When my phone started beeping while it was still dark outside my first thought was ridiculous: that something bad had happened to Antonia. My second thought was sane, reminding me she was sleeping in the room across the hall. And then I saw the number calling and the hour, and the worry reignited.
Sian stirred next to me but didn’t wake up.
“Lars, James had an accident. He… An oil truck hit him.” Martina sobbed.
I sat up and swung my legs to the ground. I knew what her next words would be but I had to ask the question first.
“How is he?”
She started crying.
“They had to cut the car to get him out. They’re operating now, have been since two, I think, when they brought him here. He was – she took a deep breath – he was coming back from Amsterdam, crazy man, he thought it would be a good idea to drive.” She tried to laugh. It sounded like the final bark of a mortally wounded dog.
“Lars?” Sian said as I was rubbing my head vigorously, trying to put the headache back to sleep without much success. I turned. “Who is it?” she whispered.
“Bad news,” I whispered back away from the phone. She was now fully awake. “What are the doctors saying?” I turned back to Martina.
“Nothing yet. I just had to call someone and you’re his only friend, Lars, you know James wasn’t—isn’t—the most social person in the world.” She took another deep breath. “I’m not even sure why I called and I’m so sorry, it’s so early, I just…”
“That’s okay, Marty, really. I understand. Which hospital is he in?”
“Rigets.” Another deep breath. I knew that feeling, when your chest was too tight and every breath took extra effort. “I left Nora with my mother so I’ll be here until… until the operation’s over.”
“I’ll see you soon,” I said and ended the call. “James has been in an accident. He’s in hospital and it doesn’t sound good.”
“I’m so sorry, Lars,” Sian was also getting up even though it was half past five. But she was an early riser anyway. She said she had her best ideas early in the morning where the whole world slept but her. “How can I help?”
I shook my head and then leaned down and kissed her.
“I’m going there to keep Martina company. Could you tell Tony when she wakes up?”
“Of course.” She put on the old tartan robe she had once said she would like to be buried with, which made me wince. Not the time to think about burying, I told myself. “Call me when there is news, okay? I hope he pulls through.”
“I don’t know. Martina said it looked really bad. And she said he wasn’t the most social person in the world.” I was half talking to her and half to myself, trying to prepare for the very real possibility of even worse news.
Sian went around the bed and came to hug me.
“People do that when they are scared of losing someone they love. Their brain prepares for the worst.”
“Yes.” She was serious. “Didn’t I tell you I spent two years at university studying clinical psychology?”
“No, you didn’t.” The surprise took my mind off James for a moment. Sian and I had been dating for five months now and living together for four weeks, and her academic past had not come up. “Any other secrets I need to know?”
“No,” she said with a smile and stood on tiptoes to kiss me on the nose. “Go see your friend and don’t worry about us.”
When I got to the waiting room to which the receptionist at the entrance of the huge hospital had directed me, there were only two people there, Martina and a man in green scrubs, who held her hands in his while he talked. Martina’s face told me what I’d come to find out even if I didn’t want to hear it. The tears were running down her cheeks in a steady flow and she looked ten years older than the last time I’d seen her a couple of months ago when they’d invited us to a barbecue in their back yard.
For a moment I felt like I’d grown roots into the floor. I could not move even though Martina was looking at me. I was too heavy to move and too cold to move. I was fine just where I was. I could stay here forever. But Martina let go of the doctor and came to me. She wrapped her arms around my neck and lay her head on my shoulder, sobbing. I unfroze and hugged her back.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I said it a few more times because my brain was empty of all other thoughts. I was sorry. My friend was dead. His wife and baby had a very hard time ahead of them. What else could I be but sorry?
After a while, Martina told me the oil truck’s driver had dozed off and the truck had suddenly swerved into the left lane where James had been. And he’d been going fast. James liked driving fast on the no speed limit highways of the federation. Now that I heard the whole story I thought it’d been a miracle he had survived enough to be transported to the hospital at all. But no more. I called Sian and told her the news. She took it calmly as she took most things in life I’d already found one.
“I’m very sorry,” she said and her voice only quavered for the shortest of seconds. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help Martina with all this.”
There wasn’t. Time was the only thing that would eventually help Martina, I knew that from losing both my parents. But time tended to stretch after a tragedy, stretch and trickle like molasses. All you could do was outwait it.
