Category Archives: Novella

letters to my father part 3

No, there was no way. She wouldn’t do something like this. This spoiled the mystery. This took all the fun out of the cat and mouse game we were playing. Would she? This was really playful and sneaky, which was like her.

“Hello?” The voice on the end said. “Is anybody there?”

“Uh, yes, I’m calling about a dance lesson.” I said.

“Right, I’ve been expecting you. You are looking into ballroom right?” She’s been expecting me!

“Sure, ballroom sounds good.” I said. She’s been expecting me huh? I’ll play along. “So how long have you been expecting me?” I asked.

“About an hour.” She responded. Only an hour? That couldn’t be right. I’d been reading the letters for about three months now.

“An hour?” I ask, hoping that I had misheard. I knew my hearing was just fine, but I wanted something to pick up my sinking spirits.

“Yeah, an hour.” She responded. “Your friend called about an hour ago to reserve you a spot in our upcoming class this Saturday. It’s a good thing to, because that class is filling up quickly.” My hopes shot back up.

“This friend, did she give a name? First and last please.” Wait, asking for first and last names was kind of creepy, even if this person was a friend. “Uh, I have trouble keeping my friends straight.” I added. It was true enough. I had a hard time keeping up with old friends.

“She didn’t give a first and last name.” Great, now I was just going to have to wonder if it was my Sarah or not. “She just said if you asked for her name to call her ‘little stinker’. So you could say little is her first and stinker is her last.”

It was her! Sarah could travel back here, that meant she was probably out there right now, or she could be here right now watching me. Our game of hide and seek suddenly had new energy. She was here. She was actually here.

“Hello? Are you there? Sir, if there’s a better time for you to make this call we are open for a few more hours.” The patience of the lady who owned the dance studio was wearing thin.

“I’m sorry, no that is just fine. She plays these little games with me.”

“That’s adorable sir.” Said the studio owner in a voice that indicated she didn’t think anything about this conversation was adorable.

“She’s my little stinker.” She’s going to wonder where her nickname comes from when she’s a kid. It’ll be a great story to tell her. “Hey, did she sign up for the class? Or reserve an extra seat?

“No sir, it’ll just be you. You’ve just taken the last spot, and I happen to know the rest of the people taking the class. None of them answers to ‘little stinker’.” I guess it wouldn’t have been her style to show up herself. If she was going to she probably would have either said so in the letter, or given me no warning at all. Oh well, at least I know she’s here.

“Sir, are you signing up for the class or not?” The voice was now bordering on the impolite.

“Yes, yes, of course. When is it?” A few minutes later she had some credit card information, and I had information on when and where the class will be held.

During my nightly campfire I think about Sarah’s bait and switch with the dance studio. I wondered what I would do when we first met. If it was when she was a baby, when her mother gave her life, then it would probably me the ‘oh my gosh this is my kid’ stuff that other parents went through, but if we ran into each other now, when she was an adult, what would I do?

Could I ground her? She was putting me threw a loop, and I was still the parent, even if she had the upper hand, so I should be able to ground her. Did adult children ever get grounded? I guess once they moved out of the house you no longer had that power over them.

I take a pack of hot dogs and skewer a few, then prop up the skewers next to the fire. It took a while, but I think I had finally figured out the right distance from the fire and time to cook for hot dogs. I brought some buns, and munched on some baby carrots while I mused over my daughter. I couldn’t wait until I could read the next letter. When I was reading a letter from her, it was almost like talking to her.

I think when we meet I might do some sort of over the top ‘I can’t believe how much you’ve been yanking my chain’, but I’d probably calm down and want to talk about time travel instead. I hoped she managed it through some kind of future technology, and not through some sort of biological ability she had. I wanted to be able to come back with her. I could go see the coliseum in Rome, or the pyramids at Giza when they were actually being built.

We would have so much time to do things together, and I could be the one showing her how things work. Who knows, maybe I had taught her what she was now teaching me.

I take the hot dogs off the fire, put one in a bun, and take a bite. They are just right, and I’m saddened when I’ve eaten them all and my meal is at an end.

That reminds me of the letters. I’m halfway through, and the last two are going to be months or years apart. Will we just stop our cross temporal conversation when the letters end? What was going to happen during the long spaces in between the last two? I’m no longer as eager as I was to open the next letter, because it meant the end of our time together was drawing to a close.

I kick some dirt onto the fire to douse it, and slip into my tent. Unpleasant thoughts like that can wait until tomorrow.

Friday passed well for me, most days did. My relationship with my daughter was pleasant, sleeping outside made it a lot easier to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and my diet had become very manageable now that I had reached my target weight. My coworkers took notice of my much more friendly nature and good health. When it got out that I was going to start learning how to dance, some of my female coworkers even went so far as to mention that they had a few unattached female friends who simply loved dancing. I remembered my daughter’s plead about other women, and politely pretended not to understand what they were implying.

When I got home I ate and slept well, as usual, and set off for the dance lesson in good spirits when I woke up.

On the drive to the studio I thought about all the dance scenes I had witnessed in movies. Not the club scenes where there was no discernable reason or rhyme to the movements of the dancers, but the ordered dance scenes that were found in older movies. Great swathes of people executing choreographed and though out moves.

I understood ballroom wasn’t some spontaneous display of random movements, but it was more like a team sport where there practiced moves and plays that were executed in tandem. It was sort of a team sport where your partner was both a team mate and an opponent.

I arrived at the studio to find my grand thoughts of ball rooms dashed. In my head, the dancers had all been young men and women about my own age, all clad in gowns and suits. This was a foolish thought firstly because I was wearing a t shirt and jeans myself, and secondly because if I had thought about the matter more I would have realized everyone I knew who actually had some knowledge about dancing was much older than me. So I was rather shocked that the dance studio was filled with primarily older women. Any one of which could have been my mom’s mom, and all of which were as plainly dressed as me.

So this was my Sarah approved of this place, there was no way I could possibly get any of these ladies on a date. Once again amazed that my daughter had played a prank on me, and I had fallen for it, I signed in and joined the others.

The lesson started off with introductions from Sarah the instructor, who noted with some displeasure that I was present. It was awkward being at least twenty years younger than everyone else. Were all dance studios like this? How did young people learn to dance if they had no one there own age to dance with. No wonder my female coworkers had been so eager about me learning to dance, I must be the only person under fifty they had heard of who had knew how to do it.

The instructor split us off into two groups, male and female, and began teaching us a basic step. It was a simple step. You put one foot behind the other, lifted the front foot up, put it down, and then stepped in place with first your right foot, then your left foot. Back, front, left right, it was an easy sequence, but it took about half an hour to do it to a beat. You had to listen to the music and feel for the rhythm of the song. It wasn’t a hard task, and it showed how much of a beginner I was that it took me a half hour to do it. One of the few older gentlemen who had showed up told me not to worry about it, all young people had a lot of trouble finding the right beat in music.

I became somewhat envious of these older gentlemen as the teacher began to move the groups together and partner people up. There was an excess of women, so some of them had to wait their turn for a male partner. At this point the lesson became much more bearable. I wasn’t stepping on my feet anymore, and the older ladies were very appreciative of me.

“Oh don’t worry about it dear, just lift your hand a little higher, that’s it. See how easy that was?” One lady told me as we were learning how to spin our partners. She was by no means the exception either, the nice little old ladies were very enthusiastic about showing me lots of tips and tricks. Whenever I had got the hang of a move, and was waiting on the instructor to show us the next one, the ladies were kind enough to show me new moves of their own, or to practice some moves from earlier in the lesson. It was a wonder these women needed any lessons at all, they seemed to have already mastered everything the instructor showed us.

The whole session was about two hours long, and by the end of it, thanks to the wonderful ladies who took the time to educate a complete beginner, I could fumble my way through about thirty seconds of music without repeating a move. I also left with a new appreciation for the older generation. They knew some very useful stuff. The next time I was around an older relative I’d have to pick their mind and see what other knowledge I could benefit from.

It isn’t until I get home that I remember there’s something written on the back of the letter. After making myself a few BLT sandwhiches and grabbing an apple I pull it out and flip it over to read what’s on the back.

Are you always going to forget about your family like this?” I slap my forehead. Of course, I had forgotten about Grace. I had been so focused on learning to dance that she had completely slipped my mind.

I whip out my phone and dial her number.

“Hello?” She says. “Big brother is that you?” She calls me big brother like she’s missed hearing from me. It stings a little that she’s automatically fond of me.

“Hey Grace, how’s it going?” I ask, opting for a standard conversational question.

“Pretty good, what’s up?” She sounded perky.

“Not much, I just got back from a dance lesson and was wondering if you wanted to learn some basics with me.” Her response is rapid and strong.

“Absolutely! I love dancing, what kind are you learning?” She asks. I can imagine her crossing her fingers and hoping its ballroom.

“Ballroom, it’s pretty interesting, are you home today?” She doesn’t quite manage to hide the squeak in her voice. She sounds a lot like how I imagine my daughter sounds like.

“Yeah, are you coming over?” My family lives less than an hour’s drive from me. It won’t take long at all to hop in my car and drive.

“Sure am, I gotta take care of some things then I’ll be right over.”

“Awesome! Cya in a few big brother!” She hangs up the phone and I bolt down my meal before hopping in the shower. I had worked up a sweat learning to dance and was in need of a good rinsing down.

I have some time to think on the highways between our two houses. I use it to review everything I know about my younger sister. There isn’t much.

I think she’s interested in something artsy, maybe singing? I’m pretty sure she’s gotten into an out of state college, and I had a vague recollection of her having a boyfriend. I rack my brain for favorite movies, books, or TV shows, and come up with nothing.

When I pull into my parent’s driveway I’m nervous. This girl was just about a stranger to me, and she held me high regard. I felt like I was on a tall tower and that if I said the wrong word it could crush her. I resolve not to express any negative opinions until I know what she likes so that I avoid stepping on her feelings.

I ring the doorbell and then wring my hands. She answers it so fast that she must’ve been waiting next to the door.

“Hey big brother!” She exclaims, wrapping me in a forceful hug.

“Oh, hey sis.” I say, awkwardly hugging back. “You uh, ready to dance?” I ask.

“Totally! The parents moved a bunch of furniture out of the way in the living room so we can practice. Our two younger brothers won’t be back from softball practice for a few hours so we’ve got time. Come on in!” she leads me inside and downstairs to the living room. My parents are in the kitchen, I wave to them as we pass by. Not sure if I should stop and talk to them. They wave back, and them I’m past the kitchen and we’re in the living room.

“So, how does this work?” She asks. “I got a nice long skirt that’ll swish when you spin me.” She spins on her heel and her skirt arches outward, flowing gracefully around her. I make a mental note to ask about her boyfriend and make sure to threaten his life the next time I see him.

“Looks pretty sis. How’s um, Bryan?” I ask, trying to remember the kid’s name.

“Blake.” She responds, stopping her spin and looking somewhat deflated. “We broke up four months ago.”

“Oh.” I say. “Want to learn the basic step?” I ask.

“Sure!” She says, brightening back up. “How does it work?” I open a playlist on my phone of appropriate music to dance to, and we start off with the basic step.

She learns much more quickly than I did. In only about ten minutes she’s got it down, and can rapidly pick up the beat to any song I put on.

“That’s good sis, now let’s do some of those spins you were talking about.” She claps her hands, and I’m embarrassed with how easily she takes to spinning. It’s like she had come preprogrammed with dance knowledge. We work through every move I learned in half the time it took me to pick it up. This must be why there were so many more women than men at the dance class. Dancing seemed to come more naturally to women.

“I hate to say this sis, but that’s all I know.” I’m forced to say after about an hour. She pouts and says.

“Really, can we learn some more? There’s got to be stuff like this on youtube.” She has a point, and I do need to learn more moves. I can only go for about thirty seconds, and most songs I know last 3 or 4 minutes. I’d like to know at least one song’s worth of moves, if not several.

“That’s a good idea. I say.” Before I can even consent she pulls up a video on her phone.

“You were planning on learning new moves before I even showed up weren’t you?” I asked Grace. She blushed and nodded.

“I really want to learn this one.” She shows me the video on her phone, and that starts several hours of us learning new moves together. She takes to it like a fish to water, and by the time we finish she’s learning her part, and then teaching me my part. We master enough moves to go through one full song, and can do small changes to the moves to get through a second.

Our improvised dancing lesson turns into a ‘have you seen this ridiculous internet video’ contest. Our parents come in at some point and feed us dinner. The sun begins to set just as we start watching a spoof trailer for a movie that came out yesterday. I should get going. It’s going to be past dark by the time I get home as it is.

“Hey, I actually really want to see this. I think there’s a show in about an hour. Want to go check it out?” Grace asks. That’s an hour until the movie starts, two hours for the movie, and then an hour to get home and get settled. That’s four hours past dark, and it’s been a non-stop day.

“I don’t know Grace. It’ll be real late by the time I get home and I’m really tired.” Grace stops the video.

“Yeah, okay, I get it.” She says.

“We’ll go some other time.” I tell her. She nods again, but doesn’t open her mouth.

“When will I see you again?” She asks. I want to tell her tomorrow, but I’m going to need a day to relax before work, and then there was the next letter. There was no telling what Sarah was going to ask me to do in it. I couldn’t make plans before then.

“I don’t know.” She nodded again.

“Yeah sure, okay.” She says. No we’re just sitting around looking at a phone. It’s definitely time to leave.

“So, I’m going to head out. See you around?” She shrugs.

“I’m not so sure. I leave for college at the end of the summer.” That’s only two months away, and there were a lot of letters between now and then.

“Well, bye.” I say. Grace doesn’t respond.

I hadn’t done anything wrong. I tell myself when I get home. My daughter needed me to be ready for whatever she could throw at me. I needed to focus on her first, and then I could make some time for family. It wasn’t like Grace was going to drop off the face of the planet when she went to college. She would still have an internet connection and a phone. We would still keep up.

‘Like you’ve been keeping up the last six months?’ A little voice in my head points out. I can’t think of a response to that. Unlike Friday, Sunday is very long, and I replay the talk with my younger sister in my head many times.

When I walk up the stairs Monday to get Sarah’s next letter, I brace myself.

06/09/2014

Later, you’ll make this right. Now’s not the time to beat yourself up about it.” I breathe a sigh of relief. I still feel guilty, but I’m relieved Sarah isn’t holding it against me. “Now it’s time to put your skills to the test. You’ve been learning dancing, now you get to see if you can impress a girl you’re not related to with them. There’s a dance hall listed below that has girls your own age, go there, and put your training into action. I want you to stay there the whole night and make sure you have this skill nailed down.” It’s one of the shortest letters she writes me that still provides useful instruction.

I check their website and note that their next dance is the 11th . I stare at the screen, something is off about this one. I already know how to dance. I spent all of Saturday dancing with my younger sister to be sure. It’s too easy. I wanted to be harder, not only because I didn’t think Sarah would give me something to do that was easy, but because I wanted to make up for messing things up with Grace. I felt if I did something difficult that I would restore myself in my daughter’s eyes, and soothe my aching conscious at the same time.

There was something fishy going on here.

The night of the dance comes, and I head down to the hall in semi-formal clothes. The entrance fee is minimal, and I walk into the hall to take a look around. It’s the size of a basketball court, and it’s filled with young couples swirling around. Someone took my mental vision of what dancing should be and brought it to life.

I take a closer look at the couples dancing and see that just as the letter says these dancers are my own age, and not only that, they seem to be the crème of the crop in terms of appearance.

So that’s the catch. That’s why she told me to stay the whole night. This wasn’t about dancing. This was about loyalty. She had given me an in shape healthy body, taught me a rare skill that is rather attractive, and dropped me in the middle of a giant group of girls who wanted me to use this skill on them, but I’m not allowed to try and start something with any of them. My daughter had become my own personal devil.

I walk up to a gentlemen standing to one side and observing the dance.

“Excuse me.” I say. “How long does this dance last? The website didn’t say.”

“Four hours.” He tells me. “Don’t worry; they make sure everybody dances the pretty much the whole time. As soon as this song is done we’ll get into the mix. You get your money’s worth.”

“Great, thanks.” I say. Four hours, and I would be dancing with pretty girls the whole time. Fan. Tastic.

It occurs to me my daughter could very easily be one of the girls dancing. She could use a fake name and I’d never know. Not that it should matter. She seemed to know everything anyway. Still, I would have to be extra careful to be a model gentlemen and not pursue any lady.

I think my brain somehow broadcasted this thought to the women present, and they took it as a challenge. The entire night women are impressed by my dancing skills and try to lay claim to me for repeated dances. I politely decline, not wanting to spend too much time to any girl lest I become attached, and bounce around to different partners, all of whom are amazed at my dancing prowess. Evidently I’m one of the few men present that it took it upon themselves to actually learn how to dance before going to a dance hall.

I consider dancing badly to avoid unwanted attention, but I just know Sarah is going to hold that against me somehow, so I grit my teeth and dip, spin, toss, and twirl girls for all four hours until the last song is over. I hastily make my way to the exit, staring at the floor as I go to avoid any possible eye contact.

Five numbers. Even with all the rush and hurry of dancing, five separate girls give me their numbers. I walk up to the attic and lay them down in front of the chest like some kind of sacrificial offering.

I had wanted some sort of difficult task to prove to myself and to Sarah I was still dad material. I had got my money’s worth. There were five pretty girls out there waiting for me to call them, and instead of spending the evening chatting with one or more of them, I curl up into my sleeping bag, and try to convince myself that I had merely imagined them giving me their numbers.

The next day I take out my pent up frustration on my job, and once again have a most productive day. I storm into the attic after work, brush aside the numbers, and open the chest. I extract the letter and am amazed at its length. It’s certainly the longest letter to date by a large margin.

06/12/2014

Thank you daddy. I know how hard it was waiting for that one girl to call you, and now you had to restrain yourself from calling five. Thank you. I want you to know I wasn’t being mean. This had a purpose.” I had thought the purpose was to be mean. “You see, you’re about halfway to being ready for mom. You now have a healthy body, and a healthy social with fun hobbies. You have two more things to fix before meeting mom, and the first of those two things, is how to get a girl.” As I had done so many times before, I put the letter down. I was going to learn how to talk to girls, from my daughter, a girl whom I was supposed to eventually teach about boys. I couldn’t decide if I should feel emasculated or embarrassed. I decided to feel both.

Oh stop it. It won’t be that bad. I know what I’m doing.” That was hardly the problem. “So you see you had to learn to restrain yourself when it came to girls. You’re about to learn how to get a number. You needed to learn some restraint not to call them, and yesterday was a perfect time. You felt the need to prove yourself, so now you have, and now that we both know you won’t call a girl, I teach you how to get a number.” This was not a skill I ever thought I would put effort into learning.

I always thought that when you met the right person things just worked. Like in books or movies, if you really were compatible with each other then you shouldn’t need a bunch of tricks. “Because you know books and movies do such a good job of representing how things work in real life. That’s why we go to movies, to see how things work in real life.” She had a point, but still, I wasn’t going to be one of those guys who took advantage of girls, and I would’ve thought a girl would understand that. Love should be enough.

So love means never making an effort?” That’s not what I had thought, and did she have a mind reading device? Even if she could travel back in time, how could she possibly know what went on inside my head this well? “You’re an engineer. You believe in hard solid facts. Believe this, just going with the flow and letting your personalities mesh ends with you divorcing mom. Clearly, your way of doing things is wrong. Now, I’m not saying this is the only way, and that other people need to learn how to do this. I am saying if you don’t learn this, you might as well burn the rest of the letters because it won’t fix things.” Trust, so much trust, I should be a master at that fall backwards into somebody’s arm drill they did at team building events.

I know I ask a lot of you dad, and I know this is going to get weird, and I want you to know it’s because I know you can take it. I know you are a strong man who can handle this, and I wouldn’t ask it of you if I knew you couldn’t do it. You can do this dad.” She always knows just the right words to say to me.

Now, I’m going to get started. I’ll talk about this more in future letters. This is going to take a while to master, and I’ll feed you knowledge as you need it. I want you to just focus on what I’m going to say here. There’s a lot to this and I don’t want you to get overwhelmed.” She doesn’t want me to get overwhelmed, it’s a little late for that. I was very far down the rabbit hole at this point.

So, let’s start from the beginning. You walk into somewhere, let’s say a coffee shop. You see a girl sitting down at a table and you want to get her on a date, that’s the goal. You’ve never seen her before in your life. You didn’t know you were going to run into a girl here, what’s the first thing you say? I want you to think about it first before I give you the answer.” It was a silly question. Normal people said hi when they wanted to start a conversation. “Okay, you’ve said hi. She says hi back. She is wondering who this random person is whose talking to her and you have not made any positive impression on her. Now what?” That was a pretty rough assessment. Well, I guess I’d ask her what she’s drinking. “She tells you it’s hot chocolate and wonders why you’re asking about her drink. She is now wondering when you’re going to leave and the battle is lost. Dad, if that kind of thing, everyone would have game.” Just once, I wanted her to be wrong, like dead wrong about something.

I’m not being mean to you dad. I’m just showing you that there’s a better way to do this. Girls have really high expectations. She wants you to be funny, smart, confident, create a conversation that has a charge and romantic bent while still maintaining a comfortable conversational atmosphere that makes her feel safe around you. Also she thinks this should all just ‘come naturally’ so if she thinks you’re doing something you’ve been taught she’s going to bolt.” That didn’t seem fair. All those girls last night had handed out numbers without too much trouble. I shouldn’t have difficulty doing that again.

Dad, the ugliest, creepiest, and foulest smelling man in the world can get girls at his own rock concert. You can get a girl at a dance, great. What are you going to do once you’re off the dance floor? Look dad, you can debate this more with yourself later. Right now, you need to read what I’m telling you, and trust me that you need to know this stuff for mom. Sure you two will get together without this, but you need to put magic into the relationship, and knowing this stuff is the key to learning that magic. It’s a bridge into a beautiful. You may not like the way the bridge looks, but it’s going to take you where you want to go.” I resigned myself. She had me beat. I would think on this later and see if I could find some hole in her logic, but for now, she had won.

Good, now we’re going to talk about what you’re going to say to her, and how you’re going to build up to a kiss, because the road to the first kiss starts when you say hi.” I was barely halfway through the letter. This was going to be a long read.

I don’t know how my daughter knew all this, but her insight into this matter was extensive. She explained that there are several ways to start a conversation with a girl. There are practiced lines that you can use anywhere like ‘Hey, did you study interior design? That’s funny because as soon as I saw you the whole room became beautiful.’ These were not very effective, but they required the smallest amount of effort, and therefore the smallest amount of courage. She recommended using these only as an exercise for getting over any fear of talking to girls that I still had.

After practiced lines there were compliments. You had to pay the compliment in a certain way. Girls put a lot of effort into their appearance, my daughter told me, so compliment on something she’s done. Jewelry was ideal. Positive feedback about her dress or skirt was good. Hair styling was okay, and you could resort to stuff like fingernails if you had to. I thought it was creepy to start calling a girl pretty from the get go, but my daughter informed me that this did in fact work. They weren’t the best option, but they were a good back up.

Then there was the more effective method that she recommended, commenting on the situation. If you are in the same environment as someone it makes sense for you to comment on that environment. If you’re in a sandwhich shop it’s perfectly natural to ask what someone’s favorite sandwhich is. It’s the hardest to do because you have to make it specific to the situation. The more specific the better it would work. Instead of asking about her favorite sandwich, it would be better to point out that all of the in house specialty sandwiches would probably give a farm animal PTSD from all the meat and cheese on them. The less generic, the more she’ll like it.

That portion of the letter I understand. The next portion is far more….unorthodox. It starts with a question. “How do you go from never having touched someone before in your life, to kissing them?” It was a difficult question. I thought the answer was a mixture of blink luck and large amounts of courage. My daughter informed me this was not the case, and then proceeded to outline a very detailed method for progressing from no contact to kiss.

She said it was all about getting her more and more comfortable with you touching her. You started with the upper arm. It was surprisingly the least personal part of the human body. You would tap her on the upper arm, and point something out. You could do this a few more times, letting your touch linger a bit more each time. Then you went to the shoulders and the hands. Surprisingly she recommended playing a thumb war as a good way to get her comfortable with you holding her hands.

