Saturday, May 31, 2008


Everyone suffers from a certain fear of exposure.

We've all had that dream - the one where we are standing in front of a group of peers or superiors wearing less than we should be wearing. Some are standing at the front of their fifth grade class in their underwear; others are naked in church. Still others are simply wearing the wrong tie at a board meeting. Everyone's fear is unique. Everyone's fear is the same.

And we all wake up, trembling and shaken, realizing that we are alone in our own bed and our horrible secret - that we are average, and not as special as we pretend - is still locked up safe inside.

When Andy broke the surface of the day, and swam out of his dream, he was buoyed by that relief that comes from knowing that whatever you just escaped was a dream. This one had been full of strange events, unlikely situations, magic; things he knew couldn't happen had been happening, and even though he had been sure throughout that it was just a dream, it had shaken him.

He sat rubbing his face, chuckling to himself as the last remnants faded from his memory. Running naked from the castle; the clash of swords; huge, hulking beasts, chasing him; escaping through the hedges; flashes of light (magic!) bursting around him.

"Juvenile crap," he said out loud. He climbed out of bed and made his way to the shower, barely glancing in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. Even had he been looking for them, he would have missed the fragments of charred leaves in his hair.

They were gone when he stepped out and wrapped himself in his towel a few minutes later.

Today was an up day. That meant a longer commute, but he looked forward to it, as usual. He strolled out of his apartment, and through the common areas toward the upward ramp. He nodded at the kids tending the gardens along the paths; they did half-hearted work, but it earned them points on their community service requirements, and kept them busy during the hours they were locked out of the network.

Andy took some coffee from a kiosk on the way to his lift, and thanked the operator. The man seemed to know Andy, but Andy couldn't remember his name or his face. He faked it as best as he could and headed on his way, but it made him uneasy. He picked up a screen viewer and pressed a thumbprint on the pad to bring up his homepage. Scanning through his feeds and messages calmed him a bit, and he marveled that only a few years before people had still been tied to "personally owned devices" for this sort of service.

The lift was only half-full when he arrived, so he took a window seat. There was nothing to see while it was at rest, but when the lift merged with the rest of the traffic on the elevator's column, he could expect to catch a glimpse of the terminator receding off to the west as the sun swung up and out of view above. The space elevator was anchored in the Western Sahara, but he never tired of the sight of the Atlantic turning from black into deeper blues and on into that turquoise that he loved so much.

Even as his heart seemed to swell at the thought of that color, another part of him thought it was odd and unreal that he could be on the verge of euphoric over something so trivial as a sunrise. He ran his palm up from his forehead, sweeping his hair back, and rubbing the back of his neck in an attempt to sooth the sudden tension there. All of it - the apartment, the neighborhood, the space elevator - seemed at once completely unreal and outlandish, and completely mundane.

He tried to stifle the sense of panic that rose up, but the other seats on the lift were filling now, and the growing crowd only made him claustrophobic. Tossing away his screen, he pushed his way back off the lift, and tried to walk quickly back to his rooms.

People reached for him, calling his name, but he didn't know any of them. He thought he should, but their faces all blurred together. Their voices - their voice - dragged at him, pulling him back, pushing him forward... tearing him apart. "You're dreaming, Andy," the voice said.

He tried to shout, but couldn't breathe; tried to breathe, but couldn't open his mouth. His nose felt stuffed with cotton...

Andy startled awake with a yelp, pushing himself up from his pillow. He had been on his face, mouth open, and he could still feel the cloth on his tongue and see the dark stain of his saliva on the pillow.

He rocked back on his knees, gasping, and almost cried out again when a hand brushed his leg: his wife. She murmured something - "You're dreaming, Andy" - something he thought was meant to be soothing. She rolled back into her own sleep. But her presence seemed to ground him. It gave him a sense of place, something to hold on to.

He pressed his hands to his mouth until the panic was gone, and as he sat there staring around the dark room, his mind ticked off a checklist of familiar things; the clock on the dresser, the light on the telephone. He reached down and felt his slippers where he had left them when he had come in to lie down.

There were no space elevators; no lifts with a view of Africa. No magicians or mythical beasts. Just his wife in his bed, and his kids in the other room. But he could still feel the need to flee, to get away. He slipped out of the bed, and went into the bathroom.

He bent to the tap, and drank for a long time. When he had his fill, he splashed a handful on his face, and then turned to use the toilet. He lifted the window and watched the moon for a while before heading back to bed. A shadow passed across it - a cloud? - and he shivered. The sensation that something had been chasing him passed, but he still felt unreal and disconnected.

Andy pulled the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet out, and angled it so he could see his eyes in the moonlight. They shone with a black depth that he found reassuring. He breathed deeply, staring hard into those eyes. He pushed away the dreams.

He moved quietly back to the bedroom and as he climbed back into bed, a small plastic screen tumbled out of the bed onto the floor. On it were the words, "You're dreaming, Andy."

Andy sat bolt upright in his bed. He was alone, in a messy, familiar room full of sunshine. He moaned, and climbed out of bed, as exhausted as he had been when he fell into it the night before.

"Too many active dreams," he groused.

Andy went to the kitchen and made some coffee. He wasn't certain that this wasn't a dream, but he was beginning not to care.

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