The room was small and stuffy. Sweat glistened on the bare arms of the woman sitting in the bed, rocking back and forth, and wailing. I watched her from the door unable to comfort her. Her crown of dark curly hair swung as she moved, fell into her face and stuck to her mouth but the woman didn’t toss it back. The woman was too distraught to care. She rocked and cried, and I stood and watched. This wasn’t among my lucid dreams.
“Daddy? Did you hear any of what I just said?” Antonia was glaring at me from across the table with a fork in her hand. Sian had made omelettes and they were the best omelettes in the world, I had no doubt about that. But I didn’t feel their taste because my thoughts were on the woman I saw in my dream. Something horrible had happened to that woman. Or she had done something horrible.
“I’m sorry, honey. I had a bad dream.” I cut a piece of eggs, vegetables, and cheese, and put it in my mouth. Sian came to sit between us with a cup of tea.
“I was saying that I’ll need materials for the Christmas workshop. Fabrics. Stuff. Will you take me after school?”
Guilt flared up as it so often did these days. Ever since Tony had become a part of my life, really. I suspected half of parenting was about guilt and disguising it successfully.
“I have appointments all day, honey. But I’ll try and see if I can get out of one or two, okay?”
Her face told me she’d heard that before and she didn’t remember it fondly. I hated it when the corners of her mouth curved down like that, in disappointment.
“I will get out of one or two and come with you to buy Christmas workshop stuff.”
The corners trembled but stayed down.
“No, honey. I don’t promise. I deliver!”
Sian burst into laughter spraying tea over the table.
“I’m sorry!” She rushed to get a wipe. “You’re a natural, Lars. You should be in stand-up comedy.”
“Many have told me this,” I said when she sat down. I took her hand and kissed the back of the palm. Her smile was wide and sincere, and warmed me like my own private sun. “But I sneer at them. I am a serious person with a serious job and a serious daughter who needs fabrics for her Christmas workshop.” The corners of Antonia’s mouth were back up. She giggled. “So, no stand-up comedy for me.”
I cancelled all my appointments for the afternoon. I figured I could once in a while indulge in being with my daughter, so I called the four clients I was scheduled to meet between one and five and without the barest trace of remorse told them all I had a family emergency and we needed to reschedule. They were all very understanding. I’m good at talking and I get better all the time I work with people. And I hadn’t had one of my special dreams as my partner Sonia delicately called them in three months. Life was ordinary again.
I wasn’t stupid enough to think this would last forever but I had also stopped being on edge, waiting for the next mind-shattering vision. I guess this happens as time passes and no reality-altering dreams need to be had. There was no sign of Vlad, my new mentor, although something about him made me think of him more as a handler than a mentor. He just had this aura of secretiveness around him. And he wanted no part in my life unlike Madeleine, his predecessor.
But Vlad had told me there were others like me, people with gifts or curses, depending on your perspective. People who could do things. What things, Vlad did not say, and I didn’t press it. At the time, I was too distracted by the fact I had killed two hundred people by dreaming about an explosion. And I hadn’t been able to alter that reality. Perhaps someone like me had prevented it from happening. I wouldn’t be surprised, really. If you had a villain you had to have a superhero, right?
I spent the afternoon with Antonia. We bought bright, shiny, and not so shiny fabrics for her workshop, and we went for a pizza. I had a great time and so did she but the image of that crying woman stayed at the back of my mind like an itch I couldn’t scratch. It could mean something or it could mean nothing. I would find out soon enough, I was sure.
The thought was a little disappointing and made me realize I’d secretly hoped the dreams, the reality-altering dreams, had ended. But they hadn’t. That night, after I put Antonia to bed, listened to her read from her currently favourite book, the collected stories of the brothers Grimm, and spent an hour with my news feed as I did every night, I dreamed of the woman again.
She wasn’t in her room this time. She was in an office, behind a desk, and she was looking at a laptop, biting her thumb. Her eyes were red and her face was drawn but she wasn’t crying this time. She was staring at the screen. I concentrated. I had to move and I would move. There was nothing I wanted more than to move at this moment. And my legs eventually obeyed. I walked up to the desk, stood next to the woman and saw what she was looking at. A news story about a school shooting.
The story was in a language I didn’t know but, as so miraculously happens in dreams, I understood it. A police officer had gone off the rails and had stormed into a high school in Bucharest. He had killed a dozen kids and two teachers before he had shot himself. His colleagues had been too slow coming. The story quoted a Dr. Done, police psychologist, who had said the shooter, one Daniel Firea, had had problems but had been feeling better. She didn’t go into details about Firea’s problems. And then I saw a bunch of business cards scattered on the desk. Dr. Bozhana Done the cards said. Counselor. Bucharest Police, General Directorate. I was looking at her desk over her shoulder but when she looked up I took a quick step back. She turned her head, looked right at me and said “Help me.”
