Tag Archives: Fate

Unhooked part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s pretty shocking.” I say.

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

“We’re almost there.” I tell him.

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

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

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

“Oh, this is Thomas.” I say.

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

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

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

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

“That’s great Ryan.” My mom says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Least I could do.” He says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No follows me as I leave and start back home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

A lifetime of October 13th 2014

Okay, the train just passed, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, and turn. Squint, eyes go wide, jaw drops, reach it into back pocket, and kneel.

“Oh my gosh you are the most wonderful woman I’ve ever seen in my whole life, will you marry me?” She steps back and covers her face in shock. Now quick lunge forward to grab her dangling hand and pull her away from the on coming cab.

“I’m sorry.” I stand up and quickly release her hand and back peddle. “I didn’t mean to scare you so badly, it’s just I couldn’t risk the chance of you getting away.”

“How, how, what.” She stammers. I put the ring back into my pocket.

“It’s okay, I understand, this is too much. I should go.” I turn and take three steps away, and then pause and drooped my head. It had taken a dozen cycles to figure out it was exactly three steps that would do it.

“Wait.” She calls, running up and taking my hand. “It’s okay. I just.” She fumbles. I look at her eyes with an expression of hope and fear that I had spent two whole cycles perfecting in a mirror.

“Why did you have an engagement ring in your back pocket?” The first time she asked this I had went with ‘Just in case I see something as rare as you’. That had gotten me a few oohs and ahhs, but hadn’t gone anywhere. Next I had tried some practical excuse about selling an old family heirloom. That had almost earned me a slap for selling an engagement ring. This time I decided to try.

“Because I was going to propose to the woman I love, and I didn’t expect to run into the woman of my dreams.” Her knees buckled and I had to lunge forward to catch her again. Three hours later we were saying our vows in front of a justice of the peace.

Some people would spend an eternity doing depraved acts, or earning lots of money, or possibly traveling. Me, I wanted to marry every girl in the world.

The face of romance

One Last Request

“I wish to see myself at fourteen to convince myself to ask out Francine Walker.” I asked the mysterious ghost who has appeared before me.

“But first I will show you what will change.” Th ghost tells me. That’s fair of him. It’s his powers I’m taking advantage of, so I’ll gladly abide by his rules.

We arrive at the honeymoon with my current with Margarett. “Gone.” The ghost says.

That’s alright. I’ll get married to Francine. We’ll have another honeymoon.

I’m standing at my wife’s side as she gives birth to my first son. “Gone.” The ghost says. I’m watching my first daughter being born. “Gone.” The ghost says. Those two hurt, and hurt bad. I’m sure I’ll have more children, but it was hard to tell that to myself as I saw them take their first breaths.

I’m at my dad’s funeral. Oh good, I won’t mind losing this. “Keep.” The ghost says. I look at him questioningly, and before I can voice my question he points to my wife comforting me as I sob like a little girl. “Gone.” He says. Then I know I can’t change my past. I can’t betray this woman who means so much to me.

“I wish to see myself at nineteen when I’m picking majors so I can go with something more lucrative than creative writing.” The ghost nods. I suspect I am about to view the changes to my life, and I am right when I find myself at my first book publishing event. “Gone.” The ghost says. That stupid book had only made 5,000$ and had started me on a very poor artist lifestyle, but I remembered the stories my readers had told me about how my book had changed them.

I’m in my room reading one of my books to my wife and children as they go to sleep. “Gone.” The ghost says. These two memories aren’t as powerful as the ones from my wife, and I am still thinking about making more money when I show up in the room of a teenage girl. She’s bawling her eyes out, and has a lot of pills around her on the bed. She’s got my book on her lap. I ask what’s going on when she finishes the book and runs bawling to her mom to tell her that she loves her. The ghost points to the girl. “Gone.”

“I can’t change this either.” I tell the ghost. He nods and we return to my room where we started.

“You know.” I tell the ghost. “I can sense a pattern. Everything in my life happened for a reason, and I didn’t appreciate those reasons. Ghost, I wish to end this charade.” The ghost nods and points to himself.

“Gone.”