by Leland Neville
It was a nice fender bender, very polite, gentle. The thud, almost inaudible, reminded Olivia of the soft sound a lump of concrete makes after striking a prone body. A middle-aged man, dark suit and striped tie, emerged from the navy blue BMW, carefully closed the door, walked languidly towards the silver Audi, leaned over, and tapped delicately on the driver’s window. The Audi’s door opened and a middle-aged woman wearing gray yoga pants and a white sweater arose from a black leather bucket seat and kissed him tenderly on the lips.
“Ex-girlfriend,” said Hannah, sending her half smoked cigarette end over end into the street. “They are still best friends.”
“Strangers,” corrected Katie. “This is the way adults now hookup. Casual collisions and the sushi bar at the supermarket are replacing computer dating. Take a good look at Mrs. Yoga Pants. There’s your future in just a few years.”
“But we are adults,” Olivia protested. “We’re 21-years-old. We work full time. We have boyfriends.” She lit her final Marlboro menthol of the morning break.
“Practice boyfriends aren’t real boyfriends,” said Hannah. “Three or four hours a week of them is enough. Right?”
No one disagreed.
Hannah continued. “I like Tim, but I don’t miss him when he’s not around. When I’m alone I can close my eyes and still hear our conversations. I think I can sometimes feel him next to me in bed.”
“That’s maybe a little creepy,” said Katie.
“You don’t feel that way about Jason?” asked Olivia. “I see you answering his texts without even reading the messages.”
Hannah shrugged. “Communication isn’t about an inimitable verbal or electronic exchange. It’s just realizing someone is there, acknowledging your life. And, I almost forgot, his.”
Olivia exhaled the cyan cigarette smoke and studied its vapor trail. “This was in a dream I had last night.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Hannah.
“It’s all coming back to me,” answered Olivia. “The car accident during our break. This conversation. My smoking. Didn’t you think it was strange that I just started smoking today?”
“Not really,” said Hannah. “Breaks are better when you smoke. Staring at a computer monitor is also better after taking Vicodin. The numbers and words appear mellow. I just took my first Vikes this morning.”
“I know what happens next in your dream,” said Katie
“Well don’t tell me yet.” Olivia dropped her cigarette. “Oh shit. I just remembered.”
“I’m dreaming all time,” said Katie. “I can’t get a good night’s rest. Not too long ago I would forget my dreams as soon as I woke up, but not anymore. I miss those days.”
“So what’s supposed to happen next?” asked Hannah. “And you both need to answer at the same time. On three. One…two…three.”
“A bomb explodes,” Katie and Olivia said in unison.
Their hands clutched at nothingness as an unseen force flung them into the air. Waves from the blast pummeled and shook their world for the next ten seconds. Olivia peeled her face away from the sidewalk just in time to see a rectangular fragment of concrete, no bigger than an iPad, quietly hit Hannah on the back of her neck.
“Run,” yelled Katie.
Olivia knew from the dream that running was impossible; her legs were mangled. This was where last night’s dream ended.
“Come on,” screamed Katie. “You can do it.”
Olivia looked upwards. The 44-floor mixed use tower trembled and leaked black and blue smoke. She wiped her eyes with the back of her bloodied hand. The night sky was suddenly visible through a white space in the smoke: a full moon and spinning constellations smoldered. All her favorites danced past: Ursa Major, Orion, and Noctua.
Olivia, Katie, and Hannah were the lone customers inside the retro Space-Ex Lounge. The hirsute bartender, a sometimes actor in his other life, dozed behind the stainless steel bar.
“I didn’t think I’d like hard liquor,” said Katie.
“Me neither,” added Olivia. “I hope the bartender remembers what I’m drinking. I’d like to just order ‘the usual’ during my future visits here.”
“I don’t remember getting a tattoo,” said Katie, scratching the back of her naked left shoulder. “There are words, but I can’t read them.”
Olivia squinted. “Unexpressed emotions will never die.”
“What kind of font?” asked Katie.
“I think it’s Handel Gothic.”
“I don’t like that,” said Katie. “Everything is Handel Gothic. Even spreadsheets.”
“Maybe you need Vicodin,” suggested Olivia. “I heard that helps.”
“Let’s get down to the business of our dreams,” stated Hannah. “We need to determine which dream we all shared last night. We can’t just write them down and compare notes because I for one have trouble remembering my dreams without some kind of provocation. But I also realize that the process of hearing one of your dreams could taint the experiment since I might unintentionally and erroneously believe I too shared the dream. I confess that I want to believe.”
Olivia finished her third drink. She tried to remember if she had driven or walked to the Space-Ex. “We need placebos or control safeguards.”
“I’ve got an idea,” said Katie. “Let’s each write down the dreams we remember on the back of a napkin. Be sure to list some dreams that never occurred. Put a check mark next to those counterfeit dreams. Then we’ll give the napkins to the bartender who will recite our catalog of dreams. Maybe there will be the same dream on all three napkins.”
Hannah interrupted. “But what if I only remember a dream after the bartender reads the list? How will we know my mind isn’t overcompensating because of my dream inadequacy?”
