by Scott Cannon
Until the troubles at the School of Metaphysics. Taylor was surprised one Wednesday when Greg opened the door and led him to the back. He hadn’t seen Greg since calling Ashlee about him weeks ago. He was surprised a second time when she wasn’t there when Greg let him in to the office.
“She couldn’t be here tonight,” Greg said, motioning to the loveseat. “Might we talk, Mr. Taylor?” He sat behind the desk.
Taylor sat in his usual place next to Ashlee’s empty chair. “What’s going on? Is anything wrong?”
“I’m afraid there is.” Greg’s gaze was direct and rather piercing even from the shadows of his corner. Taylor crossed his legs and tried to look casual while his heart started to triphammer like he’d been caught in someone else’s closet with no clothes on. “Oh?” was all he could say.
“The School has money problems,” Greg said, and Taylor let out a held breath. “Ashlee is away trying to get help, and we’re going to have to discontinue instruction for a while. Class enrollment is down, and donations are not keeping pace with our needs, simple as they are.”
Classes – what classes? He had never seen another car in the drive. Needs – what needs? He knew they couldn’t live on the donations box, but had always assumed Greg had income from some kind of real job to keep things going.
It was none of his business anyway. He thought he should feel panicked, or sad or at least sorry to hear Greg tell him the School might have to close. But instead he felt strangely calm, as he had in the police car during the dream that started it all. Wondering at this, he saw it was because he really didn’t need these people anymore.
He had learned the techniques. They worked. He could get galantamine at a health food store or online if he wanted. He loved Ashlee’s fun-loving dream self, but in real life she had begun to seem tiresome with her talk of intuitive knowledge, collective consciousness, spirituality, and other things metaphysical and uninteresting to him.
Still, he felt some obligation here. He had made really good progress, and Ashlee had helped. Perhaps he didn’t need her or her School anymore, but he had to ask. “I don’t mean to pry, but how bad is it, Greg? Would a little extra help make the difference?”
“We are in foreclosure,” he said. “If we don’t come up with ten thousand dollars in the next couple of weeks, we lose the School.”
Okay then. That was considerably more than the kind of little help he had in mind when he asked the question. So “Well, hell,” was all he had to offer Greg. He didn’t know what more the guy could have expected or, now that he thought of it, why they were even sitting there together in Ashlee’s office with no Ashlee. After some commiseration with Greg and regret if the worst should happen, mixed with vague hope that everything would work out, he stood to leave. Apparently the sole reason for not calling to let him know there would be no session with Ashlee this week was so that Greg could give him the bad news face-to-face. If Greg wanted something else he didn’t say what it was, and Taylor doubted he had it to give anyway. Especially if it was ten thousand dollars.
Greg followed him out and watched him fold a couple of bills into the box. On the porch he shook Greg’s hand and wished him luck. Greg nodded and shut the door.
This was too bad. He wondered if Ashlee would ever be able to get her Qui Docet Discit Certificate and become a psi counselor now. Thinking of Ashlee, he found he had missed seeing her for their weekly session, and decided tonight might be a good night for some lucid dreaming. When she appeared, he could tell her how sorry he was for her troubles before they had sex in a public restroom, or backstage at a rock concert or wherever else they ended up.
After awaking to take the pill, he entered the dream state as easily as walking through a door. On the other side was a rolling green meadow, with people dressed in medieval clothing walking down a road that led into a forest. He joined the happy throng and followed them until the road fetched up in a large round clearing where some kind of renaissance fair was going on with fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, jugglers, and musicians playing lyres, lutes, pipes and drums. He stood in the middle of everything, looking around and drawing in the warm feel of the place amid the brooks of people babbling by in every direction all around him. A man in motley walked past, accompanied by a dog ridden by a cat with a mouse on its head. Taylor smiled and stepped into the flow.
He mingled with the welcoming fair folk for a while until remembering that he was looking for Ashlee. She was nowhere around. He walked on, looking for that hair, listening for that laugh. He bought a tankard of ale from a fat sweaty man in a tent, paying for it with his 1-year AA chip, and swilled it down.
Away from the midway, he found the freak shows, fortune tellers, and spook houses. He was drawn to a black-tented structure with a gypsy woman seated by the flap at the front. “In there,” the woman said, and held the flap open after he handed her another AA chip.
He found himself in a maze of black-sheeted walls that turned him this way and that and was lost immediately. Each turn led him to a darker and deeper part of the maze. He would find her lying back in a false swoon on a bed in a dim chamber at the heart of the maze, he thought. Little minx.