I woke up to meet another pair of eyes, these ones green instead of brown. Sian was propped on an elbow, watching me and not smiling. I shivered, pulled the covers up and exhaled. That woman had startled me. I had been so certain she couldn’t see me.
“So, who’s Bozhana?” Sian said nonchalantly, one brow arched slightly and, I guessed, involuntarily.
“You were tossing and turning, repeating this word, which sounds like a name.”
Now a smile broke out and warmed the room but only a little. Sian was not happy. She was good at pretending but I had got to know her a lot better since she’d moved in. And I was, I thought, good at keeping my secret from her. Only I didn’t know how much longer I would manage to keep it from her.
“I had a weird dream,” I said.
“Weird?” The brow rose higher.
I turned on my side to face her.
“I saw a woman in an office with business cards on it. Bozhana was the name on the cards. She was reading a news story on her laptop and she was very upset. The end.”
“Bozhana who?” Sian asked. The suspicion had subsided in favour of curiosity.
“I don’t remember.”
I remembered. I remembered the dream in so much detail I had a hard time summoning the energy I needed to try and convince myself it was just an ordinary, inconsequential dream. Ordinary, inconsequential dreams were never this clear and detailed. I slid closer to Sian and hugged her.
“Do you always dream so clearly?” she asked while I nuzzled her neck, the place right below her left ear.
“When I do dream.” I kissed the place and Sian shivered. “Right now, I’m happy to be awake.” This time I didn’t lie. I took every chance I could to do things that made me feel happy after that explosion. Perhaps the effect would wear off but until it did I was happy more often than before. I would try and help this woman, I already knew that, and it wouldn’t be pleasant. There was just no way it would be pleasant with the way she was crying. But Sian’s breathing accelerated and I shoved all unpleasant thoughts away for a while.
Daniel Firea was a police officer who had lost a child to leukemia a year before the shooting. He hadn’t been able to afford professional help outside of work so he had been seeing Dr. Done. In the stories I read – the free translator I downloaded was surprisingly good, made in the Fringe – he was described as a good police officer but a troubled man despite his sessions with the therapist. She was quoted in a few of the stories as saying she had believed Firea had been getting better. Until the day he’d walked into his dead son’s school, opened a random door and started shooting at the children and teacher in it.
I spent an hour that morning reading about the tragedy. The man’s wife was devastated and refused to talk to the media. I could understand her. Dr. Done’s comments were brief and not particularly informative. She felt guilty about what had happened, that I was sure about. But how could I help her? The shooting had happened several thousand miles away and three days ago. The last few times I had reloaded time it had been only a day at a time. But I had also turned Antonia from a thirty-year-old woman into a seven-year-old girl. Time didn’t seem to be a problem. The doctor was pretty far but maybe this was the way to find out how far my so-called powers reached.
“Can I help?” Sonia asked when I finished telling her the story about the tragedy and started rubbing my forehead viciously to chase away the pain gnawing at my brain. It had seeped in unnoticed.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“At least let me give you a pill. I hate to see you suffer.”
“Thanks.” I wouldn’t call it suffering but I hated these insidious headaches and the fear they sparked. I couldn’t control it. After Antonia, every headache brought on thoughts about brain tumors and aneurisms, and about who will look after Antonia if I dropped dead. Sonia brought me a painkiller – one of the stronger brands – and a glass of water.
“I have migraines at least once a week,” she said when I looked at her. “It sucks. Drink up.” So I did.
“Have you tried anything more permanent than pills?” My mother had been a migraine victim. Compared to her migraines, my headache was a breeze.
Sonia shook her head and clicked a few keys on her laptop.
“Nothing’s worked so far.”
“Maybe you could dream the pain away some day,” she said with an unexpected shyness, without looking at me. If the light was not deceiving me she was even a little flushed.
“Maybe I could,” I said.
“No, forget about it. This was stupid. It’s not life threatening or anything.” She was typing faster.
“It’s okay, Sonia. I would gladly try to help you. Only I’m not sure it works this way. It doesn’t even work every time,” I said after a pause. The memory still hurt but the pain was duller these days. And Sonia had helped me deal with it. Maybe I could try and help her. Maybe I could become a healer, a superhero who dreams pain away. Yeah, like that would happen.
I spent the rest of the day paying only partial attention to what was going on around me. I managed to take on a new client despite my distractedness and Sonia and I celebrated with a takeaway meal from Sian’s restaurant. But I had trouble focusing on anything but the problem I had to solve. I could probably reload a stretch of time but how much did I need to reload to avoid the tragedy? And how could I warn Dr. Done about it? Could I at all?
