Tag Archives: Accident

The face of romance

“Goodbye John.” The griever said, touching my forehead to theirs as they left. It had been a long day, their must’ve been a large accident or something. That’s what usually caused a rush like this. A large number of people didn’t get the opportunity to say their final words to a loved one before they passed, and needed me to duplicate their appearance so they could have a chance to get give a proper farewell.

I took a few breaths to clear my head, confirmed with Ryan that this griever had been the last one, and slipped back into my normal appearance. Only, I couldn’t. Everything still seemed fluid. My nose kept changing its mind about what size it wanted to be. My hair shifted between various shades of brown and black. Even my eyes danced from one color to the next. They couldn’t even agree on one color between the two of them. I looked like a Husky with different colored eyes.

A mirror didn’t help. It only seemed to illustrate my problem, allowing me to look on with growing dismay as my facial features seemed to change faster than the numbers on a slot machine.

Facebook, I had a Facebook. There must be a picture of me on there somewhere. I log into my profile and am greeted with Ryan’s face on my profile. It was a joke at the time. ‘ha ha, look Ryan. I’m you!’. It didn’t seem so funny now. I open up my past profile pictures and find that every single one is me playing a joke, and even my tagged photos all look like different people.

Some are promotional from work, others are just me goofing around and showing off for my friends. I think some might be me, but there are too many different faces all tagged as me for me to even begin to sort out which is the real me.

I snap my phone shut. This can’t be real. How can I not remember? I always remembered. I tried to do it by muscle memory. ‘Okay, work is done, griever leaves. I confirm with Ryan that I’m done, and I……’ Nothing, the face I slip into is not even human. ‘Come on, one more time, work is done. I confirm with Ryan and…..’ I’m too preoccupied with my Husky eyes, and give myself a dog’s face.

‘I’ve got a date tonight. How will she even know it’s me? Oh wait, maybe I sent her a face pic.’ I scan through my phone again, hoping that I’ve sent somebody a photo of my face, only to come up empty handed again. Apparently I like playing games with my face through text as well.

I’m starting to panic now. ‘Is there no record of my face anywhere? Driver’s license, of course, I had to take a proper photo for a driver’s license.’ Feeling a sense of relief well up inside me I pull out my wallet and extract my driver’s license.

My stomach feels like it’s going to fall out when instead of a photo I see. Government licensed shape shifter, appearance variable. I forgot that because my face could be anyone’s they had told me I didn’t need to take a photo.

I start to crumble into a ball. If even the government doesn’t have a photo of me, then there really is no hope.

“Hey Jason.” Ryan calls out to me from the next room. “Buddy I know you’re off for the day but we’ve got one more. Are you up for one last griever?”

I rise to my feet. Ryan has already displayed a photo of the loved one on the monitors. Underneath her face is my personal motto. It’s not my face that matters, but the person behind it. I had almost forgotten. It is not my nose or my eyes that make me who I am. It’s my heart and soul, and those never change.

“Absolutely Ryan, it’s not trouble at all. Send the griever in.”

I rapidly scanned the file Ryan attached with the deceased’s photo. It detailed her physical appearance so I could duplicate it, and gave a brief bio on the person coming to grieve. Our research team was fantastic about deciphering information concerning the relationship between the griever and the departed. Many of them were retired law enforcement who could find out a lot about someone without having to badger them for information. It allowed me to know as much as possible about the whole situation without the griever having to be pestered a lot about the obviously delicate subject of the departed.

The griever was a twenty something female, just out of college, and the departed was her roommate. That fact stung me. I knew that meant she was going to be heading back to an empty apartment for the next few weeks, or maybe even next few months.

I examined the scan of her friend and used a mirror to insure I exactly duplicated her features. The griever would be coming in any second, so I absorbed the last few details about how the two had known each other through a collegiate sports team, and shared aspirations to be gym teachers.

One of the researchers managed to find a few sound bites of the departed, and I begin an audio loop of her in my earpiece so I can begin to formulate a way to duplicate her voice. Having her vocal chords certainly helps, but there’s more to speech than just physical structure. The voice is like any instrument. You can’t just have the equipment, you have to know how to play it as well. Thankfully, this was my job, and I am something of a master at duplicating vocal patterns as long as I can have a few sound bites to work from. The door to my office begins to turn. I checked my appearance one last time as the door opens and the young lady walks in.