“You’re making this too complicated,” said Olivia. “I also need another drink. The usual would do nicely.”
“We should only assign each dream one or two words,” said Katie. “Then it will be up to Hannah to provide the specific details. For example, don’t write that our office building was destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Just write down ‘office building’. Or maybe ‘explosion’. And don’t forget the check mark next to the false dreams. Let’s try for five dreams – some real and some bogus – apiece. ”
Alf the bartender poured Olivia another drink and agreeably accepted the napkins.
“Just read the napkins,” said Katie, “but don’t mention which items have a check mark.”
“Napkin one,” Alf announced. “Concrete, naked man, meteor, food, and elevator.”
Alf paused. His voice, flat, maybe even harsh, reminded Hannah of an old boyfriend who was from a flat and harsh state somewhere in the Midwest. Everything was reminding Hannah of something else.
He continued. “Napkin two: elf, meteor, bartender, novel, and water. Napkin three: computer, smoke, meteor, bed, and star.” He placed the napkins back on the table.
“So every napkin has the word meteor written on in?” Katie asked.
“Should I read the napkins one more time?” Alf looked at Hannah. “Incidentally, all the napkins were written in Handel Gothic. The words are very legible.”
“Do any of the napkins have a check mark after the word meteor?” Olivia asked.
Alf again glanced at Hannah who shrugged.
“They all do,” said Alf. He placed the napkins in the center of the table and withdrew to the bar.
“This is kind of weird,” mumbled Katie. “I certainly wasn’t expecting this.”
“I think it’s significant,” said Hannah. “Sharing a non-dream must have meaning.”
“It’s just a coincidence,” said Olivia. “We need to concentrate on the real shared dreams. Those are the ones that have made living so difficult. The worst part of the day is now night, because that’s when the nightmares arrive. Explosions. Fire. Death. You can’t look away. There are no distractions. I don’t remember having nightmares until recently. Sleep was always restful.”
Katie began to sob. “I’m exhausted all the time. I can’t even think anymore.” She emptied her glass. “I think the dreams are angry after having been downgraded by society. Do people tell their dreams to psychiatrists anymore?”
“I think we’re not alone,” Olivia said. “There are probably thousands of people sharing these dreams. Maybe millions. That’s why they are so powerful and controlling.”
“You’re probably right,” said Hannah. “Everyone looks exhausted and afraid. It definitely has something to do with technology and group dynamics. We perform the identical tasks at work and take identical medications. We all are wearing identical Bluetooth headsets. We dream the same dreams.”
Alf materialized. “It’s almost closing time. There’s time for one more drink.”
“Have you been dreaming more often?” Hannah asked the bartender.
“I never dreamed – or at least remembered my dreams – until a few months ago. Now I’d do anything to stop dreaming. They are disruptive.”
“What was your last dream?” asked Olivia. “I’m not trying to be personal. You can just tell me to mind my own business. You can even make one up.”
“Last night I had a dream about a meteor. I woke up in a sweat and couldn’t get back to sleep.”
Hannah laughed. “There goes your tip, asshole.”
“And I was considering spending the night with you,” smirked Olivia.
“I’m being serious,” said Alf. “Nightmares about outer space are an occupational hazard for me. Inside the Space-Ex Lounge I’m surrounded by space paraphernalia. I’m buried in a sea of silver. And for the last week almost all the news has been about the meteor that might hit Earth. I’ve turned the sound off, but there are still all those computer generated images showing the meteor striking the White House, a Justin Bieber concert, or Googleplex.”
“Why haven’t I heard about this?” asked Hannah.
“This is new to me too,” added Olivia.
“It will probably crash into Siberia,” said Katie. “That’s what usually happens.”
Then the lights died. The black silence was broken by Hannah.
“I don’t remember this.”
“Will it sound like a rocket?” asked Olivia.
“The meteor is traveling faster than the speed of sound,” answered Alf. “You won’t hear anything if it’s a direct hit. It’s better that way.”
Alf didn’t understand why customers chose to talk to him. Listening was, of course, a bartender’s obligation, but none of the other bartenders were on the receiving end of so many stories. Genial, immaculate Gareth would go home with a lonely woman at least once a week and comely efficient Henrietta would get the big tips, but neither exchanged more than a few clichés with a patron.
“Your unkempt appearance invites dialog,” Gareth told him. “Women assume you’re not going to hit on them. And with those wire rimmed glasses you could pass as a brilliant but distracted psychiatrist.”
“I thought long hair would help me get a part in the musical remake of Solaris, but it didn’t.”
“That’s my favorite book,” said Gareth. “It’s my second favorite movie. At least the original film. I watch it once a month. I can recite the lines in Russian. Listen…”
When had people become so tiresome? What did they want from Alf? In the last few months their stories had become both personal and particular. The women (over 70 percent were women) sipped their Cosmos, laughed too loudly, and relayed their twisted visions and dreams in monotones more suited for conveying expense budget spreadsheets. He was assailed by disconnected details, replicating, mutating, and refusing to leave his mind. Was he hearing acts of confession? Were social media disclosures, the appropriate venue to anonymously commiserate or ridicule, no longer a sufficient form of absolution?
