Dave decided to walk home. The sun was out and he could feel its gentle warmth soak all the way down into his bones. The sky was clear and so bright, it almost hurt to look at. Dave looked down at the sidewalk instead; watching as his feet shuffled out from underneath his body: left, right. Left, right.
Dave felt the surface change under his shoes and watched as his feet left the cement sidewalk and into the springy grass of his front yard. He leapt up to the front porch and opened the door. The air conditioning was on; delicious tendrils of cool air beckoned him inside. Dave kneeled down on the throw rug in the foyer and concentrated on his shoelaces.
Dave looked up as five sets of hands grabbed him at once, pulling him to his feet. For a moment, Dave couldn’t think of anything to say to the rows of faces. They stood around, laughing, clapping him on the back. His girlfriend Julie wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him lightly.
“We’re you surprised?” she asked with a small smile. Dave nodded.
“I – yeah!” he stammered. “I don’t get it. It’s not my birthday or anything.”
Bob laughed. “Like we need an excuse to party!” Dave joined his friend; grinning and shaking his head.
“Oh, someone pinch me,” he cried. “I must be dreaming!” Dave chuckled, a small sound in the silence. He looked around, confused. No one was laughing anymore. “It… it was a little joke…” he mumbled after a moment. The others relaxed visibly.
“A joke…” repeated Jeff with a nervous giggle. Then, with more strength, “It was just a joke everyone!” The party returned to life. Everyone laughed. Dave was surrounded and swept into the family room. Someone put a drink into his hand and music blared from out of the air. Dave sat down on the couch, the rough fabric kneading the knots out of his legs. Something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what. Dave couldn’t decide. He looked up at his friends: smiling, laughing, joking, talking, every expression possible except the one he’d just seen – how long before?
“What’s wrong?” Dave blinked and looked up at Julie. She was the most beautiful girl in the world. Her dark hair fell across her shoulders and her normally bright eyes were dimmed by concern. She sat down next to him, holding his hands in her lap. “What’s wrong?” she repeated.
“I don’t know. Nothing,” he replied. “I just…” Dave sighed. “I guess I’m just a little tired.” He looked down. “I’m sorry I ruined the party.”
Julie hugged him. “You didn’t ruin the party,” she said. “Everyone was leaving anyway.” Only a few were left. The music was off and all traces of the party were rapidly vanishing. Julie stood up, her hair falling off her shoulders.
“We’ll come over later after you’ve rested.” Dave nodded in mute uncertainty. And then he was alone. The last of his friends quietly shut the door behind them. Outside, there was a low rumble. Thunder. Dave looked out the window and saw the first fat drops fall onto the patio. The sky was dark, no sign of the sun. He yawned. Dave hated to waste good sunshine, but now there was no excuse to stay awake anymore.
He returned to consciousness slowly, trying to trap his dreams, but the fogginess never lasted long enough. Every morning and after every nap, Dave tried to remember his dreams, but he could never quite do it. At best, he woke up with a nagging feeling in the back of his mind. There was something, something he should know. Dave reached, but couldn’t quite grab it. He awoke with a headache. He must have been close this time. Dave stretched like a lazy cat and peered out the window. Rain spattered the street and the puddles were in constant turmoil.
“Dave,” called his mother, “are you awake?”
“Yeah,” he called back. His three closest friends tramped down the hall and into his room. First Jeff, then Bob with Joe bringing up the rear. Joe had the trivia game with him. Dave smiled; he never lost trivia.
“Feeling better now?” asked Bob. Dave nodded. Joe opened the box and shuffled the cards a bit. Jeff placed the board on the floor and handed out the game pieces.
“Everyone ready to play ‘DAVE WINS’?” he asked. Dave laughed and got out of bed. They all sat at their usual places: Bob to his left, Jeff to his right and Joe sitting cross-legged, facing him from the other side of the board. Dave picked up the die and rolled a six.
“High roll,” said Bob. “You go first.” Dave rolled again and moved his piece around the board. Jeff twirled a pencil absent-mindedly like a miniature baton in his fingers. He picked a card from the box.
“Who was the Father of Modern Psychiatry?” asked Jeff
“Ed Psychiatry,” offered Joe. The others gave a collective moan and Jeff threw a game piece at him. Dave thought for a moment and shrugged his shoulders.
“Next question,” said Bob handing him the die again.
“Wait a sec -” The game stopped. Everyone looked at Dave. “What was the answer?”