After she discusses the hands she ends the lesson. “So, that’s the easy part. You now know what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to start getting comfortable with physical contact. Next letter we’ll discuss a bit more about having a conversation, for now, here’s your mission.” I braced myself. “You’re going to practice using this stuff until the next letter, but first, there’s the problem of your shyness. On the back of this letter I’ve written ten of the cheesiest pick up lines I know of. You have to use all of them on girls before you can progress. One last thing before you flip it though. Remember, none of these girls will be my mom, but they will be somebody’s mom. Treat them with respect, and leave them with a smile on their face. You are here to learn, don’t do it at other people’s expense.” I flip the letter over.

Hey, can I take your picture so I can prove to all my friends that angels exist? This one doesn’t count unless you get the photo.”

“Are you religious? Because you’re the answer to all my prayers.”

“Introduce yourself and ask her what her name is, after she tells you say it followed by your last name.”

“Hey do you have a band aid? Because I just scraped my knee falling for you.”

“Come on give it back, give it back(what?) my heart.”

“You already know the interior decorator line.”

“Do you know what my shirt is made of? Boyfriend material.”

“Hey, didn’t we take a class together? That’s weird, because I could’ve sworn we had chemistry.”

“You’re so beautiful that you made me forget my pick up line.”

“Now for the kicker dad, if you can ask this then you will have truly conquered any fear of talking to girls. After you use all nine other lines, look for a girl with her phone on it. Walk up to her and ask for it to call someone. When she gives it to you, her mom, and tell her that you’ve just met her daughter and want her to know that she’s one of the most beautiful girls you’ve ever seen. You have one week dad.”

Thanks for reading letters to my father part 3! Part four is going to take a little longer, and should be out in about four days. Once again, thank you guys for all of the fantastic messages. I’ve read every one of them and they really do mean a lot to me. Consider this update a thank you.

Letters to my father part 2

Making things burn, my daughter was certainly a complicated individual. I reflected. She was protective of my talking to other women, stern with enforcing my faithfulness to my diet, playful in her mastery of time travel. She demonstrated high emotional intelligence in her perceptiveness of me, and very supportive of my successes, and understanding of my failures. Now I could add mildly psychotic to the list.

Make things burn? She was once again being intentionally vague to maximize the affect it had on me. What could that mean? She had been keeping to literal definitions, so I assumed actual flames were going to be involved. I tended to avoid fire. Fire was dangerous. I paid good money in my taxes so that well trained men could come and destroy fires within minutes of pressing a few buttons on a phone. I had a fire extinguisher too, just in case they didn’t get here quick enough.

I would have to wait over a month to find out, which seemed cruel to me. She was intentionally leading me on to mess with my head. Whenever I went out for a walk or job, or even just some light callisthenic work I thought of her. At my job I had formulas and paperwork to fill my one track mind, but out in the open air, my mind was free to wander, and it always wandered to her. Every time I weighed myself, and saw another pound drop, or I added another mile onto my jogging route, I said a quiet thank you to her. It was all easy knowing that somehow, she knew I was doing it. I never saw her, and I still couldn’t know for certain she was personally watching me, but I knew somewhere, some-when, she was proud of me.

Time travel was also a frequent topic of mental discussion. It had occurred to me that it was possible she hadn’t come back by herself at all. I didn’t see her, and while there certainly explanations for that, the most obvious was that she simply wasn’t here. She could have sent back some kind of tiny remote control robots that looked like flies, or perhaps she had come back, planted a number of devices, and then left.

As far as I could tell she hadn’t physically done anything besides writing the letters and putting them in a box in the attic, but she didn’t necessarily have to come back for that. There could be portals or something that just dropped things. Like a tele-porter, but one that worked on times in addition to places. She could’ve used that same tele-porter to plant the bugs that she watched me with. Those bugs could then relay the messages forward in time and she could use the information to write the letters and send those back.

Wait, would she have to send them back multiple times then? Because these letters seemed to know not only what I was going to do, but how the changes would affect me. Did she need to plant the bugs multiple times? Or did the transmission from the bugs change whenever she sent a letter. If so, did she send all of the letters all at once? Or had she sent them one at a time, observed the change, and then written the next letter accordingly? Or could all of this just be total blind luck on her part?

My head was starting to hurt from thinking about the fourth dimension. I resolved my internal argument by going to a hardware store and buying a metal detector. If she was using some devices to watch me, there had to be some in the attic, and they probably had metal.

On June fifteenth I grabbed my new metal detecting toy and ventured into the attic. I took a good look at things as I first entered, making careful not of how everything lay. I tried to form a mental picture, so that if anything changed I would know. Then I realized I lived in the 21st century, and took a couple pictures with my phone.

Shaking my head at myself I then brought out my metal detector and started to go through the attic. There were a lot of nails, so my plan did not work out too well because the detector was basically always beeping. Disappointed at my failed attempt to foil my daughter I switch off the useless hunk of junk and open the chest. I rifle through it and pick out the sixth letter

05/15/2014A

“Lol dad, did you really think I’d let a metal detector spoil my fun?” The little stinker sure was proud of herself. “I’m insulted. It’s futile anyway. The only way you’re going to find me is if you do what’s written in these letters. They’re my trail of be crumbs.” She was right, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying. “I know this isn’t going to be the last time we do this little dance, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just wanted to let you know I’m going to win :P.” She actually wrote the emoticon. I brush the ink with a finger and smile. I think her playful side is my favorite.

“Alright, enough chit chat, I know you’ve been wondering what my cryptic message from last time meant. It’s pretty straight forward actually. You’re going to learn how to camp, and that means starting fires.” I moaned. Man had invented the mattress for a reason. I hadn’t spent a night outside in my life.

“Now don’t get all whiny on me. You’re a big boy. You can handle a little nature, and you’ve got a little extra money from all that bad food you’re not eating, so you can afford to spend a little money on camping gear.” She wrote a list of equipment that included a sleeping bag, skewers, a tent, a sleeping pad, a backpack, a flint and steel, and hot dogs. She had even included a pricing list with brand names and models, probably just to show off. “Well, what are you waiting for dad? You’re sleeping outside tonight, and you’re not going to use your kitchen. You better leave for the store. Get going! Oh, and youtube how to start a fire.” This was making things burn? I felt kind of gyped. Maybe that second letter had something more to do with making things burn.

I resolved to read the second letter after I had made my dinner. I checked my watch. I had better get moving, I think the sun set in about two hours, and I wanted some daylight to work with. I could camp out in my miniscule backyard, but I didn’t have any flashlights. So I had to move quick.

I did the highly irresponsible thing and watched fire starting videos at redlights and stop signs, then googled tent information as I walked through the outdoors store picking up equipment. The clerk thought I was rather rude for not making eye contact, but I was playing with my daughter. She wasn’t physically there, but just like when I exercised, it felt like she was.

In under an hour I’m sitting my backyard with a bundle of stuff I’ve never used before, and a small pile of twigs and pine needles. I took a few extra minutes to clear a patch of ground and form a ring of stones for a fire pit, and I was ready to go.

Setting up the wood and pine needles was easy. I formed a small teepee of twigs, then a larger teepee around that, and a larger one around that. I had other wood next to my makeshift fire pit that I would throw on when the fire got going. I left an opening in the three teepees so I could put my nest in the middle once I got a little flame going.

Now for the hard part, this was the test. Everything else was trivial. I knew if I just threw wood onto the fire it would be fine, and I was positive I could setup the tent and cook a meal. The trick was I needed either light or heat to do all those things. That meant fire, which meant getting a spark. It suddenly made sense why my daughter said this was about making things burn, once you had fire, the rest wasn’t hard at all.

Sarah had thrown down a gauntlet, and I was going to beat her challenge with flying colors. With a sense of determination I pulled out my flint and steel. It looked like a key chain. Only instead of multiple keys there was just one key, and a stick of metal. I was supposed to scrape the key along the metal rod, and that would make sparks.

It seemed simple enough. I spent the first ten minutes trying different angles, speed, and scraping different parts of the rod until I got my first spark. Great, now I just needed to land that spark on the nest and it would all go up in flames right? Sparks were not as hot as I thought they were, it took another forty minutes until I saw some smoke come out of my little bundle of pine needles and twigs.

People used to do this every night for dinner? I hadn’t even started the fire, and I would have to wait another ten or twenty minutes for it to get hot enough to cook with. Finally, after throwing away the fire starter in frustration twice, and having to go and find it in the dark, because the sun was rapidly setting, I was not as good at estimating sun down as I thought it was, I finally got a little flame. Then in my subsequent leap of joy I stamped the fire out and spent another ten minutes getting it going again.

Finally, after almost an hour of striking a metal rod with a key I created a decent fireball that I could hold in my hand. I made sure not to celebrate until I had placed it in the middle of my teepee configuration, and the wood started to catch fire.

Then I leaned my head back and gave a whoop of joy. I had created fire! I was all that was man! I could keep this in the trunk of my car and always be able to cook meat or scare off wild animals or whatever else you did with fire. To start, I was going to cook myself a well-deserved meal. Then I was going to go read the little stinkers next letter and see if I could manage to gloat somehow.

The hotdogs were plain, without buns, and I managed to either burn, or undercook every single one, but they tasted like victory to me.

After wolving down several badly cooked hot dogs I strode inside to get the letter. I took it out of the box and went back outside. I was going to read this letter next to my very own, self-made fire. Next to the crackling flames I opened the seventh letter.

05/15/2014B

Daddy, did you really think your daughter was going to leave you hanging with some old school tech?” It had been underwhelming at first, but the more I had pursued the cave man fire making thing the more I had gotten into it. There really was something about this making something from scratch with your own two hands. I was proud of my little fire. “Don’t get me wrong. I love your little fire.” I glanced up briefly to see if she was watching, but I was beginning to get used to her little tricks, and I quickly returned to her letter. “And I love how you still look when I say things like that, but I had some more….. Interesting options for you.” What followed was a how to guide for making several substances which I was quite sure were illegal. My eyes bulged when I saw that they could all be manufactured with rudimentary household items that basically everyone has access to. “Now the next time you get to start a fire, it’ll be a lot quicker, and a lot more interesting. I’d recommend staying away from the more explosive list.” No kidding, some of this stuff just burned, but some of it looked like it could take down my house with just a pound or two.

How did she know all this? I hoped it was because my little girl was either a chemical engineer, or an avid internet server, and not because she was part of some resistance band that was trying to overthrow our robot overlords with makeshift weapons and bombs.

Don’t worry about how I know all this, but do worry how you’re going to spend the night our here daddy, because until you read my next letter, you’re sleeping outside. K, got to go, love you! PS- No sleeping pad.”

That’s it? No explanation? I was beginning to think there really was no reason for her ridiculousness. Or perhaps fighting our robot overlords really had taken over and I would have to spend a lot of nights outside under the stars.

I fold up the letter, and grab my sleeping pad. It’s just an extra cushion. The sleeping bag should be sufficient for one night on the ground. After returning both to their appropriate places I pitch my tent. It’s not difficult. They have instructions, and I think I’d have to return my master’s degree if I can’t pitch a simple tent. The sun has already set, so I make sure my phone has enough to charge to last another day or two, set an alarm, and coil up in my sleeping bag.

Now in my head, at this point I figured I should be drifting off to sleep. I did not figure what it would feel like to sleep on the ground without a pad. It shouldn’t have been that bad, but it felt sleeping on a tile floor that someone had spilled a bunch of small rocks on. I couldn’t believe how sensitive I was to the things! Every time I closed my eyes I could instantly picture where every single stone was boring into my body. Whether it was the size of a thumbnail, or a whole fist, it all felt horrible. I don’t know how people managed this back in the day. Did they just not have nerves on their backsides?

I lay my head down at about nine, but I don’t fall asleep until closer to 11:30. I just toss and turn, while fantasizing wildly about laying down on a nice smooth, rock free mattress.

When I finally do fall asleep I have dreams about being prodded and tossed about by large rock shape monsters. I’ve never been so relieved to hear an alarm go off in my life. I thank every luck star I have on the drive to work that I’m not sleeping on the ground right now. The fire starting was a cake walk next to sleeping on the ground.

Then a funny thing happened when I got to my cubicle at work. I find myself sitting at my desk, and I find my chair actually comfortable. My desk has some sort of plastic economical chair that came from some discount office warehouse. They were curved in a way that no one who had even heard of basic human anatomy would possibly curve a chair. These kinds of chairs were designed to keep workers like myself uncomfortable so we wouldn’t get sleepy. For all that, it was way softer than hard mother earth, and it didn’t have a single rock in it. I laid back and actually relaxed in the thing. I was pretty sure I could take a nap in it.

“I swear they showed the blind neanderthal that designed these things a sea slug when he asked what a human looked like.” One of my coworkers three cubes down declares. I smile. Yesterday I would’ve agree with him. Yesterday I would’ve been frowning and cursing modern industrial engineering. Yesterday I hadn’t spent a night on the ground. Today I had, and today, instead of griping, I was smiling. I got more work done by lunch time that day than I typically got in an entire day.

When I get home that night I see my camping setup outback. I hadn’t had time to take it down this morning. Before I go on my walk I go out and inspect the tent. I had zipped it up, so no wild animals had gotten inside. I lay down in my sleeping bag to see if it’s as uncomfortable as I remember.

It’s bad. It still feels like some bizarre take on Chinese water torture, but it’s not as bad as last time. I get up and go for a jog.

For the next two weeks between letters I sleep on the ground every night, and make a fire to cook my food. I become a master of lean-tos, scout fires, I even make a fire while it’s raining once. I had to use one of the illegal substances my daughter suggested, but it still counts.

While trying out a new kind of fire configuration that I think will maximize the amount of light I get from the flames, I think about the next letter. So far almost all of the letters have been challenging things. This next one probably will be too. If I get a sneak peak of it, that could give me an edge in completing the next ask. I could do some prep work, buy a few things, research a few things. If this was really about self-improvement then surely knowing what I was going to get into should help the process along.

The problem is of course that she’ll know. Of that I have no doubt. She’s already predicted every step I’m going to take before I take it, but then again I’ve been making it easy on her. I always opened the letters on the day she wanted me too. What if that was part of it. If I opened one too early would that let me get around this temporal sorcery?

I think of the letter she sent me when I almost broke my diet. This should be a girl I trust, and shouldn’t have to look at the letter. Then again, she’s playful and witty too, and I bet she loved matching wits with a worthy opponent. Wouldn’t she be thrilled if I could outsmart her? And wouldn’t she be disappointed if I didn’t try?

That was it, I should take a look at the letters. It’d be fun. As much as she protested me trying to figure her out, I could tell that was part of the fun for her. Let’s see what the little sprite had in store for me this time. I went into the attic and took out the seventh letter

05/23/2014, wait, that wasn’t right. The date on the cover was a week from today. The date in the corner should match.

I’m sure you expected a witty response here, but the truth is I’m disappointed.” So much for a fun little game with my daughter. She can’t be disappointed. I’m the parent. I was the one who was supposed to be disappointed. “Look at yourself dad, haven’t I earned your trust? You’ve lost twenty pounds, gotten into triathlon shape, and started becoming a man’s man. Why did you open this letter?” That wasn’t fair. She didn’t get to ask why. She knew why, didn’t she. “There are many parts of your life I’ve figured out, but why you haven’t trusted me I’ve not looked into, because I don’t want to know. I don’t know what made you break my request and open this early, but I hope it was worth it.”

I crumbled the edges of the letter in my hands, forcibly preventing myself from doing more.“And before you think this is some needless guilt trip, let me tell you it’s not father. Your next letter is going to require a lot of strength to accomplish, and you’re still too heavy and not strong enough for it.” This letter was really laying the hurt on. “I didn’t want you to open it until a week from now because you need one more week of strength and weight loss. I didn’t want to have to call you weak or overweight unless I absolutely had to, and if you had just waited I wouldn’t have had to. More importantly than that, the next letter is going to require a lot of trust, and you breech of that trust just now is going to make it harder. I still love you daddy, you’ll hear from me in another week.”

There are a number of things in life that only take a second or two to do, but the negative repercussions last for days or weeks. As soon as I had read that first sentence I knew that I had made such a mistake. She was right, I shouldn’t have tested her. Now I would spend the next week hoping that I was ready to take the next step. I wasn’t even halfway yet. I couldn’t mess this up now.

To add insult to injury for the next week I have to dodge texts and phone calls from my parents. There are some big events coming up, graduation ceremonies or something, and I had to focus on the tasks at hand. I redoubled my efforts to become who my daughter needed me to be. I redo my diet to make sure it is completely optimized for weight loss and muscle gain. I add distance to my runs, and start doing my calisthenics with weights. I’m not going to disappoint her again.

I climb the steps to the ladder with purpose this time. I will redeem myself this time. I open the chest and extract the eighth letter.

05/30/2014

I want you to know, I don’t blame you for this last week. You’ve had a lot on your mind, and it wasn’t your fault.” What, what was she talking about? I really didn’t want this to be another downer letter. “But that’s not what this letter is about, this letter is about letting go, and also becoming a mountain man.” So back country backpacking? That seemed the next logical step. You needed to be in good shape to do it, and it was basically the next difficulty level above just regular camping.

It’s not back country back packing. That would be cool, and we should totally do that when I grow up! But for right now you’re going to learn something less time consuming, but much more dangerous. Father, you are going to embrace your inner action hero, and go jumping off of a mountain into thin air, with nothing but a solid rope, sturdy knots, and an iron grip to prevent you from falling to your death. Father, you’re going to learn solo rock climbing.” What followed was a highly detailed set of instructions on how to setup a rock climbing system, and rappel down by yourself. With so many of her other letters she had told me to look things up or figure things out, with this letter she spelled everything out herself. She even revealed a hidden compartment in the chest that contained pictures, diagrams, and specifications for the ropes. I felt foolish for scouring this attic for clues, even getting a metal detector, but I hadn’t thought to check the chest for clues. She concluded the letter with the following message.

Dad, up until now you haven’t really had to trust me. You’ve sacrificed for me. I don’t want to belittle that. I know that a lot of what I have asked has been hard, but this is the first time, and I promise the only time, where you’re really going to directly put your own life in my hands. I wrote out exactly what I wanted you to do myself, because I want you to trust me.” Did I not trust her when she was an adult? Was that why she was doing this? Or did I not trust my wife. I shuddered to think what I had done that would require me to break this personality fault in such a drastic way.

I will say it again. I promise never to ask this of you again, but I am going to ask it this one time. I’ve made sure that these instructions will keep you safe. I’ve checked, double checked, and used them myself. They will make sure you don’t get hurt. Just think of me dad, and make a leap of faith.”

I go over the instructions, and then go over the instructions again. Then I go over them a third time, and reread the last time sentence in the letter ‘Just think of me dad, and make a leap of faith’. There would be no going back from this one. I had no experience in with this sort of thing. As far I knew, these could be instructions for very fancy shoe lace tying.

I think of all she’s done for me. Every single step has made me a better, stronger, more confident person. I like who she’s shaping me into, and she has guided my footsteps deftly, knowing every step and miss step I would take. It was time to figure out just how far this could go.

There are no eager and rapid internet searches this time as I purchase the necessary equipment. Looking up more information would betray her trust again. She didn’t need to write it for me to know. I’ve broken her trust once, I would redeem myself.

Once I’ve bought and assembled all the gear, and there is a good bit of it, I start up my nightly camp fire and prepare for bed. There isn’t enough daylight to do what she is asking. So I go to bed that night dreaming of great heights, and great falls.

She wrote me the letter on a Friday, so I have the whole weekend to do what she asks. On one of the extra pieces of paper she had stowed away in the secret compartments she included a map. I had brought all the hidden papers with me, and now consulted the map. I checked the coordinates with the GPS on my phone, and found the location it led to was not far from here, only a few miles drive. Who knew I had rock climbing locations so nearby.

I’m not thinking of time travel or what the next letter contains as I load up my car with my new thrill seeking toys, as well as a bunch of energy bars and water. The system doesn’t look like it will take more than an hour to set up, even with all the knots I was going to have to learn. But I want to take a long time to make sure I was going to get it right.

She wasn’t joking about taking my life in her hands. I didn’t have a second source of information to check her facts against, and I didn’t bring any friends or hire some mountain climbing professional to check my work. I was going to live or die by her hand.

On the drive out I don’t turn on the radio or play an audiobook on my phone. I just watch the terrain. On the walk up to the cliff, as I make my way through the forest, there aren’t any people, which is fine, because right then the silence is fitting. I arrive at the top of the cliff and drop my gear a few dozen feet from the edge. I want to take a look before I start setting up.

The edge of the cliff is a very sharp looking thing. About where I’m standing the dirt and roots of the forest give way to solid rock, and about twenty feet in front of me the ground just stops, like it was cut off with a knife. As I approach it I appreciate how final a cliff edge looks. It feels like an end. I crouch with my toes almost sticking into open air, and peer over the edge.

Far, it looks far, but my science oriented brain won’t be happy with such an in exact measurement. I pick up a rock and gently toss it over the side. One one thousand, two one thousand, thunk. It only takes two seconds to hit the bottom. That might not have sounded too bad if I didn’t know that meant the cliff was a little over 60 feet high. A fall from this height was a one way trip.

This isn’t helping, I’m only going to psyche myself out if I stay here, so I remove the Sarah’s instructions from my pocket and get to work. It’s slow going at first, there are only a couple of knots you need to know, but each requires several tries to get write, and there’s a lot of measuring and re-measuring. I have to untie and retie one specific knot 5 times before the system looks right. It’s not a terribly elegant looking thing, but it works. I tugged on every single knot and rope several times as hard as I could to make sure it works. As far as I could tell this thing was going to support my body weight.                 Then again, when I was thirty feet down the cliff I would be applying a lot more torque due to the distance and stretch factor in the rope, not to mention the possibility of falling a few feet and generating any more force. I wish I had some tools form the lab to test the strength of this rope.

I take a few paces back and look at the system, hoping its appearance will somehow make what I’m about do easier. I’m going to tie myself into the system, take a piece of the rope in my hand, along with a small little metal device that looks like it could open bottles, and jump.

Nope, looking at it from a few feet away didn’t help one iota. I’m going to need some help with this one. I really wish Sarah was here now. I didn’t know why she was insisting on keeping this distance between us. Couldn’t she say what she needed to say in person? If she checked over the ropes herself it would make what I was doing easier, and it would still be trusting her.

Unfortunately, not amount of wishing would conjure up my daughter. I take out the support she did give, me the most recent letter she had wrote, and read it again, focusing once more on that last line. ‘Just think of me dad, and take a leap of faith’.

I regret that I don’t have a picture of her to think of her with, or even a picture of her mom to try and guess what she looks like I mean she’s in the future so if I was just thinking of someone who wasn’t around I might as well just think of a generic sonogram or somebody’s grandmother. Those would probably be as accurate.

I push that unhelpful thought of my mind. Think of her, think of the good. Think of her support, think of her words. I already hear a voice in my head when I read her words. I don’t know if there’s any way it could possibly be hers, but I think of it anyway. I look at the letter in my hand and think of her words. I can hear her voice clearly say ‘think of me dad, and take a leap of faith’.

I focus on those words as I tie myself in. I make it a montra. I force all thought from my head except those ten words. ‘think of me dad, and take a leap of faith’. I walk to the edge of the cliff, now mouthing the words to myself. ‘think of me dad, and take a leap of faith’. I grip the rope firmly in my hand, and jump.

I fall for about a quarter of a second, and then I grab the rope hard, stopping myself after only a few feet of free fall. A few feet is enough though. ‘Think of me dad and take a leap of faith’, I say without thinking about it. I say it again to comfort myself. I did it! Hear I am, sixty feet of the ground, and only a firm grip is keeping from me giving the ground a bear hug at nearly highway speeds.

I no longer feel an ounce of guilt for opening that letter early. “I love you sarah!” I shout, hoping somewhere nearby she hears me. A few jovial moments later I reach the bottom and look up to the top of the cliff. I punch the sky in elation. Best father daughter bonding experience ever.