He made for a paleness he saw in the dark ahead, and there found what was waiting for him.
It was not Ashlee Emory. It was the Black Man.
In the half-light of the space he had come to, there was nothing but shadow all around. He stood rooted in the center of the space, uncomprehending for the moment and unable to move, even as he saw the shadows about him grow thicker and take on a motion as of a waterfall of cloud thick as oil and black as ink.
He felt something touch his ankle and looked down to see that the shadows had seeped onto the floor and pooled around his feet. He moved to leave, remembering that with his dream awareness and the control of lucidity he could find his way out, or make the tent maze disappear entirely and transport himself to some other place if he felt like it. He moved his right foot through the shadow that rolled around him like dense cloud on the floor. His left foot followed slowly feeling like it was pushing through knee-deep water at the beach. He tried to walk faster lifting his feet clear of the swirling blackness on the ground but tendrils of it clung to his legs slowing him more and more, though it was of no more substance than mist, no matter how black and dense.
LD theory said go with the flow when something weird happened to see what your dream was trying to show you about yourself. If this dream had something to show him he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it. All he wanted was out. He said aloud to the dream, “I’m leaving now,” and took a purposeful stride in the direction he knew he should go.
In the next instant he was on his face on the ground where he’d fallen when something caught his other ankle in mid-step. Falling into it had made the blackness roil about him like ink in water. As he stood to get out of it he watched the liquid shadows on the ground gather together and begin to take shape around the black hand he now saw gripping his ankle, and he turned to run in sudden blind panic.
Then he was on his face again, and all the darkness had formed itself into the black of the void in the shape of a man, featureless and without substance, that had him now by both legs and was pulling itself up his body toward his face. When he tried to push and beat it away with his hands they passed through like nothing was there, but its grip and its pull were strong and he could only try to crawl away from it as its fingers grasped and its arms pulled and its head with no face rose closer to his own and the terror rose within him because he knew, he knew what the thing wanted and that was not just his breath or his life but his very soul.
Then he was sitting up in the damp sheets of his bed while his vision cleared and his heart drummed and his breathing came shallow and ragged. He was alone in the bedroom. His wife must be downstairs on the couch having another bad night with her hot flashes. He thought he remembered she was gone when he woke up to take his dream pill. Thank God. He didn’t know if he’d thrashed about or called out in his sleep, but all was quiet now.
He went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet while he drank a glass of water. When he was calmer he walked to his wife’s side of the bed and found her bottle of lorazepam in the nightstand drawer. God bless you two times. At the edges of his blasted-out consciousness he knew there were things he needed to think through. That could wait. At the moment, all he wanted was oblivion, with no dreams, no lucidity, no Ashlee, no Greg.
He nested into his pillows and waited for the benzo express to kick into gear and take him straight to delta land. He pictured the long relaxed rise and fall of the low-amplitude brain waves he had seen in his studies, depicting the deep dreamless delta sleep that contrasted with the jagged high-frequency pattern the brain gave out during REM. No more dreams tonight, he told himself again. No Ashlee. No Greg.
As the lorazepam took hold, he had just begun to wonder why he was thinking no Greg instead of no Black Man. Then the thought drifted away with everything else.
Two weeks later he was sitting between Greg and Ashlee in her sanctum sanctorum, after a spate of increasingly frantic phone calls to the School that first went to voicemail, then got him through to Greg and finally to Ashlee. They had met him at the door together this time, he in jeans and a black tee shirt and she in a loose white linen caftan thing.
She put on a show of shock at his appearance as she led them back. Was he ill? Had he been losing sleep? Losing weight?
From his calls they knew well enough why he was there. When they were all settled in her office, instead of starting with the recurrent black nightmare that had invaded his dreams and cast out the carnal visitations from Ashlee together with all other adventures and any thought of flying, he turned to Greg. “Glad to see you’re still here. I thought they were putting you out on the street. What happened with the foreclosure?”
“It’s still pending, but we bought some extra time,” he said in his toneless voice. By now Taylor knew better than to expect anything more from him than an unblinking stare, so he turned to Ashlee. She was sitting forward instead of in her usual folded-in position in her immense chair.
“Yes,” he said to her, “my nightmare is back. The one I told you about that time, the one from twenty years ago, the Black Man? It’s almost every night now.”
“How terrible for you,” she said. “I can’t imagine the reason for this.” The concern in her voice sounded genuine, but her demeanor was professional, almost distant. If only she could help him. How unfortunate the School had to close.