When James, my best and oldest friend, had died, I’d reloaded that day and had called him to make sure he wouldn’t take the car that would crash into an oil truck. Antonia had become my daughter. But how could I make sure a mentally disturbed man would not kill half a class of children? Then again, that woman, Bozhana Done, had said Help me in my dream. Perhaps if I dreamed time back enough she would be more successful in treating him. Or perhaps I could just write to her and ask if she’d had any strange dreams recently. I couldn’t believe I was so stupid it had taken me five hours to come up with this most obvious of all ideas.
Luckily, finding the woman’s email address took five minutes. It was listed next to her photo on the website of the Bucharest directorate general of the police. Now all I had to do was come up with a message that wouldn’t sound like the ramblings of a madman. It could still end up in her spam folder but I saw no other way to reach her.
“Dear Dr. Done, my name is Lars Miller and I’m a financial advisor based in Copenhague. The reason I’m writing to you, however, has nothing to do with financial advice. This may sound strange but have you by any chance had a dream in the last couple of days that had a tall man in a dark suit in it? I realize my question sounds odd, to say the least, but the answer is important. I would gladly share more details with you.
This was the best I could come up with after half an hour of false starts. I read it one last time and clicked “Send.” The desktop clock told me it was half past four but the Fringe was two hours ahead, which meant Dr. Done had most likely already gone home.
“Fuck,” I said and shook my head at Sonia’s questioning look. “Sorry.”
“That’s perfectly okay,” Sonia said with a grin. “We don’t have a no-swearing policy in place.”
I was about to say that was one reason I likes this place so much when I saw a reply.
“Nice to meet you, Lars. Please follow the link below and look for Elyzia. You’ll have to register, I’m afraid. Send me a message. Thank you!”
The link was to a forum named Magica. Okay, so Dr. Done did not want to use her work email for conversations with me. And she didn’t seem surprised by my message. For the first time since I’d had the first reality-altering dream I thought somebody besides mentors might know about me. And then an even weirder thought struck me. Dr. Done could be like me.
Fear and excitement clashed and made my hands shake a little as I registered on Magica under the name of Dreamer. Unbelievably, the name had not been taken. There was a Most Active Members section but Elyzia was not among them. I had to browse threads that discussed topics such as ghost invasions and instructions for summoning demons. I glanced at the clock from time to time – I didn’t want to be late home. That was a hard rule I’d established and I did not want to break it.
Elyzia popped up on a thread about spell casting. I didn’t even look at what she’d written, I clicked on “Message”.
“Hi. Lars here.”
Her reply came seconds later. She had been waiting for me.
“Thank you so much. I didn’t want to use my work email for this. I’m sure you understand. It’s not safe.”
It was five-fifteen. I had fifteen minutes to chat with this woman and then I had to go. I also had to be careful. I couldn’t assume she knew about my, well, ability. Maybe she had just had a weird dream although I didn’t really bank on this.
“I understand. I assume we had the same dream?”
Five seconds was all it took her.
“I was in my office reading news reports about Firea and you were there standing beside me. Yes, I saw you and I saw you were like me. And that you could help me.”
“Like you in what sense?” I wasn’t sure how to feel about this confirmation of what I suspected. I wondered if she could change reality, too, at which point I felt envious for not being unique, or her powers were in another area. The envy passed. This was ridiculous. I didn’t want to be unique in this particular way. She was welcome to her reality-altering talent.
“I can see what people think. And I can erase their memories. I saw what you were thinking that night, in the dream. You were wondering if this was one of the reality-altering dreams. I would have reached out but I didn’t know your name. Cards on the table.”
My mouth had gone dry, I noticed when I licked my lips and tried to swallow. Five twenty. I had ten minutes and I knew they won’t be enough. I was thirsty but it could wait ten minutes.
“I worked with Firea. He had problems, serious problems. So I decided to delete some memories so he wouldn’t suffer so much. The worst parts about his son. He spent a long time in hospital. Then Daniel and his wife separated after he died. It happens very often. I deleted parts of that, too. And I’m afraid I went too far. I have no other explanation of what he did in that school. It has to have been me. Could you help me fix it?”
Deleting memories. Reading thoughts. That woman could read other people’s thoughts even in their dreams. I heard a quiet buzz in my ears, the buzz of mental overload, I suspected. I had no reason to doubt what she said. I had thought this was a reality-altering dream while I stood over her and read the text on her business cards, and the story she was reading. She was telling the truth. My throat itched.
“I’m sorry about the tragedy. I have to go now. Will be back online in couple hours.”
I didn’t wait for her reply. Sonia had gone home half an hour ago and now I turned the laptop off, put my coat on and left in a rush, like someone was chasing me.