Oddly enough, Ryan doesn’t send me any photos of the griever. It usually doesn’t matter because I’m not going to duplicate their appearance. It’s no more important for me to know the appearance of the griever than it is for an employer to know the appearance of someone they’re interviewing. That is, unless the person they’re interviewing just happens to be the same person they’re going on a date with later.

When a shape shifter gets surprised they have a tendency to rapidly shift through different appearances. I’m very grateful that I’ve been doing this since high school and have developed the professionalism necessary to maintain my appearance even under extreme emotional duress.

“Hey.” She says. ‘I don’t even know her name.’ I realize. I can’t think of what to say, but I know how to look, and this isn’t about me saying anything anyway. They’re not here because they want to pretend their loved one is still alive. They’re here to say goodbye. So usually I just listen, and adopt a very practiced expression of hope and understanding. I’ve been told by some of the people who trained me that it’s a bit like one of those movies where the protagonist is dying, but doesn’t want anyone to be sad. Right before they go they show you this expression that says ‘it’s going to be okay’. That’s what I aim for, and expressing that very specific emotion is now almost second nature for me.

She’s still standing in the doorway, so I gesture to the seat in front of me. I walk out from behind my desk and sit in another chair facing the one I’ve indicated she should take.

This can be an understandably awkward situation, and I typically have to guide the griever through the first few steps. It’s all about body language, and patience. They’re here to talk, and I’m here to listen.

She shuffles her feet for a bit, glancing nervously at me like she thinks I might bite, but I just keep making gentle eye contact and waiting. I lean back in the chair to communicate my ease to her.

The young lady scrounges up the courage and comes over to sit beside me. She doesn’t say anything right away, but that’s normal. She may have planned something out in her head in advance, but it’s just like giving someone important news in real life. Once you’re actually sitting in front of the person everything you planned on saying tends to go out the window.

“I watered your cactus.” She finally says. I twitch my lips ever so slightly outwards to indicate the hint of a smile. She takes this little bit of active listening as permission to continue. “It’s silly I know. I’m not even sure you’re supposed to water cactuses, cacti, whatever you call them. What am I doing? I don’t even know the plural for it and I’m trying to take care of it.” She snorts a little, finding humor in the ridiculousness of it. I can hear that there’s starting to be some excess mucus building up from her tear ducts that’s being funneled to her nose. “It’s just like when you would go to Europe you know? I would take care of your stuff for when you get back. Which is stupid. I mean, because you’re not coming back.” Her eyes are starting to go red now.

I lean in to the conversation now, folding my hands so that they rest just a few inches from hers. “It’s like if I just keep acting like you’re going to come back then you will, and I know you’re not, but I still feel like you’re going to. Like if I just keep trying to show you that I care then one day I’ll look up and you’ll come walking through the door, shouting ‘sup’ to me as you hang up your lacrosse gear. Just like you did in college.” She wipes away her first tear. “You remember college? Man we were bad, but we had so much fun. I still remember how you spiked the coaches coffee with a ghost pepper. He turned so red, and boy did you run laps.” She laughs a bit again as she wipes away the second tear.

“I just wanted to have more memories like that with you. You were only 23. We were supposed to go to Ireland together, and give embarrassing speeches at each other’s’ weddings.” There’s a steady stream now, and her sentences are punctuated with heavy breathing and snorting sounds as she tries to hold back the mucus that is now starting to come out of her nose.

“I miss you so much.” Her voice cracks on the last word. I take her hands in mine and maintain a firm but gentle pressure as the waterworks really start to flow. She slumps forward and I touch my forehead to hers. There’s some small corner of my brain that starts using the physical contact to stir up some unprofessional feelings, but my need to be here for her squashes it. I’m here for her, not for me.

It’s several seconds before she can calm down enough to continue. I just keep maintaining that steady supportive pressure through her hands as we have our heads pressed together.

“And I know we’re going to have part soon. I mean, I guess that’s the point of this. So we can part ways on friendlier terms?” She pulls her head back so she can make eye contact. The impact that her outpouring of emotion has had on her makeup is substantial, but I keep that supportive gaze on her eyes as she finishes her thought.