“Yes I heard about your money troubles,” Taylor said, trying to keep his voice even. “The evening before the first Return of Black Man dream.” She looked at him curiously. “You were away looking for help with the some money problems. Greg told me.”
“Yes, of course. I know.” She still didn’t seem to get it.
“So you can’t imagine? I can. Funny coincidence, don’t you think? You know what fun my dreams were before then.” To Greg he said, “We were fucking all the time. Every night I did an LD she would find me and fuck my brains out.” Taylor expected no reaction, and got none. He turned back to Ashlee. “Then one Wednesday you’re not here and Greg tells me he needs ten thousand dollars and that very night in my LD I’m looking for you and I find him instead.”
Comprehension dawned on her face. Her features softened and she leaned forward to take his hand in both of hers. “Cole, now listen to me. Look at me.” Her green eyes held his. “If I know what you’re thinking, it’s wrong. It’s impossible. Yes, it is quite a coincidence, the timing, and not funny at all. I see how you’ve suffered. But you mustn’t think we can invade your dreams. People can’t share the same dream space and interact together in the sense that you’re thinking, like we are in this room. This has been studied for years, believe me, it’s known.” She gestured to the books on the wall. “Is that what you think? That we’re doing this to you?”
He pulled his hand away and covered his face with it. Yes, that’s what he thought. It sounded ridiculous, said aloud. “I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not in dreams. I’ve seen some crazy shit. But nothing like this. And I have no awareness, no control. I stopped taking the pills. Here.” He took the galantamine bottle from his pocket and tried to hand it to her. “I’ve tried to stop the dreams, but they keep coming. The nightmares are always the same. Him – I mean the Black Man. And it keeps getting worse. You helped me before. Can’t you help me again?” He cleared his throat. “I know you’re right. It’s not you. All this is coming from my own fucked-up head. I don’t know what’s real anymore. I don’t care. I just want it to stop. Is there something, anything. . .”
“Yes. There is,” she said, beatific.
“But it will cost money.” Taylor was startled, as always, that the man had spoken, or was even there.
“How much money?” he asked Greg.
“Ten thousand dollars.”
He felt his jaw come unhinged. Astonished, he looked back to Ashlee, beatific still. “Ten. Thousand dollars,” he said to her. “What is this, some kind of psychic shakedown?”
She fell back in her chair as though he’d pushed her. Her eyes glistened, and for a second she went out of focus in his vision and he realized his eyes too were stung with tears. He didn’t know if he was angry or hurt, at them or with himself or for her. The confused moment of vulnerable intimacy was broken up by Greg.
“You are out of line, Mr. Taylor. We thought – I thought you were asking her to – never mind.”
“What in God’s holy name are you blathering about?” There was no confusion of feeling in Taylor’s voice this time. “Asking her to do what? Magic? For ten thousand dollars?”
Ashlee’s voice was oil on water. “Cole. It’s not magic. We do so much more here than you have ever wanted to know. We’ve never talked about that because I knew from the start that you were only interested in one thing. You wanted help with lucid dreaming, and I was glad to give it. I never bothered with anything else because I could tell what you thought of it. But there is more. Much more.”
“More than your little dream sexcapades,” came Greg’s voice from the corner. “You have no idea what she can do.” He fell silent at a quick look of gentle reproval from Ashlee.
“So you’re some kind of sorceress?” Taylor said.
“No, no,” she said with a strange smile. “I’m just far advanced in my studies.”
“Made really good progress, have you?”
The smile lingered, fading. “I have learned to do things you could never believe, Cole, things you could never accept as real without questioning your own view of reality. New-age things, you’d call them. And I know you’re not a new-age kind of guy.”
That stung. “Things. What things?”
“Things involving time, space, dimension. Projected consciousness, shared consciousness. Universal consciousness.” She drew her shoulders together and looked at her hands in her lap. “I didn’t like some of it. What Greg was talking about, what he thought you were asking for, I’ve done just once, at a retreat in Taos.” She looked up at him without raising her head. “Before today, I never imagined I would consider doing it again. It involves a lot of preparation.”
“And takes an enormous toll on her psyche,” said Greg.
“So that’s why it costs ten thousand dollars? Bullshit. You must think I’m some kind of idiot. God damn.”
“God has nothing to do with it.”