It was one of the rare nights when I was happy Sian worked late. I didn’t have to explain why I needed to spend an hour or so on an online forum for people with too vivid imaginations. I didn’t have to make up excuses and lie to protect her from the truth. I don’t even know why I had decided she needed protection from it. I had just assumed she did and I had a feeling I was being unfair but for now the need to protect prevailed. I sat at the small table off the kitchen and logged into Magica. I had two new messages.
“I understand. You have a life unlike me. Take your time. Talk later.”
The second one was considerably longer. Background, that was it. A lot of it.
“Let me just tell you a bit more about myself since I honestly believe you’re the only one who can help me. I found I could read thoughts about ten years ago, while I was in university. It was brutal. Every time I met someone’s eyes I caught their thoughts. I considered having myself committed but then my mentor came and explained things. By “things” I mean she told me I could read thoughts and erase memories but I had to be careful when I did it and to whom I did it. At the time, it sounded ridiculous, the very thought of erasing someone’s memories. It was like she told me I could kill people without getting caught. She taught me how to protect myself from hearing thoughts all the time. I just have to refocus my eyes. Every time I need to meet someone’s eyes, I refocus on a point in the space between us, so I’m not in fact looking into their eyes. Simple, right? It took some time to make it a habit. I guess it was only natural to go into therapy. I wanted to help people. I wanted to alleviate their suffering. The first time I tweaked a memory I felt like I was on drugs, I got high. Did you feel the same way when you realized you can change reality? How do you do it, by the way? You don’t have to answer, of course. I’d understand if you don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, I took this job at the police because I thought it fit me best. And I’m too scared to work with children. I don’t want to touch their memories. My mentor warned me about it, it’s very risky. But she’s gone now. She left a year ago, said she had something urgent to do in the Federation. Do you have a mentor? Excuse my ramblings, I just wanted to lay it all out.”
So, I wasn’t the only one whose mentor had only made an appearance in a critical situation. Perhaps that’s how they found us. And then her mentor had gone to the Federation on business. Maybe that business was me.
Dr. Done was a wealth of information and as I read her message I realized fully how much I’d needed this information, how much I’d been hungry for something, anything about this world of mentors and people who can do strange, scary things. I had never given any thought to what the powers of these others Vlad had mentioned the first time I saw him could be and now here was a thought reader and memory eraser. These sounded like powers fit for the villain in a horror movie but so did mine and I tried to not hurt anyone on purpose. Dr. Done didn’t sound like a villain, either, and she was asking for help. Now I knew why. And I desperately needed to be able to talk to someone in my position or as close of it as I’ve yet met. Someone like me.
I dream different realities. Sometimes it just happens and then I have to fix the consequences. From time to time I can do it deliberately. I’m saying this so you know I can’t promise anything. I’m new or however this is called. I’ve only been doing it for about a year, or rather learning to do it deliberately. Twice I dreamed a different reality accidentally and let’s just say I never want there to be a third time. I just got another mentor after my first one moved on. She kind of faked her own death. The new one’s not the warmest guy but that’s okay. How was yours?
P.S. I’m really sorry about what happened to these children. I’ll do my best to help.
It was twenty to ten so I had about two hours until Sian came home. The restaurant closed at eleven and then she walked home. She walked everywhere. It was her way of staying fit.
I had to tell her about the dreams one of these days. It felt wrong to be happy she wasn’t around so I could chat with this doctor from Bucharest. It felt like cheating.
Accidents happen to all of us while we learn, don’t worry. I once almost wiped out a guy’s whole memory trying to delete just one small part of it. My mentor stopped me before I turned the poor guy into a mental tabula rasa. She was the best thing that had happened to me. Her name was Madeleine and if it wasn’t for her I would have ended up in an asylum without a doubt. I just realized you’re from the Federation. Maybe she came for you?
I wasn’t as surprised as I probably should have been. Maybe there weren’t enough mentors to go around and they had to leave one… what? Superhero? Supernatural? Whatever. Maybe they had to leave one to go train another.
Madeleine was my mentor, too. She brought me back from the brink of death. I didn’t know this reality-changing takes that much energy and I was starving myself and also drinking myself to death. You’re right, she was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, too. She faked her death four months ago, told me she needed to be somewhere else on important business. Do you think she may have found another one like us?
While I waited for her reply I got up to stretch – my back started hurting if I sat too long without moving these days, old age and everything – and wondered how many people there were out there capable of doing things no human should be able to do. I also wondered how come the world is still there and nobody had obliterated humanity. We probably had the mentors to thank.
Maybe, Dr. Done wrote when I went back to the laptop. The whole house was quiet, the street was quiet and the only light came from the street lamp. I like the darkness, it’s soothing and relaxing, and right now it kept a lid on my excitement with this conversation.
She never told me how many of us there were and I’ve asked her more than once. “You don’t need to know this,” that’s what she said. I’m glad she took you on as well. I guess that’s why I dreamt of you. Maybe there is a connection if we’ve had the same mentor? I wonder about so many things, about how many of us there are and what they can do and sometimes I get scared. You? What we two can do is scary enough and I don’t have enough imagination to speculate what sort of powers the others might have.
