As I finished up in the washroom, I walked over to my nightstand to grab my phone. I sat on the edge of my bed mindlessly scrolling while trying to make sense of the dream I had that night.
That’s weird, why can I still remember it so clearly?
As far as I can remember I’ve never been one to have recurring or memorable dreams. Try as I may, it was nearly impossible for me to recall what took place in my mind during the deepest phase of my slumber.
Something was different this time.
As I put down my phone, I wandered downstairs to find out what was for breakfast. I found scrambled eggs and toast covered with saran wrap and a note on a piece of paper nearby.
I have some business at the bank today, I’ll be back late. - Mom.
I removed the plastic and wolfed down the meal so I could return to my room. As I freshened up and began my daily ritual of checking emails and apps, an unsettling feeling crept up in the back of my head.
What was that dream?
I could still remember the events that transpired in that dark theatre distinctly.
I wistfully recalled the neighborhood I was raised in. My curiosity got the better of me and I ended up on Giggle Maps, inputting the address of my old apartment complex. I switched to street view and took a virtual walk around my old block.
Vague memories of my daily life as a grade schooler popped into my head as I took in my surroundings. Behind the building was the basketball court which was off-limits to the neighborhood kids. I remember my mother saying it was a hang out spot for troublemakers. I turned the camera towards the street. A short walk away was the bus stop I used to wait at in the cold winter months to commute to middle school. Not much had changed in this run-down community.
As I examined the familiar streets, parks, and buildings it suddenly dawned on me.
I should look up my old friends too.
I opened up FriendBook on my browser and began typing the names of the children I’d encountered during the previous night's bizarre dream.
Ash Jacobs. No hits.
If I recall correctly; Ash moved to New Zealand with his family in the second grade. I hadn’t heard from him since. I wonder what he looked like now. Was he still in New Zealand? What was he up to these days?
Unable to find anything remotely useful relating to Ash, I moved onto the next person who popped into my head.
I already had her added on FriendBook. As I scrolled through her feed, I noticed that the once shy tomboy had grown into a beautiful and seemingly outgoing young woman. Pictures of her smiling with her friends on nights out dotted her profile. As I dove deeper, I came across photographs of family gatherings and to my annoyance even a lovey-dovey portrait with her significant other.
She has a boyfriend.
As I continued to scroll, I noticed one glaring anomaly.
Her twin brother was nowhere to be seen.
As I wheeled further and further down her profile, I came across an odd post.
I miss you brother, come home soon.
That’s weird, where did he go?
After a few more scrolls another post read, “Free my brother, he’s innocent”.
Confused, I opened a new tab and searched for Hunter Smith’s profile.
As I skimmed over the results, I realized none of these profiles were those of my old friend.
Navigating back to Hannah’s profile I did one last check. If anything, he would show up on her friends list.
If Hunter wasn’t home and Hunter wasn’t free, then where could he possibly be? What did Hannah mean by “Free my brother, he’s innocent”?
It couldn’t be jail, could it?
I began to snoop around her FriendBook profile as well as the profiles of her close friends and family to find out if my suspicions were correct.
After 10 minutes of pretending to be an internet sleuth, I came across an article on one of her cousin's profiles.
“16-year-old arrested for string of burglaries in West end neighborhood.”
As I continued to skim the article, I became painfully aware of how Hunter had ended up jailed. The article detailed the misadventures of Hunter and his crew. Apparently, they broke into random homes to steal valuables to make off with.
As luck would have it, one of the houses they broke into was that of a police officer. While his getaway driver sped off, Hunter was abandoned and apparently forced into submission by the off-duty officer.
At his trial he refused to snitch on his peers. Considering the amount of money in assets his crew had fled with and Hunter’s unwillingness to give up his partners in crime, he was sentenced to 10 years, the maximum for a crime of this nature.
I sat there dumbfounded. How could he have done this? This was the same Hunter that cried in the second grade when I jokingly said I didn’t want to be his friend anymore. The same Hunter that shared his snacks when I didn’t have any for lunch. How could the gentle kid I knew turn into someone like this?
Saddened by the news, I closed FriendBook and went downstairs to make myself lunch.
I didn’t want to tarnish the fond memories I had of one of my oldest friends any further, so once I had finished eating, I put on a TV series to take my mind off what I had just discovered.
As the sun set, I laid in my bed thinking about the trio of companions I dreamt about the previous night.
Ash was non-existent on social media.
Hannah was leading a seemingly normal life.
Her twin brother made a terrible decision that landed him in jail.
I couldn’t help but compare their situations to mine.
Was Ash better off being free from the clutches of social media?
Was he living a happy, satisfying life in New Zealand?
Was he even in New Zealand anymore?
Did he have a job? A girlfriend? Good friends?
How did the introverted tomboy Hannah become such an outgoing person? Did her boyfriend make her happy? Is she content with her life?
I continued to conjure up make believe scenarios in my brain, all the while convincing myself that I was worse off than them. That they went on to lead fulfilling, pleasant lives, leaving me behind.
Finally, a voice of reason interjected.
But at least I was free.
Hunter was imprisoned, he threw 10 years of his life away. There’s no way he’s living a pleasant life right now. I should be thankful that I’m better off than him.
“Didn’t you throw years of your life away too?” A snarky voice whispered inside my head.
Hunter was physically confined, his freedom stripped from him. One decision cost him an entire decade.
But was I any different?
Is someone shackled by their past failures truly free? I’ve already lost a year of my life cooped up in my room. How many more years would pass by like this?
I wondered whether Ash, Hunter or Hannah ever looked back on their past with me.
Was I a forgotten memory or a fond one?
I couldn’t bear being alone with these thoughts anymore. I plugged in my headphones into the audio jack of my phone and played some music to calm myself. I closed my eyes hoping for the sweet melodies to put me to ease. Before I knew it, I fell asleep.