Taylor ignored this inanity from Greg and kept his eyes on Ashlee. She was the professional again. “Cole, there are millions of people who suffer from nightmares. Sometimes the nightmares just go away after awhile. Other times, they stop with some guidance. There are other places you could find help. There’s a group of people that get together three or four times a month at different places to talk about dreaming and all sorts of things. Some of them are – were students here. They can help you get control of your dreams again. There are –”
“Techniques? That work?”
She smiled, nodding. “I don’t know what they call their group, or if they have a name at all. They’re on meetup.com.”
“Or you could look for a good psychiatrist,” Greg said.
The soul searchers or a headshrinker. For a moment Taylor felt he was going insane. The moment passed, none too quickly. He looked at Ashlee’s books, sighed. “I’ll probably be all right. But what if I’m not? What if no one can help me but you?”
She stood. “I’m sure we’ll never have to talk about that. I would prefer not to right now.”
They walked out. Greg disappeared down the dark hall. Ashlee turned to Taylor. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, Cole. You’ll be fine.” A quick hug.
“Thanks for everything, Ashlee. I will – I’ll kick this thing’s ass myself. And you, you’ll be fine too. Good luck.” As she went inside he realized he hadn’t put anything in the box. He walked on to his car.
The house had gone dark by the time he got there, torn between wanting to break out the car window with his fist or break out bawling like some kind of twist. He did neither, but sat in his car with the engine running for a minute before driving away.
Ten. Thousand dollars.
Taylor did not kick the nightmare man’s ass. It was easy enough to stop lucid dreaming; all you had to do was wake up instead of cavort about when you became dream-conscious. Dream awareness just faded away after that. Soon he was not aware that he was in a dream until he woke up from one, and didn’t remember it for long after that. A couple of times it was like the dreamworld tried to trick him with false awakenings, as if trying to entice him back, or get even with him for turning his back on it. He held it at bay. He didn’t need to fly. He was pedestrian. He would have laughed it off, if he ever felt like laughing. But nothing could seem funny with the black nightmare in his life. Stopping lucid dreaming didn’t stop it.
Sometimes it came clawing for him three or four nights running. Then it would leave him alone for a night or two. Familiarity did not breed anything but increasing terror, as if in getting to know him better it learned more about how to scare him.
On a lucid dreaming message board he read that one technique was to confront your nightmare, talk to it and ask what it wanted of you. The nightmare’s answer could be a joyful revelation and after that the nightmare would go away, or even become your friend or something. He couldn’t imagine hanging out with his nightmare buddy. How could they have a beer together when it had no mouth?
This technique of course required lucidity, which he was loath to try again, but one night he swallowed his fear with a red dreamcap and was surprised at how easily it came back. He was in a moonlit granite ruin trying to fly again when it found him. As it pulled him to the ground groping for his face with its fingers in his mouth he felt it was trying to enter and inhabit him, and through his horror screamed “What do you want? What do you want?” He felt a hand on his shoulder, another hand, the warm human hand of his wife shaking him awake. He had waked her with his guttural exclamations and thrashing about. What is it honey, what’s wrong? I must have been having a nightmare, he told her as he staggered to the bathroom thinking he might vomit. It sounded like you were talking in your sleep, he heard her say as he shut the door to pull off his sweat-soaked undershirt and sit panting on the tile floor with his back against the cool of the bathtub, wondering if just before coming out of the nightmare he had really heard repeated from the black head of the thing with no mouth the word ten, ten. When he got back in bed in a clean dry undershirt his wife asked him what the nightmare was about. He told her he didn’t remember.
He had returned to the eager and needful embrace of his AA group. They seemed worried at his appearance but he assured them he hadn’t fallen off the wagon, he had just been busy with other things lately. One night he saw that a meeting of the soul searchers on meetup.com coincided with an AA meeting. Their webpage was different than before, now including on its menu ghosts (mentioned three times) but not dreams. He went anyway. There were just five of them in the rented room at the library, none in khaki Dockers and navy blue pullover sweater like his, and they seemed to regard him with suspicion. Or maybe he imagined they did, but it didn’t matter because all they wanted to talk about was spirits and hauntings and past lives and UFOs and none of them knew shit about what mattered to him. He said his goodbyes at the end of the last ghost story knowing he’d never see any of their pierced faces again and thinking that would probably suit them fine.