“I want you to know that I’ve always thought of you as a sister, and I’m going to be there for your family as they go through this. I’m going to make sure that your memory makes them stronger, that it makes all of us stronger. You won’t be forgotten Sarah. I promise. I’ll carry your memory.” She snorts again, thinking of something funny, but still crying as she thinks of it. “Even when I’m too old and sick to remember it myself. I’ll make other people remember it for me and tell me about you.” She kisses me on the forehead.

“I’ll miss you Sarah. I loved you like my own sister, and I’ll always remember you.” She touches my cheek and takes a big shuddering breath.

I touch her cheek back and say, in Sarah’s voice. “Thank you.”

We sit for several long moments like that. I now have one hand on her shoulder, the other is holding her hand, and I’m looking at her while she’s staring at my shoes. Her breathing is agitated, like she’s trying to catch her breath, but it slowly returns to normal.

After her breathing steadies she releases the hand that’s holding mine and removes my other hand from her shoulder. I fold my hands in front of me as she begins to compose herself. She becomes aware of how wet her face is, and begins wiping it with her hands, and producing handkerchiefs to clean herself up.

There’s a glass of water nearby for such occasions. She takes a few sips and pats herself down with the handkerchief one more time.

Finally, she makes eye contact again. Her eyes look like she’s been pepper sprayed, but no tears are coming. “Goodbye Sarah.” She says. A final tear rolls down her cheek as she bends over to kiss me on the forehead one more time.

She stands up and straightens her clothes out, observing all the moist spots. She hasn’t composed herself enough to be embarrassed by it, and she shouldn’t be embarrassed anyway. Our waiting room is perpetually full of people who are a bit of a mess.

The girl, whose name I still don’t know, walks to the door. She turns the knob, and as she opens it, turns back. I’m still maintaining my appearance and my supportive facial expression.

“Thank you.” She says, this time I know she’s addressing me, and not her friend. I don’t respond verbally, but just give a slight nod of my head to indicate to her that I understand. Reaching for her handkerchief she closes the door.

I exhale loudly, thankful that the walls are soundproof. “What are the odds?” I ask the ceiling. “I should go buy a lottery ticket or something.” I slip into Ryan’s appearance subconsciously. I’m thinking about how she must be thanking Ryan and me for our work.

“Well, I guess this means I’m not taking her to see that new Nicholas Sparks movie.” I had already read the reviews. He managed to kill off all three protagonists in this one.

Then it really hits me. “The date!” I exclaim. I’ve only got two hours to prepare, and I’m going to be stuck in this office for the next twenty to give Ryan time to gracefully clear the waiting room. Clients always felt weird about seeing me afterwards, it stalled out the grieving process somewhat if they saw me as someone other than the person they had lost. So I had to wait until Ryan had a chance to clear everyone out.

I dash over to my computer and start fumbling through the file, desperately trying to find a date that would work. One of her other friends had set us up, so I knew very little about the girl.

Volleyball was clearly out. Come to think of it, they probably did a lot of sports together in college. Best to steer clear of any kind of athletic activity. They were doing reruns of ‘The Land Before Time’. That was Definitely out. Matter of fact, it was a depressing time for movies in general. Best to just skip the movie portion of the date.

Dinner somewhere? That was too cliché, this girl needed something special. I was going to be the first real social interaction she had after dealing with the death of her friend, I really had to go all out for her. If not because I wanted to see her, then just because she really needed to have a good time right now.

It had to be something really far out there, something that would completely get her mind off things. Something that she had never done before and couldn’t possibly be something that her friend or her had ever done together. Video games were too common, so they were out. TV and movies were definitely out, way too normal. Rock climbing was too athletic, dancing was definitely something that her and Sarah had done together at some point. Girls liked doing that kind of thing.

I mentally go through every date that I’ve ever had seen middle school. Every prom, every dance, every football game, every social, every time I have ever showed a girl how to enjoy life, and I come up short. Nothing seems to work.

Then I suddenly remember something me and my guy friends used to do in high school. It was dumb. For sure it was dumb, entirely juvenile. But maybe that’s just what she needed right now. I started to smile a little. There was also no way she had done this with her friend.

