The key clicked in the lock so loudly I winced. Antonia sobbed by my side. I had tried to comfort her but she didn’t want my comfort. She wanted to grieve and I followed Madeleine’s advice and let her.
Madeleine was gone. The supernatural being who had saved my life two years ago and who had guided my first steps in a world where I could alter reality by dreaming it was gone. Died in her sleep. That’s what the people from the ambulance I called that morning three days ago said.
Madeleine had told me how it would go the previous night. I was prepared. And still it was sad. She had posed as my mother for these two years. My real mother died when I was twenty-two, more than fifteen years ago, and now it felt like I’d lost another parent.
“How about we make some hot chocolate?” I asked Antonia quietly. Every step we took echoed around as if the flat was an echo chamber.
“Okay,” my daughter said. For a seven-year-old, I had to admit she was taking things relatively calmly. I had expected a lot worse than this quiet crying because Antonia was not a quiet child. She made sure everyone around her knew exactly how she was feeling at any given time; joy made her shriek and jump, and clap, and sing, and sorrow made her cry loudly. Anger management was an utterly unfamiliar concept and whenever I did something that made her angry I was rewarded with a full spectrum of responses from the foot stomping to the tears and shouts, usually accusing me of not being fair. But now Tony just cried quietly and this worried me.
“Do you want to change while I make the hot chocolate?” I asked, taking off my formal coat. There was nothing formal about it, really, but it was black. My only black piece of clothing.
I had asked for a simple service at the nearest church and I had got a simple, short service, long enough to feel that we’ve said goodbye but not long enough to make us start brooding. None of us went to church but I felt this was the right way to handle the situation.
“Okay,” Tony said and dragged her feet to her room. She closed the door behind her. She was closing doors on me more and more often these days. Growing up, that’s what was happening and for this, I wasn’t prepared. And now I had no one to rely on to help. As a contemplated this unpleasant fact on my way to the kitchen, my phone rang.
“Hey,” I said, the relief probably loud in my voice.
“How are you?” Sian asked.
We’d been dating for three months now but I had yet to muster the courage to introduce her to Antonia. Madeleine had met her just last week when I took her to lunch to Sian’s restaurant. The two seemed to have liked each other.
“She’s crying,” I said and realized how stupid it sounded. “Not in the usual way. She’s too quiet and I don’t know how to help her.” I took out the milk from the fridge and the cocoa from the cupboard.
“She’s lost someone very important to her,” Sian said softly. Just hearing her voice was enough to make me feel better but it also felt good to have the support.
“Yeah,” I sighed and I poured two cups worth of milk into the pot we used for making hot chocolate. I couldn’t tell Sian Madeleine was not lost but gone, and not in the way people use “gone” as a synonym of “dead”. I don’t think she can die at all. I couldn’t tell Antonia, either, because I had promised Madeleine the night before she went. I had promised her I will put off revealing my talent – Madeleine’s word, not mine – for as long as possible, both to Antonia and to Sian. The supernatural was scary and rightly so, she had said.
“I want to tell you she will be all right and I hope she will be but I guess it would be weird coming from me.” There was a hint of anxiety in the spaces between the words. “Anyway, I hope she gets better soon.” And now a smile.
“Thank you. Thank you for existing.”
The milk began steaming. Sian laughed.
“I’m serious. You have no idea…” I stopped myself. I was about to spill my guts to her, to tell her how, to me, she felt like an anchor keeping me in place and in sanity. I was already worried what I might dream in the state I was in but if Sian was not part of my picture I was sure the dream would be horrible and there would be nobody to help me fix things afterwards. But I couldn’t tell her all this, not after three months, blissful as they had been.
“That was it,” I lied. “You’ve no idea how much you mean to me.” That was true.
She went quiet for a few seconds that felt like hours. I might have said the wrong thing or the right thing but at the wrong time. My relationship skills were still rusty, sparse as they were in any case. But I was being honest and that had to count for something.
“I have to go now, Lars,” she said quietly. “I’d tell you to send my love to Antonia but she doesn’t know who I am. Still, I hope she gets better soon. Bye.”
“I’ll call you,” I said feeling like a complete idiot, which I was. I was too scared of Antonia’s rejection to introduce her to Sian. And now I had hurt her. Out of fear. I gripped my phone and I had a sudden urge to throw it at the wall and follow up with banging my head on it. Not that it would help anything but it would help me process the fact I was the idiot that I was. But then Antonia’s door creaked open and I set the phone on the counter and took to stirring the milk and adding cocoa and sugar.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked when we sat at the small table just off the kitchen proper, set by the wall the kitchen shared with the living room. Antonia shook her head and drank her hot chocolate. I followed her example.