I spent the better half of that day keeping Martina company as she began what everyone called the necessary preparations. She protested she could do everything on her own but I didn’t like the look of her and told her as much. Nobody was in their right mind after this kind of loss. And she would have e enough time to be alone after today. This I only told myself but I didn’t believe it. Because I could do something about it and I intended to, as soon as it was appropriately late to go to bed. I could dream James back to life and I would. I didn’t care what the universe thought about it and at this point I didn’t care how many times I would have to try but I was determined to change this particular reality in which my best friend had died in a stupid car accident on the highway.
When I finally, grudgingly said goodbye to Martina and headed to the office I was shaking with anger on the inside. This death had come too soon after another tragedy, one I was responsible for and one I hadn’t been able to fix. It had hit heavy this impossibility to change the reality I myself had created in a dream, a reality that involved the death of two hundred people. But my new mentor, Vlad, had nipped my hope in the bud. It couldn’t be done, he’d said and that was that. And I couldn’t kill myself, which I briefly considered, because Vlad warned me he was watching and he wasn’t having any of this. So I tried to break up with Sian, to punish myself for what I’d done, however selfishly. But Sian, like Vlad who she didn’t even know, wasn’t having any of this.
“It’s painfully obvious you’re going through something difficult,” she’d said, “and I have this very strong feeling you’re trying to punish yourself for something I suspect is not your fault. So no, I’m not going to find someone who deserves me and I think I will punish you for stooping as low as this most terrible of clichés. And I hope some day you’ll tell me what’s wrong. I’m in no hurry.”
The odds were clearly stacked against me and my attempts at atonement at the time. And as time went by I healed. Sian helped. She moved in. Antonia was happy. There was no sign of Vlad. Life was beginning to look and feel good again. And now this. I had to do something about it.
I finished reading Tony a story and I tucked her in. My little girl was so groggy from school and the maths lessons she insisted on going to three times a week she was already dozing off when I closed the door of her room.
Sian was working late as always and for the first time since we’d met I was grateful for this. It was nine-thirty and she wouldn’t be back for another three hours, which gave me plenty of time to prepare and go to bed. I owed this to James and his family I kept thinking. I owed it to him.
I made myself a cup of chamomile tea, which I hated but which worked like a charm to get me sleepy, and I took it to the small table off the kitchen – my preferred place to eat, read, and, now, prepare for a dream that would change reality. I took my dream journal, a simple yellow-cover notebook Tony had gracefully given me. For a while I sat and stared at the empty page I’d turned to, pen in hand. Then I started writing and what I wrote was I will dream James back to life. Nothing else came to mind but somewhere deep in my brain was the unshakeable belief that by repeatedly writing something I could make it happen. It was a strange feeling, one without rational arguments to support it but there it was and I knew better than to fight it. It made sense, that was all.
I wrote for half an hour and although my wrist was hurting by the end and I felt a little bit of an idiot for going with this feeling, my conviction this would work had grown. I finished what was left of my tea, yawned and closed the notebook. I took it with me to the couch, which I’d already made as a bed and put it under the pillow. Silly, I know, but again, it felt right. I was doing a ritual I was creating as I went and even if it had no actual substance, it made me feel better. I’d left a note in the bedroom for Sian, saying “For tonight only” and I hoped she’d understand. I needed space to dream, space and lack of distractions. When I turned off the tall reading lamp by the couch I suddenly got nervous and I had to start breathing deeply and slowly, the way Madeleine had taught me, to calm down. I closed my eyes and I saw James.
He was sitting across the corner table at Dansk Finanzbar and laughing at something. We used to go there at least once every week before Nora was born so that was the first setting that sprang to mind. Now he asked me about Sian and I tried to explain how wonderful she was. Words were pouring out of my mouth at a rate they never would in real life. In real life, you didn’t talk to your best friend about how happy someone makes you. It just isn’t done. James was one to share but not me. I just couldn’t make it happen. As I talked in my imaginary Dansk Finanzbar and James nodded, I began feeling cold. As if a cold blanket was wrapping itself around me slowly. First was my head, then the coldness spread down. I tried to make myself rub my hands together or switch to another setting, a warmer one but I couldn’t make myself move. James kept nodding and smiling, and I kept talking about my girlfriend until James interrupted me.
“I know I died, Lars. It’s okay.”