Powers. She thought of these as powers. I didn’t like that word but I had to concede it was probably the most accurate one. It was a power, what I had, the ability to change reality. Reading thoughts and erasing memories was a power, too. And we could talk about it for days and wonder if there were people who could fly or burn things, like the little girl from “Firestarter”, or maybe control other people’s thoughts and bring back the dead or who knows what. I’d never thought my imagination was particularly vivid but even the couple of possibilities that had come to my mind were enough to scare me.
Maybe it’s better not to know, I wrote. Maybe they are protecting us from paranoia.
Maybe you’re right, Dr. Done wrote. So, will you try to dream up another reality for Daniel and those children?
I liked the way she asked if I would try. She was probably good at her job – she was a good listener. And I genuinely wanted to help her and that officer. Any lost life I could somehow restore would make me feel a tiny little bit better about that explosion I’d caused although I knew how ridiculous it was to think of lives like beads you could take from one place and put into another. But it did make me feel better to think I could save a life or several.
I will. Most times, I kind of just reload the day, that’s how I call it. But in your case I’d probably need to reload quite a lot more time. Can you describe to me a session with that officer, Daniel? It would help me dream about it.
It was here that it struck me: if I altered reality for Dr. Done she would forget all about me. I wouldn’t have a weird powers buddy I could talk to. The idea was depressing but Dr. Done surprised me.
Does this mean I will forget all about this conversation?
I was about to say yes when I remembered James, my best friend James. He’d died in a car accident a month ago and I’d brought him back. And James had a memory of it.
Most likely, I wrote. Though you never know.
Well, that’s unfortunate. I’ve never met anyone like me. Talking about all this is so… liberating, I suppose you could say.
I knew how she felt. It was liberating and it was also therapeutic and it made me feel more normal as it no doubt did her. But we couldn’t have everything.
It is. Maybe we will meet again in the other reality, if I can dream it. It doesn’t always work, you should know this. But please tell me about a session with Daniel.
She was very detailed in her description. She really wanted this to work. I wanted it to work, too, despite the risk of losing this connection. I could always contact her again, after all. It was her idea. She promised she won’t blow me off if I did and gave me a code word to use to make her take me seriously: Madeleine, of course. When I was halfway through my second reading of the session Dr. Done had described, I heard Sian’s key turn in the door’s lock. I smiled when I shut down the laptop. Right on time. I was in bed by the time she’d had a shower and was ready to end the long day.
Bozhana Done sat in one of the two armchairs in her office that faced each other over a coffee table. The other was occupied by a large man with a soft face and teary eyes. She was telling the man something and he was nodding. Then he brushed his eyes with the back of his palm. Dr. Done spoke some more but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Her voice was coming to me as if from miles away although I stood by the door.
The man nodded again, more energetically. The doctor smiled and sought the man’s eyes. He finally looked up from his hands where he had been staring until now. More talking from the doctor. My ears felt like they were plugged with wax. All I could hear, however much I strained, was vague noise. Dr Done stood and the man followed. She offered him her hand and the man shook it gently, saying something, probably thanking her. She accompanied him to the door. I stepped aside to make space for him but he didn’t seem to see me. Neither did she. Lars. Lars!
“Lars, wake up!”
Sian was calling me and she wasn’t being playful. It had to be later than my usual wake up time because the could sense light from behind my eyelids. I tried to open my eyes but my lids were too heavy. So was my head. So were my arms and legs, and my torso. I couldn’t move at all.
“Lars, please, wake up!” Rising panic. Close to tears. I tried to lift my lids again. The left one gave up and rose a little, so the light hit me. Sun wasn’t usual for December in these parts but there it was, piercing my eye. I closed it.
“Lars? Are you okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?”
“Daddy? Daddy, what’s wrong with you?” Antonia, already crying. Her tears were what I needed. I opened both my eyes and kept them open despite the light, which sank millions of tiny needles into my eyeballs.
“’s ’kay,” I managed. It wasn’t very good but it was the best I could do. My tongue weighed at least half a tonne and so did my lower jaw. But my daughter was crying and I needed to tell her I’m fine. Which I wasn’t and I had no idea why. It wasn’t like I had exerted myself with last night’s dream. On the contrary, it had happened unusually smoothly.
“He’ll be all right, Tony, I promise” Sian said with such determination even I believed her. She spoke like a woman who could will things into being the way she wanted them to be. I hoped she could will me into moving but before I could try and ask her to try the doorbell rang.