“I’m all right when I’m working,” the clientele said. “Multitasking is best. When I’m at the computer, on the phone, and texting I feel safe. But when I fall asleep I immediately start dreaming.”
To find some relief from the stories, Alf took a week of annual leave. His health rapidly deteriorated and within one day he was almost too exhausted to eat or use the bathroom. The first casualty was Alf’s consciousness. That limitless space that held his memories and the innumerable caverns where ideas sought him out had been invaded and occupied by insufferable chatter. Childish voices incessantly sang insipid songs and recited trite dialog from television shows and commercials. He couldn’t sleep. Alf begged for the opportunity to once again be permitted to hear confessions at the bar. He miraculously dragged himself back to the Space-Ex Lounge, a wiser man. Listening to the women and dreaming their dreams was, he realized, both a curse and a calling.
“You were with me last night,” whispered an elflike woman drinking champagne at the end of the bar. “I saved your life.”
Alf refilled her champagne flute. The dreams he heard were lately melting into one monochrome smear. The nights were a litany of earthquakes, meteors, explosions, and fires. He was unable to recall either the elf or ever rescuing a woman from an avalanche of office furniture and computers. He’d always been a passive bystander.
“One of the women I work with in the office, Hannah Keyes, recognized you and told me that you work here. She’s a regular. She’s also part of the problem.”
“Hannah believes she is part of the solution,” said Alf. He had mastered the art of the platitude.
The redheaded elf pointed at her pale, bare upper arm. “Look at the size of that bruise! It kind of looks like a star.”
“Did I hurt you?” asked Alf.
“No. I bruise very easily.”
Her hands gripped and squeezed his flesh. Their bodies shook.
“Are you all right?” There was a lack of urgency in his voice.
“I’ve never been better.”
The elf’s plan was to never let Alf go. It would be for his own good. It would also be for her own good. Alf was a good listener and an adequate lover. Absent the dream debris from those other women he’d be an even better lover.
“I’ve got to go to work. The Space-Ex needs me. Friday is a busy day for confessions. ” Naked, he walked to the bedroom window. “Oh shit.”
“There was a bomb and then earthquake. An 8.7, maybe an 8.8. Then there was a tsunami. Bad things happen in threes.”
“I thought it was the sex.”
“The sex was a 5.0. I’m tough but fair. I also never grade on a curve. You’ll learn to appreciate that someday.”
“The city has been destroyed. It looks like those photographs of Hiroshima. Lots of smoke. Fire leapfrogging across the horizon. Everything is in black and white.” He gazed blankly at the elf. “Are we safe? Is this building going to collapse? We must be on the one hundredth floor.”
“We’re in a space station. The Orion.”
“But I remember getting into an elevator…”
“That was a space elevator. The Orion is in a geostationary orbit 36 thousand kilometers above the Earth’s equator. The window is actually a monitor that is displaying images transmitted from a drone 300 meters above the devastation.”
The dark hair on Alf’s chest formed an inverted isosceles triangle that compelled the elf to focus her eyes on his sad, lifeless penis. In time he would learn to appreciate the restorative solitude of the Orion.
“Are we alone?” Alf asked.
“Yes,” answered the elf. She joined him next to the monitor.
“Will there be any survivors back on Earth?” He unconsciously squeezed the elf’s delicate arm.
“There will be enough. This isn’t, however, the type of disaster that will bring people closer together. They will scheme and fight over food, water, and shelter. Their dreams will be mundane and innocuous.”
“I’m still tired.”
“Let’s go back to bed.”
“This room looks like the Space-Ex Lounge.”
“Do you want to play?” asked Hannah. “You do dream – don’t you?”
“There really isn’t time,” answered Alf. “It’s been a long day.”
“Write some dreams on a napkin,” said Katie. “One or two words. If you don’t remember five dreams just make something up. Put a check mark next to the fake dreams. Except for Olivia, we’re all going to do it. This won’t take more than a minute. Olivia will be the referee. She’s tired of this game. I think she’s tired of life.”
They wrote their words and gave the napkins to Olivia who squinted at Alf’s list.
“Just read his napkin,” directed Hannah.
“Spaceship, elf, Hannah, Katie, and Olivia.”
“Does the spaceship have a check mark next to it or is it real?” asked Katie.
“It’s real,” answered Olivia. “No one else wrote down spaceship.”
“What about elf?” asked Hannah.
“Real,” said Olivia. “You and Katie also wrote elf, but with check marks. One real elf and two make believe ones.”
“What about our names?” asked Katie.
“Not real,” said Olivia.
The overhead lights twinkled like a distant space station.
“Where’s our bartender?” asked Hannah. He was here a second ago.”
The lights failed.
“I saw him heading back to the bar,” Olivia answered.
A trail of flame snaked through the opened door. There were explosions both near and far. The smoke and fire were visible from space where Alf, rested and bored, planned his escape. He wanted to help. He needed to hear some more dreams.