I start doing a ridiculous rhythm less dance at the bottom of the cliff when I think back on the first letter with today’s date on it.

Hang on a minute, she said the reason she didn’t want me to do this is because it required strength, and while the gear wasn’t pleasant to haul out all this way it certainly wasn’t anything I couldn’t have managed a week ago, and while rapelling was fine, I don’t think I could manage climbing back up by myself. She hadn’t explained how to do that and I certainly couldn’t fathom how it was done.

“Are you going to climb that route friend?” A male voice behind me asks. I turn around and see another mountain climber with the same gear I have standing behind me. “My crew is going to be here in an hour but I’d love to climb with you if you’re up for it.” Sarah thought of everything.

The next week passes quickly and well. I’m beginning to revel in this life my daughter has set up for me. I have a couple hobbies, a healthy body, and I’m starting to make friends to do outdoors trips on. It’s a good time, and while I miss my daughter, I feel good about our odd relationship, and when I take out her next letter it is with a sense of hope.

06/05/2014

Hey dad, thank you for this last week. It’s been good. You’ve done a lot of difficult things, and will still do a lot of difficult things, so I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for a good week.” It was like she had experienced it with me. “This next request is going to be a little interesting. You’ve got some great hobbies, and a healthy lifestyle, now we need to learn you a basic skill of courtship, ballroom dancing.” Alright! I had always wanted to learn ballroom dancing. This would be an easy one. As much as I appreciated what she did for me in hindsight, a nice easy slow pitch that I could knock out of the park would not go amiss right now.

There’s a catch.” Of course there was. “You’re going to have to teach your younger sister how to dance.” Grace? That wouldn’t be so bad. Grace was a good girl. “I know you haven’t figure out why this is difficult, so I’ll just let that sink in a second. Go on, put the letter down, think it through dad.” She’s got me trained well, I put the letter down without hesitating or questioning it.

Grace is a nice girl. She’s doing alright in school, got some friends, is always friendly when I come over. She’s still in high schools so we haven’t talked in a while. Didn’t she graduate recently?…..Oh, right.

Yup, that’s right dad. You’re neglecting your family. I’m your family too dad, are you going to neglect me?” Of course not, how could she possibly think I would neglect her. I would and have jumped off a cliff for this girl. “I know you’re dedicated to me dad, but you need to start showing the dedication to your family with the family members you have right now. I’m not always going to be a mature inter-time mastermind of personal growth that I am today. You made me who I am dad, and you need to start making your siblings the best that they can be. So here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go take lessons from a local dance instructor. The number is written on the bottom of this letter. Normally I’d let you figure it out for yourself, but I want you to go to one particular dance instructor. These things require a special touch, and I want you to learn from someone that I’ve personally vetted.” Personally vetted huh? Good to know I was going to be in expert ‘daughter approved’ hands. “One more thing, there are a few words for you on the back of this letter. Don’t look at them until the time is right.”

When eventually she’s all grown up and writing time letters through ancient annals of history we are going to have a talk about not talking mysteriously and saying what you mean. I dutifully fold the letter and stick it in my back pocket after I dial in the number to my phone. Let’s see who this dance instructor was who so impressed my daughter.

“Hello this is Sarah at dance works, how can I help you?”

Letters to my father part 1

It should be noted a more polished version can be obtained by downloading the free PDF under published works. It also includes an alternate ending.

03/5/2014

Hey dad, it’s me Sarah.” I drop the letter I found inside. There were many letters, this one said ‘open first’, and the rest had more dates on them. As far as I could tell, all of the dates were in the future. All of that was insignificant next to the fact that I didn’t have a daughter. If I did I would’ve called her Sarah. With that thought sticking out in my mind like a stop sign, I pick up the letter and start reading.

May 22nd 2008, the day you went to prom with Jennifer. April 6th 2010, the day you switched majors and became an engineer. September 1st 2013, the day you bought this house. I’m sure right now you’re justifying how someone could know these dates, but right now can you just trust me okay? I’ve written these to help you on your journey to find mom.

I put the letter down for a moment. I don’t drop it, but I need a moment to think. I hadn’t written those dates anywhere, much less the name of the girl I went to prom with. This didn’t seem to be a scam. As long as this person didn’t suggest I buy anything, I guess this was okay.

Since you’ve decided this isn’t a scam, I promise not to ask you to buy anything, and if I do, I’ll keep the suggestions general like ‘clothes that fit’. Now then, currently I’m your only child because you and mom split up.” I have to stop again. I find out I probably get married and have a daughter cool enough to time travel, and then almost instantly find out it’s all going to crash.

I don’t have you in my life anymore.” Had I done something to prevent me from having custody of my daughter? Or had I just gambled and lost in the court system? “And I’m awful lonely without any brothers and sisters. Not to mention my stepdad.” I didn’t know it was possible to hate someone you didn’t know for something they hadn’t done yet. “I won’t talk much about him, suffice it to say things are not healthy. So I’m going to help fix your life dad. My mom isn’t perfect, but she’s got her own letters, and when the time is right, you’ll meet up.

A nasty thought occurred to me. This could still be some elaborate joke, I wouldn’t know until I met the woman probably, but if it was, my daughter could very well be erasing her own existence. I knew how reproductive possibilities worked, and the odds were basically zero of having the same sperm hit the same egg twice. I don’t know if I want to do this, maybe it’s not too late, maybe if I just put this box back it’ll still all go the same. I’ll still get divorced, but Sarah will still be alive. I take one last glance at the letter before finalizing my decision.

I know you’re now thinking that by sending you these I’m committing a kind of temporal suicide, and I accept that. I know that by you reading these, maybe by you just even reading one, I’ve already written myself out of the timeline. If you and mom are happy together, and if you have your kids, then it was worth it. One last thing though, and I know there isn’t any science for this, so bear with me, but I believe we’re more than DNA. I believe there’s something about us that you can’t diagnose or identify with a thousand tests. I may not look like your Sarah, I may not even have all of her talents, but it’ll still be me dad. Trust that it’ll still be me.

Love,

Your daughter, Sarah

I put the letter back in the box and close the lid. I need a second to breath. So I have a daughter. I’m going to get married. I’m going to get divorced. My wife is going to get full custody, and my daughter. Humanity invents time travel, and now my daughter is trying to retroactively fix my marriage.

Where do you even start to process those feelings? I think I was excited. I have a daughter who as far as I can tell is very dedicated to her parents, and very intelligent. That’s great! I had always had nagging doubts that I was sterile or would marry too late to have kids, and now all that was settled. I was excited to meet her!

Would I meet her though? I mean, what she said was poetic, but did it really work like that? I had better process that later, there was still the marriage and divorce. My wife got the custody, so I guess that means it was my fault. She still had her letters though, which meant there had to be things she was doing wrong too, so I shouldn’t feel too guilty about it being me.

I sat down, I felt overwhelmed and I had barely begun to think about it. Okay, I’m an engineer, I organize and streamline things. I figure out how they work, and then pursue a solution. I would probably still be thinking about this years from now. I could spend years just thinking about the concept of time travel, much less all the personal stuff. I would have to whittle this ocean of information down to a few manageable glasses of water that I could actually swallow.

So first, I need to work on some things. I’m sure she’ll help me out with exactly what. That must be what the other letters are for, things that she needs me to work on. I felt a warmth in my stomach at that thought. My daughter was such a good friend that she was willing to reach across time itself to help me.

I put my hand on the box. It’s wooden, and I can feel all the little random divots and ravines in the wood. There are dozens of little imperfections that let me know it wasn’t made with a machine. This was hand carved, or at the very least it was made with minimal machine work. I can’t know this for sure, but I know she carved it, for me. She must know I always admired handmade items.

I shake myself. I need to focus or I’ll get lost. Fact one, my daughter loves me. Fact two, she needs me to improve for her so that I can be a better husband, and probably a better father too. Fact three, she has written me instructions in these letters, which I should read.

Good, nice short list, all that time travel stuff was crazy, not to mention the divorce, and the subsequent custody battle was ominous, but if I did what she asked I wouldn’t have to worry about all of it. I would also get to talk with my daughter about time travel someday.

There was a little nagging doubt in the back of my head, like a fly that I just couldn’t swat. This could still all be some very elaborate joke. Maybe some local TV channel thought this was funny enough to put the effort in, but I didn’t want to believe that. I wanted to believe that somewhere in the future there was a wonderful little girl who cared enough to write me all these letters, and dig into my past enough to know what to write. I wanted to believe it, so I did. I might have been crazy, but there was enough evidence in the first letter that I wasn’t ready to question my sanity just yet. It also probably wouldn’t matter, if these letters were for real, and they made me a better person, then the self-improvement would be worth the heartbreak.

Well, that was enough introspection for now, best to get started with these letters. If they were a joke it should come out pretty quick.

I empty the box and spread the letters out in front of me. It’s an odd collection, counting the one I’ve already opened there are 20 in total. I fold the original up, and place it with the rest. They all have dates, so I line them up in chronological order, starting with the already opened letter.

Open this first

03/5/2014

03/11/2014

03/30/2014

04/09/2014

05/15/2014A

05/15/2014B

05/30/2014A

05/30/2014B

06/05/2014

06/09/2014

06/12/2014

06/19/2014

06/26/2014

07/03/2014

07/10/2014

10/17/2014

12/25/2017 7:53 PM

They mostly follow a pattern, with about 3 or 4 letters a month. That’s good, most self-improvement plans I knew followed a regular schedule. Then there were a couple oddities. Firstly, some of the letters were on the same day. There were two letters on the 15th of May, and 2 on the 30th of May. Huh, May must be an interesting month. There was also a letter with today’s date on it. That would be interesting. Why would she write me two letters today? I would have to open that one next.

The other oddity that sticks out to me is that the last two dates are so far apart from the rest. The first 18 letters are all within about 4 months of each other. The nineteenth is three months after the eighteenth, and the twentieth is over three years after the nineteenth. Why the large distance. What could cause a need for such a large gap? Couldn’t she at least have written me a few filler letters? Maybe something about her favorite book or movie? Maybe I shouldn’t be greedy, this was a lot of work she had put in, but I got the suspicion I was supposed to open each letter on the date that was written on it, and I didn’t like the idea of going so long without hearing from her.

Well, I got to hear from her at least one more time today. I had better go ahead and open the other letter with today’s date on it.

03/5/2014

Dad, I wonder what stuck out to you first. Was it the multiple letters in one day, or the large time gap of the last two letters?” My daughter knows me well. “I can just see you now, with them all lined up in chronological order.” Had she come back and watched me open the letters? I feel eyes on the back of my head and spin around. I see nothing but boxes. I pause to listen for a moment, but here nothing except the air conditioner running. I don’t if she’s not here, or if she just knew I was going to turn my head, but either way I’m not going to find her. I turn back to the letter. There’s still an odd feeling of being watched, like an itch on the back of my neck, but I force myself not to scratch it.

So does she know that I was going to turn my head around because she knows me really well? Or has she gone back and seen what I was going to do to so many times that she has my every move memorized? Lol, I should stop. I know you’re now equal parts fond of me for getting inside your head so well, and creeped out that someone can map out your actions so thoroughly.” It’s a good kind of creeped out though.

I hope you asked yourself why there were multiple letters on the same day first, because that’s the question I’m going to answer.” ‘I hope’ she says. Not, ‘I know’, so she hasn’t memorized absolutely everything about me. “As you’ve already suspected, you’re supposed to open the letters only on the date shown. I know it’s going to take a lot of willpower to open them all at once, but please dad, for me, only open them when it’s time. For the ones on the same day, the first one, you can open it at midnight if you want, but the second one, you’ll know when it’s right.” That’s vague. She knows I’m an engineer. I like precise things. I don’t decide to run an experiment or perform a mechanical operation ‘when the time is right’ I do it as soon as the data tells me too. “I know that sounds vague, but trust me, you opened this letter when I wanted you to.” That was it. The only way she could possibly have known when I opened the letter was if she had come back and watched me open it.

Sarah.” I call out. “If you can here me, come out and talk to me. I’m your father and I want to talk to you.” Silence, if she was here, she wasn’t coming, and I might have to look around later, but if she knew when I was going to write things, then she probably knew where I would look. If I somehow randomized my search would that help? What if she had written this letter, and then just not come back this particular time. But did that mean she had traveled back multiple times? Man, my head was starting to hurt. I was not supposed to have to think about time like this. We are four dimensional beings, but one of those dimensions doesn’t go backward.

This was getting to be too much. Maybe that was her goal; maybe she wanted to confuse me so I wouldn’t question it as much. If that was the case, it was working.

Now that I’ve thoroughly freaked you out, let’s both drop the time travel shenanigans. I promise to stop playing with your head so much, and you stop trying to find me. Deal?” Yeah right, like I’m going to give up on finding my time traveling daughter whose delightfully witty and sharp as a tack. “Well, maybe don’t give up on trying to find me entirely, but can you keep it to a minimum? If you try and find me I’m just going to go back and change what I did so you don’t find me next time anyway.” I smiled. She had to have put that in there because I found her a couple times and she had to go back and change it. “So go ahead and smile because you know I would only say that if you found me, and let’s move on with this letter.

Now then, you remember a couple paragraphs ago where I talked about the letter? I’m not sure the message got through here, we kind of got side tracked with the whole time travel thing, which was cool, but I really just wanted to make 3 points with this letter. 1- Don’t open a letter until the right date. 2-For the couple of letters that are written on the same day, you’ll know when to write them. 3- I’m not going to tell you why the last two are so far apart or why the very last one also has the time you have to open it. You’ll just have to wait and see. Once you read the letters, this will all make sense. So, as you can see, that’s it for today. I know you’re reeling from all this information and you need some time for it to sink in. If you try to do everything that I’m writing about it won’t sink in properly. You aren’t like a car. I can’t tell you what the problems are, and then you’ll just take a couple hours to fix it. These are life changes that take time. Even with all the extra motivation of having your future daughter cheering you on, these things take time. Right now, if you opened the next one, you’d just spend the next week or two thinking about time travel and it wouldn’t sink in. Believe me dad, I’ve done my homework. Only open the letters when the time is right. I’ll give you a hint for the next one. What does everyone have, but no one wants, and dies without.”

She makes riddles too! I wanted to get this framed so I could prove to all my friends how smart my daughter is. Or maybe I should say how smart my daughter ‘will be’, not ‘is’, or wait, maybe it was ‘is’. How did tense work for time travelers? Because she isn’t born, but she might be here, I wonder if there are inter-temporal grammar Nazis that sort out these kind of things.

I wanted to read through the letter again. If I had to wait almost a week for the next one, then I should get as much mileage out of the two I had first. I pick up the original, but then I think of all the moments when I was reading it that she knew what I was thinking, or played with my mind. That wouldn’t happen on a second read through. I already knew what I would read. Maybe at a later date I could go through again for nostalgia’s sake, but something tells me at least for these first two, I’m only supposed to read through them once.

I feel a sense of loss as I pack up the letters and put them back in the box, taking a few moments to admire the craftsman ship once again, before closing the lid. It’s like when you say goodbye to a good friend, when the time has gone too fast and you really want to stay for just a few more moments to talk about that one last thing, or when you leave a movie theater after watching the last movie in an epic series. When I was reading the letter it was as if my daughter was there with me. Especially with all the time travel business meaning she very well could have been, but now that the box is in another room, I’m alone again.

The attic had been the last stop in my walk through of the house. I had walked through it several times in the buying process, but this was my first walk through after getting everything settled in. All the furniture was in place, everything was on the proper shelf or cabinet, and I had wanted to admire my handiwork. Now I went to my kitchen and picked out some leftover Chinese carryout from the move in.

I go and sit in my living room, watching a clock on the wall tick away the seconds. Part of me wanted to go get sleeping pills and just knock myself out for the next six days. I couldn’t wait to see what she had written to me in the next letter.

The time for the next week passed very slowly. The project that I was working on with my job as a government contractor just needed some final touches, and none of my friends were in town. My family might have wanted to do stuff to take my mind off things, but I never knew what to talk about around them, so instead I just buried myself in a couple seasons of a show that was just put online. Thank goodness for streaming TV, I didn’t know how people survived without it.

While watching some of the less intellectual shows I zone out and think about the riddle. Everyone has it, but no one wants it, and you die without it. I assumed, based on the letters, she meant all of those things literally. Which meant it was probably a body part if you died everyone had it, and you died it without it. I could maybe see it being something highly essential like air, or food, or shelter. The trouble with those was not everyone did have them, at least not all the time, and certainly everyone wanted them. That definitely meant it was a body part.

What body part did people not want? Couldn’t be a limb, those were too useful. Anything on the face was out, eyes, ears, nose, those were all too essential. Did acne count as a body part? No one wanted that. I glanced at my reflection in a window. That was a little bit of a fault, but certainly nothing to write a letter that spanned time about.

Couldn’t be any of the vital organs, what did no one want in their body? As soon as I say that in my head I know what it must be. I can’t believe my daughter is going to lecture me on it, but there’s only one thing it could be. I run my head mournfully as I finish watching my show. 03/11/2014 cannot come soon enough.

When the day finally comes, I decide to wait until after work to open it. Just in case it involves immediately doing a lot of work. As soon as I get home from the office I practically jumped up my stairs into the attic, and nearly hit my head on several exposed beams as I made a dash for the box. I take out the first two letters that I’ve already read, remembering fondly what it was like to have my daughter play with my head during my last session with the box, and take out the third letter.

03/11/2014

Enjoy binge watching your favorite TV shows?” This letter was taking a judgmental turn straight away, but I already knew what she was getting at, and had expected this. “How much weight did you gain watching that show? I’m sure you’ve done the math at some point. I hate to start out a letter like this, but there’s going to be a lot of tough love in these letters dad, so you might as well get used to it now.” There were going to be more times where she decided to point out a bunch of my flaws? Great. “As you’ve already guessed, the answer to my riddle is fat. You’ve got a bit too much of it dad, and it’s only going to get worse. If you’re going to take care of me and mom, we’ve got to get you into better shape. I know, I know. She went through all this trouble just to tell me to lay off the cheeseburgers, and hit the gym a little more? Well, yes, it’s unclimactic, but it’s true. Trust me, we’ll get to the more fun stuff later, but this comes first. Once you see what the next steps are you’ll understand why we’ve started her. So, here’s how this works. You need to go rack up a 3500 calorie deficit to lose one pound. Here’s the interesting part. That next letter? You’re not allowed to open it until you’ve dropped ten pounds. That’s 35,000 calories dad, and all that’s before you start working out. Otherwise you’re going to damage your joints too badly. You have 19 days to drop 35,000 calories. You’re a smart guy. You can figure this out. If you don’t you might as well burn these letters. 19 days, 35,000 calories down, that’s 1842 calories down a day, or this conversation is over. On 03/18/2014 turn this letter over and read what’s on the back.”

This was much shorter, much less fun, and much more brutal than I had expected. I knew she was going to talk about my weight, but drop some pounds or we’re done talking? I could add ruthless to her list of qualities. I put the letter in the box and close the lid. I don’t feel the same sense of loss as I did last time.

Before I descended to my living room I wondered how serious her threat was. I knew what she was asking would hurt, a lot, and would probably turn me into a rather unpleasant person. Most weight loss professionals I knew would call this a crash diet, and I knew they were dangerous. I guess if she was suggesting it she knew my body could take it, but if I didn’t , how could she enforce her ultimatum?

Until now I thought her message was much more passive. I hadn’t see her, as far as I could tell she had just time traveled for informational purposes, and the only trace of her journeys was the box itself. Would she steal the box if I opened one too early? Was she somehow watching the box to know when I opened them. I felt eyes on the back of my neck again, and decided my attic looked a little too unfriendly. I had better head downstairs.

I decide I can’t know for sure if she’ll enforce it or not, but for now I had better take her at her word. She can time travel after all, who knows what else she’s capable of.

For now I’m willing to give this a shot. How hard can it be? A couple of internet searches later I realize that making that kind of a deficit means I’m allowed to have about 4 fairly plain protein heavy sandwiches a day, need to drink a bunch of water, and I would even have to take vitamin supplements to make sure my body didn’t run out of necessary vitamins and minerals.

Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be so easy. Well, better not do this halfway. I make my way to my fridge and open it. Time to throw away all the unhealthy stuff, I start taking out individual items and looking at their backs. American cheese, 100 calories per slice. Wow, just 1 slice? That was depressing. The bread was only about 250 calories, and that would be most of my calories for the day with just four of those. I pitch the cheese into the trash can.

Alright, how about chicken nuggets, how many of those can I have? 60!? No way, I’d barely have one full plate to max out. I was no longer entirely certain my daughter wasn’t trying to kill me.

How about condiments, ketchup is basically tomatoes, those are healthy right? Nope, that was going to tack on another 2 or 3 chicken nuggets worth of calories to put that on something.

Was there anything worth eating in my fridge? The short answer was no, no there wasn’t. The longer answer required a trip or two outside to throw away the full trash bags I generated.

Already regretting my decision to do this I head on to the internet for a solution. Several very depressing searches later I have a very boring plan that consists of a lot of fruits, vegetables, and brown rice. I manage to find a way to sneak in some tasty sauce and a little white meat chicken into the rice, but it’s little comfort.

The trip to the grocery store is highly masochistic. I have to walk past isles of potato chips, precooked ribs, ice cream, and soda in order to get all of my items, and it’s like walking past a bunch of friends. I want to stop and say hi, but I know if I do I’m going to leave with more than I came for. As I check out, and sign for my debit card, it’s like signing a ticket to the middle of a desert.

People who never have to know what a large calorie deficit is like are lucky. There are the hunger pains that come and go between meals. There’s the knowledge that even when you finish a meal you won’t truly be full. You start noticing how often people you know just seem to throw 500 extra calories onto a meal like it’s nothing. People actually open cans of soda without having an existential crisis.

Then there’s the more subtle psychological affects. You don’t go out to lunch with coworkers, and when your friends go out to eat, you have to pass. Your social life dwindles, and to top it all off, you get cranky. Your body doesn’t like not being fed, and it makes sure you feel its unhappiness.

After a week of hunger I decide to order a pizza. I don’t care. I haven’t see any more proof that I really do have a time traveling daughter, and it’s not like she’s going to weigh me and find out how much I way, and even if she traveled back in time, was she really watching me every single waking moment? One pizza couldn’t be that bad. I could keep it in the fridge and have a couple slices every now and then. Who does she think she is anyway? I’m her father. I should be the one dictating the rules to her, and why would she set such a ridiculous mandate? One that could only be achieved with a crash diet, this was dumb. I am an adult. I shouldn’t have anyone dictate to me what I should be doing with my own body like this.

Once the call has been made I remember her letter, and how it said to turn it over at some point. I had a few minutes, and I think the day was today. Maybe she could find out what I was going to do, and put some gloating words on the back because she knew this was the day I was going to fail.

I head up to the attic and before I head over to the chest I look around the attic to see if there are any bugs planted. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, so I feel around suspicious looking holes in the rafters, and even get my phone out to look in the head of the air conditioner unit to see if there is anything hidden inside.

She could have some super small future tech camera, but if she does, I can’t find it. As far as I can tell my attic is clean.

My search is completed I open the box and find the third letter 03/11/2014. I skip to the bottom and see the date I should flip it. On the back is written a short statement.

I love you dad, and I believe in you.

I see a mental image of a little six year old girl signing a letter. I know she must be an adult, but for some reason, reading that sentence, I think of her as a little girl.

I fold the letter back up and stick it in the box. I feel guilty. Moments before I had been dead set on violating this girl’s request, I had already called the pizza. It should be here before too much longer. She must’ve known what I was going to do. I wasn’t completely sure how this time travel thing worked, but I was sure she must’ve known. I had expected to find some harsh words chastising me, and instead of condemnation. I find forgiveness. She had been willing to cut off communication for the sin I was still partially in the act of committing, and she forgave it without a second thought.

When the pizza arrives, I ask the guy if he wants it, and throw what he doesn’t eat away. It is absolutely no trouble maintaining my diet until 03/30/2014.

