Narrated by Bob Eccles
Ames smiled. It was the first time he could ever remember smiling in the narrow, gray-felted walls of his stale cubicle.
It was the reality check that had worked. Of all the techniques Ames had been able to drudge up in books and articles, it was the reality check that had made the most sense to him. It was the only thing he had really stuck with. The idea was that if you made a habit of checking whether you were awake or dreaming throughout the day, eventually the habit would carry into your dreams. If you checked while you were dreaming, you would realize you were dreaming while you were dreaming, which of course was the whole point.
Ames had no memory of how he had come to be where he was or what he was doing there. That was typical of dreams, but it was also typical of work. What clinched the fact that he was dreaming was his Swiss-made watch, only a month old, stopped and staring at him like a photograph. Dream watches did not keep time. The Mind set the hands at a particular orientation and then left them there.
Thinking about all this was beginning to wake Ames up. His cubicle began to feel less tangible, and he could almost sense the pillow on his face and the soft snoring of his wife next to him.
Panicking, Ames spun in his dream-chair. The dream-chair, like his real chair, was top heavy. The plastic wheels caught in the carpet. Instead of spinning, Ames turned and fell.
Larry, who always played the music on his headphones loud enough to annoy people for two cubicles in any direction, heard the noise. He slid back in his own chair, which rolled easily on the plastic mat Larry had brought in himself, and looked at Ames. He pulled off his dream-headphones.
“You okay?” he said.
Ames didn’t answer, but he smiled again. The spinning technique had worked. He no longer felt the pillow. In fact, his dream-elbow actually hurt a little from hitting the dream-carpet when he fell out of his dream-chair. He was fully within the dream now.
Better not to think about it too much, or he would start waking up again.
“Hey, man,” dream-Larry was saying. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Ames said. Normally he would have tried to make up some sort of excuse or explain how he had come to fall on the ground six feet away from his desk. He opened his mouth to do so before he realized, with satisfaction, that there was no need.
“Okay,” Larry said, in a rolling-his-eyes tone of voice. A minute later dream-Larry’s dream-headphones started blasting away dream-music that sounded exactly like the crap real Larry played every day. Ames checked his watch once more. Still 11:17 and twenty-something seconds.
He wondered if he had dream control. It didn’t always go hand in hand with lucid dreaming. Some people had control without ever realizing they were dreaming, while others could be completely lucid but have no control over the dream world.
Ames tried willing Larry’s headphones to stop. They didn’t. He tried willing Larry’s heart to stop, then for a piano to fall through the ceiling. Neither occurred.
An idea struck him. He sat thinking about it for a second, then got up from his chair with a bark of a laugh. Why not? This was his dream. He could do whatever the hell he wanted.
Ames skirted the divider that separated his dream-cube from Larry’s. Larry, of course, didn’t hear him, even when his shoes slapped a little on the plastic mat. Ames hesitated a second, then shook his head and grabbed.
The cheap plastic headphones, which Larry went on about constantly, came smoothly off Larry’s greasy head. Then the cord, which dream-Larry had run down his collar and out over his belt to his pocket, caught. Ames yanked hard to pull the sweaty cord out, and it burned Larry’s neck a little. Dream-Larry jerked and swatted at him.
“Ow!” he said, “what the…”
Ames held the headphones up in front of dream-Larry’s face at arm’s length, in both hands. He shook them a little, then snapped them in half. They made a satisfyingly real popping noise, and a piece of the dream-plastic went shooting off to the left. It was really something, Ames thought, that his brain had enough RAM to create that level of detail.
“Hey, man, what the hell!” Larry made a grab for the headphones. Ames danced back, turned, and flipped the plastic over his shoulder with childish nonchalance.
Rubbing his hands, he glanced at fat Paul across the cube-square. Paul was trying not to smile and giving Ames the thumbs up under cover of his desk. Ames wondered for a second what twisted part of his Mind thought that Paul would actually congratulate him for damaging someone’s property—even Larry’s—then shook his head. Better not go down that road. He liked this dream, and he didn’t want to wake up yet. Best to keep moving. There would be plenty of time to ponder later on.
“What the hell, man!” dream-Larry repeated. Someone over the wall shushed him. Ames grinned and congratulated his Mind for making someone shush Larry for once. Maybe he had some control after all.
