'll be back, though. Never more than a few days when she doesn't say."
"Right. I'm…." He looked around; people were looking at them, but most of them were at least trying not to look like they were looking. "I'm good. Thanks for pulling me out of that, though."
"Wasn't sure I should, til you started screaming. Don't want to mess with the Dreamer's dreams. But you'd been thrashing a bit, restless dreaming, for a while."
"Well, thanks, still. I…I think I'm doing okay, now." Joshua squinted and the ray of light held strong while the rest of the world dimmed. "I think."
"You sure, man? I mean, you seem, like, disoriented."
"No, really. I'm good. I just need to walk, some."
"Alright then. Don't go dreaming any strange places."
"They're all strange places, I think John would say."
Spike laughed. "Alright, you're doing well enough. I'll see you when I see you."
"If not sooner." Joshua smiled, and stood up, brushing himself off. A tremor ran down his body, reminding him how cold he was, now. "Yeah, I need to get moving."
He squinted his eyes again, marking where the strange light seemed to be coming from, and worked towards it, wishing he could just cut through yards. Berkeley was too dense for that, though. Even pedestrians had to follow the blocks everything was cut into, at least off-campus, city-proper.
Every few minutes, he'd squint his eyes, adjust course. Soon enough he was on campus, and the light seemed brighter, though more diffuse, less directional. He could almost hear Phoenix's voice, her laughter; her…concern? She was arguing with someone, in his head, but nobody he knew. She didn't know he was there. He didn't think he really was there, wondered what it was that he was hearing.
He wandered almost aimlessly, trying to figure out where the light was coming from, but it seemed to be coming from everywhere after a certain point; Joshua tried triangulating the ray from the west side of campus, but he couldn't see where it was coming from, past a few buildings. And again when he moved towards it, it spread out. To the best of his estimation, it could be coming from anywhere in a square quarter mile. And it seemed to be fading with the sun.
But in the dream, it had been coming from her. It had been her. She had to be near, and it was eating him up that he couldn't find her. At last, after the sun's last gasp, he sat down under a street light, and began to sketch idly in the loose dirt. He'd failed her. He didn't know how, but something had been lost. He was sure of it.
He hadn't been able to save his own mother; he didn't know if he could have, could have somehow made her life better, been a better son. Or just kept her closer, so that she hadn't gone out for that one last drive to cool off. Tears came unbidden, falling fat on the ground before him. She'd probably been crying, then, too. She probably just hadn't seen the turn through her tears. And all he could console himself with was that her death was swift; they'd told him that. And that she wouldn't have to suffer the abuse of his dad anymore.
Why? Why was he so sure that Phoenix was in trouble? And how had he gotten to be so attached to her, so quickly? Why was his mother's death finally hitting him so hard? The rage burned in his chest, and he expelled it in one wild scream up into the sky; he moved to kick the drawing he'd been making, and stopped.
He looked at it more closely, surprised to see it was anything but just doodles. He'd drawn Phoenix, halo and all. And he'd drawn her in a building, odd squiggles all around. And that—a tarot symbol, he thought. The tower? She wasn't in the tower, but she was near it. Or did that mean destruction?
He had to find John Doe, and Spike, and the rest of them. They had to listen to him. They had to help him find her.
Story and image by Kaolin Imago Fire, Copyright 2011