Now what? He wasn’t going to look for a good psychiatrist. For one thing, that was Greg’s snide suggestion and for another he had been In Treatment before for a short time after he got sober and held psychiatry in about the same regard as metaphysics. He thought psychiatrists were the bottom-feeders of the medical profession, little better than drug dealers with prescription pads. There would be an initial session lasting an hour to an hour and a half, during which he would talk to the doctor and forms would be filled out indicating his chief complaints and whether he had a plan to kill himself, and he would leave with prescriptions for two or three drugs. Then once-a-month 15 minute follow-ups to adjust dosages and add or take away medications. The shrinks jealously guarded their power of the pad, and God help you if you missed an appointment because the scrips were for thirty days only, no refills. When that happened, there was nothing like having to call and beg for a refill for making you feel like a little child. He never really liked the kinds of drugs they gave out anyway, and he knew there was no such thing as a pill for nightmares. He’d googled it.
One thing for sure was that he couldn’t go on like this. Every night he went to bed with the frightful apprehension that would start building every afternoon, not knowing if he would have to do the tarantella with the Black Man again when he fell asleep. It was like POWs said: waiting for the beating was almost as bad as the beating itself. When the thing did appear in his sleep, he got out of bed feeling wasted the next morning. More and more often the nightmare came, sometimes more than once a night.
He lost sleep, and when he did sleep it was without rest. It must have showed. He could see his wife was worried about him. She had noticed her lorazepam was disappearing. People at work asked if anything was wrong. Even his son one day asked if he was feeling all right. He had to do something.
Psychiatry and the paranormalists were out. That left Ashlee Emory, whatever she was. Huckstress or sorceress, he decided to find out.
A while later, they met again at eight o’clock on a Friday evening. With Greg right behind her at the door, she exclaimed dismay at how much more haggard he seemed. Outside, the School sign had been taken down from the posts, but otherwise everything was the same. Even the folding chairs in the supposed classroom were still there as she led them through it.
Her office was the same too, every book in order, every carven or glass-blown gee-gaw in place. It didn’t look like anybody was going anywhere. Greg must have bought them more time in the foreclosure again. They took their usual seats, Greg glaring from the tiny desk in his shadowy corner, Ashlee resplendent in unbleached hemp in her huge chair, Taylor between them.
He told her the nightmares were getting worse and he had to have her help. The soul searchers didn’t have her knowledge or understanding or abilities, and psychiatry was not for him. The nightmare could reach him now even through the fog of benzo sleep, and he didn’t want to hide from it by beating down the heightened consciousness she had led him to with the kind of zombie drugs the shrinks would give him. But he wanted to know exactly what she was talking about that she didn’t want to talk about before, and wanted to talk about the price while they were at it.
In her professional pose at the edge of her chair, Ashlee told him they would have a meeting dream in the hypnagogic state. This was something entirely different than what he had thought they were doing to him, Ashlee playing the dream succubus, then Greg taking her place and stalking him in the form of the black wraith. She knew he was over the silly idea that they could invade his dreams against his will. Haha. No, hypnagogia was when the body went to sleep before the mind did. They would induce this state with a dose of galantamine before they went to sleep, and the progressive relaxation meditation trick she taught him. Their dream communion would take place when they were all in a waking hypnagogic sleep and consciousness was at its highest. Then it would be more than just another LD; it would be like some kind of uber-dream with more power than the others.
One dream to rule them all. One dream to bind them. “Cool,” Taylor said.
Ashlee was momentarily nonplussed at this, but recovered quickly and went on. He would have to learn to separate his mind from his body during sleep paralysis. Then it would be like astral projection, only different. He would be able to look down on his sleeping body, a spirit light as the ether, then leave his physical body behind and float through walls to anyplace he wished.
Mind-body separation could be difficult to learn, but he had to do it for this to work. She would give him some homework to do. When he had mastered it, they would appoint a night and a time for a group hypnagogic dream, when they – or their spirit selves – would meet at the School, in Ashlee’s very sanctum sanctorum where he had made such good progress. There, all their consciousness would merge and become collective, and he would see that the nightmare figure had no power over him and that even if it were to hang around in his dreams for a while after their dream séance or what-have-you, the Black Man sure wasn’t Greg.
Greg would have to be part of it, of course. She knew that from what Taylor had said the last time.
Taylor said, “I’m ready. Let’s do it!”
She looked at him as if she’d never seen him before. Taylor leaned into her uncertainty.
“The sooner the better. In fact, this weekend would be perfect.” His wife and son had left that morning to visit her sister in Colorado. “Does that work for you? Either night.”
Ashlee’s mouth was still open for what she was going to say before his enthusiastic interruption, but her eyes clouded with confusion and she seemed at a loss for words. It was Greg who broke the silence.
Taylor turned away from the frozen Ashlee to face Greg. “Great. I so appreciate this. I want to be rid of this fucker and get on with my life.”