“To what?” asked Jeff.
“The question. Who was the Father of Modern Psychiatry?” Jeff shook his head.
“I don’t know. I don’t think there was an answer,” he replied. Dave just looked at him.
“What? There’s got to be an answer.” Jeff handed him the card to inspect. One side had the question, but the other side was blank. “Damndest thing,” Dave murmured to himself. He missed the next question then Bob missed his as well.
“My turn,” said Frank. Dave sighed, rubbing his temples.
“Do you guys ever remember your dreams?” Snap. Jeff’s pencil fell on the board in two pieces. The three of them glanced at each other and shook their heads. No, not me, never. Dave adjusted his legs a bit, trying to hide his disappointment by acting like he was getting into a more comfortable position. “I’m sorry, you guys,” he apologized. “I really don’t feel like playing trivia anymore.”
“No prob,” replied Joe, collecting the game pieces. “We can do whatever you want.” Bob and Jeff nodded their consent as they put the game back into the box.
“What do you want to do?” asked Jeff.
Dave creased his forehead. “I don’t know. Maybe we can go outside after it stops raining.”
“It stopped raining awhile ago,” replied Bob. “Didn’t it, Joe?”
“Yeah. It should be dry enough to do something outside by now.” Dave stifled a laugh. The way it had been pouring, he doubted it would dry in anything less than a week. Jeff stood up and looked out the window.
“All dry now,” he observed. Dave jumped up and threw open the curtains. The sunlight stunned him for a moment, tears ran down his face. After his eyes adjusted, Dave could only stare in disbelief. Not only had the rain stopped, but the clouds were gone. He stared down at the street, bone dry. There was no trace of the puddles that had threatened to overflow the curbs only… only…
How long had it been since the rain? Did it stop before or after the guys came over? Dave couldn’t remember exactly. Maybe he’d slept longer than he thought. Or maybe the puddles weren’t as deep as he believed.
“It didn’t take long to dry out, did it,” said Bob. Dave nodded. It was odd, but he felt better that someone else noticed it too.
“How about soccer?” Everyone nodded. It was the best idea they’d heard all day.
Outside the weather was perfect again. The shower had been so quick that the soccer field was completely dry. Dave even kicked up a small cloud of dirt and shook his head. Julie and a couple of her friends sat giggling on the sidelines while the neighborhood guys picked teams. Dave was the first pick and the choosing went quickly after that. As usual, the game was hard fought, but it didn’t get ugly. No one ever left with hard feelings. Dave forgot about the rain and immersed himself in the pure joy of playing. Jeff got the ball and dribbled it a few yards before passing it to Dave. Their team only needed one more goal to win. Dave kicked from one side and cursed himself as he did. It was a bad kick; the ball limped slowly towards the goal. There was no way –
Then it hit a sweet spot. The ball made a funny bounce past the flailing arms of the goalie. Julie jumped a foot into the air and ran over to hug her immobile champion. His team surrounded him, shouting and cheering. Even the other team congratulated Dave on his shot. Dave couldn’t believe it. He parted his friends and walked over to the spot where the ball bounced. There was nothing there. He rolled the ball back and forth. Nothing. The cheering died out. Julie ran over to Dave and kissed him, hard. But he didn’t return the affection. She took a step backwards, rejoining the semi-cricle of friends standing around him one or two steps away. Dave turned to the goalie, a kid named Kevin.
“How did the ball get past you?” he demanded. Kevin paled, but tried to smile.
“Well, that was a pretty good kick…” he managed to reply. The others quickly agreed. Good kick. Great kick. Never seen anything like it. Amazing.
“Bullshit!” Dave cried. The voices stopped like a recording. “That kick was lousy and you all know it! Why are you all…” He stopped, not exactly sure what they were all doing wrong. They were his friends, his best friends in the whole world. They were just trying to make him feel better like they always did.
Wait. “Why are you all so nice to me?” he yelled. “Why are you always so nice? We do everything I want to do, when I want to do it. All I ever hear is ‘Fine, Dave’, ‘Great idea, Dave’. Can’t you guys ever think of anything?”
Jeff replied confidently, “You always have the best ideas.” The others jumped on this bandwagon. Smart, Dave. Always coming up with great ideas. None of ours is ever as good. Can’t hold a candle to yours. Not even worth mentioning…
“Okay, I’ve got a good idea,” Dave said above the noise. “We’ll finish the game out in the street. It’s flat and the ball won’t take any funny bounces.” Bob picked up the ball and headed for the street with the others. Dave stood in shock. “Wait!” he screamed. “What’s wrong with all of you? We can’t play in the street! We’ll be run down!”