I tried to stay awake that night, afraid I would dream something horrible and it will happen because Madeleine is not with me. I had dreamt something horrible before she found me but I had somehow, miraculously, managed to reverse the damage. Now, I wasn’t sure I could. That was a stroke of luck, I was certain about it. With Madeleine, it was easier to reload days and erase realities I created in my sleep if they needed to be erased. The dream that brought me together with Sian certainly did not need erasing. It was about yogurt. I hadn’t told her, of course, but it was a fond memory.
After I tucked Antonia in, hugged her and wished her sweet dreams I made myself coffee and sat in the office chair I used when I worked on weekends, in my bedroom. I let my mind wander, imagine how I tell Sian what I can do, how I can alter reality in my dreams and how I had helped her make that perfect sauce of hers that now sold in supermarkets. I imagined she would refuse to believe it at first but I would eventually convince her it’s true. And I hoped I’d never dream a reality-altering dream again. Which is where I must have drifted off.
I stood in front of a cube-shaped building that always put me in mind of a cardboard box even though it was grey and made from stone. Nord Bank, my place of work before they fired me. They had every right to: I drank heavily and did not sleep after I’d accidentally made all the children in the city disappear in a dream. I never held this against them.
I barely remembered the bank these days. That period of my life belonged to the past. And now, here I was, watching the name of the bank, etched in gold letters over the entrance, and the six floors of windows behind which there were cubicles and offices, and conference rooms and trading desks. For a second I missed my old job, only for a second. And then the building exploded.
At first, several sparks flashed here and there behind the window. Then I caught distant screams and a second later the building collapsed in a heap, sending massive clouds of dust everywhere. The dust filled my eyes and my nose, and my mouth but I tried to run to the heap. Cars on the street that separated me from the bank screeched to a stop. People on the street ran or stood watching the collapse as stunned as I was.
I crossed the street stumbling and coughing, barely able to see anything. As the dust began to settle and I heard police sirens coming from afar, I saw the remains of Nord Bank in all their magnificence: the huge cardboard box was transformed into a massive heap of broken stone, concrete and, no doubt, human bodies because it was the middle of the day and I had seen people go in and come out of it. The screams of those around and the approaching sirens began to fade away, my ears ringing, heart racing, body shaking. This is how I woke up in my chair, as the sun was sending its first tentative rays in the sky.
At first I couldn’t move. I tried to get up but I couldn’t. I had stuck to the chair. I waited, doing my best to breathe deeply and regularly to settle my heart rate. How many people worked at Nord Bank? More than two hundred in this building, I was sure. Tellers, traders, managers, analysts like me, the executives on the top floor, cleaning staff, for God’s sake. A couple of hundred people. And I had killed them. I had no doubt whatsoever this was one of the reality-altering dreams I’d tried to avoid having by avoiding sleep. And yet I wanted to see it written. I wanted to watch it recorded. I needed to get to my laptop and see the news.
I managed it a few minutes later when my brain and my body finally decided to cooperate. My hands were freezing when I turned on my laptop and typed explosion in the search field. It took me a while. My hands were sweaty and I had to force my fingers to type the word. And there it was. Nord Bank’s headquarters had exploded at three in the afternoon yesterday and the police had called it a terrorist attack.
I had a ridiculous idea: I’d call them and tell them it was no terrorist attack. It was me and I killed all these people in a dream. Why? I have no idea, officer, it just happened. I didn’t mean it.
I sat with my head in my hands until the sun lit the whole sky, trying to calm myself down. I could reload that day. I could make it unhappen. If I was lucky. I just had to go through this day pretending all is well and normal, except the explosion, that is, and then dream it back. I had yet to learn how to control this power I had but after that first dream with the children I hadn’t had any other catastrophic dreams. Thankfully. And Madeleine was with me then. Now she was gone and I’d had another accident. She had told me a replacement will come but who it would be and when they would come she didn’t know. I’d been on my own for a day and I had already fucked up.
“Daddy? Did you sleep in the chair?” Tony was standing at the open door, tall and scrawny, blinking sleepily.
“Hey, little one.” I got up as easily as if I’d never had trouble moving. I knelt in front of her and hugged her. “I fell asleep, yeah.”
Her closeness, her warmth and the steady, strong beat of her heart made it all a little better for a while, clouding the shock with innocence and sweetness. But when she let go and went to wash and begin the usual daily routine, the shock hit again, weighing me down, making even breathing difficult.
There had been a total 215 people who worked at the Nord Bank HQ. Police were still sorting through the rubble for remains but about two dozen people had called in response to a request that effectively asked to call and confirm they were alive. This should pass as good news but two dozen against almost two hundred was not great. It didn’t make me feel any better. I had to reload that day. I had to dream it back. And I had about fifteen hours to fill before I could get a chance to go to bed and try doing it.