Pushing his chair towards his desk with a disdainful flick, Ames swung around the corner of his cubicle and began striding down the aisle toward the door. He had not gone three steps when he saw James Harper round the corner and begin walking towards him. The dream-man was almost comical in its imitation of the real James Harper, and Ames couldn’t help but grin when his boss, short and mustached and just fat enough to look a little doughy, caught his eye.
“Ames,” he said, “just the man I wanted to see.” He always said ‘just the man I wanted to see’, without fail and without variation in tone, like a recorded message on an answering machine. It infuriated Ames.
James Harper opened his mouth to continue, but before he could do so Ames reached out a hand, palm up, and flipped one of James Harper’s sagging nipples right through the starchy cotton of his dream-shirt. His high school friends had called this gesture a “bean dip” or sometimes a “milk jug”. It was less painful than a “titty twister”—not painful at all in fact—but what it lacked in pain-causing capability it made up for in sheer degradation.
Ames grinned at the look on James Harper’s face and kept walking. He was almost at the end of the aisle by the time James Harper’s voice, shrill with rage (a nice touch, Ames congratulated his Mind), reached him.
“Ames, get back here. Apologize!”
Ames kept walking.
“Ames, you walk out of here and you are through. Through!”
Cliché, thought Ames to his Mind. The real James Harper would probably call a meeting in the morning to discuss company policy concerning insulting gestures and respect toward superiors. Then he would quietly tell Ames afterward that he had been fired yesterday and would not be paid for mistakenly attending work that morning.
Dream-people peered out of their cubicles, covering mouthpieces and leaning back in their creaky chairs to see what was going on. Ames began to run.
He wondered if he could get tired in a dream, and suddenly felt the lifting, giddy freedom of it. He laughed aloud and slammed into the panic-bar on the door that said “Emergencies Only Alarm Will Sound”. He laughed again when no alarm sounded. Of course none would; he had always suspected that the alarm system in this crappy old building was broken, if existent, and his Mind had seen fit to satisfy that theory.
At the edge of the concrete stairs, already halfway over the rail and ready to jump down (and possibly fly), Ames paused. The fluorescent light in the stairwell flickered like firelight on the walls below. Ames wondered suddenly whether his dream extended beyond the stairs. He looked back at the office, then at the flickering stairs, and turned back.
Dream-people were poking their heads out the tops of their cubicles like gophers on the Kansas prairie, tilting their faces back to look out of the bottoms of their beady eyes. Ames didn’t recognize most of them. He wondered what mixture of memories his Mind had conjured their faces from.
From the left, down the aisle next to the emergency exit, came someone Ames did recognize. She was putting each foot directly in front of the other and clicking her heels on the tile as she walked. Her black rectangular glasses were small and probably unnecessary. Her skirt was tight. She was hugging a bundle of papers to her chest.
“Hello, Jeanine,” Ames said.
She smiled with her dream-mouth. Her feet clicked. She made to pass him.
Ames flung out an arm in front of her. As she stopped, he wrapped his other arm behind her—all the way around her shoulder and back so that his hand rested on her stomach—and kissed her.
One of the gophers from the cubicles whistled as Jeanine bent back in Ames’ arms. Papers fell to the floor. Ames noted that dream-Jeanine’s lips did not feel at all like his wife’s lips and wondered who he had kissed before to create this memory for his Mind to play back to him. He could even taste her lip balm and smell the makeup on her eyes.
Dream-Jeanine, first trying to hold her dream-papers safe and then trying to push him away, almost kissed him back. Ames felt her soften, just for a moment. Then his Mind recoiled at the immense improbability of it, decided that some things could not happen even in dreams, and suddenly made the dream-Jeanine act more like the real Jeanine.
She broke free with a sudden shove. Slipping out of Ames’s grip, she fell hard to the floor. She landed on her butt on the tile and gave a little cry.
The gophers were coming out of their holes now. There were people watching from both directions, leaning around into the hallway and looking on with hands over mouths.
“What…” Jeanine said, her very realistic dream-mouth working up and down.
“Hey,” someone said behind Ames. “Hey! Ames, what the hell is going on? Why is that emergency door… Jeanine!”
“Him,” Jeanine said. She pointed at Ames, then hesitated, as if embarrassed to admit what had just happened. “We…”
Ames offered a hand. She took it. Ames helped her up. She tripped a little as she rose and fell against his shoulder. She pushed away as if repulsed by him. Ames grinned and turned to face the quickly approaching James Harper.