Waking up was like resurfacing from the depths of a particularly cold sea. I was shivering and I had goose bumps when I opened my eyes. The blanket had fallen off me to the floor. I picked it up now and wrapped it around me to make the shivers stop. After lying still for a while, fighting the urge to just go to the bedroom and snuggle into Sian, the shivering subsided enough so I took a deep breath and reached for my phone that sat on the coffee table. Five-thirty, it said, on November 22. The day before James had died. A surge of happiness warmed me enough that I threw the blanket off, got up and went to the bedroom and to Sian.
“You look happy today,” Sonia observed with only the slightest hint she wanted to hear more. And I could tell her because my partner in financial advice knew what I could do. I’d told her a while back, after the explosion that drove me close to suicide. Since then, she’d become a friend, as close as James.
“I am,” I agreed. “This time everything went well.”
Friend or not I still had difficulty opening up to her about the dreaming. I was embarrassed to do it though I knew I had nothing to be embarrassed about. But that memory of the explosion still rankled and the shame I couldn’t save them festered.
Sonia’s eyes widened.
“What happened?” Unlike me, she had no qualms about discussing the subject. “Did you eat?”
Reality-altering dreams took huge amounts of energy. I’d had a hearty breakfast that morning. It had made Sian raise her eyebrows since usually I just had coffee and a toast but she hadn’t commented on it.
“A friend of mine, he died yesterday.”
“Oh, I’m so… Oh!” Sonia tossed her mass of blond hair out of her face and leaned in as if to hear better. Our desks are opposite one another and I was propped on mine while she sat in her chair. “And?”
“It’s yesterday again and he’s alive. I think I managed to convince him driving home from Amsterdam is a stupid idea. I’m meeting him tonight for a beer at DF.”
“Lars, that’s great! I’m really happy for you.” As if the words weren’t enough she got up, went around the desk and hugged me awkwardly. We’d never hugged before or touched in any way after the first handshake when I’d interviewed her for the partnership. I hugged her back just as awkwardly.
“Good,” Sonia said when she let go. “See? It all works out in the end.”
“Sort of,” I allowed. Those two hundred people would never come back to life but these days I suppressed this thought more successfully. Vlad had been right and so had Sonia; Some things you couldn’t fix even if you could alter reality. But others you could and I had. But there was something weird about James’s voice when I’d called him to suggest we meet for a beer and act surprised he was in Amsterdam. He’d say “Sure” to the beer proposal and he’d said “Yeah, you’re probably right” to my suggestion it would be dumb to spend eight hours on the road in the rain instead of taking a plane. He could leave the rental car at a company office in Amsterdam. He’d said “Sure” to that, too. All sounded normal, like James but not quite. It wasn’t something I could put my finger on but it was palpable. Or it was just me, still under the influence of that phrase in the dream, “I know I died.”
He couldn’t know he had died, I told myself while I ate my lunch in the tiny kitchen. Sian would be outraged if she saw me eating doner kebab from one of those little family-owned outlets that made office and home deliveries but greasy meat in bread was just what I needed now. I’d had to eat more than usual for a few days and it would be better to make it as unnoticeable as I could. Sian was not one to ask questions about everything but she was bound to notice.
So, James had no way of knowing he had died and then come back. That would probably be bad for his mental health, to have a memory of the old reality. Antonia had no memory of her old life, of the reality where she was thirty-three and with a brain tumour that had rendered her blind. She was my seven-year-old daughter now and she was like any other seven-year-old with no hint of weird memories of another life. The children I had accidentally made disappear a year ago also had no memory of it. If they had, the story was bound to have surfaced somewhere. But it hadn’t. I’d dreamed them away and I’d brought them back with nobody the wiser. So I had no reason to believe this phrase from my dream was true. Or I could call Vlad and make sure I was right to think so. Only I didn’t want to call Vlad. My new mentor was nothing like Madeleine, the first one. He was rough and blunt, and he had made it clear I was only to contact him in an emergency.
A phone buzzing distracted me from the pointless going in circles. Sonia picked up and told someone that of course, it was no problem at all, we’d be happy to.
“Eat up,” she called from the office. “Mrs. Temple asked to move her appointment half an hour earlier. Something had come up, she said.”
I bit into my doner and focused on chewing and swallowing for a while. Mrs. Temple was one of our biggest clients.