“Hey,” quavered Joe with a nervous smile. “We knew it was a joke…”
“And we wanted you to think we’d fallen for it,” finished Bob, holding the ball with trembling hands. Everyone nodded and smiled. Everyone except Dave. He faced them with his hands on his hips, angry but unsure. Then he heard the noise. Dave looked around, trying to locate the source but it seemed to come out of nowhere and everywhere: a low, slow sound, pulsing through his entrie body.
“Where’s that sound coming from?” asled Dave.
“I don’t hear any -”
“Must be your imagination.”
“You’re lying,” said Dave. “I know you can hear it as well as I can.” No one answered. Dave tried again, staring into each of them. “What is it?”
Julie took a step forward and turned to address the others. “It’s time. We can’t hide it anymore.”
Dave sucked in a breath. “Hide what?”
“Well, Dave, this isn’t real,” said Joe addressing his shoes. “You’re dreaming.”
Joe continued, “This is a dream world. You created it all… and that sound you hear is an alarm clock.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Dave without much conviction.
“It’s true,” repeated Jeff. The others agreed slowly.
“But I’ve lived here all my life.” He turned to Bob. “I remember when we were little; we made snow forts in my backyard.” Dave looked at Jeff. “We rode the school bus together in kindergarten.”
“You of all people should know that dream time is different than real time,” Jeff countered. “Dreams can seem like months or years or forever…” He checked his watch quickly, “… or about eight minutes in real time.”
“It’s not true. It can’t be…”
“It is,” declared Bob. “Look around. Haven’t you ever wondered why the world’s in black and white?” Dave rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t help. The sky was still an off-white and the ground was almost black. The grass was gray (“green!” screamed part of his mind); it had always been gray and now it was obvious.
Dave felt his knees buckle as the world rippled around him. “I did this…” he said over and over. “I created all of this…” His friends just watched and waited for his command. Dave looked at them. Suddenly they seemed strange. “Who are all of you?” he asked. “Are you really my friends?”
“I am,” said Jeff quickly.
“So am I,” added Bob. Joe laughed a little and kicked up some dust.
“I see you in class, but we aren’t exactly friends,” he said. “Sorry. I guess most of us are like that.” Five or six heads nodded, but Julie didn’t move. A wisp of dark hair blew across her light gray face. Dave took her hand.
“Are you my girlfriend in real life?” She shook her head.
“You don’t even know me,” she explained gently. “I’m just a picture you saw in a magazine…” She smiled, he real smile; frozen as he remembered. But there was a tear in her eye. It rolled down her cheek. The alarm was still ringing, getting more insistent.
“One more question,” he announced. “Who am I? What am I like?” Dave walked up to Bob. “Please. I have to know.”
Bob looked up for a moment. “You’re a good friend…. you’re pretty cool…” His mouth continued to move, but there was no more sound. Bob looked back down at the ground. Dave grabbed him by the shoulders, but he would say no more. Jeff stood silently, looking everywhere but in Dave’s direction. There was no sound at all except for the unseen alarm clock, its incessant sound permeating everything like the toll of God. Dave grabbed his left arm.
Julie shivered. “What are you going to do?”
“If I pinch my arm I’ll wake up,” he replied. Fear filled her eyes. She rushed over to him.
“Don’t do this,” she pleaded. “Roll over and hit the snooze alarm. It’s only ten minutes out there, but here…” Julie was on her knees now. “Here, we can be together for the rest of our lives!” Dave weakened. His arm dropped to his side a moment. But he yanked it back savagely, grabbed a bit of skin between thumb and forefinger.
“I love you,” he sobbed. “But I have to do this. I have to know.” He gritted his teeth.
“I’m so sorry.”
Thumb and finger met.
It was 7:36. The alarm had been going off for six minutes. Dave reached over and turned it off. He noticed a twinge of pain. There was a small patch of purple growing angrily on his left arm.
“How did I do that?” he wondered aloud. Dave sat up on the side of his bed and tried – and failed – to remember his dream. Again. No matter how hard he strained, Dave could never remember his dreams. It was so unfair. Dave wiped away a tear, but another took its place and soon he was crying for no reason. No reason at all.