I checked my watch, it was almost time for me to make my exit. When Ryan opens the door I take off like a shot, shouting some hurried explanation over my shoulder as I race for the stairs. There’s no time to lose. I’ve got a few stops to make, and a whole lot of rubber bands to purchase.

I hectically dash through several stores to pick up what I need. I’m so preoccupied that my face starts flipping features at one of the checkouts. I don’t notice until I see that the cashier is looking at me like I’m a ghost. She’s reaching for the phone to call security when I pull out my wallet.

“Ma’am, it’s okay. I’m a certified shifter. See, this is my license.” She takes the card and flips it over, shuddering as she does so.

“There’s nothing to worry about. I’m just going to finish checking out and I’ll be on my way.” With a trembling hand she passes back the license to me. Shifters aren’t very common, and usually people only hear about us if they’ve been referred from a therapist.

“Well, um, could you uh, just um.” She fumbled with some of my purchases as she stared gawking at me. “Pick one?” She finally asked.

Feeling very unprofessional I put a hand to my face to help myself concentrate. I became aware of the unfortunate fact that I still didn’t know what my face was, and I was going to have to have a face for her.

Normally I went with people from the office. They were basically family to me, and if anyone mistook me for one of them they usually understood. Or I could just pretend to be one of them, but that was not going to work today. I was going to meet with someone who would have to associate a face with me and no one else.

“Sorry, yes, just hang on a second.” I tell the cashier as I pull out my phone. I need to concentrate. I need to find a face to model and find it quick.

A celebrity was my first thought. They’re all good looking, so that would probably score me some points, but there was the obvious flaw of people recognizing it, and I think the whole ‘well isn’t that a strange coincidence’ line would wear thin after a while. It had to be someone decent looking and somebody neither I nor she would know.

Reddit! Perfect, I would go on /r/fitness, scroll through a few pages to find somebody without much karma, and look for a pic. They would probably be good looking, and in all probability we would never meet him.

I begin furiously searching for a post with a pic of the OP when the cashier says. “How were you going to pay for this?” The cashier asks. I didn’t buy much and I’ve just been standing here, one hand on my face, holding up the line, for some time now.

I finally happen upon the perfect post. He’s about my age, attractive, and I can honestly say I’ve never met him before. He looked vaguely Australian, at least he had the hat for it, so as a yank I was probably pretty safe.

There’s a good face pic in his pull-up tutorial. I quickly memorize his face, forward the page to my gmail, and adopt my new face.

The cashier is gawking again. Even knowing what she was going to see, she still didn’t quite believe it.

I’m tempted to become a cat to really mess with her, but I restrain myself. The cashier doesn’t say the typical ‘thank you for coming here, you have this many reward points’ but. So I just wish her well, and be on my way.

I have to call the girl to let her know the change of plans. I came up with a lame excuse for not going to see the movie and just told her to meet me at a popular nearby park. There was no hint of sorrow in her voice, and she was very understanding about the change of venue.

Good, everything going to plan so far.

I just barely have enough time to get home, change, make sure I’ve got the facial features down so they won’t slip while I’m on the date, and dash right back out the door.

My arrival at the park only precedes hers by a few minutes, and I’ve only just laid everything out when she walks up.

Instinctively I want to wave her over, but then I remember that neither of us knows what the other one looks like. A bit of an oversight on our part. It was a pretty normal thing to exchange photos before meeting, but I guess, me being me, I don’t really think about these things, and she was probably too preoccupied to think about it.

I pretend not to notice her and instead focus on my setup as she walks over. I’m hoping the oddness of my setup will clue her in that I’m her date.

“Hey?” She waves as she gets closer. “Am I supposed to be meeting you?” She asks. I fidget with one of the items and then stand up to return her wave.

“If you’re supposed to be meeting the most dashingly handsome man on the east coast, then yes.” I say.

She laughs. “No actually I’m supposed to be meeting the world’s humblest man for dinner.”

“You’ve come to the right place.” I exclaim, pointing a thumb at my chest. “World’s humblest man at your service.” I give a little bow and stretch out a hand to shake hers. “I’m Jason, glad to meet you.” I want to bite my tongue as soon as the words are out.