It was seven and sleeting when I reached Dansk Finanzbar. My coat was wet and heavy with it when I went into the place, half-empty this early in the evening. It filled up later, about nine, which was too late for me and James because of our parenting duties. But at seven, Tony was with the next door neighbour’s son who was her age and whose mother worked from home and didn’t mind to have Tony over once or twice a week. Tony didn’t mind either, which was good for my natural parenting guilt levels. I’d talked about this with James. It had turned out it is really a thing. All parents felt guilty for something. And here was James now, at the corner table. My heart lurched into my throat and the image of Martina, crying in the hospital, looking lost and confused, flashed before me.
“Hey,” I said when I reached the table. We shook hands and his felt as real as mine. He had died and now he was alive. The thought I had played god crashed down on me and almost brought me to my knees. I sat down to avoid it.
“So how was Amsterdam?”
“The usual. Lots of people, lots of noise, a couple of good speakers.” James was a literary agent. He’d gone to a conference in Amsterdam. “How have you been doing? When was the last time we came here, September?”
“End of September, probably. Yeah, I think so.”
“We should get together more often. It’s therapeutic, I tell you.” The autoserver stopped by our table with two bottles on top. Blonde from Transylvania for me and DF Neon Black for James. One of the definitions of a friend, as far as I’m concerned, is someone who knows what you drink and orders it for you before you get there.
“Cheers,” I said and the bottles clinked together. I was suddenly parched. I could finish the bottle in one go.
“Wow, have you been on a dry diet or something?”
“Long day, I guess. How are the girls?” That image of Martina crying flashed in front of me again. I rubbed my forehead, so I could close my eyes for a second.
“They’re okay. Nora’s growing fast but I guess all kids do, right?”
“They sure do.” I couldn’t know. Tony had entered my life as a seven-year-old. But I had to pretend and I often did when James discussed the aspects of life with a baby. “Any new literary geniuses out there?”
James shook his head and laughed.
“Just the usual number,” he said. For a second le looked like he would say more but he didn’t. The silence was awkward and very unusual. I couldn’t remember ever feeling awkward around James.
“Jim? Something wrong?”
He took a long sip and set his bottle on the table slowly before looking up at me.
“I know, Lars.” He smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile but a forced, confused one.
I turned to stone. It started from my feet, this petrification, and it spread up and across my body. I was stone, stuck to the chair, and it was infuriating because I couldn’t ask the question that needed to be asked right now. “You know what?”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I won’t tell anyone. And thanks.” That last bit he said uncertainly like he was going to blush any second.
I forced the words up my throat.
“What are you talking about?” I managed. Speaking had never been so difficult.
James looked around us and leaned in over the table. He looked like a character from a mediocre spy film.
“I know I died,” he said quietly but not quiet whispering. I leaned in, too, out of muscle empathy, I suppose. At least I could move again. “I know because I remember how I died. I remember the truck, the crash, the ambulance and the hospital. And then I died. I just… left. But you brought me back.”
“Jim, you’ve probably—”
“No,” he said. “Don’t tell me I had a bad dream, Lars, or I’ll punch you. I didn’t have a bad dream, I died. And you brought me back. I won’t make a media frenzy pout of it but I want to know how you did it. Unless,” he added after a pause, “it’s such a secret you’ll have to kill me if you tell me.”
I burst into laughter surprising myself and James. What he had said should have worried me and it did, for a while. But now it was just funny for some reason, probably stress. I was not a trained spy. I didn’t know how to lie believably, much less to my best friend, the person who probably knew me best.
“I have dreams sometimes,” I said. “And things change in these dreams.” I couldn’t have put it more lamely if I’d tried for it. “I can change reality in my dreams.” That was probably worse. “With my dreams.” That was good as I would do today.
James waited patiently but when he saw no more was coming, he nodded.
“That’s it? A nod?” I was as nervous as a boy on a first date and his reaction was underwhelming to put it mildly.
“I specialize in fantasy and science fiction, remember?” James said with a crooked smile. “I have a rather large capacity for strange. And I died and came back.”
I had nothing to say to that, so I finished my beer instead and ordered another.
“So, how did you know?” I asked when I’d found my courage again. “It’s never happened before.”
James stared at the table for a while without blinking. I didn’t know if he was reluctant to tell me or embarrassed.
“When I died I kind of fell asleep. Yeah, I know,” he laughed sharply, “this is the lamest, most boring description of death but it was like falling asleep for me. Only I knew I won’t wake up, you know? I had this… draining feeling, like my energy was dripping out of me and then I dozed off.” He paused and drank some beer. I watched him. My friend had been dead. And then he had been alive with a recollection of the “before” part. He looked his usual self but that was not surprising since with my dream I had essentially reloaded the day. But maybe there was more to this. The thought of calling Vlad to ask shot through my mind and was gone with me helping it on its way out. Vlad was for emergencies only and this wasn’t an emergency.
