Perchance: Part VII is the seventh chapter in the ongoing Perchance serial. Joe, returned to the safety of the Lodging, reflects on his past and readies for his future, on the brink of a revelation. Click here for the previous chapter.
Content Warning: Depression and Familial Conflict. For my further, general thoughts on this kind of content, you may want to read my “A Note on Tone.”
“I don’t get the difference,” Joe snapped back at her, clutching his tired feet.
“Nightmare. Night mare,” Mo said, drawing out the space between the latter.
“Alright, but what is a night mare?”
“A night mare… is a very difficult thing to explain. It depends on the form.”
“You’re going to need to try. Why was it trying to kill me? Are we really safe from it now?” He shouted, moving himself to the middle of the bed.
“They don’t need a reason, and I’m not entirely convinced that it was trying to kill you, but we’re safe in here.”
“No, we’re not! That thing got in! I saw it!”
“Keep your voice down.” Mo sat on the bed next to him. “Whatever you saw, it never made it physically inside. The second you opened that door and leaned out, then you became vulnerable. When I managed to recall you with the Lodging, you were just a few feet away.”
“Yes, but that was after it took me to the neighborhood.”
“Joe, there was no neighborhood. At least, not physically. The Lodging hasn’t moved, and neither did you. You were standing literally right outside.”
“Then what was I seeing?”
“A night mare. A vision produced within your mind. That’s why I don’t think that it was trying to kill you. It did not manifest itself physically.”
“So, you’re saying that it was all just a dream?”
“No, it was not just a dream. It was a dream, but more often than not, they possess a reality wholly unto themselves. No less real than what you see now. The moment you touched the night fog, you essentially entered another reality, another unreality.”
“How did it even lure me to the door in the first place?”
She placed a hand on his shoulder, in much the same way that his mother used to when she would ask him about a bad day. “What exactly did you see?”
So, Joe recounted everything that he had seen, from the broken floor of the Lodging to the endless neighborhood and the suburban Lodging, adorned with a front yard and porch. Mo listened intently to every detail, nodding along with him. The more he spoke, the more grave her face became.
“A very specific form, directed, but not too powerful,” she said to herself after he had finished. “Listen, Joe,” she hesitated, taking her hand off his shoulder. “A night mare only shows you as much as you will let it show you.”
“As much as I let it. Are you saying that I wanted this, that this is my fault?”
“No, that’s not what it. What I’m trying to say is, maybe it’s no coincidence that your vision took you from the Lodging to a more familiar setting – the places that you grew up. You’re missing home, aren’t you?”
“Of course, I am.”
“Then it would not have been difficult for it to make you leave the Lodging. You felt trapped in here, and it made you think that it was trapped on the outside.”
“Alright. Let me get this straight. If I’m going to avoid this thing paying another visit, I need to forget about the home that I was taken from, the home that you won’t help me get back to, that you’re probably keeping me from?” Joe’s trembling voice crescendoed with his anger. Mo tried to calm him, but they both heard a door opening above them. Cal’s head and upper body suddenly peeked out from behind the hidden balcony, her top half floating in the air.
“What are you two doing?” she hissed down.
Mo beckoned her to come to them. They heard her skipping down the staircase. Finally, she joined them on the first floor. “Joe’s just had his first encounter with a night mare,” Mo whispered to her, standing up from the bed.
Hearing this, Cal rushed to his side. “Oh, Joe, are you alright?” she asked. Then, she crossed her arms. “I thought that I told you to go to bed.”
Mo leaned over to her. “Don’t give the boy a hard time.”
Joe did not hear them, still parked at the emotional crossroads of fear, anger, and helplessness. He analyzed the sheet fibers, thinking of home. He passed his hands idly over the folds and wrinkles in the fabric. The textures and shadows changed under his probing fingers, never quite becoming smooth. He was amazed by the detail of the illusion, considering that, to the trio, his sheets were their tablecloth. He wondered if the folds looked the same for him as they did for them. His hand stopped. He looked up at the two women, his face crossed with epiphany. Then, remembering the need for secrecy, he threw off the joyous look on his face. But the look would have come off anyway, and they would not have noticed it.
Somehow, in the brief interval of his disinterest, the two had begun to argue. For some reason, from what he could gather, they were arguing about him. His sobered gaze fell back upon the threaded sheets, which he began to pick at, wearing the material into microscopic frays beneath his fingernails.
For Joe, the straw past the last one had been the fight at the fast food stop. It was one of many fights between his parents, and not the first public one. Technically, it was not even a fight; it had gone off as a squabble about the food. Something had been cooked wrong, or something along those lines. No, it was pettier than that; his mother had ordered something wrong for his father, and they argued, and it escalated into a “thing.”
That night, that argument had been the explosion in the long fuse. His father had driven too fast for anyone. His mother, mentioning that they were in a bad part of town, had looked just too long and too suspiciously at the black man sitting next to them for Joe to dismiss it as her simply looking around the room. And then, the “thing.”
Joe’s definition of a “thing,” for better or for worse, had been derived from his mother when they had both been mutually annoyed by his father’s antics. Synonyms for “thing” included: outburst, tantrum, scene. He had seen it before but never had he felt so helpless about it. So he got up and tried to walk away. His mother turned to him, demanded that he “SIT DOWN.” She threatened him in all the ineffective and harmless ways she could. Joe left the restaurant.
His parents stormed out behind him, telling him to come back immediately. He kept walking. Then, he thought about what would happen if he just kept going. And, in short, in the corridors of his imaginings, he saw a man with two left feet, wooden feet, hold out his coat. Joe relented. He turned around, got in the car, and sat silently as his parents produced noise, like children.