“Would you see who it is, honey?” Sian stroked my forehead, her palm lingered, checking for a fever. I heard Tony’s feet patter to the door and I heard her say “Yes?” loudly, clearly and not very politely. “Hey, you can’t just come in!” was the next I heard, followed by heavier steps on the floorboards heading in my direction. Sian’s hand disappeared from my head and her face disappeared from my direct line of vision, which was up. I gathered whatever strength I had and moved my head a millimeter to the left, to the door.
“Who are you and how dare you barge in like this?” Sian asked the man who burst into the room with Tony trailing him. Tony ran to Sian and they hugged. The man ignored their questions and came to the bed, towering over me, larger than life and more than twice as angry.
“What the hell were you thinking helping another guardian?” Vlad boomed. I would have gaped if I could but I couldn’t, so I just stared at him. Vlad huffed and turned to Sian. “Could you two ladies please leave for a moment? Your nearest and dearest will survive but I need to talk to him right now. And could you please cook something nice and fatty, madam? Tripe soup would be best in the circumstances but anything with fat in it would do for the time being. It will be okay, darling, your daddy will be as good as new very soon, I promise.”
I couldn’t see Sian and Tony because Vlad blocked the view but I could imagine their expressions.
“Bacon?” Sian said with the voice of someone who is not sure they are dreaming or what’s happening is really happening.
“Yes, bacon would do nicely, thank you.” After his initial outburst at me Vlad spoke as gently as a doctor with an excellent bedside manner. “Thank you,” he said again, more pointedly. I heard them walk out and close the door. I wanted to explain everything to them so much my throat hurt with the effort but my mouth wouldn’t move.
“Now listen, you stupid man, you don’t just help other guardians, okay? Did it occur to you that the drain of energy might be a bit too great, huh? No, of course it didn’t because you wanted to help! But, see, Lars, it is not your job to help. Your job is to keep the balance, do you understand?” As he spoke he leaned closer and closer down to me, so his last words he spoke in my face, his hands propped on his thighs.
I didn’t understand and I wished I could hit back at him with the fact he never told me anything about jobs and balances. I was not aware I had a job to keep some balance. All I knew, from Madeleine, was I had to develop this talent, this power I had. I had to learn to control it and use it more deliberately than accidentally. That was all. But I couldn’t tell Vlad this because my body wouldn’t cooperate.
He was into his second minute of glaring at me when the door opened.
“I got the bacon,” Sian said. Vlad stepped aside to make space for her and she sat on the bed with a plate of bacon right off the pan. Tony sat on my other side, so I couldn’t see her. The bacon smelled heavenly but I couldn’t eat it since my mouth wouldn’t move. But it could water and that’s exactly what it did.
“How do I… how do I give it to him? He can’t seem to be able to move,” she said, glancing at me, all concern, and then turning to Vlad. She wasn’t exactly pleading but she did expect help from the big man with the bushy eyebrows and the week’s stubble, which he now rubbed.
“You open his mouth and put the bacon in since he’s too weak to do it,” he said. “That should teach you,” he added, pointing a finger at me. “You got yourself so weak now your wife has to feed you.”
“I’m not really—”
Vlad waved her words away. Sian tore off a piece of the bacon and pulled my lower jaw down until my mouth opened. She gulped and put the bacon gently on my tongue after which she closed my mouth. The flavor exploded sending sparks of what felt like pure, raw energy down my throat. I found I could chew and I did. That first bite was gone in record-breaking time and I opened my mouth for more on my own. Sian put another, larger piece of meat on my tongue and I ate it, trying to ignore the horror and confusion in her eyes for the time being. That explanation was long overdue anyway.
“Daddy, are you better?” Antonia had hopped on the bed next to me.
I turned my head to her and even lifted my hand and squeezed hers.
“I am, honey. I’ll be fine, just like Vlad there said. Vlad’s my friend. He can help me.”
Tony smiled hesitantly as she glanced up at Vlad and hugged me. I hugged her back.
“I suppose you can eat on your own now,” Sian said and offered me the plate. I let go of Antonia and took a strip of bacon, which I proceeded to eat whole. I could move again. I pulled myself up and propped my back on the pillow Sian was quicker than me to settle against the headboard.
“Thank you,” I murmured, careful to not lift my eyes off the food. I couldn’t bear to look at her right now.
“Feeling better?” Vlad enquired with excessive politeness. He could see well enough I was feeling better.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Good.” He smiled at Tony, who had cuddled next to me like a kitten. “Your daddy is already better. And he’ll get totally well in a while if your mummy makes him a special soup. You’re a chef, right?” He turned his smile to Sian. She stood with her arms crossed a couple of feet away from the bed, even paler than usual, her lips pursed in a thin red line. If she was too stunned or angry or agitated enough not to correct him about her being Tony’s mother, things were really bad.
“How long would that take?” The thin red line split in the middle for the two seconds it took to say this.