When the day finally arrives I head up the attic stairs with a mixture of fear and reverence. The amount of power this person has over me is sinking in. They really know exactly how to press my buttons, and got me to accomplish the crazy goal of dropping ten pounds in 19 days. Someone who can do that can make me do any number of things.

I feel reverence because the source of that power is my love for her. It’s kind of corny, and it’s kind of weird loving someone that much when your link to them is weak, but it’s there. I suddenly lend a lot more credence to stories I’ve heard about parents hulk lifting cars to save their kids.

I open the box, and pull out the fourth letter.

03/30/2014

“Oh daddy, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! I can’t believe you did it! That was so incredible. I knew you could do it! And you did it for me too!” I could just see her jumping up and down, eagerly clapping her hands. “This next part won’t be so hard I promise, but before I tell you what it is, you have to promise me something. I already know who my mom is, and I don’t want you dating any women except her. Call me selfish, but you need to be ready for when she shows up, and you don’t yet know which of these letters is going to be the one where I set you two up. So no chasing numbers, unless I tell you ;), and if you get a number you don’t call them back. Got it? Great, now that we’ve got that down, it’s time to start making you more attractive. It’s time to start exercising! I happen to know a little bit about getting into shape, so here’s what you’re going to do.”

The letter went on to detail how exactly I was going to get into shape, along with a diet that included a much increased calorie count. It wasn’t as hard as dropping ten pounds honestly. As I start taking walks with calisthenics, I think about what the next letter contains.

With the diet instructions she had decided to give me a boost with her next bit of writing. Was this the same thing? It hurt sure, but it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as the crash diet had been, and I loved the results I was starting to see.

I got an extra bit of motivation from the women I ran in to on my walks. I saw several, and got some second glances that were most gratifying. My daughter hadn’t said anything about smiling and exchanging some cheerful words with appreciative women, and it made working out even more fun.

As the date draws nearer I’m becoming more and more curious. I have it nailed down to two possibilities. Either it’s the fun thing that she hinted would follow, or it’s some sort of joke.

I have built up two a 4 mile walk on 04/08/2014, and am thinking about opening the letter at midnight, or perhaps first thing in the morning, when something happens to take my mind of things. A women who gave me a particularly meaningful glance stops a few paces ahead of me, and gives me a very obvious head to toe look. I’m a little off put by her forwardness, but smile as I start to walk past.

Her head tracks me as I go by, and she quickly fishes a piece of paper out of her pocket and hands it to me. I almost trip as I take it from her, and say a mumbled “Thanks.” Before walking on.

A girl just gave me her number? That never happened. I get half a block away before I realize she doesn’t have mine, and I dash back to hastily write down my number on another piece of paper. I’m thankful that I have a couple pens and scraps of paper from the office in my pockets.

I’m so shocked by the unexpected rapid exchange of numbers that it’s not until I get home that I realize I’ve almost broken my daughter’s trust, again. I haven’t called her back, so I just have to not dial her number. I tear up the piece of paper to make that doesn’t happen.

There, now I’m safe. I can read the next letter with a clean conscience. I still have several hours to midnight, and I spend them looking at my phone. While I’m cooking my nightly whole grain rice with sweet and sour chicken, and assembling the side dishes of carrots and celery I keep my phone propped up in the kitchen to see if she calls.

It won’t to get a call from her. As long as I don’t return it my daughter will be happy with me.

After I eat dinner I keep my phone on the arm of my chair as I watch TV. I bet the girl who I gave my number to was just sitting down to relax herself. I should probably get a call any minute now.

After a couple hour long episodes I turn off the TV and start heading towards the bathroom. Did I write the number correctly? Maybe I smudged an eight into a nine by mistake. I had a couple eights in my number, it could get confusing.

After I’ve showered, taken care of my teeth, I start to wonder if her phone is broken. Once I’ve cleaned my room, taken out the trash, water the grass, trimmed my toenails, washed all of my computer monitors, defragged my hard drive, and done a load of laundry, I knew she wasn’t calling.

I couldn’t imagine why she wasn’t calling. She had started this whole charade. Had she been intentionally leading me on? What kind of person just hands out numbers and then doesn’t call. I scrub an entire floor to vent my anger, and when I ascend into the attic after midnight I’d advanced to depression.

I didn’t get to interact with girls very often, at least I didn’t before I had started exercising, and this was the first time one had actually given me her number. It felt silly being hurt by someone who I had only met in passing, but it hurt all the same.

04/09/2014

I’m sorry dad. I know she was a jerk. I wish I could’ve done something to prevent her from leading you on, but I’m already risking a lot by doing what I’m doing for you. I can’t directly interfere with other people like that. It’s just too dangerous. I can say that she wasn’t my mom, and that it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. I know it hurts, but it’s for the best dad. I’m also sorry to say that the next couple of weeks are going to be more of the same, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Your daughter knows what you like, and I know I’m going to put a spring in your step when I tell you we’re going to start turning you into a genuine manly man with the next letter. How you ask? We’re going to make things burn.”

Unhooked part five

“You guys are some very scary people.” I say upon walking into the house. Thomas had setup a little demonstration of what we would look like. He had two pistols on shoulder holsters, and a third on his hip. There was a rifle on his lap, and another rifle slung across his back. He had a bandoleer of high caliber rounds and to top it all off, he was in all black tactical clothing with a black mask over this face.

“That’s the idea right?” He replies, standing up and shoulder his rifle.

“It’s a little ridiculous though isn’t it?” I ask. “I mean you need two hands to operate a pistol, and you have three. Those two rifles you have are the same rifle so there’s no possible reason for having both, and that bandoleer doesn’t have ammunition for any of your weapons.”

“You’re forgetting.” Jess is at my side, and she seems to approve of the setup. “We aren’t going for practical. He shouldn’t have to fire a single round, and everyone in that factory probably knows the same amount about weapons as you do. To say nothing of the fact that they’re probably going to be way too scared to count. Besides, all we have to do is intimidate one person. So we ditch logical, and just go for shock factor. You remember that feeling of danger that just magically radiated from the gun before you learned how to fire it? The more guns we bring the more we emphasize that feeling, and at the end of the day any rational person will realize it only takes one to get the job done, so even if they have their wits about them they should still comply.”

“About not firing a round.” Thomas says. “That’s not entirely accurate.” Jess rounds on him.

“Thomas, you better not have gotten any ideas.” Thomas picks up a bottle in front of him. I hadn’t noticed them before, but there are several bottles in front of him filled with a bluish solid.

“I haven’t, just did my prep work for demolition. See these?” He lifted the bottle. “Napalm, burns at almost 2000 degrees, way hotter than any wood fire, and hot enough to ignite some metals.”

“Metals burn?” I ask.

“Everything burns if you get it hot enough.” Thomas says. I don’t know if I believe him, but probably enough things in that factory will burn to shut it down permanently.

“I’m gonna place these around the factory, and hit them with incendiary rounds. It’s the quickest way I could think of to set off as many fires as possible as quick as possible.” I notice there are about a dozen bottles that all look to be a liter or more. “I would like to mix in some explosives, but we used the last of it a week ago.” I turned to Jess.

“Jess, you said you used these things for hunting. What kind of animals require incendiary rounds and explosives to hunt?” Jess practically giggled.

“I didn’t say we only used them for hunting. Ever put an ounce of an explosive binary compound in a watermelon and hit it with a sniper rifle round? You should, you haven’t really lived until you have.”

“I’m starting to have some second thoughts about who I spend my time with.” I say, only half joking.

“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.” Thomas says. I suppose I will have to try it at some point, but I find myself wondering what other supplies the siblings have squirreled away. The rounds on Thomas’ bandoleer were fired by a very large gun. I wouldn’t put it past them to have a tank hidden in the woods somewhere.

“Alright you two.” Thomas says. “You can see I’ve done my part, what have you two come up with? We kind of left it at destroy this facility. I’ve got the supplies to break in and burn, but don’t we need more intel than that first?”

“Like what?” I ask.

“You are such a zombie.” Thomas says. “Like what, like whose the person we’re going to find to get everyone to leave. Where does this person work, when do they work. How are we going to get to them without getting seen by anybody else? What kind of security does the base have. Did you just expect to walk through the door looking like this.” He gestures to himself. “And expect nothing would happen? Isn’t this plan supposed to be subtle?”

“Alright, alright, I get it.” I say. “Clearly I need to do some more research, here hand me my laptop.” Thomas had apparently been counting on this, and had turned my laptop on, stupid me for leaving it unlocked, then opened it to the page about the site we were going to hit. I had already printed out maps on how to get there, so at least that much was taken care of.

I sit down while Jess and Thomas anxiously inspect the weapons. While I hastily click through websites they’re loading magazines, attaching ammunition to tactical vests, and discussing which knives would look the most intimidating. I wondered if I could make new friends once people got unhooked from the pill.

The site has a personnel page. I open it expecting to just use whoever is the top person on the page. Unfortunately they all looked like business personnel who didn’t look they stepped foot in the lab or would have access to the security system. That wouldn’t do, it didn’t matter if they were important if they didn’t have access to the security system. Halfway down there’s a man in a lab coat whose title is director of process developmnet. Director sounded like a high rank, and process development sounded like a lab job.

“Got our man.” I announce. “Damian Winters.” I say, turning my laptop around for them to get a good look. “Director of process development.” The two look up and study his face, memorizing it so they can recognize him

“Okay.” Thomas says. “How do we get to him?”

“Working on that.” I say.

“Let us know when you have something.” Thomas replies, turning back to bottle of napalm he’s inspecting.

I open up Damian’s page and look around for something. Contact information, having his office phone might be a good idea. I copy and paste that info into a word processer for later use. He’s got a bio about drug design, and commitment to quality. That’s useless. Ah, office hours perfect. Monday through Friday 8-5. The guy must be unhooked to pull that kind of schedule. That turned my stomach. He knew what he was depriving people of, and yet he continued to perpetuate the process.

So now I had a time for us to grab him, now I needed a place and a way to get to it. I looked around his bio and didn’t find any more information. Dead end, several more internet searches showed nothing, and even some illegal use of assets from my job couldn’t find anything.

I pull his company page back up and look it over again, hoping something jumps out. Still nothing, maybe the answer isn’t found on a computer, maybe we have to improvise. I write the office phone number down on a piece of paper I have nearby and turn to Thomas.

“Hey Thomas, do you guys have a hunting rifle with a laser sight?” Thomas scoffed.

“What self-respecting gun owner wouldn’t own a hunting rifle with a laser sight?” Maybe having gun nut friends had some advantages.

We park the car a good two miles away from the factory to make sure our getaway vehicle isn’t spotted at the scene of the crime. The factory is in the middle of the woods, with no neighboring buildings nearby, so we naturally have to walk through the woods ourselves. It’s for the best really. If we walked on the sidewalk then people would get suspicious. We had all our gear stored in several heavy backpacks and duffle bags, but we didn’t want to attract any more attention than we had to.

It was a long walk, plenty of time to fully understand what you’re doing. When I had just woken up I was coursing with almost every emotion there was. Now I had time to cool off and project my energy into other things. Now things were real. That word, real, so many meanings over the last day. It had meant pain, fear, surprise, elation, sadness depression, and shock. Now I could add one more meaning to the list, resolution.

I knew what this meant, or I at least thought I did. We were breaking the law, in a big way, and even putting some people’s lives in a small degree of danger. Tonight there was the very real possibility we would be in jail or worse.

My head began to fill with all the possible scenarios. We could get pinned down and shot at by police. We could be in metal cells staring at blank walls for the rest of our lives and eating bland food. They might even put us back on the pill for what we did, to keep us sedated.

That thought sent a shiver down my spine. It was worse than the other two. At least in jail or under fire we would be in the real world, fighting to make a difference. Under the pill we are almost worse than dead. I shudder to think that mere hours ago I had been under the pills myself, and shuddered again to think of all the people still under the pill.

“Hey, you look a little worried.” Jess says. “Not having any second thoughts are you?” I snap out of it.

“No, just determined to put end this.” This seems to be the right thing to say.

When we get closer Thomas walks us through his part of the plan more thoroughly. I had already covered my part earlier.

“So safeties off and fingers off the trigger. We’re keeping bullets in our magazines like we discussed. In case we need to fire the guns to intimidate anyone, or if heaven forbid we get into a firefight we’ll need to fire rounds into the air in order to escape. But, we don’t want to have to use to them, so be mindful where your gun is pointing, and keep your finger off the trigger. We don’t want any accidental discharges. Once you guys have our man covered I’ll get him to tell me where their explosive or flammable chemicals are and set my charges. You all will then clear the building and I’ll blow them. We’ll ditch the man, and head for the woods. Remember, we don’t want him to identify us, so keep talking to a minimum, and use your voice changers.”

“Got it.” Me and Jess say. The building becomes just barely visible through the tree line.

“Alright, we’re here.” Thomas says. “Everybody knows what to do, let’s get to it.”

The building is large, probably as big as my entire cul de sac, and looks very plain. There is no outward sign of the turmoil the products of this building create. We stay back in the treeline as we walk around the building. Jess and I use some of the binoculars we bring to look into the windows until we can locate our target.

“There he is.” I spot him first. “Third window from the right.” Luckily he had been facing the window, observing the nice scenery no doubt.

“Got it.” Jess confirms with her goggles. Now it’s go time. We fall back so we’re out of sight of the building and open our duffle bags. There are metallic clacking sounds, zippers being done up, and the click of buckles being fastened and adjusted. In a few minutes we transform from a normal twenty something trio out for a walk into three heavily armed individuals that look like a cross between terrorists and SWAT team members. There is hardly an inch of flesh visible beneath layers of leather, cloth, and bullet proof fabric. Between the three of us we have 10 pistols, 7 large tactical knives, and five rifles. Thomas had wanted grenades, but apparently the arsenal of the siblings had its limits.

When we were fully dressed for the operation we stood a moment looking for someone to say something significant. Thomas and Jess looked to me.

“There’s nothing to say.” I tell them. “This has to be done. That’s all there is to it.” This seems appropriate. People in real life didn’t give speeches before they did something significant. They just did it. I was not going to indulge in fantasies before taking down an entity that preyed on the fantasies of people to make money. Thomas and Jess understand that. This isn’t some feel good mission of mercy. We’re pretty much the bad guys using guns to scare people into getting a what we want so we can burn down their place of work and put them out of jobs. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. This was ugly, but it was necessary. “Let’s go.”

Thomas sets up underneath a both, taking a minute to disguise his position. Jess and I setup on either side of him. Jess pulls out a rifle with a high powered scope on top. I grab my binoculars and focus on Damian. Thomas pulls out the hunting rifle with the laser sight and gets a bead on the office. He taps me on the shoulder to let me know he’s ready. Jess also draws a bead on the office and reaches over to tap me to signal her readiness.

Sniper in position, spotter in position, it was time to make the call. I pull out the office number for Damian, press in the numbers, and call. It had taken three hours to disguise my phone. It would show up on any phone as a randomly generated series of 10 numbers. This was after it was so thoroughly encrypted that the heat death of the universe would occur before someone could crack it.

“Hello? This is Damian Winters. With whom am I speaking?” A slightly British accent says on the other end of the line.

I tap Thomas on the shoulder and he flips on his sight. His rifle is zeroed so that if the laser is point at Damian, the actual rifle is actually pointed several feet to his left. It took a while to convince Thomas to point a gun so close to a human being, even when the safety on and the scope zeroed to throw off his aim . I activate the voice changer on my phone.

“You have a sniper zeroed in on your chest, any sudden movements and he repaints your desk.” Damian straightens up and looks to his office door.

“I’m impressed, most prank calls aren’t this sophisticated. The voice changer really pulls it together. How did you randomize your number?” There’s no fear in his voice, not yet anyway.

I put the phone next to the hunting rifle and Thomas chambers around. The metal on metal sound is loud and clear.

“Nice sound effects.” He says confidently, but he had hesitated.

“Damian, look down at your chest.” He looks down. And moves behind his desk.

“Damian, come to the window, before my friend gives you a third lung.” Damian looks to the door, clearly weighing his options of running for help. He makes the wise decision to not try and outrun a bullet, and walks to the window.

“Look to the tree line Damian.” When I see he has complied I tap Thomas and he and Jess stand up. Two shadowy figures with rifle and lots of intimidating dear.

“Heaven save me.” Damian whispers. It sounds subconscious.

“Damian, if you play this smart no one is going to heaven today. We don’t want to hurt anyone. So don’t do anything without specific instructions from us or we’ll have to demonstrate we mean business.”

“What did I ever do to you?” Damian asks. “Can’t you find someone else to do whatever it is you want? Surely there’s someone more important or richer you could be doing this to.”

“No Damian, you don’t know what we want. If you did you would know you’re the perfect candidate. No more remarks. You’re going to do what we want, and if you do it quick and fast you’ll get to go home tonight.” I leave no room for compromise in my voice. “Remember, we’re the ones with the weapons, and you’re the one with the exposed office with a view of the lovely cover these trees provide.” I don’t leave time for him to respond. I jump right into it.

“You’re going to issue a warning that there’s been a chemical spill. It’s highly toxic and the building needs to be cleared. All personnel are to leave the office immediately and maintain a distance of 1,000 feet. Do it now. I’ll stay on the line. As soon as you’ve issued the command hide under your desk so no one sees you’re still inside. Do it now.” I order. He looks at the phone like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. He looks back out the window. He can’t see Jess or Thomas anymore. He’s wondering if he really saw what he thinks he saw.

I put my hand over the microphoneon the speaker and lean over to Thomas.

“Put the laser onto his phone.” Thomas makes an almost imperceptibly small motion. It has the desired affect. Damian jumps back, bumping into his office chair and almost falling over.

“We’re getting impatient Damian.” Damian pushes a button on the desk and Thomas tenses. He doesn’t put his finger on the chamber or toggle the safety to on, but you could tell he thought about it. If Damian is going to call for help, he’s going to do it now.

“This is Damian Winters, director of process development.” I can hear the echo of a PA system over the phone. “There’s been a chemical spill. The chemicals have aerosolized and are a carcinogenic, flammable, severe irritant. We must evacuate quickly and calmly. Exit the building in an orderly fashion and maintain a distance of at least 1,000 feet between yourselves and the building.” He takes his hand off the button and cowers under his desk.

“Good Damian, you’re doing good. That desk won’t stop a bullet in case you were wondering.” A little carrot to reward him for compliance, and then the stick to keep him in line.

“Aren’t they going to notice I’m gone?” He asks. “I just made an announcement so they know I’m here.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I say. We had anticipated this question. “There are over 100 people in that building. Everyone will have evacuated before they notice one missing. They’ll hopefully think you went to the hospital, but even if they don’t a rescue mission is impossible. The building you’re in has purportedly suffered a dangerous chemical leak. No one could come back even if they wanted to.” It also explained why there would be a fire shortly after the evacuation.

“We’re going to monitor the evacuation, stay on the line, and after everyone is out we’re going to come to you. You’re going to show us where to set our charges.”

“Charges? Like explosive charges?” Damian whispers sharply, careful not to speak too loud and reveal to people walking by his office that he’s still inside. “I thought you guys were robbing us or stealing company secrets. Why do you have charges?” Damian’s voice was pretty calm for a guy being held hostage. I guess he had figured out we weren’t going to shoot him, at least he probably thought it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

“We’re going to burn that abominable place down. There aren’t going to be any more pills manufactured here.” I tell him. “So we need you to show us where to lay the incendiary devices in order to cause the most damage.” I expected Damian to say something like ‘you’re never going to get away with this’ or ‘the police will find you’, instead he just says.

“Okay.” And calmly waits for the evacuation to finish. To the credit of the people working in the building they filed it very calmly out the doors, and only began to jog once they were clear of the building. The only open area for them to job to was on the opposite side of the building from us, so whenever they exited they turned away from us and walked around the building. We would be hidden from view when we exited our cover and approached the building. We had been lucky that Damian’s office was on this side of the building. It made entry to the building much easier.

There are several tense moments while the building clears. Right now, we’re almost entirely risk free. There’s no chance of someone sneaking up on us from our position, and Damian is too far away and too trapped to do anything. Right now, everything is going fine. In a few minutes we’re going to enter the building, and then things will get dangerous again. There could be more coworkers inside who could panic and do something stupid like rush us. Damian could try and disarm us when we get closer, or tear off one of our masks. The charges could work too well and take down the building while we are still inside it. Any number of unexpected factors could get introduced.

It’s been thirty seconds since the last time I’ve seen someone exit the building. I reach over and tap Jess.

“The building looks clear Damian, walk over to the window and throw out your key fob. We’re coming to you.” Jess and I stand up and with weapons out, but pointed down, we head quickly toward the building. Thomas had wanted to set off the charges himself, but someone had to keep the laser on Damian, and Thomas insisted that if someone was going to be pointing a gun near a person, it was going to be him. So me and Jess arrived at the back entrance to the building with me wearing a backpack full of napalm. Damian throws out his key fob as we get close.

Jess and I stack up on the door. She’s got her rifle out, and so do I. I hold the key fob up for both of us to see. This is it, after we go in this door we leave the safety of the sniper hide, and enter an unknown building that could be crawling with people who hadn’t made it out yet. There could even be security guards. Damian had acted awfully calm earlier. Had he managed to signal security that there was about to be a breakin? Only one way to find out. I tap the fob to the security panel, and open the door. We’re in.

There’s a security desk to our left, but thankfully no guard. Jess points to the desk. We had agreed to keep talking to a minimum and that I would be the only to speak, because I had the voice changer. This would keep the chances of someone identifying our voices low. I nod, indicating that I notice the guard isn’t there. She raises a hand palm up to ask where he went. I shrug. I hadn’t seen him leave. Jess clearly hadn’t either.

“Maybe he went out another way.” I say in a voice so quite it is almost just a breath. Jess doesn’t like this. She points to the safety on her rifle. They are currently on, and they’re the only thing preventing a trigger pull from sending a bullet flying out at lethal speeds. Jess wants to be ready in case the guard is still around.

I shake my head and point down, indicating I still want our rifles pointed down. She shakes her head back at me, but keeps her safety off and her gun down.

I point to a staircase. Damian’s office was on the second floor, and somewhere to our right. We move to the door. I open it, she moves through first. She looks up and down the stairwell. She flashes me an okay sign and holds still. She’s listening to hear if anyone is waiting at the top. I listen outside and keep my eyes on the hallway that leads away from the security desk.

I feel that same sensation I did when I fell back off the mountain. This moment we were in free fall, and at any moment we were waiting for the rope to catch us and secure us in place. My brain was firing on all cylinders, and everything seemed to take three times as long.

Jess finally nods, and we move up the stairway, carefully closing the door at the bottom to avoid any unwanted noise.

At the top it’s Jess’ turn to hold the door as I go through. I’m in the middle of a hallway with offices on both sides that stretches the length of the building. I rapidly glance left and right, it’s empty. I flash an okay symbol back to Jess, and we both listen again, still nothing. I count ten breaths to keep track of the time, and then move down the hall to the right, where Damian’s office is. Jess closes the stairway door quietly and moves after me.

I estimated it had been six minutes since the alarm sounded, and two since the building had clear. Our fear was beginning to dissipate and be replaced by an urgency to move quickly. We didn’t know how long it would be before someone called the police or fire department themselves. We probably had at least five minutes, and maybe as much as half an hour, but we couldn’t be sure.

Damian’s office door is closer. I put my hand flat on the pane of glass on the door so Thomas knows it’s me coming in. I hold my hand there for another three breaths to make sure he sees it, then I nod to Jess. She opens the door, and I move in.

It’s just like I saw it from the sniper hide. I wave to Thomas to indicate everything is okay. He has no way of responding since we decided radios would be too loud, and too easy for some passing local law enforcement to listen in on. It would be one more thing that could get us caught, so we had left them behind.

“Damian Winters.” I say. “Stand up.” Damian had been well hidden behind his desk. I hadn’t seen him at all.

“I’m here.” He says, again his voice is too calm. I want to stick my head back out into the hallway to make sure it’s still clear, but I don’t want to look nervous or unsure in front of the man I’m supposed to be scaring into collaborating with the destruction of his workplace.

“Show us where to plant the charges.” I tell him, getting right to the point.