And on the drive, for the first time, as they began to argue about him, Joe wondered whether his parents loved him because they wanted to or because they needed to. He did not know if he knew the difference. All the same, the shadow of a conviction began to form in him.
When Joe got back to his room, shutting his door and shutting out the noise behind him, he sat in darkness. He had a decision to make. He trembled, somewhere on the silent edge of emotionless and unbridled screaming. He contemplated the room: his sheets, the window, the wall socket, a pencil. He ground his fists against his knees and opened his mouth to yell, but could only exhale in horror. To sleep, perchance to dream. He almost thought that he could feel nothing. Thankfully, he knew that was a lie.
A tear fell down his cheek, first of sadness, and then he laughed and cried with painful joy. He remembered the promise that he made himself the first time that he had nearly done it. It was the trap that he had set for himself. “Only on the day when I can’t cry, then I’ll do it. As long as there are tears, there’s a reason to be sad about it, and that means there’s a reason to live.” And now, as he wept in his bed, the tears brought him some solitary hope. He was still alive, even as he was still alone. His bedroom deepened and quivered, as though it was artificially, but artfully, threaded over the top of some deeper layer. The walls billowed like a curtain. His computer desktop of a starscape, floating like a window to another world, shown through as a relic of transcendent beauty. He did not think much about any of it, consumed only by the emotion.
And, before he fell asleep, Joe repeated to himself a sentence that he did not yet entirely understand, but that felt right. A promise. “I know who I am,” he whispered to himself, over and over, for hours. In his bedroom, seventeen years old, he lived by these words.
That night, for the first time in five straight years, Joe did not remember his dreams.
Joe heard the bed squeak and felt something pressing down on it next to him. He opened his eyes to see Sandra’s face shining across from his in the morning glow.
“You slept in,” she observed, slapping her palm into his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” he said, still struggling to open his eyes and rubbing the now red region above his eyebrows. “You know, for me only being here a couple of days, you’re acting a little too familiar. Didn’t your nans ever tell you not to slap people?”
“I’m surprised you can still feel the pain, considering how completely uncomfortable your bed is.” She yawned, stretching her arms outwards.
For a moment, Joe was confused. Then he remembered. “Right, dining table.” The memory of the night before rocketed back to him with the recollection of the tablecloth. He leaned towards her and whispered, “I have a lot to tell you, but first, maybe, I think that I possibly might know how to read the map. A little.”
Sandra, less quiet, shouted “no way!” In her excitement, she thrust her hand out to chummily punch him on the shoulder, but pushed too hard, knocking him off of the bed.
“Ow,” he said, face down on the floor.
Mo stood on the porch. The ocean horizon faded off into the black distance, covered by billowing storm clouds.
She heard the door open behind her as Joe and Sandra shuffled out. “How’d you two sleep?” she asked, without looking at them. “Fine,” Sandra beamed. Joe simply rubbed at his nose. “And what are your plans for the day?”
Joe answered this time. “We’re going to explore a bit of the island.”
Mo nodded. “Be safe.” The pair went to take the steps down from the freshly-painted porch, a wide, Craftsman-inspired dock of timber lattices and railings. “By the way, what do you think?” she asked, stopping them in their tracks as she gestured generally around her.
“It’s a lovely day,” Sandra and Joe answered in unison. They looked at each other, pleasantly surprised.
“Yes, it is.” Mo’s eyebrows frowned. “You’d better get going. Take as much time as you need to, but I’m sure I don’t need to remind you to be home before sundown, preferably by dinner.”
She watched the two move off into the distance, disappearing behind the trees. She paced over the finished, sanded deck.
Nearly half an hour later, Cal exited the house. “Mornin’,” she grumbled, taking a large gulp from her cup of coffee and burning her tongue in the process. “Look, I’m sorry for our fight last night.”
“It’s fine,” Mo answered. “Your plan worked.” She held out a very old key to her companion. “I found this under the wood plank inside. The one that Joe mentioned falling through in his dream.”
“What’s it go to?”
“We’ll find out eventually. She knows what she’s doing.”
“She might have told us,” Cal sat down on the top step of the porch.
“At the time, she couldn’t trust us.”
Cal jumped in her shoes as she heard a jarring thwack behind her. She turned to see that Mo had buried her machete into the side of one of the porch’s pillars. Mo pulled it out of the timber with all her strength, then swung into the pillar again. “What are you doing?” Cal exclaimed, advancing up onto the deck.
With a third swing, Mo’s machete sliced through the other side of the pillar, leaving a thin, empty space where it had broken through. The pillar seemed utterly unchanged by the sudden gap. “Don’t you see it, Cal?”
“What are you talking about? The damage you’re causing?”
Mo pulled her machete back for another swing, aimed below the original gap. As she lined it up, she explained, “in his nightmare, Joe said that the Lodging had a porch, right?” She buried the machete two inches into the wooden support.
Mo swung again, nearly cutting all the way through. “Did the Lodging have a porch yesterday?”
Cal began to understand. She put her hand to her forehead. “No, it didn’t. I can’t believe that I didn’t notice.”
Mo’s machete broke through the other side of the support. Cal waited for the column of wood between the two gaps to fall out. Instead, the sunlight pierced the empty space, beaming onto the side of the Lodging behind her, while the hunk of wood remained a suspended shadow. Cal reached for it, attempting to pull it, but the cut-off segment seemed utterly undisturbed by the pull of both her and gravity. Mo returned her machete to her belt. “The porch is new,” she observed. “The other two didn’t notice either. I barely did. So let this,” Mo said, pointing at the wood husk that floated between the lower and upper ends of the column, “serve as a reminder. As long as he is here, things will change. As long as he’s here, there’s a chance we may forget everything. We have to make sure that we don’t.”
Cal nodded. “Not like the others. Not like the fifth.”
And, somewhere on the island, the curtains parted.