“Tough night?” Sonia, my associate, asked, startling me. I was staring at the screen of my laptop, at an oil price diagram for the last month but I wasn’t seeing the curve. I was seeing clouds of dust and rubble, and hearing the roar of a building collapsing.
“Sorry?” I blinked and looked up.
“You look like you’re sleeping, Lars. With your eyes wide open, no less. Has Sian been keeping you up late?”
I didn’t miss the amusement in her voice but I ignored it. Sonia was my friend but she was also one of those people who joked with everything, up to and including other people’s personal lives. I was suddenly gripped by an irresistible desire to tell her everything, to share this nightmare with someone. But I couldn’t. She would think I belong in an institution.
“No,” I said and I rubbed my eyes viciously until they stung. “Bad dreams. Didn’t sleep too well.”
Sonia’s amusement melted into empathy.
“That sucks. I remember I used to have these recurring nightmares. You know, the same dream over and over again.”
The very thought of a recurring nightmare in my condition – yes, after last night I thought of it as a condition –made me briefly want to slit my own throat.
“I know,” I said weakly.
I had trouble breathing so I tried to focus on the diagram and let Sonia’s voice spill over me. I had an appointment with a client who felt like dabbling in commodities after he received an unexpected inheritance from his uncle. ‘I’ve always wanted to be an oil trader,’ he’d said on the phone. People never ceased to amaze me.
“It was about windows,” Sonia said. She tossed her mass of blond hair out of her face and took a sip from her coffee. “They were hanging at an angle, not like regular windows but at an angle to the wall. The outside wall, that is. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right but they sort of just hung in the air. When I see them, most of them are open and I’m trying to close them without falling out, and I just can’t reach the handles, so I keep trying and I keep trying…
My stomach was churning and I had a suspicion I’d dream of hanging windows tonight instead of the bank. I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to encourage more sharing about nightmares but the moment called for at least basic politeness.
“One time I fell,” Sonia said with a smile. “I fell through one of those windows and when I woke up I broke up with my boyfriend and moved here.”
I frowned. I couldn’t see the connection.
“I’ve never been more scared than I was in these nightmares. When I fell I thought I was falling to my death. But I woke up. There was nothing in real life that could scare me even remotely as much. So I used the momentum to fix my waking life,” she said with a shrug.
“That’s… profound,” I said.
Sonia had used her fear like a lever. What a great idea. If only I had “waking life” problems I could fix with fear from a dream.
“You can make fun all you want but it was eye-opening.”
“Oh, I’m not making fun at all. It is profound.”
Sonia’s problem was, it seemed, an unhappy relationship. Perhaps abusive. My problem was I had killed two hundred people while sleeping. And I had yet to get scared enough by a dream to overcome the fear of telling anyone about what I could do when I closed my eyes and drifted off.
The scariest part was I had almost no control over it. “Almost” because sometimes, just sometimes, I had lucid periods in my dreams. Ironically enough these lucid periods were in my regular dreams. If I could control the reality-altering ones, I realized now, then Maddy would be right and it would be a talent or a skill. But I couldn’t control crap, which made it a condition. A condition that needed managing.
“So, what was your nightmare about?” Sonia asked. She seemed just as interested in what was on her screen as I was in my Brent crude diagram. We could take a break.
“That building,” I said and paused to force air to continue moving from my lungs to my mouth. “That bank that blew up yesterday.”
“Oh, that was horrible.” Sonia’s face puckered sand she tossed her hair back again. She had a lot of hair and she wore it in a bob that meant it always fell in her face. “I thought these attacks were over.”
“Yeah, me too.”
They were over, at least in our part of the world. The new federal laws, despite the massive protests, had worked. Those who accused the government of authoritarianism were free – unlike in an authoritarian state, the government wittily noted – to move to the South or the Fringe. Those who stayed would have to swallow the fact that certain kinds of freedom would be curbed.
People could still practice their religions. But they were always watched and watched closely, especially some groups. Most stayed. And there were no more attacks or trucks ploughing into people on sidewalks. But now there was a blown up bank and the authorities would make life harder for a lot of people who were innocent. As if I needed any more gruesome reasons to feel like a villain.
“How did they do it? How? There is so much security.”
Sonia wanted to discuss the tragedy. I wanted to forget it for at least an hour.
“I really have no idea,” I said and squinted against the diagram. It didn’t tell me anything interesting so I scrapped it and went on to oil stocks. Perhaps I could persuade the high-risk flier to choose the safer way to “dabble in oil”. Something told me I won’t be successful but I wanted to try. I’d do anything to get the nightmare out of my mind, so I picked up my phone to call the aspiring trader and try to move the appointment earlier.