“You’re right, that would take a couple of hours.” Vlad didn’t even bother to be convincing in pretending he’d just realised this now. “But I’ll tell you what, you can order from Balkanica. Have you heard of it?”
Sian shook her head.
“It’s this Fringe restaurant,” Vlad said with a wave of his pawlike hand. “Downtown. Great place. I’ll give you their number. No, I’ll call them for you.” He took out his phone and dialed a number. Silence fell while he waited. That lasted a couple of seconds and then Vlad started speaking a language I couldn’t understand but sounded vaguely familiar.
I ate the other two strips of bacon while he talked. Tony lay snuggled to me and Sian stood unmoving in the middle of the room.
“Okay,” said Vlad when he ended the conversation. “You’ve got to go pick it up. Here’s the map.” He typed something and turned the phone to her. Sian moved. She stepped forward and fixed her eyes on the screen for a second.
“Will you excuse me while I change or shall I do it in front of you?” she asked. She was beyond angry. I could be looking at the end of our relationship. The thought made me shiver.
“Sian, I’ll explain everything, I promise.”
“Don’t take too long. I’ll wait in the hall.” Vlad made a salute-like gesture at me and left the room.
Without a word, Sian opened the second drawer of our chest and pulled out a thin sweater and a pair of navy blue jeans. While she pulled the second leg up, I finally found the courage to try and do something about the fallout.
“I’m really sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she said and for a split second I believed her. Then reality caught up with me and I hugged Tony more tightly. “Tony, will you come with me? I think your dad needs to talk with his friend.”
“Okay.” Antonia was not too sure she liked that but I nodded encouragingly and even managed a half smile.
“Go get dressed, honey.” I kissed the top of her head and let go. She ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her. “Please, give me a chance to explain. I did not expect this to happen.”
“Who’s Vlad?” Sian said. She’d pulled the sweater, a light green thing that brought her eyes out even more than her other clothes, over the T-shirt she slept in – yet another sign she was not just pissed but extremely pissed. Sian took care to look her best. To me, she looked her best even in my old pyjamas but she disagreed.
“He’s a friend. Sort of. I don’t know what he does for a living. I promise I will explain everything when he leaves.” I reached out for her, offering her my hand in an apology I couldn’t yet formulate. “Please, don’t worry about me or anything.”
“I’m not worried,” she said ignoring my hand. She took her brush off the top of the chest and put it to use on her hair with sharp, vicious strokes. “I’m so mad I’m seeing red but I’m not worried. Not after you unfroze. I thought you’d had a stroke, Lars.”
I winced. Her father had died of a stroke. It was one of her most traumatic experiences, she’d told me, one of her most horrible memories since she’d been the one to find him crumpled in the shower.
“I’m so very sorry.” I could repeat this forever if I needed to. “I had no idea—”
A knock on the door interrupted me and spurred Sian into more action. She left the brush back in its place, tossed her head from side to side, her hair briefly becoming a gleaming red halo, and headed for the door.
“We’ll talk later,” she said over her shoulder before she walked out. “He’s all yours.”
“Thank you. Say hi to Bogdan for me,” Vlad said as if he hadn’t noticed the glare and the pursed lips.
“Bye, daddy!” Tony chirped, popping her head in.
“Bye, honey, have a nice walk!”
I thought my cheerfulness sounded genuine enough and Antonia did not challenge that thought. She waved at me and I waved back. When the door shut behind them Vlad stopped smiling.
“Tell me exactly what you dreamt last night,” he said. He stood by the bed with his legs planted on the floor and arms crossed on his chest, like an executioner waiting for his latest client to prepare for the gallows. Or he was just angry. I threw off the cover and lowered my legs to the floor.
“I need to use the bathroom first.” I surprised myself with not caring if a stranger such as Vlad would see me in a T-shirt and boxers. Sometime in the last half an hour I’d lost my self-consciousness.
I emptied my painfully pulsing bladder and splashed some cold water on my face. I studied myself in the mirror. I had dark circles under my eyes and my skin was wrinklier than it had been yesterday. My lips were dry so I licked them before I left the bathroom. There was no trace of the weight that had been preventing me from moving. I felt my usual self. For about five minutes.
“I was in this woman’s office, Dr. Done, and she had a patient, a man who’d killed twelve children at his son’s school,” I began. We’d moved to the kitchen and I was making myself coffee. Vlad said he didn’t want any. He leaned on the counter and watched me as I loaded the espresso machine.
“I’m familiar with the case,” he said and I don’t think he was aware he sounded like a tired, cynical FBI agent or an officer from a police procedural. “Give me as much details about the dream as you can.”
“I stood by the door and watched them talking.” I shrugged. The coffee started dripping into the cup. “That was it. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I remember. Like someone had muted them and I could only see them. It was strange. I don’t really remember anything else,” I said after a pause.