I shouldn’t have used my name. She knows that the shifter she just met was a Jason. I’ve given myself away.

“Jason.” She says, shaking my hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jennifer.” She looks momentarily like she’s remembering something from a dream she had. “That’s funny. I think I just met a Jason earlier.”

“I’d love to meet the chap.” I say, fumbling for something to distract her. ‘I’ve got to misdirect her. I’ve got to misdirect her’. I glance behind me and realize I’ve laid out the perfect distraction.

“But unless he’s got a few hundred rubber bands and a watermelon I think you’ll find I’m much more interesting company.” I step to the side and gesture at the almost 700 rubber bands and the small sized watermelon I’ve laid out.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She says, putting her fists on her hips in disbelief. “What on earth are you going to do with several hundred rubber bands and a watermelon?” She asks. I mentally congratulate myself on my distraction. “Make a giant slingshot?”

“Better.” I say, sitting down and patting the seat next to me. She obediently sits down, staring fixedly at the watermelon as if expecting it to suddenly turn into a carriage. “We’re going to make a bomb.”

She tried to stand up when I said the word bomb, but I anticipated this, and caught her elbow.

“Oh come on you big baby, it won’t be that bad.” I could sense she didn’t really want to leave because she sat back down quickly. “Here, it’s easy. You just take a couple rubber bands.” I picked up a few to demonstrate.

“Stretch’em out, and then wrap it around the watermelon.” The rubber bands twanged into place around the middle of the melon making a slight thunking sound.

“See? Easy as pie.” I shove a few rubber bands her direction. She picks up two rubber bands and just like I showed her, twangs them into place around the large green fruit.

“Not so bad.” She says, gaining a measure of confidence.

“Not yet.” I smile maliciously at her, before she can think about that too much I pick up another four bands and slide them into place around the middle of the melon. “9.” I count off. She picks up another two.

“Eleven.” She says after wrapping them around the melon. Soon we get caught up in a contest of who could put the most rubbed bands around the melon. We’re shoving each other out of the way in an effort to put the most on.

“100.” I intone. She doesn’t even blink, just putting on more and more bands.

“200.” I count off after several more minutes. She starts to slow down a bit. “Is this dangerous?” She asks. “203

“You can’t ask that now. 207. We’re already over 200 rubber bands in!”

“210.” She replies. “Seriously though, is this going to hurt?” She asks.

“214. You’re slowing down chica, and you’ll be fine.” She’s still somewhat boisterous as we continue to create our own little WMD, until we get to about 300.

“303.” I count off.

“No really, that’s like a lot of rubber bands. Have you done this before?” She asks, forgetting to count off.

“Have you ever lived before? 310.” She tries to pull back a bit, but we are just starting to get to the point where it’s fun.

“Coward! Be ye woman or be ye melon! 314.” I pass the watermelon to her and she rapidly throws on a measly two bands before quickly passing it back to me.

“Say it!” I shout as I grab four more elastic bands.

“316!” She squeaks.

“320!” I shout, enthusiastically applying my processed rubber to the green ball. We press on as more and more bands pile on.

“Oh my gosh, it’s starting to flatten out. Does it normally do that? 389.” It’s true. The melon has now lost its spherical shape.

“393, and yes, we’re getting close now. Any minute this thing is going to be in your hands, and then suddenly it won’t be.” I do my best to sound like I’m telling a ghost story.

“395.” She spurts out, pulling away from the melon as soon as the rubber bands are on, like it’s a bee that might sting her.

Just before I launch into my grand finale speech, I take just a few heartbeats to take her in. I see in her face excitement, joy, loosely veiled as fear, and hope for what was about to what happen. It was everything that had been missing from her face when last I had seen it. She mistakes my pause for hesitation, and now it’s her turn to goad me on.

“Hey, you got me into this, if I have to keep this up then so do you.” I’ve never been so happy to be taunted by a girl.

“Right you are lass.” I quickly throw on five bands and shove the ticking time bomb to her.

“400.” I declare. We’re getting very near to the end of it. Any rubber band could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s like a game of hot potato now. Each of us applies our few pieces of elastic and then immediately passes the device on to the other person so they don’t get caught in the explosion.