That evening I asked Antonia’s art teacher if she could watch her for a couple of hours after the lesson. She agreed immediately: with a boy Antonia’s age, she was always happy when my daughter was there and she refused any payment, which made my request all the more awkward. But I made it nevertheless. I needed a couple of hours on my very own.
When I entered Dansk Finanzbar my almost good mood sank into annoyance. The place was fuller than I’d expected, which meant louder. I wanted a quiet beer or two but I wasn’t getting it. I could have gone somewhere else but this was the pub I’d come to think of as my second home, the place where I’d been before I had my first – well, second – reality-altering dream. I settled at a corner table and ordered a Neon Black because I needed something stronger than the Transylvanian blond I usually drank after work. Once the beer came, its bottle tinkling against the sides of the slot in the auto-server, and I had a sip, I finally allowed the thought I’d been avoiding to enter my mind officially. I needed a new mentor.
When Madeleine came into my life – she literally saved it as I’d slipped into malnutrition from the energy expense during reality-altering dreams – she told me every person like me needs a mentor. I remember she refused to tell me how many “people like me” there were, only saying there were few. And they all needed help to come into their own, apparently.
I knew Maddy wasn’t human pretty much from the start. Besides knowing what I could do before I had opened my mouth she also knew what the future held. She didn’t talk about it but she did let slip a couple of times, while commenting on forecasts about this or that in the news, she knew what would happen. That was another topic I knew better than to raise with her. But on the topic of mentors Maddy was more than forthcoming.
Mentors helped talented people realise the full potential of their talent. They helped them channel their abilities in the right direction. Maddy had done this for me a few months ago, when I found myself reloading the same day three times in the mistaken belief I had to save a suicidal man’s life. I didn’t. I had to let him die. The universe, Maddy said, did not care about human morality. But it did care about balance, apparently, if care is the right word. And mentors balanced those with talents. There had to be a better word, a single word, for this. I never asked Maddy if there was. And I never asked her the question I most wanted to know the answer to right now after the nightmare: why she had to leave.
All she had said by way of explanation was she had other business to attend to. The thought of being “business” to her was not particularly pleasant but much worse was the fear she would leave me unguarded. That’s exactly what it felt like with her: like I had a guardian. Not an angel, though, there wasn’t anything even remotely religious about our relationship. She really was like a mother to me. And now that mother was gone and I’d killed a couple of hundred people and I couldn’t help but see a link between the two.
A replacement was coming, Madeleine had told me that night before she, to all intents and purposes in the human world, died. Her fellow mentors already knew about the change in her agenda and another one would come. Apparently, they weren’t in a hurry. The way I saw things, then, I had to stop whining and try to fix things myself.
I finished my beer and ordered another, this time a blonde. For the first time in five years I had an itch to smoke. To avoid dwelling on it and, I knew, going out and buying cigarettes, I called Sian. I’d had an idea.
Her phone went straight to voice mail – seven-thirty was the beginning of busy time at the restaurant – so I left a message inviting her to breakfast on Saturday. It was time I stopped worrying so much about what Antonia would think. And it was time I went a step further the road Sian and I had taken together three months ago. Call me romantic and old-fashioned, I don’t really care. And it would take Tony’s mind off her grief.
With that settled – if Sian was not busy on Saturday morning – a sense of a job well done settled over me like warm fog and I relaxed. Maybe I could fix reality on my own, after all, I thought while I swiped my card along the reader on the table and left Dansk Finanzbar to collect Antonia and go home. And yet I was, deep down, uneasy that the mentor Madeleine had promised would come had not made an appearance. I was also a little curious what more important job Madeleine had that required risking me doing exactly what I did.
I did what I could to get into the right mood for dreaming a corrective dream. I knew I had to be motivated if I wanted to fix the reality I had altered and I had no doubt I was motivated. Who would want to live with the thought of killing two hundred people? Not me. I did not resent Nord Bank for firing me in the least. I’d deserved it. I honestly wanted to reload that day. So I put Antonia to bed after dinner, left her with a book with the excuse I had a bit of extra work to do for tomorrow – not a complete lie, after all – and retreated to my bedroom where I put all my motivation on paper.
Things look more real on paper for some reason, have you noticed? The black on white, or blue on cream, or pencil grey on whatever shade of white adds substance to the meaning of words simply by giving it form. So I gave my unyielding motivation form. And then I wrote what I wanted to dream about: I wanted to dream about how I go to visit a few colleagues at Nord Bank or how they invite me to their Christmas party and I take Sian there as our first official event as a couple. I liked that second scenario better. As I shut the notebook I was using for my dream scenarios a very unwelcome thought strutted in: what if I dreamt I still worked at Nord Bank and I had neither Antonia nor Sian?