“There is the matter of the money.”
“And that’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Ten thousand dollars – I just don’t have that. You must know I don’t. You do know.”
Greg shifted in his chair so slightly Taylor wasn’t sure he’d seen it, then raised his hands from behind the desk and unlaced his fingers and laid them flat over the edge of the desktop. He stared hard at Taylor. “You can pay ten thousand dollars or seek help elsewhere. You’re asking Ashlee to do something she would rather not do. I told you this –”
“– Takes an enormous toll on her, I remember. I’m just not so sure it’s a ten thousand dollar toll. That was your number. This is not something you do, so you just pulled that number out of the air. If this is all about how Ashlee feels, how hard it is, the toll it takes, let’s talk to her.” He turned away from Greg’s sputtering objection and moved closer to her.
“Ashlee. Ashlee. Will you talk to me about this?”
She seemed to come back to him from far away. Her jade eyes focused on his face, seeming to take in every line and feature before she said, “Yes. Yes, Cole, I will.” He heard Greg draw breath behind him, but she silenced him with a look.
With his elbows on his knees Taylor rested his forehead on his hands clasped before him. “Thank you,” he said, and looked up. “Now listen just for a minute. Why is this so hard? I’ve read up on it some. Everything you said earlier is on the internet. They say it can’t be done, what you were talking about, or at least they don’t have scientific proof, definitive proof. But they’re working on it all the time so there must be something there. And the message boards are full of people who say they’ve done it.”
He raised a hand as she started to speak. “I know, I know how much I should credit that kind of information. But I know it can be done. It can, can’t it, just like you said?” At her tentative nod he pressed on. “And I know if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s you.”
A faint glow suffused her alabaster skin. “So here’s the thing. If you just believe one in ten of these accounts of what this is like, they’re all the same and it sounds like a big party. Hanging out with your friends in dreamland? What could be more fun? I just don’t see why you would be so. . . averse to it.”
She found her voice, and it was quieter than usual when she spoke. “It’s the. . . intimacy. It drains me. I – I can’t explain it.”
“The intimacy? Huh.” He stared dumbly at the books before leaning over to put his hand on hers where they lay in her lap. Her eyes widened and she drew away from him a little. He had never touched her like that before, in waking life anyway. “That’s all right,” Taylor said. “I knew it had to be something.” He took his hand away, leaned back. “So if I compensate you in some reasonable amount for your trouble, whatever it is, you’ll do it for me? As a friend? We are. . . we have a sort of friendship, don’t we? That’s how I feel, at least.”
He watched this sink in. The doubt in her face receded a little. “So this is my idea. You fix this for me, and I pay you five thousand dollars.” He took a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “This is a $5,000 check, made out to Ashlee Emory. I know it’s not what Greg said you needed, but maybe he can buy some more time with it and you can get the School going again. Charge tuition this time. Believe me, if what I saw at that paranormalist meeting is as good as it gets outside of this place, you’re worth it.” The glow in her complexion deepened. He handed the check to her and glanced toward the desk. “You know the check is good. Of course I wouldn’t want you to do anything with it until we’re finished.”
She studied it for a long moment, then raised her eyes to Greg. It was only for a couple of seconds, but the look seemed to last longer. It was the longest he’d ever seen Ashlee look at the guy. He saw a decision made.
“Okay, Cole,” she said with a little nod and a smile that played on her lips. “Okay. Yes, I’ll do it. This Saturday.”
“Yay,” said Taylor.
They talked about logistics, he and Ashlee. Taylor thought he could feel Greg fuming in his corner, but paid him no mind. She was concerned over his blitheness about hypnagogic dreaming. He mustn’t think it would be easy. There was the risk of sleep paralysis, a terrifying phenomenon known for centuries, written about, depicted in Renaissance paintings, and documentaried in modern film. If you couldn’t get out of your body, you were in for a real horror show: feeling fully awake but locked in an immobile dread of a malign presence. Many who experienced sleep paralysis spent years of their sleeping lives in torment if they could not master mind-body separation.
Taylor told her he had that down. “I know what you’re talking about. I was going to mention it but I guess I forgot because I was so interested in what you were saying about the dream meeting. Or the meeting dream, they call it in what I’ve read. After the last time I was here a while back, I figured, why give up the LD just because the nightmare guy won’t let me be? So I did some research and decided I’d try LD again in a different sleep stage and I took a pill when I went to bed one night instead of going to sleep first. It started just like you said, but I was ready with this technique I read about, and it worked. When the scary feeling started and I couldn’t move, I just lifted out of my body. It was amazing! Just like you were saying.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “Self-study,” he said. “That’s all I had when you weren’t around.” She still looked dubious, but seemed to draw some reassurance looking at the check in her hands.