“472.” I count off, by the time the words are out of my mouth Jennifer is already adding her own.

“474.” She spits out.

“478.”

“480.”

“484.”

“486, hey.” She says.

“490.” I cut her off.

“There’s a little juice flowing down the….” One instant the watermelon is in her hand. The next it’s not. There’s a great squelching sound, and she’s gaping at the empty air where the watermelon used to be. Half of the melon is cut quite smoothly in front of her. Like a great cook has neatly sliced it down the middle. The rest of it is in bits and pieces everywhere.

On her face, every bit of worry, every trace of fear, is gone. In that moment she has forgotten all the trauma of earlier, and is now, for just a few fleeting instances, a kid again. She’s staring at the pieces of melon that are scattered around the table and on the nearby grass. I’m just staring at her. I want to make her feel whatever she’s feeling right now for as long as possible.

I wipe a piece of juice from her forehead, and she turns to address me.

“That was awesome!” She starts bouncing up and down like a kid that’s just gotten just what they wanted for Christmas.

“Well then, let’s see if we can go for double or nothing.” I pull a six pack of diet coke from underneath the bench.

“Ever heard of Russian roulette?”

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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 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.

Inspiring Medical Weekend

I wasn’t planning on doing any real life stories, but I figured this was better than anything I could possibly make up.

I was witness to two inspiring moments of humanity this weekend. One was from the accident seen above, the other was from a good friend who had a fairly horrific accident of her own.

The first inspiring moment, that accident was not the first medical incident of the weekend. Saturday morning I hear that a good friend is in the hospital because ‘her foot is facing the wrong way’. Long story short she tripped on a treadmill and landed in such a way that she dislocated her ankle, and broke one of her shin bones in half. The X-ray photos were like something out of ER or House(wish I had the photos to post). The two bones in her left leg that normally form parallel lines were now forming a 20 degree angle around her ankle, and one of them was snapped in half. So naturally when I drove down to see her I expected her to be in a lot of pain. Someone once told me the worst pain you can experience is the thigh bone breaking. My own experience with broken bones tells me the bigger they are, the worse the pain. Both of these facts led me to believe she would be practically incomprehensible when I arrived. To my surprise, when I see her she smiles and gives me a hug, despite having just undergone surgery. Just thinking about it kind of makes me feel like wimp for taking a sick day the last time I had a cold.

The second moment was when I was driving back from seeing her, and ran into the accident showed above. My car is just visible in the bottom right of the photo. I’m fine, one of the persons in the accident was not so lucky. Near as I can tell, the red mustang pulled out of a side street, and knocked the other red car into the woods. Both cars are very obviously totaled. The four people in the mustang are fine(he was at fault for the accident, but I didn’t see it to know this). The person in the car in the woods(who is being extracted by paramedics), was not so lucky. She was awake, and relatively lucid, but judging from the brief description of pain she gave me, and the equipment being used to extract her, she has likely some spinal damage(hopefully minor, and prayers are appreciated). The inspiring moment comes in from when I showed up on the scene. I see the two cars(no EMS yet), some debris, and a lady walking toward the car in the woods. I figure something is wrong so I get out. A couple of passing joggers were responding at the same time I was. One of them was calling 911 the other helped me work with the lady in the car. A few more passersby show up from cars driving either way. One is a combat medic and takes over with the lady in the woods car. The other helps me try and get the mustang out of the road(unsuccessfully), along with the driver. The car was too wrecked to move by our strength. I didn’t put 2 and 2 together until afterwards, but all five people who first saw this scene, stopped to help out. All of us had places to be and could have driven on. I know I at least was made late for a service, and several others were stopped for almost an hour, yet all of us took the time to help these people out. There was a 100% response rate among the first people to see the accident, the driver took responsibility, 911 was called immediately, and everyone got out of the way and let the professionals take over as soon as they arrived.

In a lot of movies people seem to crumble under stress, and only the protagonist is gifted with any meaningful intelligence and tenacity. Yet this weekend, I saw a substantial number of people put through the ringer, and every single one of them did so in an inspiring and responsible way that anyone would be proud of.

I don’t intend to do many of these, but this boosted my hope for humanity, and I wanted to pass it on.