This was the end of my plan. Any suggestion of sleepiness evaporated and I lay and stared at the ceiling for hours, trying to force my brain to shut down, to sleep, to rest, and to dream anything but me back in my old life. Antonia was not my biological child. She wasn’t even a child when I’d met her but now she was my daughter and I couldn’t imagine her disappearing. And Sian – I couldn’t even form a coherent argument around why I wanted Sian to stay in my life. I needed a mentor and I needed them fast but I was clearly not getting one.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I wouldn’t do that to myself. I wouldn’t dream back my old life even if it was for a good cause. Call me selfish but only if you’d choose differently.
I did fall asleep eventually, around two in the morning, and I woke up at five drenched in sweat with a racing heart and not a single memory of my dream except it had rained in it. That was it. I’d had an even worse nightmare – I didn’t break into sweat easily and my heart rate had probably hit three digits while I’d dreamt – and I didn’t remember it.
My first job was to check if it was raining. It was, which was good for the dams and the city’s water security but not for my peace of mind. I took a quick shower, made myself a pot of coffee, filled a cup and sat at the tiny table off the kitchen to try and write down everything I could make my brain recall on demand from that latest dream. Keeping a dream journal was important, Madeleine had explained. It helped build control over what you dreamt about. Apparently, it took more than a year to build that control, judging by my lack of success, but I persevered.
So, there was the rain. It was heavy – there was a lot of water splashing on the streets. Streets. So I must have been in the city or a city, at any rate. And it was dark or I thought it was dark because I couldn’t remember anything from the setting beyond the rain splashing down on the street. But I remembered how it all felt. It felt like the cusp of a war. It felt like tonnes of pent up tension, resentment, and hate just waiting to spill, beginning to crack their container.
“What the hell,” I whispered in the empty room. The rain pattered on the windows, getting heavier. Heavy rains were a rarity these days, and a welcome one but I couldn’t shake off that feeling of gloom and doom the dream had left me with. Taking back the other nightmare slipped to second place in my mental agenda.
“I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Tony picked at her muesli and yogurt, still quiet but no longer crying. She shrugged without looking up.
“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” I said and sat opposite her with my cup of black coffee. I had to eat something, something highly nutritious, because reality-altering dreams burned huge amounts of energy but I couldn’t. Not after that second dream. Not yet. I’d have to risk it.
“Who?” she finally raised her head and met my eyes. I smiled. “A doctor?”
“Oh, no.” I swallowed the shock and tried to smile again. “Not at all. Why a doctor?”
Antonia’s feet started thumping a staccato rhythm on the legs of her chair.
“A boy from school said when someone dies you go to a doctor.”
I snorted and she shot me an insulted glance.
“I’m sorry, Tony. No, you don’t go to a doctor when someone dies, not necessarily.” These days I found myself in situations like this more and more often. School was a breeding ground for new ideas and they weren’t all that great. “Sometimes people do take death hard and they need help overcoming their grief but I think you’re fine. How do you feel? Do you need help?”
“So who do you want me to meet?” my daughter said in the nonchalant way I’d come to know but had yet to learn to love. The ease with which she fluttered from topic to topic stunned me and sometimes offended me. I took the trouble to explain things – which meant I had to explain them to myself as well and that was not always so easy – and she just moved on to the next topic in an instant, case closed, interest gone. Kids.
“I want you to meet a woman I’ve been dating for a while now. We’ve been going out together and I really like her and I think she likes me. And she wants to meet you.”
“Do you have sex?”
Madeleine. She must have educated her. I closed my eyes for a moment. I shouldn’t be embarrassed but I was. I couldn’t talk about sex with a seven-year-old even if it was my seven-year-old. I couldn’t talk about sex with anyone, really, even Sian. What’s to talk about?
“We do,” I said settling for the honesty Madeleine had advertised so actively when Antonia first came into my life, a year ago. Now I hoped this honesty won’t cost me questions about details because she wasn’t going to get any.
“Okay,” she said. Her feet stopped thumping the chair legs and she dug into her breakfast. I watched her for a few seconds expecting more but my child just ate her breakfast. I let out the breath I’d been holding.
“Okay,” I echoed. “I’ve invited her to breakfast on Saturday.”
“Will she come live with us?” Businesslike. Matter-of-factly.
“I don’t know, Tony,” I said eventually, after I recovered from yet another of the mini-shocks that were Antonia’s specialty. Talk about blunt. “It’s a bit too early to say.”
“Okay,” she said, scraping the sides of her bowl clean. I had nothing to worry about with her. She ate well, she slept well, and she seemed to be fine with a new person in our lives. One small mercy I needed right now.