“Did you know that the Gaelic word for a black man really means blue man? That’s because the literal Gaelic word for Black Man means the Devil – an Fear Dubh. I guess that was their word for the Great Satan before they ever saw a real human black man. So when they did, they had to make up a new name. Fear gorm – blue man.” She looked up from the check to his face. Taylor nodded. “I heard that in a movie, then looked it up. I wrote it down. So I wondered, is that what’s after me in these nightmares, the Devil, an Fear Dubh? I mean I’m not even sure If I believe in that or not. But one thing I am sure of, I don’t want to spend any more of the rest of my life with this thing chasing me in my dreams – whatever it is.”
“Of course not,” she said with a sympathetic shake of her head. “Saturday then. Midnight?”
“The witching hour. Perfect.”
Taylor did not fly to the midnight meeting dream. He could not fly, so he drove. When he got there, he let himself in without knocking as easily as if he’d done it a hundred times before. The classroom was dark, and he could see the door to Ashlee’s office was open and it was dark in there too.
The door to the hallway was also open, and light and sounds came from that direction. Taylor moved down the hall, passing Greg’s computer room on his left, and found them in the kitchen, laughing and talking over a bottle of wine.
“Is that dream wine,” he said, “the kind I can drink and still not break my sobriety?” He had expected Ashlee to scream, and Greg maybe to attack him, but had come unarmed anyway, because doing a B & E carrying a weapon didn’t seem like such a good idea.
If they were surprised to see him, they hid it well. “Cole,” said Ashlee, “we were just talking about you.”
“I bet you were. What were you talking about, my bank account? How I just so happened to have around twelve thousand set aside for our IRAs this year, so I could have paid the ten he asked for? I might have, too, but I thought I should. . . look into it a little deeper first. You want to know what I found out, before I came back here last night? There is no foreclosure. I checked the court dockets, the county clerk’s records – nothing.”
Ashlee refilled her glass, emptying what was left in the bottle. “Cole, you’re upset for no reason. I never said anything about a foreclosure. If Greg said something, you must have misunderstood. He does tend to overstate things. But it’s true, the School is closed, because we do have money problems.”
“Who doesn’t!” Taylor said, waving his arms. “But that foreclosure bullshit, he said it, and it’s a lie. This whole place is a lie.”
“Oh, Cole, what is the matter?” she said. “Everything is fine. This is going just as it should.”
Greg said nothing but regarded him coolly. The calmer they remained, the louder Taylor got. “Yeah, well I checked you out too. Both of you. You know what’s weird about that? You don’t exist. There is no record of either of you, anywhere, ever getting a driver’s license or registering to vote or paying a tax or doing anything real people do. I checked all the public websites, paid for some cyber-searching. Nothing on Ashlee Emory or Greg whatever your name is. All there is is this.” He turned about with his arms upraised. “The School of Metaphysics.”
She sipped her wine. “What are you trying to say?” she asked as she set down her glass.
“This, you, it’s all a lie. A scam. It’s not real. This is no dream meeting, this is just you partying on my money,” he said, pointing at the wine bottle. “What was next, he leaves me alone for a while and I think it worked, it really happened, this spirit communion, then when money’s tight again the Devil comes back and it’s another five K? Is that how it works?”
“Cole,” she said in a soothing voice, “this is happening, right now. Our meeting dream. Just let yourself go with it.”
“Nothing is happening until you give me my back my check and then I leave and never see either of you again.”
“You don’t believe me?” She stood facing him. “Look.” She raised her left hand and sank the fingers of her right into her palm. Taylor watched agog as her fingertips emerged, bloodlessly, from the back of her hand. “You can do it too. Try.”
He held up his own hand and looked at it in wonder. He pressed the fingers of his other hand against it. His palm did not yield to the pressure. He stabbed at it with his fingertips a few times, looking up at her, then made a fist and smacked it into his palm, his mouth a bitter twist, his head reeling.
“Right, so now you’re an illusionist too? That was a neat magic trick. Don’t tell me how it works, that would ruin it. I don’t want to know. What I want to know is how can we be in a “meeting dream” – he made quotation marks in the air – “when I’m not dreaming? Neo didn’t take your red pill tonight, Morpheus. I haven’t even been to sleep. All that out-of-body experience I told you about yesterday? That was bullshit. I have never tried that before and never will, and I didn’t tonight. I didn’t float over here, I drove.”