“Ames,” James Harper said, his mustache trembling like a living thing on his sweaty little lip. “You had better explain…”
“When you said you didn’t love me anymore,” Ames said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I didn’t know if I could take it. We’ve been together so long. James… how could you?”
James Harper’s mustache stopped trembling. The blustering and posturing faded as confusion passed from the short man’s eyes and was replaced by cold and calculating hatred. There was something almost frightening in the petty, pathetic, powder-faced simper of James T. Harper.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” James Harper said.
“He as-s-saulted me!” Jeanine said, finally coming to her dream-senses.
“Oh, James!” Ames cried, falling on his knees and clutching at James Harper’s hands. “Don’t! You can’t, you can’t deny the love we had!”
James Harper’s little fist writhed like a salamander in Ames’s hand, jerking to free itself with surprising strength as the man did his best to stand still and dignified and not look as if he were in a panic to get away.
Ames brought James Harper’s dream-fist close and kissed it. Even in a dream it revolted him to do so, but the reaction he got was more than worth it. The little man dropped all pretense and began thrashing wildly to escape his grasp.
“You assaulted me!” Jeanine’s voice cried out again, with the fury and pitch of worn brakes on a wet road. Something struck Ames across the side of the head, and it stung badly. Ames felt the grin falter on his face.
He released James Harper, who was in the middle of a Herculean attempt to escape. He fell backward with satisfying spectacularity. Turning and ducking under another slap from Jeanine, Ames wrapped his arms around her knees and pulled her close. He pressed his face to her stomach—the starch of her dress-shirt was stiff on his nose—and made soothing sounds. Dream-Jeanine screamed and rained blows down on the top of his head. They felt extremely real.
Two things happened at once, and the combination pushed Ames from amused fascination bordering on annoyance to unreasoning rage. The first was one of Jeanine’s slaps hitting his left ear. The pain of air compressed against his eardrum was shocking, and it stopped him cold. Then a fist—small and hard and hateful—crashed into the back of his head.
Ames shoved dream-Jeanine hard enough that she fell back on the tile and screamed again. The gophers were bouncing with excitement now, making noises now like a bunch of chimpanzees. A few were standing on their chairs to get better looks over the gray felt walls. James Harper was backing up, holding his fist and whimpering.
Ames ran for him.
James Harper was fast, and for a moment Ames was almost certain that his Mind would spite him by letting the little dream-rat get away. Then his fingers reached James Harper’s collar. He closed his fist hard, jerking back.
Buttons popped with the force of the pull, and James Harper stopped dead with a choking sound. The shirt came almost free of his body. He was wearing no undershirt. The paleness of his flesh in the fluorescent light made his nipples look more blue than purple. Revulsion filled Ames so completely and fully that he held nothing back for his next blow. His dream-fist connected with James Harper’s dream-nose and made an extremely realistic crunching noise. A flood of warm, crimson dream-blood followed.
“Hey!” someone yelled as James Harper went down, but Ames was already going down with him, straddling him, striking him in the face so that his head bounced against the tile.
“Help him!” someone else said.
“He’s killing him!”
Ames kept punching, his hands bleeding now and hurting so badly that he was surprised he didn’t wake up. Someone grabbed at his shoulders, and he swung his elbows back, fending them off so he could strike James Harper’s dream-body again.
More hands grabbed at him. Ames bucked and thrashed, his bleeding knuckles leaving marks on white shirts and silk ties. He leapt up and climbed a cubicle wall, lifting a monitor from the desk and hurling it at them as they came. The cord stopped the glass and plastic and brought it crashing to the ground. Some looked more horrified at this waste than at the bleeding man on the tile in the hallway.
Ames climbed another cubicle. People on both sides were surrounding him now. He stood on the wall separating the two cubes, looked at the metal holding the ductwork above, and leapt for a truss. The steel bent and cut into his hands, and he fell flat between several large gophers.
They fell upon him and held him down. He struggled and squirmed like a worm in the rain, then rested his face against the gray felt wall. His hand was pressed close to his face, held down by a gopher in a suit shouting for someone to call the police. Ames twisted his wrist enough to look at his watch, which still read 11:17. Then he closed his eyes and wept.
AUTHOR BIO: Travis grew up in Reno (where he raised and sold pigs), went to Oklahoma Christian University (where he broke his collarbone in a misguided Parkour attempt), married an electrical engineer (who puts him to shame in ping-pong), got his master’s degree from Stanford (where he and his bike were hit by a car), and now does R&D for Nikon.