Back at the office I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t even congratulate myself on yesterday convincing Joe Broadley, the new heir, to buy oil stocks instead of playing with futures. Sonia must have seen I was not my usual self but she didn’t ask anything. She had this almost supernatural ability to sense when talking was good and when it wasn’t. Or perhaps there was no almost to it and she was the same as Madeleine.
This was not the first time I suspected Sonia of being more than human but after almost a year working together these bouts of suspicion were more of a reflex than anything else. If she was here on universal business like Madeleine she would have made it clear by now, I was sure. Almost sure.
I got to the office at eight, right after I took Antonia at school, which, like my office, was a ten-minute walk from home. Okay, fifteen. Twenty at most if we walked slowly. In any case I liked to get to the office first, when it was empty and quiet, make coffee and have a cup before the day begins. Today, however, Sonia was there before me and it didn’t improve my mood at all. I liked her and I liked working with her but I wanted my quiet office time every morning, especially today when I had so much to think about.
Sonia somehow sensed this, I guess, because she didn’t start chatting as she usually did. She said hello, glanced at me and went back to staring at her screen. It was a little creepy but what was creepier was that after a couple of hours in silence I wanted to tell her everything. I desperately needed to tell someone and I couldn’t tell Sian. I couldn’t risk her thinking I was insane so early in our relationship.
“Lars, this can’t go on,” Sonia said all of a sudden just as I was lifting the cup of coffee to my mouth. I spilled some on my keyboard. “I’m sorry,” she said, ignoring my cursing. “I can see something is wrong and if you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine but this tension is distracting me.”
Our desks were opposite each other so she could glower at me undisturbed while I ran for a tissue to the closet that passed for a kitchen in this place and then tried to mop the coffee carefully, making sure none seeped between keys. I was buying time and this was as obvious to me as it was to her. I could feel her eyes on me though I kept my own down. I wanted to tell her everything and I was scared to tell her anything.
“Lars.” That was the last drop, the drop I needed.
“I dream dreams that change reality and the other night I dreamt of Nord Bank exploding. I tried to fix it but I can’t. Oh, and I had an even worse nightmare last night, which, thankfully, has not yet become a reality but who knows, maybe I now have clairvoyant dreams as well. Oh, and I need a mentor to keep these things under control but I don’t have one because Madeleine left. Which is why I can’t fix that nightmare with the bank and these people will remain dead.” I was squeezing the tissue I’d used to mop up the coffee while I spoke. Now I let it drop and finally looked at Sonia. “Happy?”
Sonia got up from her chair, which creaked, and crossed the room to my desk. She was much shorter than me but she stood on tiptoes and hugged me tightly. This was confusing but I hugged back and I felt a tiny bit better. There was something about this touch, a well-meaning and selfless hug that made the difference. She then let go and took me by the hand.
“Come on, we’re going for a drink.” She tugged on my hand.
“It’s ten in the morning.”
“So? You clearly need one. I do, too. And I want to hear more. We’ll call it force majeure.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Neither of us had appointments with clients today. We had a no-appointments policy for Thursdays. We took enough crap from strangers on the other days.
“I’m listening. Start from the beginning,” Sonia said when we sat at that same corner table in Dansk Finanzbar that was turning into my favourite one. From here I could see the whole place and remain relatively unseen myself. It was in an alcove next to the bar and it was always darker here.
I started from the beginning, from the day I’d made a woman disappear, years ago. They’d never found her and I’d never thought dreaming of her at the bottom of a deep pit had anything to do with her disappearance. Until I had another dream, almost two years ago, of a bridge that ended under the sea.
“Like the old one?” Sonia said and took a swig from her beer. She drank stout.
“Like the old one, only it didn’t resurface,” I said. In that dream, I’d made all children in town disappear. And then I’d brought them back in another dream. I’d reloaded the day before I’d dreamt the disappearance dream.
“How?” Sonia’s eyes were huge and there was not a shadow of disbelief in them.
“I’ve no idea,” I said and laughed. Telling her all this was like getting a good night’s sleep: satisfying and refreshing. “I just really wanted things to go back to normal. And I really wanted my friend, James, to have his baby back.”
“Babies, too?” Sonia gasped.
“Oh, yes. Everyone from zero to twelve.” This memory still haunted me.
“And then what happened?”
And then I’d met Madeleine who had saved my life from starvation and had taught me to keep a dream journal, to have lucid dreams, and to eat strong food after I had reality-altering dreams.
“You look thinner,” Sonia said, narrowing her eyes at me. “You haven’t eaten, have you?”
“I can’t, not right now.” I took a sip of beer. “I will eat later, don’t worry. I won’t starve.”
“How many of these dreams have you had?”
Five. I’d had five dreams that altered reality over the past year and a half. Three of them had been good. Two were nightmares. And now there was a third nightmare that still made my stomach turn.