“Are you sure about that?” she said with raised eyebrows and a gentle smile.
He pressed his hands against his head as if to keep it from coming apart. “Stop it! Stop fucking with me!” His eyes darted about, taking in Greg seated motionless at the table, Ashlee statuesque beside him, her hands at her sides now.
“You’re trying to make me think I’m crazy.” He pointed his flesh and blood finger at her then touched his throbbing temple with it. “Give it up. I know I’m right. Because I paid a little visit here a while back. You weren’t home, or maybe you were, but I saw what Greg has in his computer room back there. Everything there is to know about me. I know how to search computer data. I do it for a living. My name, my personal information, my financial, it’s all over his machine. You know everything you need to pick me clean. How could you betray my trust like this?” All at once, at the peak of his towering rage and indignation, he felt he might cry.
She drifted to him, put a cool hand to his face. “Just relax, Cole. Everything is fine. Now when did you do this? Break into our house?”
He pulled away and shouted “I did it in an LD! Remember? The first one we talked about? Well I can still do it, anytime I want, asleep or awake. It’s easy. How do you think I knew how to get in here tonight?”
“We never lock our doors,” she said.
“Sure you don’t.” How had he come in? He couldn’t remember just then. It was like she was trying to put her fingers in his head now. He fought off the feeling. He knew what he knew.
“What do you think you’re a witch or something? Don’t try to put a spell on me. What I saw was real. All my account numbers, everything. How else could I have known exactly where the computer room was when I walked by it just now?” He turned to Greg, his anger burning hot again. “I don’t hear you denying any of this. It’s invasion of privacy, extortion. How long have you been running this con? How many others have you done it to? I wonder what else besides my whole life the police would find on your computer.” Greg stood.
“Now look,” Taylor said. “All I want is my money back. I know you still have the check. Did you really think it would clear? Just give it to me back and I’ll be gone, and you can find someone else to make a fool of.” He had taken a guarded step back when Greg got up, but relaxed some when he saw he was only getting another bottle of wine from the cabinet. He set the new bottle on the table, then picked up the empty one and started toward where Taylor stood facing Ashlee, seeing Greg over her shoulder coming closer, the bottle held by its neck in his hand, swinging at his side like a club.
Taylor felt all his muscles tense as Greg advanced on him. Without thought, his body crouched, and his hands came up.
Before he could choose between fight or flight, Ashlee turned from him to Greg and he smashed the bottle across her head. She crumpled to the floor without a sound and lay there motionless. Taylor stared down at her, dumbfounded. He saw blood on the floor.
When he looked up again, Greg was pointing a gun at him. As Taylor started to speak, Greg shot him twice through the chest.
Taylor sat on the floor leaning back against the wall he slid down after the bullets knocked him into it. His heart was on fire with a pain he had never known. He could not move. Through dimming vision he saw Greg put the gun on the table and bend down to Ashlee. As he slid sideways to the floor he saw Ashlee sitting up and Greg pressing a towel to her head.
Then the pain in his chest drifted away, or he drifted away from it, because he found himself looking down at his body as the blood pooled around it and Greg helped Ashlee to the table. She was crying. He saw Greg put the broken bottle in his hand and wrap his fingers around its neck, then place it on the floor beside his body. He could hear them talking: Are you okay, yes, now, are you ready for me to call the police, I have everything I need, yes, sobbing now, do it. Idling in the room with them still, Taylor wondered if any of her tears were for him.
He understood what had just happened: Husband Kills Home Invader After Wife Assaulted. He saw how it would play out: he was a student here; instruction ceased after becoming obsessed with the teacher; broke in and became violent; no other choice. Even as it all became clear, their conversation seemed less important, more distant, and he was looking down at the room from an impossible height, because then there was the shingled roof of the house, there the wide drive in front of it, but where was his car? No matter, as the lights of the house became a speck in the lights of the city, itself a cluster of stars amid other constellations, his downward view expanding to take in the lights of all the cities across the dark land, as dense as galaxies along the coasts. He felt himself expanding too, a spirit light as the ether, and willed his consciousness toward the curve of the earth that hid the sun, forever away from an Fear Dubh and everything else. And then he no longer cared if he was asleep or awake or dreaming or dying, because the world rolled beneath him, and as the sun broke dazzling over its rim, he realized he was flying.
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