“What happened then?” I said when the silence began to feel too heavy.
James looked up.
“I dreamed of you. You were – he shifted in his chair – you were sitting at your kitchen table, writing ‘I will dream James back to life.’
It took me a moment to realize I was gaping at him.
“But that’s impossible,” I breathed, shaking my head, a headache coming on. “It is not possible.”
“I know how it sounds. Did you really write this?”
“Thanks, I guess.” He downed the rest of his beer.
‘And then what, you woke up?” I asked. Exhaustion had slumped on me without a warning. Every time I thought I’d got the hang of all this dreaming thing something happened that shook me out of balance. Like I was trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces and the picture changed every time I’d found a corner.
“And then there was blackness and I woke up from that, yeah. In my hotel bed, with my heart about to jump out of my chest.” He tried to laugh but it came out as a strangled bark, which he tried to mask by clearing his throat.
“That’s why you agreed to fly home so easily.” Now it made perfect sense.
“Yeah.” James looked at his watch and stroked his short beard. He cleared his throat again. “So, you’ve done this before?”
“Done what?” I was forcing my brain to figure out how this had happened, how James could have a recollection of all this and look as sane as he did.
“Dreamed people back to life.”
I scoffed nervously.
“I don’t dream people back to life. Actually the last time I had one of those dreams I killed a couple of hundred people.” I was beyond caring how it would sound. It just came out. “And once I dreamed about the perfect sauce for Sian. And that other time – an urge to vomit everything out took over – I had to stop myself from saving a man’s life because the universe apparently wanted him dead. Oh, and you know Antonia? She’s not really my daughter, at least she wasn’t before I dreamed her into my daughter. And honestly, Jim, I’ve no idea what the next dream will be about and how long I can survive this.”
By the end of my tirade I was close to sobbing, with a racing heart and trembling, ice cold hands. I ran one of them through my hair as if that would remove the headache pulsing behind my eyes. I took a deep shaky breath and continued avoiding James’s eyes. I’d opened a whole in a dam wall and it was widening under the weight of everything it was holding. I clenched my teeth. Now was not the time. I had to pick up Tony and go home.
“That’s a lot to talk about,” James said. “I guess now is not the time, though.”
I shook my head.
“I have to pick up Antonia from the neighbour. It’s school day tomorrow.” Her name hung in the air for a second before James nodded.
“Right, of course. But, Lars, we should do this again. You don’t look… well.”
“Yeah, this… this thing takes tons of energy,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “And then I have to eat tons of food to restore it.”
“Great way to watch your weight, I guess.”
I looked at him and he looked at me and we burst into laughter. It made my head pulse even worse but I laughed until the tears came out and then I laughed some more.
James swiped his card across the reader at the center of the table before I could stop him.
“Okay, next time’s on me,” I said and reached for my jacket I’d hung on the back of the chair. James grabbed my wrist.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Thank you for bringing me back.”
“I got lucky.” The gratefulness in his voice, on his face, was too great and too heavy. I didn’t want it. I had got lucky.
“I don’t care.” I had the sudden suspicion he will now tell me he would be in my debt forever.
“I want you to know—”
“No.” I pulled my hand away and raised my index finger at him. “I don’t want to hear it. I got lucky, okay? Trust me and go on with your life, okay? Please.”
He gave this some consideration before he nodded.
“Okay. But we should talk about this.”
“Yeah, we will. But not now. I really have to go pick up Tony, Jim. And you should go back to your girls.”
He gave up trying to find a way to tell me how much he owed me, finally, and followed me out of the bar. It was sleeting again and it was colder than an hour ago. I pulled up the collar of my jacket as high as it would go.
“Send my best to Martina.” Funny how her name no longer jabbed at my heart every time I said it or thought it. That hopeless love was over, luckily.
“I will. And you say hi to Tony and Sian for me, okay?”
I raised a hand with the intention to wave it goodbye but James took it and squeezed it.
“I owe you, Lars. You don’t want to hear it but I had to say it. I owe you everything and I won’t forget it.”
He just had to spoil the whole evening and embarrass me. But it felt good to have someone who knew, another someone. Now, there were two of them, Sonia and James. I wondered what Vlad would have to say about this if he ever found out before I started walking home in the sleet.