“Yes of course.” He says. “But first, if I may ask, why do you want to burn down this research facility?”

“Research facility?” I ask, the voice changer failing to hide my confusion. “I thought this was manufacturing facility?”

“It is.” Damian says, calmly siting down in his desk chair. “We manufacture the material for clinical trials, which are conducted with the population of this facility, but it is still research. We modify the batches and work on the next generation of pills. When we think we’ve got something we get permission from the government and begin testing the new pill on the local population.” This isn’t good. This won’t interrupt the supply. I don’t know why they’re researching a better pill, but if the current one already has the world lying down and giving up, I hate to think what the new one will do.

“But destroying this place will meet your goals I think.” Damian says. He’s got his fingers folded on the desk in front of him, and his look is utterly confident. What is he up to?

“What do you know about our goals?” We’re wasting time. We may just have to throw the bag in the hallway and shoot it on our way out if this conversation takes too long, but Damian knows something, and I can’t leaving before discovering what it is.

“To destroy the pill obviously. You haven’t expressed any interest in taking anything of monetary value from this facility. Considering how valuable some of the intellectual knowledge is here, in addition to the rare chemicals used in the manufacturing process, that is a pretty big flag that this isn’t a smash and grab from another company. You are here because you hate what the pill does. You perhaps were abandoned by family, or suffered severe depression from the lack of social interaction in your lives.” He’s got us figured out.

“How would you know about that?” I ask.

“Because I saw it happen countless times. I watched as the world gave up on itself. There was this cure for so many sleep disorders. The over half of adults with sleeping disorders could rest easy with a sleeping pill that the body did not develop a tolerance to. They hold the key to a restful night that will let them take life by the horns. Instead I watched them lay down and give up on the world. I watched parents forget about children, and children forget about parents. I saw so many leave a rotting civilization for the wilderness to escape the pestilence of constant sleep I had caused.”

“You made the pill.” I say, flipping the safety off on my rifle.

“Yes, I made the pill.” He says. I point the gun at his chest. Jess had been monitoring the hallway, she looks in and sees my gun up, then see my safety off.

“No Ryan! Don’t do it!” She shouts. I use one hand to tell her to stay back. She freezes. She knows if she moves forward I could reflexively pull the trigger and end this man, turning arson into murder.

Damian tenses, expecting any moment to be knocked backward by a gunshot.

“Before I put a bullet in your heart you are going to tell me why you did it. Why did you hook the entire world?” Damian looks confused.

“Hook?” Damian says. “Do you mean to imply that I or the people I work for are somehow keeping people on the pill?” I nod, putting my finger on the trigger. Just a little tug, that’s all it would take.

“So you think we are forcing people to take it?” He actually has the gall to look surprised and insulted. I nod again.

“Either by making the pill addictive or coercing them into it.” I say. Damian looks at the barrel of my gun.

“Son no one is forcing people to take the pill. They want to.” I almost do it. I almost pull the trigger. I take my finger off the trigger to prevent myself from doing it by accident, but I keep the gun pointed right at his heart.

“Explain.” I manage to say.

“There’s nothing to explain son.” He says. “The pill isn’t addictive. I know. I designed it, and I can’t believe you think we would somehow threaten that many people. You’re pretty clearly not taking the pill. Has anyone forced you? As for addictive agents, have you felt a need to take it? Did that need come fr” He has a point.

“You’re lying.” I say.

“Really, I’m telling a man with a gun pointed at me something that obviously upsets him. Wouldn’t someone lie to improve their chances of survival? I know you’re hurting or else you wouldn’t be doing something as stupid, dangerous, and kind of wrong, but you can’t shoot me. I’m the only one who can tell you what you need to do in order to stop all this.”

“Seems to me we can stop all this with a little movement of my pointed finger.” I tell him.

“Killing me will do the exact opposite of what you intend.” He says. He doesn’t sound like a man whose pleading. “You deserve to shoot me for what I’ve done, but I oversee all research on the next generation pill, pill that will keep man under for twenty-four hours. The company has been working with some robotics institutes, and they’re going to go global with a way to keep humanity permanently unconscious. “ Permanently unconscious, truly this would create the living dead.

“So tell me why I shouldn’t stop you from doing this?” I ask.

“Because if you shoot me they’ll hire someone who hasn’t been secretly sabotaging the experiments. I give them just enough information to keep them from firing me. I have dragged this process out for decades, when it should’ve just taken a few years. You shoot me, and this is going to get a lot worse.” This is beginning to sound a little too elaborate to be a lie made up on the spot with a gun unexpectedly pointed at you.

“Tell me, what were you going to do after taking this facility out? Seems like there’s only two or three of you, or else you would have brought a much larger group. Did you think the remaining eleven facilities wouldn’t beef up security to anticipate another move like this? Not to mention even if you by some miracle managed to pull this off eleven more times without being caught. You would still have to deal with our hundreds of international locations.” I point the gun down and flip the safety off. I hear Jess give a sigh of relief.

“You’ve thought this out.” I say.

“Yes.” He says. “And I also know how to stop this place for good. You won’t need your incendiaries, and I’ll make sure it looks like an accident. We use methane in the manufacturing process. I’ll leave a Bunsen burner on in one lab, and open the methane then run. When I get to the crowd of people outside I’ll say that I smelt the methane and tried to contain it, but it was too late. If police investigate they’ll confirm what I’ve said. It will destroy their research so they can’t finish making the 24 hour pill.” He didn’t relax at all when I lowered my gun. I think he really did want me to shoot him.

“That doesn’t take care of their manufacturing capabilities.” I say. “We appreciate what you’re saying and will trust you to do it, but what about the hundreds of facilities you’ve mentioned?”

“I’ll send them false plans.” He says. “One of the pills greatest strengths is unlike most medicines, your body won’t generate a tolerance to it. With other sleeping pills you eventually need to increase the dosage to keep the same affect. Not with my pills, my pills will always put you under with just one dose no matter how long you’ve been taking them. During my research I stumbled upon a way to make the pill, and remove this affect. I’ll send this pill that the body eventually rejects to our headquarters and claim it works. I’ve been the world’s drug dealer for decades. They will take me at my word, and with this building destroyed their won’t be any evidence to prove me wrong. The world will slowly wake up when the pills stop working.”

“Won’t the company find out and just ship out the old pills?” I ask.

“They won’t keep a stockpile, and even if they did, they’ll need new equipment to make the new pill, and will have to throw out the old equipment. They won’t be able to make any old pills, at least not for several weeks while the new equipment gets made, shipped, and installed. Besides, by the time they find out it’s the pill’s problem, and I’ll do my best to see that they don’t, people will already awake.” He really has spent a lot of time planning this. So why hasn’t he done this before people with guns showed up.

“Why would you just sit on this plan? You don’t need us. You already figured out how to sabotage the pill, and burn down this facility. Why have you just been sitting on your thumbs?”

“Because I didn’t know people like you existed.” He said. “Everyone always went into the wild after they unhooked. No one has ever made this effort to help unhook people before. I can’t take the pill down permanently. We’ll get at most a few months of people being awake. Humanity rejected the real world once, I had every reason to believe they would do it again.”

“That’s why you’ve been so calm during this process.” I say. “You haven’t been afraid. You’ve been hopeful.”

“Yes.” He says. “Finally people are unhooking themselves and going out into the bright light of day. I believe if people like you exist, then there is hope for humanity.” I sling my gun onto my back. Clearly the security guard is gone, and this man is no threat. He proves it by not lunging at me when I put my gun away. I display one more act of trust, and disable my voice changer.

“Meet us in the sniper perch after you’re done explaining to the police and the fire department.” I tell him. “Let’s go Jess.” I say, and without another word, we depart.

When we get back to the sniper perch Thomas practically yells at us.

“What are you doing? Did you use any of the charges? Why did you just let him go? Did you come all this way for nothing?” He has been dutifully watching the whole exchange through his scope.

“No Thomas, I just decided to have a little faith.” I lay down next to him and take out my binoculars. “We’ll see in a moment if my faith was misplaced.”

“If I don’t see an explosion in the next minute. I’m going to stab you.” Thomas says. He’s joking of course, but not by a lot.

“If you don’t see an explosion in the next minute.” I say. “I’ll let you.” Thomas scoffs and returns to examining the building. About the time we finish our conversation Damian runs out the other side of the building waving and shouting at the people in the crowd forming a thousand feet from the building. When he’s about halfway to them a giant pressure wave hits us as a large section of the building is blown up and away. Windows are blown out all across the building and fires can be seen rapidly spreading.

“I guess I get to live to fight another day.” I say to Thomas. For an answer, Thomas starts putting the rifle away.

“Not yet, we’ve got to wait on Damian. I told him to meet us here.” It’s a much longer wait than I had planned. Damian only leaves after the police have come and interviewed people, and the firemen have tried and failed to put out the fires, helped along by their terrible response time. They must’ve been amateur volunteers who slept in their own homes then drove to the station during an alarm. They had taken almost a half hour to show up and had done a very sloppy job putting out the fire. Good thing I never had to call emergency services.

When Damian finally joins us there is only an hour or two of daylight left.

“Thank you.” He says. “Thank you for making me believe in humanity again. What you did was stupid, reckless, dangerous, and could’ve hurt a lot of innocent people. I forgive you for pointing a rifle at my head, but I can’t condone it. Still, it is my fault. I should’ve done this years ago. Thank you for waking me from my stupor to do what needed to be done.” With that he shakes our hands and departs. He tells us we’re never going to see him again, and we never do.

Two months later we’re sitting with Frank in the sibling’s house, playing cards.

“Are you sure he wasn’t just saving his own skin?” Frank said. We had this argument a dozen times, and he still didn’t believe us. “What if he just set off the methane to keep you from shooting him afterwards?” None of us reply. There’s nothing to say. We’ve all had this conversation before.

“I mean it’s been two months. Why haven’t we seen anyone else outside?” He asks. I give up on ignoring him. It won’t help, but I can’t just let him berate us again.

“Maybe because they decided to stay indoors, or maybe because it takes longer than we thought for the body to build a tolerance.” I respond, Frank doesn’t even notice he’s playing all the wrong cards and we’re sweeping the floor with him in the game.

“Or maybe he fooled all of you. Maybe he didn’t decide to help you destroy his life’s work. Honestly I don’t know why you trusted him.” Frank says.

“Why do you care Frank?” I ask. “I seem to recall you left us on our own for the mission.” I know it’s because he regrets leaving, not that he will ever admit it. Before he can get a chance to make up an excuse, the doorbell rings. That’s funny, nobody ever rings the doorbell.

“I’ll get it.” I say, and make for the door. When I open it Teddy is waiting with a smile at the door.

“Hey Ryan, Jess and Thomas came and told me you had a cliff that you wanted to climb. Can we go today?” He’s eager. He’s smiling, and he walked a half mile to get to me. I look back at Jess and Thomas, they wave to me. Then I turn to Teddy, my little brother. My little brother who had forgotten me and left me for dead. I should be mad. I should yell at him for choosing a stupid dream over me, but in that moment, I can’t find a single ma thought in my head. All I can think is my brother was dead, and now he’s alive.

“Of course little brother.” I say. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do more than go climb a mountain with you.”

Epilogue

“Woohoo!” Teddy shouts as he rappels down the cliff. Jess came with me to help setup the ropes.

“He’s a great little brother.” Jess tells me. She stays up top and talks to me while Teddy descends.

“Yeah.” I say. “It’s so amazing to hear him shout with joy like that.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t angry with him.” She comments. “I heard from Thomas what happened when you went back to your family, and it sounded like his rejection put you over the edge.”

“It did.” I say, the memory stinging a little, but Teddy shouts again and the sting goes away. “But it wasn’t his fault. He was just a kid. He’s still just a kid. He was doing the only thing he ever knew how to do. I can’t hold him accountable for his actions. My parents are to blame for putting him on the pill.” Jess nods approvingly.

“That’s very mature of you.” She said. “Do you know how to dance?” She asks out of the blue.

“What?” I say. It’s a good thing Teddy has reached the bottom because I might’ve dropped him otherwise.

“Dancing, do you know how to do it?” She asks again. I have no idea where this is coming from and think very carefully about my answer. I don’t want to say something completely stupid like I did before.

“No.” I say. “Why?

“Oh that’s a shame.” She says. “Everybody should know how to dance. Here, let me show you how.” She takes my left hand, and puts hers in it. Her hands are soft, so very soft, nothing like my rough callused hands. They’re delicate too. She takes my right hand and puts it on her left shoulder blade. There isn’t more than a foot of space between us, and I feel as if I’m holding her. I feel scared to move because I don’t want to make a mistake and drive her away.

“What’s going on up there?” Teddy calls. “Can I start climbing.” I raise my voice so he can hear me, but keep my eyes fixed on Jess.

“Sorry Teddy, I’ve got to sort something out.” Jess laughs softly and says in a voice too quiet to hear.

“You know, typically there are a few steps you go through before proposing. You might try one or two.” A lion roars in my chest. I no longer feel awkward at all. I feel empowered. I feel like she trusts me to dance will with her. My brother has come back to life, and the best girl in the world, the one who supported and followed me even when she thought I was being a complete idiot or a jerk had just given me permission to try again.

I had spent so much time asleep, letting my mind create the wildest fantasies imaginable. Now here I was, in the forest, with my brother, and my girl, and couldn’t imagine ever wanting anything else.

The end

Thanks for reading Unhooked! I’m working on another longer project that’s been siting in my back pocket for a while, but if you can’t wait for that check out Letters To My Father https://samgalimore.com/2014/11/05/new-book-project/ .Or one of the shorter novellas https://samgalimore.com/2014/10/12/for-use-in-the-apocaypse-novella-version/ https://samgalimore.com/2014/10/04/man-out-of-time/

Until the next journey,

Sam

Unhooked part four

What to do first? So many possibilities, and no rush I’ve got plenty of time. Let’s start this dream out the same way this day started out, in a forest. My dream space suddenly becomes one endless sea of green. I’m sitting on a large tree branch well above the ground, but well below the canopy. I lean back against the trunk and breathe deep. I feel a breeze work it’s way through the many different towering wooden giants.

This is how things were supposed to be. The breeze doesn’t feel exactly like it should, but I don’t have a real clear memory of the breeze, so it’s okay. I also make sure not to look at the leaves too closely, because I know they won’t seem detailed enough. It’s okay though. Those are the small details, the unimportant details. The important thing is I’m here.

I decide to make things adventurous and start swinging around. I roll off the branch and fall several feet before grabbing another branch to execute a powerful swing that propels me several yards to grab the next branch and start monkey barring my way through the tree tops.

I can see why Thomas enjoyed this so much. You feel so strong and powerful, not to mention agile and quick. ‘But you’re not that strong or quick’, a voice in the back of my head tells me. I force the thought down and try and think about the sensation of rapid movement that swinging should bring, but it’s no good. The trance has been broken.

I pull myself up onto a branch and think for a moment. It’s okay that this is spoiled there’s plenty of other stuff I’d love to do. What had we done next Run into the siblings? It still hurt to think of them, not yet. That didn’t sound good. How about jogging. No that didn’t fit either. It hadn’t been an enjoyable experience at the time. Playing cards meant playing with the siblings, unless my parents wanted to play. The siblings had mentioned they played three played hearts before they’d met him. You just took out one card and passed differently. I could totally play cards with my parents.

As soon as I think it I’m in my own house, sitting at the dining room table with my parents.

“Hello Ryan. Nice place you’ve got here, seems you tidied up a bit since we were last here.” My dad says. They’re both happy as can be, as if nothing has happened.

“Thanks, I’ve looked into getting some paintings from the walls. They’re a bit bare at the moment.” I start dealing out the cards, this feels good. It’s like I’ve been wearing clothes that were too tight, and now they’ve been replaced with loose ones. I can breath easy now. This game, with may parents, in my house, with the small talk, it just feels right. This is how things should be.

“Yes I think you should.” My mom agrees. “I find some natural photography, and a few family portraits would go quite well.” Family portraits, that thought tickles my subconscious.

“You know dear.” My mom continues. “Why don’t we invite a fourth?”

“A fourth?” I say. “Sure, who could we invite.” I try to think of my siblings, but my mom speaks first before any of their names surface to my mind.

“How about Brendan, I think he’s on vacation from the presidency at the moment.” I don’t have a brother named Brendan, and he isn’t the president of anything.

A young man who looks almost exactly like me, but in a business suit pops into the fourth spot at the table.

“No!” I shout. Brendan disappears. It’s alright, just a little slip. Everything is going to be okay.

“Oh dearie.” My mom continues. “Why did you send your brother away? He’s so much like you. You two normally get along so well.”

“I don’t have a brother named Brendan!” I shout at her. “He’s not real. You made him up to replace me!” Why is this happening? This is my dream? Why can’t I control my own dream?

“Because you know that’s not how we really think about you.” My mother continues. Of course, in my head they replaced me. So when I went inside my own I still knew that they would replace me. Well that’s alright, I’ll just have to forget they replaced me.

“Mom.” I say. “Brendan isn’t here. He doesn’t exist. Now pick up your cards. We are passing to the left to start. Let’s have a nice friendly game as a friendly.”

“Of course dear.” My mother says. She’s still smiling. She’s still pretending nothing went wrong. “We can pretend Brendan isn’t real for a while if it will make you feel better.” They still think he’s real, but that’s okay. It’ll all fade in a moment. This is just inside my head, so if I just keep telling myself it’ll happen, then it’ll happen.

“Thank you, dad, I’m passing these three cards to you.” I slide the cards and look at the ones mom gave me. Maybe if I focus on the game then I’ll forget all about Brendan. I heard a trick once that if you want to stop thinking about something you should try and recite something long and complicated from memory. It was all about filling your brain with other things, so I would just fill my brain with strategy and memorizing cards, and I wouldn’t think about Brendan.

“Pink elephants.” My father says, playing his first card.

“What?” I asked. Confused, but glad that it’s distracting me from thinking about Brendan.

“Once someone tells you not to think about pink elephants, you immediately think about pink elephants.” He says.

“What’s your point?” I ask.

“My point is you’re still thinking about Brendan, and you are trying too hard to not think about him so of course you’ll just keep finding yourself thinking about Brendan. “ I throw my cards on the table.

“Oh dear you shouldn’t have done that.” My mom said. “I had the most dreadful hand. You surely would have come out on top of that.”

“Enough talk about Brendan!” I shout again. I can’t keep raising my voice. This is isn’t good for me.

“Can we please just stop talking about Brendan?” I beg my mother. “You’re here. You’re with your son. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that what parents want?”

My mother a sympathetic look. It was the look she used to give me if I got a bad grade on an important exam at school. She reached across the table, and in a very maternal nurturing voice said.

“But sweetie. We can’t stop thinking about Brendan because he’s better than you.” She started patting my hand and I felt the need to throw it away, but she wasn’t done talking. “Didn’t you see him? He looks just like you because we replaced you with him.” I started to choke up and shake.

“You know that, you saw how we’ve forgotten about you. Didn’t you see how we didn’t follow you out the door when you left in the real world? We could see you were hurt, we just didn’t care sweetie.” I close my eyes. I can’t take this anymore. I slam my fist down on the table, and everything fragments like shattered glass. The table, my parents, my house, the cards, all of it shatters and disappears, except for my chair. I sit on my chair in a white void shaking.

“How could they do that? How could they do that to one of their own children.” I clench and unclench my fists. I want to hit something, but there’s nothing around. “That’s okay. There are other people. It doesn’t have to be my parents. I can still be happy here. I can still move on.”

I’m on the top of the cliffs I had rappelled down in real life. There is a rope system already setup. Teddy is on one side of the rope, ready to rappel down the mountain, and I’m on the other ready to lower him down.

“Are you ready Teddy?” I ask. He looks over the side.

“Are there any taller ones?” He asks.

“No Teddy, not anywhere near here.” I respond.

“I want something taller.” He demands sitting down and crossing his arms to emphasize his rebellion.

“It’s not the height that matters Teddy. It’s just that you’re here with me right?”

“I want something taller.” Teddy says again. Not Teddy too, not my own brother. This idea that he doesn’t want me either can’t be buried that deep in my head.

“Come on Teddy, it’s me. All that matters is that I’m here right?”

“I want something taller.” Teddy says again. I bite my lip.

“Teddy please, I made this for you. I went through all this work and came back for you so you do this.”

“I want something taller.” He says. I starting clenching my fists. What if I take him to Everest or to Mars? It’s my own dream, I can totally take him there, or even make my own mountain that’s even taller.

“I still won’t be there for you.” Teddy says. “I just want mountains. I don’t care about you. I can’t take it. I turn and punch a tree. If it were real I would’ve broken a few fingers, but instead everything just shatters again, leaving me floating in a white landscape again.

“I have to find something good.” I tell myself. “I have to find something that isn’t going to cast me out.” I can feel anger starting to turn to sadness, and I need to be angry for a little while yet. I need the energy to find something good.

“What hasn’t turned me away? What doesn’t think of me as just some tool in their imagination to twist and change until it’s not me anymore.” I think of the siblings. “Of course, they are the ones that showed me another way. Each one of them showed me compassion and a willingness to lead me out of the dream. I left them for this, but they could still care about me at least a little.” I’m in the lake with all three of the siblings, swimming around in waste deep water.

“Oh thank goodness.” I say. “At least you guys can be here.” Frank is looking serious, Thomas has a ridiculous clown’s grin, and Jess looks like she’s just seen something beautiful. It’s absurd for them to be wearing those expressions while swimming, and they seem fixed in place, even when they start talking their expressions don’t change.

“Of course we’re here.” Frank says. “You darn well brought us here so of course here we will be.”

“Yeah dude.” Thomas says while flipping onto his back and swimming circles around me. “We have no control. You’ve taken our free will man, we will be whatever you want us to be.”

“Yeah babe.” Jess says, slowly and deliberately swimming towards me. “We’ll be whatever you want us to be. We’re just clay to you. You can shape us into whatever you want.” No, no, Jess isn’t clay.

“No you’re not! You’re a human being Jess. You’re smart and funny and nobody can tell you what to do.” She’s within an arm’s reach now. She straightens up in the water, and glides in closer.

“No we’re not.” She says. “We’re puppets. You’ve destroyed what we were because we didn’t do exactly what we wanted.” She’s only a foot away now, and she’s looking at my lips, and she’s closed her eyes. “We’ll be whatever you want Ryan.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” I just repeat. How can I do this to them? What’s wrong with me? I have to stop, but I can’t stop because I want this too much. Jess is so close I can feel her breath. I can’t do this to her, not to her. I’ll never forgive myself.

Her eyes shoot open and her face suddenly changes to a bland expression. “Wake up Ryan.” She says.

My eyes, my real eyes shoot open and I sit bolt upright sweating a storm and gasping. Sitting on the bed next to me is jess, and behind her, watching me with expressions full of concern, are Frank and Thomas.

Without think about what I’m doing I pull Jess down into a bear hug so tight her back cracks.

“I’m so sorry Jess.” I say in a hoarse whisper. “I’m so sorry.” She rubs my back in slow circles.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’re here. You didn’t do anything.” Her voice is soft and reassuring.

“Well, nothing significant anyway.” Thomas says. Frank elbows him.

“Yes I did.” I croak out. They don’t know what I had been doing in the dream. To them, this group of such supporting people. “I was in the dream, and all of you were there with me. We were at..”

“Stop.” Jess says. “It was a lucid dream right?” She feels me nod my head.

“Then you knew it was a dream. So you knew what you were doing you weren’t really doing to us. You still knew who we were, and judging by how much you’re shaking you know that those people in your dream weren’t us. You made a decision Ryan. You made a decision to come back to us.” She says, still rubbing my back.

“You chose us man.” Thomas says. I am forced to laugh a little. Everyone else in my dream seemed exaggerated, but Thomas was still pretty much the same.

“What about the whole proposal thing?” I ask.

“You mean you running out the door while we were still stunned and overwhelmed?” Frank says. “Yeah we were still stunned and overwhelmed. Specifically, Jess had to deal with the memory of her family, the recent loss of yours, and now this incredibly unexpected and poorly executed display of affection. Thomas Had just had to witness what your family did, and he doesn’t do well with social pressure, and I was mad at the world that everyone I cared about had their lives made more difficult.”