“But it’s not a reality-altering one, right?” Sonia said and shook her almost empty bottle.
“I don’t think so. Do you feel like war is in the air?”
She thought for a while and shook her head.
“Nope. But you worry it might be a glimpse of the future.”
“Mhm.” I couldn’t say it. I didn’t want to. Besides, I was distracted: Sonia acted like she believed me, like what I’d told her made perfect sense. My suspicions about her bloomed again.
“Yes?” She was about to say something but I interrupted her.
“How come you believed me so easily? Or are you just playing along and will call the nearest madhouse when we get back to the office?”
My business partner of one year and now a friend did not laugh at my feeble attempt at a joke. She leaned forward and propped her arms on the table.
“You can’t lie, Lars. You’re a great guy but you just can’t lie.”
“Oh.” I was equally flattered and embarrassed. “Shouldn’t that have been an “and”? I’m a great guy and I can’t lie? I mean, lying is a bad thing, right?” And just like that we were laughing like we didn’t have a care in the world and I hadn’t just told her I could alter reality without meaning to.
“Does Sian know?” Sonia asked as we walked back to the office. It was unusually sunny for November and I had to squint as the light poked me in the eyes the moment we walked out of the pub.
Sonia hooked her hand around my elbow.
“Antonia doesn’t know, either. I’ll probably tell her when she’s older. Much older.”
“So I’m the only one?”
“I’m flattered. Very.”
“Well, you pulled it out of me. Was I really that obviously upset?”
“You’re pretty obvious in everything. At least to me. I’m observant.”
While we walked I could pretend for a moment all was well and I didn’t have nightmares. As we approached the co-working building where we rented an office the sun disappeared behind clouds that weren’t there a second ago. Sonia shivered.
There was a figure by the entrance, a large male figure with a cigarette in his hand.
“Lars Miller?” the man said when we approached. He took a pull on his cigarette.
I’d never seen him before. He was tall and burly, his narrow blue eyes set deep in a rough face with a week’s stubble. He shot a glance at Sonia and let out a cloud of smoke. “We need to talk. Privately.”
Sonia let go of my arm and took a step to the left, further from him.
“Okay. Sonia, you go ahead, I’ll be back.”
I didn’t look at her. I held the man’s eyes. I suspected he was the new mentor and I did not appreciate his timing or his face. He could probably beat me into a pulp without exerting himself particularly but right now I didn’t care about this. I was having a moment of normality and he had ruined it.
“Okay,” Sonia said. “Don’t forget you have an appointment with Mr. Broadly in an hour.”
“I won’t.” I did my best not to smile at her insurance move. It was deeply touching. And probably unnecessary but who knew. “See you. Shall we?” I turned to the man.
He unstuck his back from the wall and threw the cigarette butt on the ground before extending a hand to me. For a second I stared at it and then I shook it cautiously. For some reason I expected him to hit me.
“I’m Vlad,” the man said. His handshake was strong but not so strong as to be painful. And he didn’t hit me.
This conversation got confusing fast.
“Well what?” I said. We stood by the entrance of a co-working building and he obviously expected me to tell him something but I had no idea what it was. And I’d thought he was the new mentor.
“You summoned me.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I shook my head once hoping this will clear the fog his words raised.
The man sighed in exasperation and this annoyed me immediately. He looked violent, he spoke in a threatening tone of voice and now he was being exasperated with me like a governess unhappy with the manners of her charge. Yes, he even rolled his eyes.
“Did you have a weird dream last night?”
So he was the mentor. Or something else and unpleasant.
“That was my signal. So, what do you want?” He took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his short black coat, pulled one out and lit it while I stood speechless with anger considering a punch to his face. I reconsidered it quickly: he would respond and I had no fighting practice so I would probably end up with something broken.
“Are you a mentor?” I said. I was surprised to realise my hands were in my own coat pockets. I hadn’t put them there consciously.
“Of course I’m a mentor.” He couldn’t have been more different than Madeleine if he had tried. “And you’re messed up, so here I am.”
“Look, you had a nightmare last night, correct?”
“It was dark and horrible, and it was raining.”
“Right.” I felt like strangling him.
“That’s my cue. When a dreamer has messed up so badly they have this sort of nightmare I know I have to step in. So, what can I do for you?”
It took me a while to regain the ability to speak. Dreamers. I had suspected there were more but wasn’t sure and Madeleine dodged this question as she did so many others. What did any sensible person do when they say an opportunity? They took it.
“How many dreamers are there?”
“About a dozen,” Vlad said and took a drag on his cigarette. He smoked with such pleasure I felt the itch again. But now wasn’t the time.
“And they can all change reality?”
The man’s expression told me I was an idiot and I didn’t even know it.