Vlad hadn’t moved while I spoke.
“Now I have a question,” I said. The time couldn’t be more right. “What are these guardians you mentioned and why am I not supposed to help someone like me?”
“Because you almost died,” he said as casually as if I’d asked him the time.
“Why?” I took my coffee and leaned on the counter a couple of feet from him, mirroring his position almost exactly. We stood like two gossipers in an office kitchen. In other circumstances it would have been funny but Vlad was grim and hate it as I might I felt like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
He raised his head and looked me up and down. He rubbed his beard.
“You know these dreams require a lot of energy.”
“I do.” I sipped from the coffee.
“That’s just for normal humans. For guardians it takes ten times the energy to intervene.” He raised his hand to keep me quiet. “The guardians are people like you, people with powers that change reality.”
“Did you expect anything else?” Vlad said.
“Why are we like this? How many of us are there? And what are you and Madeleine?”
“Is that all?” he shifted his weight from his left leg to his right one and recrossed his arms.
“No, that’s just the start.”
I missed Madeleine even more than usual right now. She would have told me something or found a nice enough way to avoid answering my questions. Vlad, on the other hand, would more likely just refuse to answer. Few things are as frustrating as having your questions shunned without an explanation.
“There are twelve of you in total,” he said, shocking me into spilling coffee as I put the cup back on the counter. “Six are like you and six are negators. They block what you can do. You had a negator with you last night.” He rubbed his beard again. “I haven’t located him or her yet but they pinged from the Federation, so at least I won’t have to travel far.”
“A negator,” I repeated. The word sounded sinister and malevolent. It sounded dangerous. “How does this all happen? Why are we like this? What can the others do?”
Vlad raised a hand and his face softened a little, like he really understood how I felt and wished he could help but he was under constraints.
“Look, I know you want to know everything but it’s just not possible, not all at once. So no more questions. I’ll answer these three and that’s it, all right?”
“I need to sit down.” My legs were suddenly weak and I didn’t know when they’d collapse. I took what was left of my coffee and went to sit at the table. Vlad followed me but didn’t sit.
“You need to eat twice the usual amount for the next month, understood?”
I nodded. He went back into the kitchen and I heard him open the fridge. The weakness had spread to my arms and my heart was beating faster than it should, even with half an espresso in me. Vlad took something out of the fridge and opened and closed a drawer. Something rustled. A few minutes later my mentor reappeared with a plate. There was a sandwich on it.
“Eat it,” he ordered as he placed the plate in front of me and sat on the chair opposite.
I took the sandwich and bit into it while my hands could still hold it. Everything was getting heavy again and this scared me. For a second I thought I would never recover, that I would have to eat a dozen times a day just to be able to move. The prospect was horrible.
“I suggest you go back to bed after you finish this.” He looked at his watch. “How long until your girls return, do you think?”
“An hour, probably. They’re fast walkers.” The sandwich was with butter, cheese, and ham. The butter dominated the rest of the ingredients but I wasn’t complaining. I needed it. “Tell me about the guardians,” I said, chewing.
Vlad sighed and rubbed his beard. This seemed to be his go-to calming tic.
“I don’t know why you are the way you are. There is always one dreamer in the world, one thought reader, and one… one of each. When a guardian dies the power passes to someone else. Sometimes it takes days for the power to manifest, sometimes it takes years and we can’t find you until it does. I don’t know the how of it all, I know the what. Six positives, six negators.”
“And the others? What can they do?”
“You already know about Bozhana.”
“Yes.” If he thought he was being subtle, he was wrong. And I wasn’t giving up. I bit a huge chunk of the sandwich and chewed. The heaviness was already subsiding.
“There’s one believer who can make anyone believe anything she says, one mover, one—”
The sound of the door opening startled both of us. Sian walked into the room with a paper bag in her hands, which she set on the table.
“There’s your soup.”
Vlad shot up as if he’d remembered something urgent. I glared at him but he ignored me.
“I’d better go,” he said. “Make sure he eats a lot today, okay? Tomorrow as well. I’ve given him instructions.”
Sian did not acknowledge she had heard and understood what he’d said. She just stood by the table in her coat and looked at him. Vlad shifted. She had this effect on people when she was angry, I knew it from personal experience.
“Okay, I’m going.” He did his salute-like thing in my direction and started for the hall. “One more thing, Sian, was it? Sian. Whatever Lars tells you, it’s true. See you.”
Neither of us moved until we heard the door close. Then Sian turned and sat in the chair until recently occupied by Vlad whom I now surprisingly missed.
“Where is Tony?”
“I asked her to go to her room for a few minutes.”
“How did you—”
“Taxi. You were sick.”
That look was still in her eyes. It said she could take on a whole army on her own and beat it, powered by sheer fury. I had a lot of explaining to do.