“We would’ve gotten here sooner but you were kind of hard to find.” Jess tells me. I feel better enough that I push her off and we sit on the side of the bed together.

“You never told us where you Ryan.” Thomas says. “And I only have been to your parents once. We had to retrace my footsteps to your parents, get them to tell us where you live. We then had to try and make sense of their bad directions because they don’t come by very often. Lastly we had to figure out which house was yours by just knocking on a bunch of different doors because your parents didn’t even give us an address. I mean we would’ve taken even longer if that one pane of glass by your door hadn’t allowed us to unlock it so easily.” I am grateful that my rage led to something productive.

“In the end.” Frank says. “You were recently unhooked. You are still figuring out how the world works. Your actions today were childish, but in a lot ways you still are a child. A child who was recently thrown out by his parents, so understandably you’ve made some bad decisions.”

“Thank you.” I say.

“Look, we aren’t perfect either.” Frank says. “All of us have slipped up from time to time. The idea of a world where you have total control is tempting, and we all slip up. What we’ve learned to do is move on. You’re awake with us now, so whatever happened before we’re going to forget.” I’m eager to forget the past hour or so, so moving on should be easy.

“I wish it wasn’t like this.” I say. “The pills. They seem to tear apart everything.”

“I know.” Thomas says. “As long as there are pills, we’re gonna fight like this. People are going to hook back in, and people who unhook are going to have to realize a lot of painful truths.”

“What if there weren’t pills?” I asked.

“It would be nice.” Jess said. “If only the things had never been invented.” I looked at the bottle of pills still on the night stand. It was amazing how such little things could have such far reaching consequences.

“We can’t uninvent them, but we can destroy them.” I say, grabbing the bottle.

“That’s a good idea.” Jess says. “If you destroy your supply you shouldn’t be tempted anymore.”

“I didn’t mean these pills.” I said. “I meant all the pills. I want to take down the corporation that manufactures these abominations.” I walk to my bathroom and empty the vial into the sink, flushing the poison down the drain.

“That’s…. extreme.” Frank said.

“It’s what I’ve been getting at for year Franks.” Thomas counters. “They have to be stopped. The government is keeping us under with these pills, and if we don’t stop our fellow human beings they’ll sleep their lives away.”

“That’s their choice.” Franks says.

“Yeah right, you really think virtually 100% of the population decides to do one thing? How come we only have about one person every six months unhook in this town? And when they do they shortly move somewhere else? Doesn’t that seem like a bit of a coincidence to you?” I lean on the frame of the bathroom door and watch the exchange.

I knew Thomas would be in. After the talk he had there was no doubt. Frank and Jess I wasn’t so sure about. Jess could come because of how bad the pills had damaged her life. Frank might come just to protect us.

“They moved because they wanted to live in the wild away from civilization.” Frank counters. “We gave them camping and hunting gear so they could survive in a place where they wouldn’t be tempted to take pills anymore.” Their voices are rising. I can tell this is a an old argument that’s been brought up several times.

“And none of them ever make it back to tell us how that goes?” Thomas asks.

“They probably get lost. We don’t really have much in the way of maps or navigational gear, and even if we did they’d probably lose it, break it, or just flat out wouldn’t be able to use it.” Frank counters.

“Frank, you can justify and explain it as much as you want.” I step in. “But at the end of the day if these pills are gone everyone gets their parents, brothers, sisters, and friends back.” Frank turns on me, and holds my gaze. It’s like staring down a lion. He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t say anything, until I glance at Jess just to avoid meeting his gaze.

“Did you know the earth was running out of resources Ryan?” He asks me. His tone is cool. He’s not angry. He’s stating hard facts. This isn’t easy for him.

“Many scientists were predicting that in the next hundred years or so we’d run out of natural resources and people would start starving to death. Our technology would run out of fuel, and our medicine would fail because of it. Humanity would fall in one gigantic plague ridden pile.” He points to the sink.

“Those pills saved us.” Jess gets up and comes to stand by me. I thought we would have to have a protracted argument to sway Jess. With those words, Frank did it for us. Jess may not have been for something as aggressive as I was proposing, but she couldn’t support someone who said the pills saved us.

“Did they save mom and dad?” Jess asks quietly. “What about John, Rosie, and Robert? Did the pills save them Frank.” This remark hits Frank hard. He looks down and turns to give his next argument to Thomas.

“In a way they did. Without the pills maybe our parents would not have had enough to feed us growing up. When we are only awake 4 hours a day you hardly need anything to eat or drink. You don’t need a lot of space to play around, and you need way less to entertain you. Jess.” He says, gathering up the courage to face her. “You’re the third child. Without the pills our parents might not have had you.” Jess doesn’t blink.

“Frank, they didn’t have me. I have no parents.” That comment finishes Frank. He turns to leave.

“You do what you must. I won’t stop you, but I won’t help you either.” He leaves the bedroom and makes his way to my front door. “I’m grabbing some supplies for a three day camping trip. If you’re not done with what you’re going to do in three days.” He fiddles with the door knob. “I’ll be back in three days.” And with that, Frank is gone.

Thomas and I look to Jess. Neither of us expected her to get on our side so quickly. Jess looks back to me with a challenge in her eyes.

“I just watched by big brother who always looks out for me even when my parents wouldn’t walk out the door and leave me to my devices. What are we going to do?” She demands.

“Well.” I say, now a little deflated after all the emotion that has been dominating my life. “Uh, you guys have guns right?” Now Thomas is looking a little worried.

“Oh come on Thomas. What did you think we were going to do?” I ask.

“I’m not going to kill anyone Ryan. I hate that so many people are hooked just as much as you, but I’m sure most of the people involved with the pills is innocent. Certainly anyone we are going to get access to is going to be oblivious to what’s going on.” He says.

“That’s not what I’m proposing.” I say. “The guns are just to give us authority, to scare the people who we are going to uh, talk to.”

“Talk to?” Jess asks.

“I haven’t exactly planned it out yet.” I admit. “I work with information technology. We can use some of the systems at my disposal to gather intel, and then we can act on it.” Jess and Thomas have been through a lot together. They have learned to read each other very well. One glance at each other and they know they are both thinking the same thing.

“Alright, tell us what to do.” Jess says.

“Good, great, here’s what we’re going to do. Go back to your place and brings plenty of ropes, guns, binoculars, pepper spray if you got it, and anything that you can use to cause explosions or mayhem.” Thomas and Jess looked unsure of themselves. It was so different from when I had first met them. They had been so full of self-confidence and energy, now they looked more like I had when we had first met. Not certain what was going to happen, and afraid it was not going to turn out for the better.

“What are you going to do?” Jess asks.

“I’m going to stay here and start on the intel. My laptop is attached to some security protocols that will only let me into certain systems if I log in from this physical location. It’s GPS security, and if I move my laptop it won’t work” It was actually pretty sensitive. The GPS range was smaller than that of my Wi-Fi, so if I went too far outback it would cut out.

“Okay.” Thomas says. “I’ll need a little extra time to prepare some things, but Jess should be back with some guns to train you on.”

“Hang on, we’re not going to be shooting any people. Can’t you just leave my gun off?” Thomas looks like I’ve just suggested he just stop breathing for a few minutes because the noise is bothering me.

“Leave the gun off? You must’ve never watched any action movies. We aren’t going to be shooting any people, but that’s the point. You need to know how to operate these things safely, and if heaven forbid you have to pull the trigger. Well, you should know how to do that too. Come on Jess.” The two depart, and I’m left alone.

“Okay, time to take down an international corporation with just a few friends some guns, and without shooting anyone. Cool.” I turn on my laptop and setup my connection so it’s nearly impossible for someone to trace whose making these searches. When I’ve covered my tracks, I fire up a search engine. First, basic information, I look through the company website, and their Wikipedia pages to try and find out how the company works. I find a list of their locations and see there’s a manufacturing facility nearby.

There are about twelve manufacturing facilities in my country. So taking this one down won’t put much of a dent in overall production, but it should at least interrupt supplies for a few days. I’m sure they’ve got some emergency backups in case a facility goes down, but probably not many. The world is pretty efficient since it’s run largely automated and most of the people in it are knocked out so there isn’t a lot of need for things like emergency supplies. Still, I look at their other facilities, and even if we only get a few days, that should be enough to force at least some people to unhook. Not to mention in the long run there may be intermittent shortages until they can build another factory, which should take months. Their supplies probably don’t count on a facility being destroyed.

Now I know what we’re doing, eliminating one of their factories, but I still need to figure out how. At that point Jess came in.

“Hey, I’ve got some basic rifles and pistols. Let’s head down to the forest and get you shooting.” She hefts a bag that looks full of all sorts of tools of destruction.

“In a minute Jess, first I’d like your input on something, can you come in here for a miunte?”

“Sure.” She says, and sits down next to me. I have the image of the facility on my screen.

“See this?” I ask indicating the screen.

“Yeah.” She says.

“That’s our target. This is one of the twelve manufacturing facilities for the pill. We’re going to destroy it.” I fully expect this to shock Jess and I’m prepared to defend my decision.

“Sounds good, we’ll clear out the workers first right?” she asks.

“Um yeah, yeah we will.” I say, confused that she’s taking this so well. “You seem pretty okay with the idea of blowing up a building.”

“Me and Thomas guessed you were going to suggest something like this. He’s preparing some stuff to take a building down.” She says.

“Preparing some stuff to take a building down? Do you guys just have that kind of stuff lying around?” I ask. I note how many guns she’s brought, and feel very glad that these people are on my side.

“You’d be surprised what you can make with household supplies. I think I know what he’s making, and I saw the stuff you could use to put it together on the walk over. It’s not hard if you know what you’re doing.” I’m really really glad I’m on their side.

“Well then, um, anyway, my question was I’ve still got two problems. How do we clear the people out of the building? I mean, if we’re going to burn it down we can’t exactly pull the fire alarm, and I really would prefer not to risk going in their with guns blazing telling everyone to get out. We get just one person who panics or makes a dumb decision under stress, and well, I don’t want to think about it.” Jess picks up a pistol from the bag and looks it over.

“Can we just break in at night?” I ask.

“Two problems with that. First, twenty-four hour shifts, as far this place is concerned, there is no night. Second, this place has got to be rigged with alarms, so if we break in we’re going to get the police. Unless you two know how to disable or sneak past industrial grade security systems?” Jess shakes her head. “I thought not.”

Jess puts down the pistol and looks carefully at the screen. “Did you ever watch any videos about how sort of factory work happens?” She asks.

“No.” I respond.

“Well, I’ve seen one or two. We thought about working in some a while back. Anyway, any kind of industrial production place like this is going to have a lot of safety mechanisms in place. They probably work with very large volumes of stuff that’s capable of burning, corroding, poisoning, or just crushing you. So there’s always a very well established safety network in the inevitable event that something bad happens.”

“What does all this have to do with getting everyone out of the facility?” I ask.

“Everyone is taught to cooperate with safety, so all we have to do is get someone with authority to report something that will get the facility shut down for a while, plant our charges, and get out.” She says.

“Which means we are going to have to find someone with authority and threaten them with guns.” I say. Jess looks uncomfortable when I say the word threaten.

“I really don’t want to bring other people into this at all, but I don’t see any other way. We could try reporting a gas leak, but that’ll get the fire department called. We could make a bomb threat or something, but that would get the police. Anything that’s an outside threat big enough to cause a building evacuation is going to attract either the police or the fire department. The only option the way I see it, is to get someone inside the building to convince anyone else to leave.” She picks up a rifle slowly, holding it in her lap. “I don’t like it Ryan, but we’re going to have to threaten someone to make this happen.” She picks up the rifle and looks down the sights. “Besides, someone in authority might be in on whatever system they’re using to keep people on the pills. I don’t know if it’s something they’re adding to make them addictive, or just pressure form the government but we’ll find out, and then we can maybe expose them or use the information to better take them down.” Someone’s going to have a gun pointed at them before too much longer. I have had several dreams where I used guns, but now it would be for real. For real, that phrase, this was the first time since I had been unhooked that I had used it in a negative way.

“Come on Ryan. Let’s get going to the forest. The sooner we get you trained. The sooner we can get this over with.” Jess says. She hefts the bag, and we’re off.

“I want to say one thing.” I tell Jess. “I won’t shoot anyone. When I was put under by the pill this last time.” She looks at me, concern on her face.

“You don’t have to tell me Ryan. Whatever it was, I know you didn’t mean it, and I forgive you.” She says, touching my shoulder. “Really, it’s okay.”

“Thank you, but this is relevant. When I was put under by the pill this last time I did what my family did to me. I made you into different people. I felt like I had destroyed you in my mind, and it felt horrible to destroy someone psychologically like that, or to even consider doing it. I can’t imagine how much more horrible it would be to destroy someone physically. I don’t think I could live with myself.”

“I couldn’t either.” She tells me. “You’ll see in a minute that a lot of training to use guns for private use means training to not use them on people. It’s pretty deeply ingrained. I won’t shoot anyone over this. I’ll turn myself in first. These.” She taps the bag. “Are just for show. We’ll prepare them in such a way that they won’t be ‘turned on’ so to speak.” Good, I wasn’t prepared to become a murderer over this.

“Well, since it’s going to take a minute for us to get far enough away from civilization so that no one can hear us. Let me give you a basic run down on gun operation.” She pulls a pistol out of her bag.

“This is a 40 caliber pistol. For you that means if you hit someone in the chest with it they’re probably done. They might not know it yet, but they’re done.” I made myself not draw a mental image of what that would look like.

“This is the barrel, you do not point this at something you do not intend to shoot, ever, under any circumstances.” She says.

“Okay.” I respond.

“I mean ever, seriously, first rule of guns, even when it’s unloaded like this one. You never point this at something you aren’t willing to shoot. I’ve never pointed a gun at myself or my brothers, ever.” She says.

“Okay, understood, never, ever, under any circumstances point a gun at something you won’t shoot, even an unloaded gun.” I repeat dutifully.

“Good, that brings us to the next basic point, always treat a gun like it’s loaded. I know you can see the chamber is open and the gun lock is place, but you never assume that’s the case. As far as you’re concerned, this has a bullet in it at all times, and it could go off.” She points to several parts of the pistol as she says this.

“What’s a gun lock?” I ask She points to an orange thing visible on the middle of the gun.

“This goes in the chamber, oh shoot you probably don’t know any names of gun parts do you?” She asks.

“They have barrels right?” I ask. I wish I could say I was being sarcastic, but I really wasn’t sure.

“Funny.” She says. “Here, let me use a rifle. It’s bigger and I’m a little more familiar with them.” She puts down the bag we’re carrying the guns in, and takes out a rifle. She does something to it to take out the orange thing, leaving one long, black, sleek looking weapon. As she begins to run through naming parts and functions I have time to reflect that this is the first time I’ve seen a gun. They featured prominently in several of my dreams, but I had never so much as held on. It looked about the same I would imagine, and it had an aura about it. It felt dangerous. In books and movies guns were only present when people got hurt or killed. That was their purpose, to hurt or kill. I had to remind myself these were just for show.

“Okay, bullet.” She pulls a small brass thing the size of her pinkie out of the bag. I’m shocked they aren’t bigger. I find it hard to believe that thing can cause damage, but I know that I can’t underestimate this thing. “This is what the gun shoots. It goes in the magazine.” She pulls a black cartridge out of her bag that’s about the size of her hand. “Don’t call it a clip. We haven’t used clips in a hundred years. Anyway, magazine goes in the gun.” She loads it into a slot in the gun. “Release the bolt catch to chamber a round.” She presses a switch on the side of the gun and the gun makes a loud clacking sound that makes me jump a little. “You flip the safety to off.” She indicates a lever on the side of the gun, and flips it. “And you’re ready to fire.”

“It’s more complicated than I had imagined.” I say.

“Yeah, most people think that guns practically shoot themselves. If I just hadn’t you bullets, a rifle, and a magazine, it would like you quite a while to figure out how to put them all together right. Especially if the gun isn’t stored the way this one is. I didn’t even talking about locking the bolt back or clearing a jam, or anything.” I can tell it’s going to be a long day.

About thirty minutes later we’re laying down beside a lake, and I’ve setup my gun one some rocks to balance it. I’ve got the stock of the gun pressed into my shoulder and am looking down the sights into the lake. It’s a pretty big target, but Jess says since we aren’t going to shoot anyone, all I need to know is how to operate one, and the lake will make sure the bullets don’t ricochet anywhere and hurt someone. I then ask why I have shoot it at all, and she just tells me that I’ll understand better once I’ve fired it. Until I actually pull the trigger it’s just some magic thing that hurts people who are far away. Once you have actually shot, it becomes a tool.

“Besides.” She says. “You’re probably going to come hunting with us, so you might as well learn the right way to use these things now.”

The gun feels like a bomb. Part of me thinks it can kill someone just by being near it, like some vengeful spirit inhabits the gun. It feels wrong to be holding it too. I half expect any minute for some police officers to come running out of the woods to arrest us.

She teaches me a breathing exercise. She says it’s for when I actually fire the gun, and that may be true, but I think she can see I’m a little shaken and need to calm down.” Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out, hold your breath, then squeeze the trigger.” She makes me practice with my finger off the trigger several times, and then she lets me put my finger on the trigger. She gives me some final instructions

“Now two last things. First, it’s going to kick, not very hard, because this gun only first one fairly small round, and only fires one gun per trigger pull, but be prepared for it to hit you in the shoulder. Second, it’s going to be loud. We’re outside so the sound will dissipate a good bit, but it’s still going to be one of the louder things you’ve heard in your life. Okay, whenever you’re ready, pull the trigger.” I start her breathing exercise.

Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out, hold, and slowly my finger depresses the trigger. ‘Blam!’The sound is so shocking my finger leaves the trigger and I almost drop the gun. She had said it would be loud, but it was like someone had just yelled in my ear. I barely notice a piece of brass that goes flying out of the gun and lands a foot or two away. I don’t see at all where the bullet goes. The thing had come alive with motion too. It had kicked back into my shoulder, and the barrel had kicked up. It was like the thing was trying to jump out of my hands.

“Ow!” I say. Jess laughs and punches my shoulder.

“I told you it was going to be loud. No one ever believes just how loud it’s going to be until they see it. Bet you’ll think twice next time you see an action movie won’t you?” She teases. “Alright, we’re going to finish the ammo in your magazine first.”

“Do I have to?” I jokingly ask. This was a fairly frightening experience.

“Yeah you big baby, now come on. This time, watch where the bullet hits the water.” I shake my head and sight down the barrel again. Okay, this time I’m ready. It takes two full clips before I can fire shots with anything like regularity or accuracy. My body just flinches from the shot every time.

“Nice shooting.” Jess finally says after about the sixtieth bullet. “It’s different now isn’t it?” She asks. At first I don’t know what she’s talking about. Them I start to feel it. The gun doesn’t seem like some unknown entity that just hurts people for no reason. It takes a deliberate set of actions to make it hurt someone, and it takes a deliberate person who wants to hurt someone. I understand now. I haven’t been handed a magical killing device. It’s just like a knife, or a brick. It still takes intent to cause suffering. I still feel fear towards it, but it’s not a childlike fear of a ghost. It’s an adult fear of causing permanent irreparable damage to your fellow man.

“Yes. It is. It’s different.” I say. I start taking the gun apart and storing it without instruction from her.

“Let’s get this done.” I tell her.

Unhooked part three

“Your family.” She says, her voice entirely dead pan.

“Yeah, I got a younger brother who dreams about this stuff all the time. I’m sure he’d love to come along for this.” She doesn’t respond. I can tell it’s rubbed her the wrong way. Thomas joins us and high fives me, tries to high five Jess, then stops when she just stares at him with her arms at her sides.

“What is it sis?” Thomas asks. “Did he throw something smelly at you?”

“He wants to bring his family.” She says. I can tell she’s upset, but I can’t read her emotions. Is she mad?

“Alright man!” Thomas exclaims, turning to high five me again. “Are they unhooked too? You should have told us sooner we could’ve brought’em all out.”

“Are they unhooked Ryan?” Jess asks. Her tone still as unreadable as a martian bible.

“No, they’re not. Not yet anyway, but when they hear about how wonderful life out here is they won’t be able to resist coming out.” Jess bites her lip and turn away. Thomas actually takes a second to think and scratches his head.

“Yeah, that’s great. Sure.” Thomas says. Jess turns back.

“How old are your parents Ryan?” She demands, I can hear some anger in her voice now, but that’s not the only emotion.

“They’re in their late forties.” I reply hesitantly. I wish Frank was here all of the sudden. Jess was getting wired up, and Thomas had decided to thoroughly examine the rope we had just descended.

“So they were alive when the pill was introduced.” She said.

“Yes, but I don’t see what that has to..”

“They took it willingly Ryan.” She said. “They saw the life they had, and they decided they’d rather imagine a new life than live in the one they were handed.” Her eyes are reddening. I can see now the other emotion is pain. The same thing happened to her parents, and now I had brought that up again.

“They took their own dreams over the people that cared about them.” She choked and had to brush something out of her eyes.

“But maybe the world is different now. Maybe they’ll be happy with it, or least my siblings will. They were never really offered a choice by my parents. If I tell them what it’s like out here and that they can come out whenever they want then I think they’ll take that opportunity.” Jess bit her lip, and just turned and walked off into the forest. I picked this activity to get closer to her, and now I’ve chased her off. I may not be childishly afraid anymore, but it looks like I am really dumb.

“Sorry about that.” Thomas says. “It was hardest on her. Me and Frank knew our family would never go for it. Me being rebellious it didn’t really bother me, and Frank just knew our parent’s well enough to know they wouldn’t go for it. Jess wasn’t like that. She honestly believed they would come with us into the real world. If it wasn’t for her we probably wouldn’t have even talked to our parents about it before leaving.” He looked into the woods where Jess had left.

“So when we had the conversation, and they opted to stay, she took it super hard. It was her who started the whole ‘dead to us’ thing.”

“Oh.” I say. “I just stuck my foot so far in my mouth that I’ll need a doctor to extract it.”

“Pretty much.” He agrees. “Besides that it’s just not going to work.” He tells me.

“How can you know that?” I say. “You guys seem to assume it’s a foregone conclusion that people just want to stay hooked. What if they just need a little encouragement to free themselves? I mean if you guys had found me earlier I would’ve done this a long time ago.” Thomas is squirming. He really does not do well with serious conversations and this one is clearly paining him.

“Look Ryan. I know how it feels. You’ve found something great and you want everyone else to experience it too. I get it, but I’m telling you, and I know Frank and Jess would say the same thing. They’re not gonna listen. Jess will tell you it’s because they think the world is worse than it is. Frank will tell you it’s because they they’re scared of a world with consequences, and I think it’s because there’s something in the pills that makes them want to stay under, but all of us will agree, they’re gone man. They aren’t gonna come back because you ask them to.”

I shake my head. “Even if that’s true. I have to try. They’re my family, and I have to believe they’ll give it a shot.” Thomas shrugs.

“I think it’s going to cause a lot of unnecessary hurt, but if you really need to hear them they no in order to move on, then I’ll go with you.” Thomas says.

“Thanks Thomas.” I glance off into the woods. “Is there anything we can do about Jess?” I ask.

“I’m afraid not.” Thomas says. “At least there’s nothing you can do. Frank has a way of calming her down. Here, let’s go back up and tell him what went wrong. He can go comfort Jess, and we can go see your family. It’ll all be over in an hour or two and we can move on.” This plan sounds good. I wish it was me comforting Jess. I brought this up. I should have to clean it up, but Frank does know her better, and if I really want to help her I’ll let Frank do it.

“Okay.” I agree. “That sounds good. Let’s get started.” Thomas rubs his hands together.

“Right, there’s a path back up to the top a little ways down. We like to climb places that have routes up and down besides just rope.” Thomas leads the way up.

We find Frank leaning against a tree and breathing deep at the top.

“Hey slow pokes. What’s the matter. Did Ryan get cold feet halfway up?” He jeers. It’s a sign of how unpleasant things are that Frank has become the one talking smack.