“Well?” I insisted. I may be an idiot but I was an idiot with more answers than I had a minute ago.
“Of course not,” he said slowly, for my benefit I supposed. “There is only one reality moulder a generation. Are you stupid or are you new?”
“Guess.” I snapped. My hands hurt. They’d curled into fists.
He spread his arms.
“I’d say you’re both stupid and new.”
“Thank you.” I thought about Madeleine. This guy wasn’t worth getting angry at. I breathed in deeply and relaxed my hands. “So what can the others do?”
The man burst into laughter. It bounced off the building and the street and, it felt like, the sky.
“I’m glad I amuse you,” I said.
He shook his head as the laugher died down.
“I’m not telling you anything more. Not my place and not your place to ask.”
“So what are you doing here, then?”
“I told you. A dreamer’s in trouble, I come to the rescue.”
“Really? Only you?”
“For you, yes, it’s only me.” He pointed at me with the cigarette. “So, shoot.”
I grinned. For some reason I’d thought the new mentor would be like Madeleine, a live-in or at least someone I would see on a daily basis. But this nasty piece of meat had no intentions to settle anywhere close to me. This was great.
“Did I say something funny?” he said suspiciously and blew smoke in my face. The wind picked it up and spoiled his attempt to intimidate me. Not that he could. Not any more.
“I wanted to know how to reverse a dream I had two nights ago. I had a building explode and a lot of people died.”
I shivered. The air was suddenly ten degrees colder around me.
“What?” I had trouble pushing the word out.
“You can’t” he said, more slowly.
I stared at him. He stared back meaningfully until he finally realized I had not caught his meaning at all.
“Look,” he said with another sigh. “Some dreams are fuck-ups, all right? You can change these. You have. But others you can’t do anything about. The risk is too great. You know what risk I’m talking about, right?”
“I could end up doing more harm,” I said. The same had happened with the man I’d tried to save several times. It had turned out he had to die.
“Exactly.” For the first time he looked pleased with me but I couldn’t appreciate it because my head was buzzing. I’d killed two hundred people and I couldn’t undo it.
“Why did I dream it?” Speaking was difficult, like pushing rocks up a hill.
Vlad shrugged and threw the cigarette butt to the ground. It landed right next to the first one and he stepped on it.
“It’s part of your journey.”
He clapped me on the shoulder with a grin.
“I’m kidding. No journey. You’re new. You’re not yet in control of your powers. So shit happens. You have to learn to forget about it and move on.”
“Two hundred people died,” I whispered. I had no energy for speaking any louder. “Two hundred people.”
Vlad put his heavy hand on my shoulder and I stopped under the weight. That hand weighed a tonne.
“You have to put it behind you. It’s your brain protecting you. If you try to reload that day, you risk going back to your past. You can’t do that. It will be like returning to square one from square five or six. Who knows what’s waiting for you round that corner, eh? Meanwhile, here there are children that need saving and parents that need help to survive. They need you here. Now. And I’ll be around to help whenever you need help. Okay? You can do this.”
I hadn’t expected a pep talk from him but I was beyond surprised right now. Two hundred people. Dead. And it could happen again. I saw only one way to end this.
“Ah. No.” The hand was back on my shoulder, holding tight. “No suicides on my watch.”
“I’m in your head,” Vlad said so gently it hurt. “That’s part of my job, keeping you alive. You think you’re the first one? You all go through this. But you have to come out the other end. You have to. That’s your job.”
I stared at the cigarette butts on the street.
“And my job,” he continued, “is to make sure you do yours. It’s pretty simple when you think about it.”
My phone buzzed in my coat pocket but I couldn’t make my hand take it out. Vlad watched me a while and pulled the phone out.
“Answer it,” he said, holding the phone to me.
Two hundred people and there was no going back. No going out, either. I was stuck. When I looked up Vlad was still holding the phone and it was still buzzing. Sonia. I took it with a hand that was so numb it might as well have been someone else’s.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes. I’m coming up in a minute.” I ended the call and put the phone back in my pocket.
Vlad followed my every movement with a critical eye.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going now but I’ll check up on you from time to time. And you can call me whenever you need to, I was serious about that. My number’s on your speed dial. You’ll be all right, Lars. Trust me on that.”
“Do you promise?” I said. There was a bitter taste in my mouth. I swallowed.
“I do,” he said. Then he offered me his hand again. “Good meeting you. We should have a drink next time.”
I shook his hand, still numb. I heard him walk away but didn’t move. It started raining but I stood there trying to remember this or that co-worker from my Nord Bank days. Gone. Each and every one except those who changed jobs. But others came and now they were dead. Eventually Sonia came to see why I wasn’t picking up the phone.
“What happened, Lars? Why are you crying? What happened?”
I could only shake my head before she led me into the building.