“Not exactly Frank.” Thomas says. “Ryan wants to convince his family to unhook, and Jess took that pretty hard, brought up those old memories.” Frank stands up in a hurry and rushes to hook himself into the rope system.

“She’s at the bottom right?” He asks. “Which way did she go?” Thomas points. “Okay, you take care of Ryan. I’ll go calm Jess down.”

“Okay, we’re going to go see his family. We will meet you back at the house.” Thomas says.

“Right, meet you at the house.” Without another word he hops over the side and rappels down to the bottom.

“It’s got to be nice to have such a caring brother.” I say.

“Yeah, he can be a real pain sometimes, but you know you can always count on him to be there for you. Let’s go Ryan. The sooner you get this over with the better.” I tell Thomas where my house can be found, and we start off.

For about half a mile neither of us says anything. Thomas is probably thinking about Jess and if she’s going to be okay. I find myself thinking about my parents and the stories I’m going to tell them. I’m sure they’ll love to hear there is a pretty girl in my new group of friends, and how we’ve been learning to swim and climb rocks. Not to mention getting into shape. Parents were usually concerned about health I’m sure they’d love that.

The walk begins to get uncomfortable, and I need to find a conversation topic to break the silence.

“So why do you think that there’s something in the pills keeping people addicted?” I ask Thomas.

“A couple reasons.” He says. “First, this has happened before. The cigarettes of old had addictive substances added to them to keep customers hooked.”

“But those weren’t medical pills were they?” I counter. “The REM pills were originally designed to treat sleeping disorders, it wasn’t until after they’d already passed clinical trials that people began to use them to dream all the time.”

“You’re right, or at least based on the evidence you’ve been given you’re right.” Thomas says.

“What do you mean the information I’ve been given? Have you been given different information?” I ask.

“No.” Thomas says. “I read the same information and was taught the same things as you growing up, but that information was provided to you by a government that has most of its citizenry sneaking. Have you ever heard of information about a drug being withheld for the public? It’s not uncommon for a company to release a drug they know has negative side affects, but won’t say anything for years, or until people start dying. You don’t think they could hide that these things were unnaturally addictive?” He has a point. I had heard that before all the world’s scientists had started taking REM pills and abandoned their research that exactly the sort of thing Thomas was describing happened all the time.

“Still, you don’t think the government would just shut it down after a time? These people’s take away people’s productivity, wouldn’t the government shut it down after a while? Our medical monitoring was excellent. I’m sure the CDC or WHO would catch it before it spread as far as it has.” This conversation smelled of conspiracy theories.

“Why would they? The first generation pills only put people under for eight hours. The fact that they had lucid dreams was medically insignificant, and their approval for over the counter use made it so that law enforcement couldn’t arrest people for using them too much. If agriculture had shut down maybe the government would have stepped in, but people who spend their time out in the fields growing things were very resistant to the idea of sleeping all the time, and by that time transportation had become fully automated. The people were getting fed and shuffled around, and there were enough other people who stayed unhooked to keep things running, but really, all the world going to sleep did was halt scientific progress, and if people didn’t want more progress because things worked, would the government really have a problem? He just threw a whopper at me. There was a lot to that. I considered his points line by line. It was true that there was no problem the pill’s caused, and laziness was not a crime, so really, what could the government do?

“Something still doesn’t make sense. Who stands to gain from this. The whole world is asleep, in a way, most of the world has died, who stands to gain from that?” I ask Thomas.

“Politicians and the corporation who makes the pill, which is why they’ve worked together.” Thomas replies. His argument is approaching its final climactic conclusion. “The current people in the current government haven’t been challenged since the pill come along. The party that was in power became wildly popular once the pill hit the market. The opposition had misread the signs and had thought opposing the pill would bring them the value voters. They were mistaken. Everyone wanted the pill, and we basically became a one party country after the opposition was annihilated in the next election. Since they’ve done nothing but cycle through members when someone dies. Did you know all term limits have been removed so a politician can stay in power as long as they want. They funded the pill to make us happy and sedate us. Now they’ve got a docile populace who not only doesn’t want to revolt, but can’t. The zombie voting block is so large that they carry every election effortlessly.”

It makes sense. I would check the term limits, but I knew he was right. Ever since the pill government had become unchallenged. There were no wars, because there weren’t any soldiers to threaten and topple governments, and there were no revolts because the parties in power were supported by the vast majority of the population. It was a perfectly balanced system.

“But wouldn’t they get bored?” I ask. “What’s a government without a citizenry to govern? I mean surely once they realized they couldn’t do anything wouldn’t they outlaw the pill and wake people back up. Surely an unhappy populace is better than one that’s practically dead.”

“They still govern.” Thomas tells me. “Not like they used to sure, but I’m sure you can appreciate that your expectations change to fit your circumstances. Earlier today you were panicking from some shortness of breath from a run. Now you’re whooping for joy as you repel off cliffs. They still pass laws about international commerece, and there are trade wars now. Nobody fires a shot, but all the major countries are making deals, blackmailing each other, and placing bans on various products. It’s never enough to concern the voters or cause interest, but it makes them feel important. There is still a great international competition. Only instead of chess where any move could start a war or cause a country’s downfall. It’s become a mutant version of monopoly where no one runs out of money.” I had to admit. I was coming around to his way of thinking.

“That’s pretty shocking.” I say.

“As shocking as 98% of the population being asleep 20 hours a day, and the ones that are awake are on their own isolated farms minding their own business without a care in the world? It wasn’t too long ago where men killing each other, and getting diseases from out were the leading cause of death. Now it’s heart disease and aneurisms from the REM pills. We used to die with our boots on fighting to make a better world. Now we die quietly in our beds, dreaming about a different world than our ancestors fought for because we think we’re too good for it.” Thomas spits to the side of the path, and I am tempted to join him.

“We’re almost there.” I tell him.

My parents live in a townhouse, much the same as everyone else. I ring the doorbell and wait with Thomas. It’s a ominous. Maybe because of the conversation me and Thomas just had, or maybe because of Jess’ reaction to my suggestion, but I can’t help but feel something is wrong. I have to ring three times before my dad finally answers the door.

“Hey Ryan, haven’t seen you in a while, come one in, have a seat. We were just starting our next REM cycle, but we can spare a few minutes.” He calls up the stairs to my mom. “Hey Brianna come and join us, it’s Ryan.” We walk into the kitchen and have a seat around the table.

“So Ryan, whose your friend?” My father asks as my mom starts down the stairs.

“Oh, this is Thomas.” I say.

“Hello Mr. Ryan’s dad.” Thomas says, managing to regain a portion of his normal jovialness he shakes my father’s hand. “And Mrs. Ryan’s mom.” He shakes her hand as well.

“So Ryan, what brings you back?” My father asks.

“It’s actually got something to do with Thomas actually.” Thomas gives me a fearful glance. “You see, he’s shown me a new world. There’s beautifully detailed trees, wonderfully cool and refreshing lakes, and exhilarating cliffs to climb on.” My parents look like they can’t wait to hear the next words that will come out of my mouth, Thomas is gripping his chair tightly and periodically glancing towards the door as if to reassure himself of a way of escape.

“There’s even this wonderful girl there. She’s funny and energetic and she knows all this cool stuff.” My parents exchange a meaningful glance, and my dad puts his arm around my mom.

“That’s great Ryan.” My mom says.

“Yeah, where did you hear about this place. You’ll have to tell us more so we can dream about it too.” My mom pulls away slightly from my dad. “Except for the girl of course.” My father adds quickly, and my mother settles back in.

“That’s just it.” I say. “It’s not an imaginary place. It’s real. And I want you and my brothers and sisters to come with me. We can work slightly longer shifts to afford the gear, and we can all spend much more time together.”

“But Ryan sweetie, we already spend so much time together.” My mother says.

“Yes son, we incorporate you into most of our dreams. We were actually having a family dinner in our dream before you woke us up. But if you want us to dream about this place we can certainly do that for you.” My father says.

“No, no, that’s not what I meant.” I say. Thomas is now studying the table in front of him very carefully.

“I want you guys to come with me in the real world, outside of the dream.” They look confused.

“Why would we do that? Can’t you just bring pictures or something?” My mother asks.

“No.” It’s like explaining a word problem to a five year old. “I don’t want you to dream about it. I want you to actually go there. Like where you can touch and see things, not just dream about them.”

“Why?” My father asks. “We can touch things in dreams. Really Ryan, why would we do this. Don’t you know all the diseases you can catch going out into the real world? I mean there’s wild animals and hot and cold. It just seems like an awful lot of work for no reason.” I expected this. I knew it would take some convincing.

“I know. There are risks, but that’s part of what makes it fun. You see, in dreams we can’t be wrong because we control out. It takes the fun out of it. If you know you’re always going to lose at something then there’s no tension, there’s no mystery, and there’s no fun. The real world is also so vibrant.” I remember looking at the leaves on trees earlier. “Every single tree is unique. Water feels like this magical, soft, flowing, fabric. When you go running there’s a pain and a thrill to it that makes you feel so alive.” My parents’ expressions are still encouraging.

“Honey, we’re happy that you’ve found this place.” My mother says.

“But if all that’s there are trees and lakes and cliffs it sounds pretty boring.” My father says.

“It’s not though.” I say. They’re not getting it. “It’s alive like dreams can never be.”

“We appreciate the you feel that way son.” My father adds. “But it’s not for us. In our dreams there are worlds made of diamond, flying fire breathing dinosaurs, we have dozens of children.” Dad says.

“And all of them are doctors, Nobel Prize winning scientists, famous lawyers, or world renowned artists.” My mom adds enthusiastically. “And you’re there too Ryan.” She adds almost as an afterthought.

It feels like a smack on the face. They dream about other children, better children. Children they feel more strongly for than me. Fake children, they have several real loving offspring. I’ve even put faith in them that they would know to come after me. I’ve offered them a way into my world, and I find out they’ve replaced me with the children they wanted to have in their own. I know now why Jess said her parents are dead to her. My parents have just as good as killed me in their own world. They replaced me with the children they wanted to have, so they’ve killed me.

“I gotta go.” I say. Thomas stands up and puts an arm around my shoulder as we walk out.

“Well thanks for stopping by sweetie.” My mom says, as if nothing has happened.

“And don’t forget to bring us some pictures of this new place so we can dream about it too.” My dad adds. I promise myself to never bring them to these new places. Even if I wanted them around they’d just poison it with thoughts of these replacement kids.

“Ryan?” A younger male voice asks me. “What are you doing here?” It’s my youngest brother Teddy.

“Teddy.” I stand up straighter, maybe Teddy will come. He looks up to me, and he’s the one who dreams about rock climbing.

“Hey Teddy, this is my friend Thomas. We are going rock climbing you want to come?” Teddy nods vigorously.

“Of course Ryan, where are you dreaming of climbing.” The word dream stings. I remember when we I first met the unhooked siblings. Jess and Thomas had looked insulted that they would have any dreams at all. I understood why now.

“No Teddy, we’re not dreaming of it. We are actually going to climb it. We are leaving to go do some more soon. Do you want to come?” Teddy glances into the kitchen at mom and dad.

“I’m sure they’ll be okay with it. Teddy come on, it’s rock climbing. Don’t you want to join us?” Teddy considers this for a moment.

“How tall are the cliffs?” Teddy asks. Good, he’s expressing interest. I can still convince him.

“They’re real tall Teddy. Taller than our house, taller than the trees, they’re so tall that if you kick a rock off it’ll probably take a couple seconds to reach the bottom.” Teddy’s eyes look up. He’s imagining it, trying to picture climbing something that big. I bite my tongue, not wanting to say anything to disrupt his imagination.

“Nah.” He says finally. “I was climbing Olympus Mons on Mars earlier and it’s way bigger than that. You should dream about it too.” He adds. I give up. I’m done. This is why they’re called hooked, because they are completely drawn in by the dream. I remembered watching a fishing show once. It seemed like the fish would have to fight with all their might to tear themselves free, and my family wasn’t willing to fight an ounce.

“Yeah Teddy.” I say. “Maybe I will sometime.”

“Great, it was nice to see you Ryan. I’ll catch you later.” And he walks into the kitchen to join my parents.

When we get outside Thomas says. “I’m sorry. There’s a reason we don’t try and unhook people anymore. You have to let people unhook themselves. It’s like trying to force a deaf person to hear what you’re saying. You are speaking a language that’s foreign to them. Their sense are numb to how strong experiences in real life can be. All they know is the dream, so they can’t imagine life without it.” I don’t have the heart to respond. Thomas wisely shuts up, and we start walking to the sibling’s house.

I had really thought they’d come with me, if not for their own sake than for the sake of the family. Parents are supposed to care about their kids and want more than anything else to be around their kids. I guess my parent’s did, just not their real kids. I punch a tree hard enough that I bloody my knuckles. Thomas doesn’t react, and we keep walking.

Teddy had almost hurt more than my parents. I had thought of coming back because of him. Teddy loved rock climbing. Maybe if we just found some taller cliffs he’d want to come? No, there wasn’t a mountain on earth that could compete with extraterrestrial rock climbing. No matter how amazing real life was, I couldn’t convince them to just step outside of their dreams and actually live.

I was an orphan now. I knew I couldn’t go back to my parents who would rather spend their time with imaginary offspring, or younger siblings who would reject my offerings of wild adventures for their own fake past times. Jess was right, I never should’ve come back. I never should’ve had faith in my family to join me.

Jess, the girl I had been trying to get close to, and I had pushed her away by doing this. I had to make it up to her. I felt that these new friends were the closest thing to family I had, and I needed to make them happy.

“Thomas.” I say. “Thank you for coming with me. You knew how this was going to end, and you came anyway. Thank you.”

“Hey man, don’t sweat it. It’s the least I could do. There aren’t a lot of us unhooked, so we gotta look out for each other.” He playfully punches my shoulder. “We got your back man.”

“Thanks.” I say again. I’ll be sure to thank Frank when I get back too. They’ve really gone out of their way to help me. We arrive at the sibling’s house to find Jess and Frank anxiously waiting on the couch.

“Hey Ryan.” Frank says, standing up immediately. He sees my face and knows it didn’t go well. “I’m so sorry Ryan. We tried to warn you.” Jess gets up and runs toward me. I take a step back and flinch as she gets close, expecting to get slapped, but she instead wraps me up in a tight hug.

“I’m so sorry.” She whispers in my ear. “They replaced you didn’t they.”

“Yes.” I tell her, and she squeezes me tighter. I look at Frank giving me a sympathetic look, at Thomas, awkwardly not knowing what to do, but supportive, and Jess bear hugging me to make sure I’m okay. These are my family now.

“I’m so lucky to have found you guys.” I say looking from Thomas to Frank, and down to Jess who is still hugging me for all she’s worth. “You guys are real friends. Frank, you helped me conquer my fear of drowning when you could’ve been out swimming with your siblings.” Frank shrugged.

“Least I could do.” He says.

“And Thomas, you came with me to my parents when you knew that conversation was going to be nothing but ugly.” Thomas sheepishly grins.

“Hey man, you’d have done the same for me.”

“And you Jess. I brought you so much pain by bringing up some bad memories, and you’ve so quickly looked past that to support me.” Jess squeezes me extra tight for a moment.

“You guys are like my family.” I say. “Family puts family first, and you guys have done that for me. I wish I could repay the favor.”

“We’re just glad you’ve unhooked and we’ve been able to help you through that.” Franks tells me. I look down at Jess again, and realize there’s a way I can make them my family for real. It’s a little sudden, but this has been a day of taking risks. I risked drowning. I risked jumping off a cliff. I risked my family rejecting me. It was time to take one more big risk.

“Jess.” I say, pushing her away for a moment. I get down on one knee. “Will you marry me.” Thomas splutters, Frank’s jaw drops, and Jess looks like I hit her.

“What? No Ryan I’m not going to marry you.” Nobody says anything else. Ryan looks like he’s seen a ghost, and Frank looks he he’s thinking about beating me unconscious. “Uh, gear.” Jess says, and heads downstairs.

“Yeah, gear.” Thomas says and follows her, leaving me alone with Frank. He stares knives at me, and I decide I’ve just ruined my welcome.

“I should go.” I say. Frank doesn’t respond, and I let myself out.

No follows me as I leave and start back home.

I had found a new world, learned to swim, rock climb, and just unhook from my false reality. Now I had thrown it away. The only people I know who could join me in this new world now hated me. It would have been impressive that I had ended so many friendships so quickly if it wasn’t so pathetic.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I was supposed to be all suave, and she was supposed to say yes. There would be cheering and crying and hugging. We would all make plans and become a family. That’s how I saw it going down, now I had just thrown a wrench in everything.

My home isn’t far, and as I go inside I slam the door hard enough to break a few of the panes of glass. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’ve lost pretty much everything today.

I lost my own world because I got bored with it and went outside to try and find a new world. Then I lost my family when I tried to bring them into this world. Now I’d lost my new family when I’d just got desperate and carried away. Now here I was at the end of the day, in the same spot I had started it. No real family, even though I didn’t know it yet. They were still gone, I guess they never really were my family to start with, no world, no friends. I can’t even stand to walk outside and breath the clean air again because it reminds me of what I’ve lost.

I crash on my couch and see the pills laying on the table. Those stupid pills they’re what started this whole thing. Without the pills there wouldn’t be a need for days like today, people would have normal friends, family, and I heard that most jobs used to require regularly working with other people. It must be so nice to be a part of a society where you feel like a human being, not some machine put on standby and only occasionally woken up to do some basic shop keeping for the other machines.

Thomas was right, only an evil corporation backed by a corrupt government could make these pills. Their factories should be burned to the ground. I pick up the bottle of pills and hurl it against the wall. It’s plastic so it unclimactically just bounces off the wall and spins back to me. Great, I can’t even break a small bottle of pills.

I start to laugh. It’s a laugh of despair, of defeat. The world has become so crazy that I can’t help but laugh. The laughter brings me no joy. It is devoid of mirth. I can’t do anything right. I wish they had just left me hooked. I would be numb and emotionless, sleeping my life away, but at least I wouldn’t have to know defeat like this. If today had never happened, if I had just walked outside, and promptly come back in everything would be alright.

Then a line my parents say surfaces to the front of my brain. ‘You’ll have to tell us more so we can dream about it too’. They were talking about joining me in my adventures through a dream. I realize that there is a place I can go to make everything right. A place where I’m in shape, the siblings don’t hate me, and my family hasn’t replaced me with other children and hobbies.

I look at the bottle of pills again. In the dream, all of this can go away. In the dream I can fix everything and make it right.

I recoil and stand up to walk into a room where the pills aren’t lying about. What am I thinking? I have worked so hard today to unhook and experience real life. I think about conquering my fear of drowning in the lake. I think of learning to accept defeat by playing cards, and appreciating what a true challenge is. I remember how surreal water felt running through my fingers, or wind running through my hair. I think of how highly detailed real life was. Dreams couldn’t compare to it.

I especially remember letting go and leaning back off of the mountain top, the thrill of trusting someone else so directly with your life. I remember feeling so free and exhilarated as I had stepped off that mountain and just trusted Jess to catch me.

Then I think of Jess. Jess who was so funny, nurturing, smart, and driven. Jess who was so full of alive when I had first seen her darting through the woods. Jess who I had hurt by talking about family. Jess who had forgiven me and had so quickly hugged me to comfort me after I had lost my family. Jess whose trust I had betrayed in a stupid, childish, and utterly foolish act of rampant irresponsibility. Jess who hated me now. Jess who I would never see again.

I walk back into the room and pick up the pills. Except there is a way I can see Jess again. There’s a place she still exists. She’s not beyond reach. None of them are beyond reach. I can see my family, and they will actually enjoy spending time with me. I can go talk to the siblings, and me and Jess can be together. Yes, it won’t be so bad. It’ll all be fine as soon as I go under.

I walk into my bed and lay down, making sure I’m prepared for what I’m about to do. I open the bottle and put a pill in my hand. These pills act fast. I’ll be out in a matter of seconds, only a few more seconds.

I cap the bottle and put it on the night stand, staring at the pill in my hand. Holding it makes things more final. I’m just one quick motion away from throwing it all away, from hooking myself.

I raise my hand to my mouth, and then I stop. I put my hand back down and stare at the pill in my hand. One last thought stands in my way. If I do this, then there’s no going back. I remember the disgust on Jess and Thomas’ face from the mere mention of dreaming. If I do this, to them I’ll be dead. To them zombies are people who have given up on life and returned to their own little private worlds.

If I swallow this pill, any hope of reconciliation is gone. They’ll never talk to me again. I probably won’t even see them again. I could spend most of the rest of my life in this house, by myself, alone.

I almost put the pill down, almost. Then I remember the look of horror on Jess’ face when I ask her to marry me. It doesn’t matter. I’ll never see her again anyway. I put the pill in my mouth and swallow. I lay down and pull the covers up. It’s okay now. In just a few moments I’ll see them again, and it’ll be okay.

Unhooked part two

I immediately realize this is a mistake as my eyes sting from the dirty water. I hadn’t even noticed before and pull my head back sputtering out of the water to Thomas’ laughter. At least when I was being drowned I had the sense to close my eyes. Thomas dives off and Frank, who is chuckling to myself, brings me over to the shore.

“Let’s try and get you situated before you drown yourself.” I can see Jess and Thomas swim off further into the lake where it looks like they can’t touch bottom. It saddened me to know they were out of reach.

“I want to follow them.” I tell Frank.

“You can’t swim.” He says.

“I could learn.” I reply. It didn’t look that hard, you kicked your legs and pushed water behind you with your arms.

“Oh yeah?” Frank says. “You can’t even get your face wet and you think you can swim. Ever heard the phrase walk before you run Ryan?” I was getting a little fed up with all the down talk. First there was the running, then there was the cards, now there was swimming.

“I’m not a baby you know.” I say.

“I know.” Frank responds. “And I’m sure you can swim, but we need to ease you into this. There’s a lot of life out here in the real world and you can’t live it all at once.” He reaches into some grass and pulls out a bag he brought with him.

“Here.” He hands me a curved tube and some strange looking glasses. “This’ll help you get started. These.” He tapped the glasses. “Go on your face, and this.” He tapped the tube. “Goes in your mouth.

I looked at him skeptically. These people were not above playing a joke on me, and this equipment looked ridiculous.

“Why don’t you use it?” I ask.

“Because we can already swim. Now come, let’s get started. You’ll like this.” I still think this might be a joke. If it was Thomas or even Jess I wouldn’t have done it, but this was Frank. He had earned a little trust.

The tube and the glasses clipped together to form some weird kind of mask, it felt awkward, and my breathing now had a rasping sound that reminded of something. Maybe a movie I had seen. We waded back out until we were about chest deep. I appreciated the water much more this time. I didn’t think about any monsters in it, my body had acclimated to the colder temperatures, and there was no Thomas to drag me under.

I had imagined walking through water would feel like walking through thicker air, but this was so much more. It was soft, incredibly soft, softer than anything I felt before. Every time I moved my lake forward it was like silk flowing over my legs. The sensation was enthralling I found myself staring at my leg hairs, the few inches visible through the murky water. They wafted in the current I was generating with my strides like kelp being pushed by on ocean current.

“Now, how this is going to work.” I jumped slightly. I had forgotten Frank and why I was walking out here in the first place. ‘Is you’re going to lower yourself down into the water until you’re submerged, but keep the top of that tube underwater. It’ll let you breathe, and the face mask will keep the water out of your eyes. The mask will also keep the water out of your nose.” I was going to go underwater. I would get to feel that silky smoothness all over my body. I would also have my head under again. I remember thrashing about trying desperately to breathe, thinking that I was being murdered. I remembered how dirty the water had tasted going down my throat, and how much it had hurt coughing back up. There had been a sensation of wrongness about having the water in my lungs. There was something in my body that wasn’t a part of my body, and it had sickened me knowing all the bacteria, parasites, viruses, and maybe even small fish that were inside me.

“If you’re going to swim you’re going to have to do this.” Frank tells me. “I can see you getting a little pale, but trust me, it’ll be fine. You’ll be able to breathe this time. I’m gonna have to hold you under.” I stop breathing for a moment. “But it’s just because you’ll float away if I don’t, as soon as I feel you starting to come up on your own I’ll let you go.” I trusted Frank. He hadn’t done anything to me that I disliked yet.

I nod my head, and slowly begin to crouch. My upper body has been out of the water long enough that the water feels cold again, but not as cold as it did before. It’s a pleasant sensation, and the smoothness of the water as it envelopes me is like being tucked into bed.

The water level reaches my shoulders and I start to breathe a little faster. In just a second that water will be over my face, and without a little piece of plastic I would be cut off from air, but I keep lowering myself.

I feel hands on my shoulders, and my breathing slows knowing that Frank is here. He won’t let anything happen to me. I hold onto that thought. If I wasn’t about to be in a spot where moments before my life felt threatened I probably wouldn’t have trusted him this much, but right now I needed to. I needed to feel safe, and Frank provided that safety. I was taking a leap. As the water hits my chin and comes over the mouth piece I involuntarily hold my breath.

Everything goes brown and black, and I can’t see. The water is also so cold on my face that I feel suffocated. I start taking too many breaths like I did when I tried to run. It’s crushing. It feels like it’s trying to force its way into my mouth. I close my eyes because the water seems like it’s trying to break its way into my facemask. I start to flail my arms to push myself up, and Frank squeezes my shoulders.

Frank is here. Frank won’t let anything bad happen. I take a deep breath and open my eyes. There is a spike of panic when I see the water in front of my mask, but it’s okay. I take another deep breath. The water will stay there. I feel fine.

I close my eyes again, not out of fear, but to concentrate on my other senses. There is a dull rumbling sound in my ears and nothing else. The entire world has been turned to one monotonous string of white noise. There are no human voices, no chirping of bird, just the rumbling of the water, and the rhythmic in and out of my breathing.

Similarly, my sense of touch has been dulled. The water flows forward and back over me like a full body gentle caress. I swish my hands back and forth to feel the water run over them. This causes me to lose a bit of balance, but Frank keeps me rooted in one spot. It was supremely peaceful to have nothing on my mind. My eyes see nothing but dark, my ears hear nothing but white noise, and my skin feels nothing but softness, even the lake mud just conforms to my legs and is pleasantly cool against my skin.

I get so relaxed that at one point I start to fall asleep and my grip loosens on the plastic tube in my mouth. Water seeps in and suddenly that feeling of drowning comes back. The hands holding me down suddenly don’t seem so friendly. I get a mouthful of water, and I only prevent myself from swallowing it by blowing it all into the tube. There it stays, coming in every time I inhale, bringing with it a spike of fear and a flash of recent memory.

Then, I feel embarrassed again. I’m not doing this again. I’m not going to get scared by some basic part of life. I was in three feet of water. I could stand up and be perfectly fine if nothing else, and it wasn’t like I was inhaling the water. No, this was a minor inconvenience at best, and if I was going to live out here in this world then I would not let these things scare me.

I opened my lips and let more water in. I felt the need to stand up, but suppressed it. ‘Stop being a baby’. I told myself. ‘They are swimming out there without masks and without breathing tubes. Man up and deal with it. I take another mouthful of water and have to blow forcefully to clear my breathing tube. A steel feeling I was unfamiliar with began to form in my gut. I was stronger than a little bit of water, and I was going to prove it.

Making sure to keep my eyes closed I pull off the facemask. It is still connected to the facemask so my tube becomes entirely filled with water and some of it goes into my lungs. Water floods past the mask and covers my face, giving me a feeling of cold and helplessness. The air is gone too. I have no access to the surface. It’s happening again, I’m drowning. Water on my face, water down my throat, hands holding me down.

‘No!’ I shout in my hand. I finish ripping off the mask and put it on the lake bottom beside me. I use the remaining air in my lungs to blow out some of the water from the snorkel. I think it hits Frank in the face because his grip on me loosens. The pathway is just barely clear and I have to draw a slow breath to avoid pulling in water. It’s okay though, there is air now, and if I control my breathing there will be a steady supply.

‘Now to really conquer this’. I say to myself, and pull the breathing tube out of my mouth. I keep my mouth closed to conserve my air, and for the first time that day, actually hold my breath underwater. Frank’s hands fidget a bit, I guess he didn’t think I’d do it. They called themselves unhooked. I think a fitting demonstration of my commitment to this was unhooking myself from air.

The air became harder to hold in, it seemed to push on my mouth, desperate to get out. At the same time my chest muscles seemed to contract slightly on their won, desperate to pull air in. My body was fighting my mind screaming at it ‘Breathe you fool, you’re going to die!’ I ignored it. I coughed out a little air bubble, but I was going to push this until my body couldn’t take anymore.

My chest contracted again and another bubble burst out. ‘Stay down!’ I shouted out myself. You are stronger than this, you can beat this. I almost surface when a flash of memory of arms grabbing me and throwing me under, of air rushing out of my lungs, of feeling helpless. But I’m not helpless. I am stronger than this. This thing will not beat me, and I’ll only surface when I know I’ve taken as much as possible.

Another burst of air from my mouth, this time a small stream of bubbles, and I almost suck in some water, desperate to get anything down into my lungs to stop this sensation of pressure and needing to breathe. The hands on my shoulders suddenly flip from holding me down to pulling me up.

Before I know it I’m halfway out of the water and there’s a rushing sound as my ears transition from being underwater to being in air. I make a sound like the loch ness monster rising from the depths as I first exhale sharply, then take in the world’s deepest breath.

“Are you okay?” Frank asks.

“What did you do that for?” I demand of Frank. As soon as I have some air in my lungs to work with. I bend down to pick up the breathing tube and mask from off the lakebed and hand them back to Frank.

“I was in the middle of something.” I’m kind of angry at him. I think I was close to some kind of mental break through.

“You were in the middle of what exactly? A suicide attempt?” He looks part angry, and part concerned.

“No.” I say, surprised that he would jump to that conclusion. “I was just proving to myself that I didn’t need to be afraid of the water. That it doesn’t get to make me afraid.” He cocked an eyebrow.

“This is your first day unhooked?” He asked me. I nodded. He whistled, and for the first time in his eyes there was something besides concern or some kind of paternal protectiveness. There was respect.

“You know it’s one thing to have mortal peril thrust on you. It’s quite another to freely embrace it. You can’t get that in a dream can you?” He asks me. I shake my head.

“You are never really in danger.” I say. “You try to make yourself feel in danger by dreaming up giant hordes of enemies, or horrific monstrosities, but in the end you know they will bend to your every whim. In the end the good guy always wins.” Frank doesn’t say anything. “Although it’s a little ridiculous to talk about mortal peril out here.” I add on. “I mean Thomas wasn’t really trying to drown me and I could’ve stood up at any moment.”

“It doesn’t matter how much danger there actually is.” Frank tells me. “It matters how much danger you feel.” He glances back towards the shore. “Let’s get some more swimming gear to get you started.” We walk back to shore and Frank produces a flat foam board.

I feel strong as he walks me back. I know I’m still in horrendous physical condition, at least as far as endurance was concerned, but I had shown a bit of mental toughness. I was no longer some little kid they were leading around. I was an adult. A full grown human being, and I was acting like it.

“This is a kickboard.” He tells me. “It’s for working on your leg movements for swimming. Your legs are stronger than your arms, so we’ll work on your kick first, and your pull later. So you hold onto this to keep your upper body afloat, and work on your kick.” As frank instructs me in some basic swimming motions with my legs, I find myself glancing out into the deeper part of the lake where Thomas and Jess are. Thomas and Jess are playing some sort of water version of tag. Several times Frank has to splash me to regain my attention.

“You awake Ryan? The lesson’s here, not out in the middle of the lake. If you want to learn you need to focus.”

“Sorry Frank.” I reply. “Just daydreaming.” There’s a brief stretch of silence before he responds.

“You like her don’t you.” He says. I lose my grip on the kickboard, and briefly submerge.

“What makes you say that?” I come up spluttering and indignant, but also trying to act nonchalant and failing miserably at it.

“Oh come on.” He says. “Me and Thomas saw how you reacted to her hug. Thomas even made a crack about it. Don’t act surprised.” I suddenly find the lake water directly in front of me quite fascinating and examine it closely as the conversation continues.

“I’m not making any judgments one way or the other.” He said in a reassuring voice. “But you are recently unhooked. You have to remember what rejection means out here.”

I look up at him. “Rejection?” I ask. He rolls his eyes.

“Out here in the real world, not only can girls turn you down, but if they do turn you down, you still have to interact with them. I’m not saying you two wouldn’t work out. I am saying that so far we are the only people in the real world you know. Us unhooked people aren’t all that common, so you don’t want to make things weird between us. We’re her brothers, so if it’s weird between you two it’ll be weird between us. I’m not saying that trying to set something up between you two is a bad idea. I’m just saying give it some time and be prepared for rejection because things out here aren’t guaranteed.”

“Why is that?” I asked. “Why are there so few of us?” I was trying to change the subject, thankfully, it worked. I had not yet worked out how I felt about Jess or how to go about pursuing anything, so for now I just wanted to avoid the subject entirely.

“It’s a good question, and we don’t really know the answer ourselves.” Frank said. “Each of us has a different theory. Jess thinks it’s because the world used to be a rough place. People were unhappy all the time. The planet was getting messed up by all the stuff people were doing to it, and people just wanted an escape.”

“But it doesn’t seem like the world is that way now.” I said.

“Yeah, and it could be things are better because most of the world is asleep, but I don’t buy that. Even if people were using it purely to get away from an ugly world, I refuse to believe that people aren’t willing to give this.” He swept his hand out to gesture toward the lake, the forest, the sky, and everything. “A chance.”

“That’s why I think people are under because they want control.” Frank continued. “I think that most people aren’t willing to lose control and experience the fear and the pain that you’ve experienced today. I mean I know that we make light of it, but today was kind of like your birth pangs. What you’ve experienced was becoming accustomed to the whole idea of fear and pain, and not letting yourself succumb to them. I believe most people given the option to escape fear and pain will take that choice.” I thought about my conversations with my friends and family. They had been so quick to get away from real life. Were they just running away from suffering?

“I don’t think people are that cowardly.” I said. “I’m sure some are, and maybe some are under because life really is ugly, but that doesn’t add up to me. I just think people are better than that.” Frank looks out into the deep water at Thomas and Jess who are now playing some game involving dunking the person under water a lot.

“Which is why Thomas thinks they’re being forced under.” Frank told me. “Thomas has a number of theories as to why. Maybe the corporation that makes the pill is super greedy and wants to make most of the world’s money to afford this luxury. I don’t think sleep core is that malicious, but he also thinks sleep core could be an arm of the government that is being used to pacify the people.” I think about all the advertising that sleep core gets, and I remember my parents telling me its crazy fast rise to success. How the pill had been pushed through testing far too quick, and seemingly everyone seemed to demand the pill at once. Could all that really be possible without the help of some very large and very powerful entity?

“Your kick is looking pretty decent, now try taking a couple pulls with your arms. One at a time, make a paddle with your hand, and push the water underneath and behind you.” Now Frank was changing the subject. Why would he do that? This seemed like something that was pretty important, especially for someone who just recently unhooked. I considered probing a bit more, but I was still new to the group, so I let it slide.

“So what are we doing later?” Making the third change of subject this conversation. Frank cocked his head, considering.

“Don’t know, we hadn’t really decided.” He smiled. “One of the beauties of being unhooked is you have a lot of time on your hands. Jess and Thomas only work two hours a day. I pull a three hour shift. “ I stopped kicking and stared at him. They worked two and three hour shifts? The longest shift any of my friends worked was an hour.

“I know it sounds like a lot, but you gotta realize, when you’re awake as much as we are, two or three hours really isn’t that much time. We could work half or one hour shifts like everyone else, but we have some pretty expensive toys, and can use the extra money. Maybe you’ll get to try some later.” He winked at me.

“I look forward to it.” I say. “I’m feeling pretty confident now, ready to let me have a go at the deep water.” I push away the kickboard and sloppily take a few strokes around the shallows. Frank studies my movements.

“You look like a sick frog with a broken leg, but you’ll do. Come on, let’s go have some real fun.”

As we join the two further out, where we have to tread water to stay afloat, Thomas celebrates my coming by unceremoniously dunking me under again. I return the favor this time, and we play a water based version of tag.

I tire quickly, and most of the time I’m it. I did get to catch Jess. She looked surprised and impressed when I tag her it.

“How did you learn so fast?” She asks me as I make some distance between me and her so she can start counting to ten.

“Strong arms remember?” She splashes me, I laugh, and the game goes on. Soon the game raps up and we move on, heading back to shore to towel off and head for home.

“Ryan wants to see the toys.” Frank tells the group when we walk through the door. He stops by the kitchen and comes back with some sandwiches and juice which he passes out. “You guys want to see how adventurous a zombie can be?” There are some whoops for joy as they rush downstairs to where the toys are stored. I looked from my sandwhiches to the door. Briefly I wonder why we don’t stop and have a nice long lunch instead of rushing around like this. Then I remember that I promised to not be a wimp about this. I was strong now, and being strong now meant you didn’t just lay down and rest whenever you felt a little run down. I bite into my sandwich, which is a delightful PB&J, and head down to join my friends.

“Welcome to the funhouse.” Thomas greets me at the bottom of the stairs. Wall to wall are clear plastic bins, hangars laden down with gear, and closets laden with untold bounty. There are ropes, shoes, tanks, guns, metal devices of all shapes and sizes, things that look like improved versions of the swimming gear I had just seen. I see tents, sleeping bags, heavy coats, boxes of energy bars and energy drink mix, and that’s just the stuff I could put a name to.

“If there is something crazy or stupid that you can do outside, you can find the gear to make it happen here.” Thomas begins pointing at various pieces of equipment and naming activities as he points. “Rock climbing, skiing, camping, hiking, geocacheing, snorkel, SCUBA, Kayaks are outback, and we even have some wing suits on back order.” He was grinning like a kid in a candy store. We all were.

“This may not be as good as what you can find in a dream.” Jess says picking up a rope and fondly examining it. “But the challenge of it, the adventure, the finding something new or doing something you haven’t done before. The thrill of knowing it can go wrong, and the elation when it goes right. Those you can’t find in a dream either.” I walk around in a mild trance touching each piece of gear, feeling the cold steel, the flexible rubber, the tough rope, and the solid wood. They said you couldn’t find this stuff in a dream, but I had several dreams about just this sort of thing.

“So what’s it going to be Ryan?” Frank asks me. “What do you want to do first?” I could sooner answer which star in the sky was my favorite. There were so many things here, and each one had a different risk and a different promise of reward. I could see the scuff marks, the scratches, the wear and tear on the equipment. I could tell that this stuff had been a lot, and there were so many fond memories. I felt almost as if I was in some kind of temple.

“I really can’t answer that.” I say. “There’s just so much here.” I look at Jess, and see the rope she has picked up. She probably has had a lot of good times with that rope. “What’s that rope for Jess?” I ask.

“This fine 9.8mm 60M dynamic line with a 30% stretch factor? This is for rock cilimbing. As are the 30 meter static line with 10% stretch factor, the locking carabineers, the chalk bags, the fingerless gloves, the ATCs, the gri gris and the endless valley honey and oat energy bars.” She opens a box and pulls out a green energy bar. “These are just right for hanging off the side of a cliff and feeling the wind in your hair, and nothing but open space below you.” Yup, that was clearly her favorite thing to do. I had no experience in these matters, but I think that would be a good way to get to know her and get closer to her. Also, I pictured rock climbing as an upper body workout, and upper body strength was possibly the only way I could keep up with these guys.

“Rock climbing, definitely rock climbing.” I say. I look to Jess for her reaction. She’s smiling at me. For a minute my breathing stops and my heart skips. It’s almost like that feeling of being underwater, but there’s also a warmth to it. It just feels right.

“Alright, rock climbing it is. Let’s get dangerous!” Thomas boisterously shouts.

“We have a rule.” Frank tells me. We are standing at the top of a cliff that appears to be about 70 or 80 feet tall, tall enough that you can see over the trees.

“You never climb on a system that you didn’t help to setup.” There is a cornucopia of ropes, carabineers, webbing, and various metal devices scattered around the cliff top. It looks like a rope bridge collided with a chain link fence and exploded into neatly segregated piles.

“So if you’re going to make it to the bottom of this beast.” He points to the cliff. “You’re going to have to do some of the work yourself.” That made sense, it would give me a sense of ownership over my own fate. “You’re also going to be the first one over the edge.” Frank finished.

“Which means if it doesn’t work you’ll be making the trip home in several buckets.” Thomas cheerfully put in. I swallowed hard. A few hours ago I thought running was an adventure, now I was about to literally jump off a cliff.

“Great, how do we start?” They gave me a brief talk on the capabilities and limitations to the setup we were using. They emphasized the importance of having a completely redundant system. You had two trees you tied the ropes to. You had a double knot to attach the carabineers to, and you had two carabineers in case one broke or opened itself during the climb. The only catch was the rope that went through the carbineers and over the side of the cliff, the rope you actually used to climb on, wasn’t redundant. If that snaps, there’s no fail safe.

It was all very fascinating, and I would’ve felt a lot better about it if we weren’t standing on the cliff as we put the system together. The knots themselves didn’t help either. I looked at the kind of double figure eight knot that secured the ropes to the trees and couldn’t help but think that the rope could very easily just slide out of the knot. I mean, there wasn’t a lock or anything anywhere in the system. Was friction really enough to keep this thing together. What was so different about it from the way I tied my shoe laces together.

I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it if it wasn’t for Jess. She was the one who worked with me to explain the knots. Thomas and Frank took the roles of double checking my knots, preparing the gear for me to build the rock climbing system with, and keeping a running commentary on how far they think I would bounce if the system failed at different points.

She could be very nurturing when she wanted to. After the first system was complete we set up two more, and while Jess worked with me she explained what unhooking for her was like.

“We had a big family.” She tells me. “There were eight of us in total, 4 boys, two girls, and two parents. Thomas was the first unhook. This may surprise you, but he’s a bit of a rebel, and the first time he unhooked it was just to spite our parents. He didn’t actually think he would enjoy the experience. He told me about it the next day, and then Frank overheard, and being the protective type, decided to follow along to make sure we were okay.” I finish tying up the last knot and clip in the carabineers to the top of the system.

“We were pretty boring, just kind of walked around, but like you’ve seen, real life can be addictive. The randomness, the unexpected turns, the consequences, challenges, triumphs, they feel so much more powerful than a fabricated reality ever could.” She looks wistfully at her brothers as they give us the thumbs up and we move on to the last system.

“We stepped out into this new world, and fell in love with it. The only problem with it was that our other siblings told on us.” We kneel down and start tying knots to trees. “Our parents warned us about staying awake. They talked about some urban legends about the things that lurked in the real world, and some propaganda about dreams being better than reality.” She gave the knot she was working on an unnecessarily hard tug. “We tried to tell them it all wasn’t true, but they wouldn’t believe us. Then they kicked us out.” I stopped tying knots.

“Your own parents kicked you out of the house? How old were you guys?” I asked.

“We were all still high school age. Luckily we were all working, and the pay was bad, but we just tripled our shifts and got an apartment together. Nine minimum wage annual incomes isn’t too shabby for a couple of young adults.”

“Is that why you said ‘we had’. A family instead of saying ‘we have’ a family?” She tightens the last knot and nods.

“To us, they don’t exist anymore. They exist in the dream to us, and we are in the real world. They might as well be on the surface of Mars. Even if they hadn’t forced us to move out at a young age, we still wouldn’t consider them family.” Thomas and Frank look over the ropes as we clip in the carabineers and throw the climbing rope over the side. They’ve gotten quiet.

“That’s harsh.” I say.

“Really?” she says, a sharp tone entering her voice. “They gave us up. They don’t want us. They spend their time imagining better versions of us because we’re not good enough for them. How would you feel about someone who did that to you?”

“But they would still spend a few waking hours with you right?” I asked, trying to defend myself.

“They would barely tolerate us until they popped their next pill. Haven’t you noticed that your hooked friends and family can’t wait to go to sleep? And even when they do interact with you all you talk about is dreaming? They don’t like you. To them you’re just a pawn in their own little game, and when you won’t move the way want. They cast you aside. You’re expendable to them. Our parents made us expendable. That makes them dead to us.”

“I’m sorry.” I tell her. “I didn’t see it that way.”

“I know.” The edge leaves her voice and she relaxes. “I didn’t mean to snap like that. Here, let’s get you tied in and good to go.” She hands me a harness and explains how to use the knots I’ve learned, to attach myself to the ropes. She then explains how she’s going to use one of the metal pieces, the ATC she calls it, to lower me over the side while she’s attached to the other end of the rope. Once I hit the bottom Thomas will then allow her to descend, and Frank will allow Thomas to descend. We would then all climb back up, and move on to the next system.

“As we told you at the start.” Frank says. “You get to go first, so stand at the edge of the cliff, and just lean back. Jess will catch you. After you hit bottom Thomas and Jess will follow, and then you three will climb back up.”

“Great yeah, just fall back off a cliff, cool.” I say sarcastically.

“And put your feet flat against the cliff.” Thomas puts in. I give him a frown and a thumbs up. I walked to the edge of the cliff and look over the side. It’s not a sheer cliff, there are a few outcroppings that if I fall I will bounce off of and maybe just break every bone in my body instead of splatting on the ground.

“Looking and waiting isn’t going to help.” Jess tells me. “You just have to trust me, turn around, and lean back. I won’t let you fall.” I force myself to do as she says and turn around.

“You always wake up before you hit the ground right?” I ask sheepishly trying to make myself think positive.

“Lean back Ryan.” Jess tells me. “You can trust me.” I decide to do this the same way I let go of my fear of drowning. I carefully slide my heels up the edge of the cliff and close my eyes. I had hoped Jess would tighten the rope I’m attached to so I would feel more secure as I leaned back, but she was intentionally leaving a foot or so of slack to make this extra interesting for me. Well, no point putting it off any longer. I peak briefly at Jess. She’s looking at me, and she now has that respect in her eyes that I had seen in Frank’s after ditching my breathing tube. This one’s for you Jess. I close my eyes, and fall back.

Nothing, for a brief moment there’s nothing. My weight leaves my feet, and I don’t feel my own body weigh resting on anything. I’m falling through air, and unlike the water, it offers no resistance, content to let me feel straight through it as fast as I pleased. Then there’s a feeling of painful awakeness. My body senses something is wrong and fires every single neuron it knows how. Things seem to slow ever so slightly, and my breath catches as my stomach feels like it wants to crawl out my throat. Then the line goes taught, and my feet brace against the side of the cliff as I come to a halt. I didn’t even really fall. I had just sort of laid down, and now was sort of positioned like I was walking up the cliff. My toes were sticking over the top of the cliff, and then everything spend back up.

“Yeah Ryan!” Thomas shouts. I hear whoops of joy from Frank and Jess like when they had been running through the forest. The rush now boomed out into an electric joy, like someone had hooked me up to a car battery and the only way to let the electricity out was to yell, and yell I did. My whoops and shouts join Frank’s, Thomas’, and Jess joins in too. All four of us give in to some basic animal happiness just to have taken a risk and come out on top.

“Alright Jess, drop’em down.” Thomas encourages.

“Take a look around as you drop Ryan.” Jess suggests. I began to then walk backwards down the cliff. I kept my feet flat against the rock as they had instructed, and at about the pace of a slow jog, begin to descend.

I look around at the trees, and think of Thomas swinging around in them when we had first walked back to their house. I hadn’t imagined I would be able to experience that, and this was kind of cheating, but here I was all the same, up in the branches like a monkey.

I hit bottom and call out to Jess as soon as I untie myself from the rope. She drags the rope back up, and a minute later she drops over the side too.

When she hits bottom she’s got this half crazy look like a sprinter at the starting line who just can’t wait to leap forward.

“This is gonna be great!” She says as she unties herself and calls back up to Frank and Thomas.

“Oh man, you are gonna love this climb.” She punches me lightly on the shoulder and bounces up and down on the balls of her feet as she eagerly tells me what her favorite parts are to this climb.

“I bet my family would too.” I say. She stops bouncing.