An ominous yet similar sensation overwhelmed me. An unnatural but familiar darkness encircled me. Before the panic could set in, a brilliant flash of light appeared on the gargantuan screen before me. As I scanned my surroundings, I noticed the never-ending rows of seats unoccupied as they had been the previous night. I got up from my seat and wandered down the aisle.
No exit signs.
As I descended the stairs, I could make out the outline of a door in the corner of the room perpendicular from the bottom of the large screen. I pushed open the door and found myself in an identical room. Rows of empty seats as far as the eye could see.
As my eyes adjusted to the light of the screen, I could make out the sound of children’s laughter and chatter. I craned my head up towards the screen and found myself staring at Hannah’s face. Intrigued, I made my way to the elevated upper rows and sat down to get a better look.
“Zayn, do you want to go check out the lions next?”
My younger counterpart agreed.
From the looks of it, we weren’t in school today.
I noticed Hannah had gained a few inches as well, so we must have been older now.
I looked around and saw familiar faces wearing the same T-shirts I was. Makeshift uniforms with our school’s name and logo hastily printed on them.
I read the front of Hannah’s shirt.
Glendale Elementary School.
Underneath the logo was a stick-on name tag with the words Hannah - Grade 1 written with marker in a child's handwriting.
Oh, this must be a field trip.
“Where’s Ash and your brother?”, I asked.
“Oh, they went to the washroom, Mrs. Rogers said that our class can check out the enclosures in this area. They’ll catch up later.”, she replied.
She grabbed my hand and turned to look at me with a smile on her face. Then without any warning, Hannah dragged me towards the lion’s enclosure.
“Look, they're so cute!”, Hannah pointed to the lion cubs playfully pouncing on one another while their mother watched.
“Yea the adults look dangerous though.”, I noted.
“I wish I was a mommy lion; the babies are so cute!”, she gushed.
“Who’s going to be the daddy lion?”, I asked.
“You can be the daddy!”, She innocently blurted out.
“Ha-ha, that sounds cool. What about the babies though?”, I inquired whilst leaning on the railing.
“Those can be Ash and Hunter.”, she answered.
We both looked at each other and giggled.
The innocent conversation between these first graders made me cringe.
How can kids just spout this without feeling embarrassed?
I stared at the screen with a forlorn look. We were so innocent back then.
These naïve children had no idea that 20 years later they would have nothing to do with each other. The time they spent together wouldn’t matter in the long run.
Just as I began to lose myself to my thoughts, a voice called out to us.
Ash ran over to us while an older woman with a worried look on her face trailed behind him.
As he hunched forward to catch his breath, he asked the two of us, “Did you guys see Hunter anywhere?”
With a puzzled look on her face Hannah replied, “No, I thought he was with you in the washroom.”
Ash turned to the woman, “He said he would wait outside for me Mrs. Rogers but when I came outside, he wasn’t there.”
Mrs. Rogers face creased further with worry. She pulled out her walkie-talkie and sent out a message to the other teachers.
“Attention all instructors, a student from my first-grade class is missing.”
After some static chatter back and forth, a voice responded, “Gather the children in front of the lion’s enclosure.”
Scores of students began flocking to the lion's enclosure. This year’s annual school-wide trip to the zoo included the majority of Glendale elementary school’s student population. First through fifth graders mumbled amongst themselves wondering what the cause for commotion was.
Meanwhile the teacher’s huddled together and discussed something amongst themselves.
As they turned to face the students, the fifth-grade teacher Mr. Castella hollered in his thundering voice.
“Alright everyone, please line up in front of your homeroom teacher and get ready for roll call!”
The children began to line up with their respective class as their teachers began to call out their names from the attendance sheets.
Mrs. Rogers took attendance, calling the names of students in our class. As she reached Hunter there was silence.
The kids in my class began to look at each other with clueless glances.
“Did anyone see him?”
Once the roll call was over the teachers huddled together again and discussed amongst themselves. They turned back to us as they disbanded.
Mr. Castella spoke up.
“Listen up everyone. It looks like Hunter from Mrs. Rogers first grade class and Osman from Mrs. Alandois fourth grade class were not present for roll call. If anyone has seen them, please let one of the teachers know now.”
The crowd of children erupted into conversation as students from all grades murmured and gossiped amongst themselves.
I felt someone squeeze my hand.
Hannah turned to me with a distressed look on her face.
“It’s going to be okay; they’ll find Hunter.” I squeezed her hand back and assured her.
Several of the teachers branched off to search for Hunter and Osman while the rest of us idled around the lion's enclosure under the supervision of the remaining adults.
As ten distressing minutes elapsed, our classmate Manny suddenly shouted,” Look they found them!”
Mr. Castella came into view with Osman and Hunter in tow.
Once all the supervising adults had returned to the rendezvous point the teachers began to speak. I inched closer to eavesdrop on the conversation between Mr. Castella and Mrs. Rogers. It appeared that he had spotted the two boys inside the gift shop.
Mr. Castella began to berate the two young boys.
“What were you two thinking?! Do you know how worried we were? It’s our responsibility to make sure you guys are safe. What do you think your parents would do if we allowed their children to get lost during a field trip? “
As Mr. Castella dismissed the two, Osman and Hunter walked away with downtrodden expressions. That’s when I caught Osman turn towards Hunter and wink as he was escorted back to his peers.
What was that all about?
Hannah rushed over to her twin brother and gave him a hug. We breathed a collective sigh of relief now that Hunter had returned safe and sound to us.
The teachers took roll calls one last time and announced that it was time to go home. The students of Glendale elementary flocked to the parking lot where school busses awaited to drive us home.
As we boarded the bus, Hunter tapped my shoulder.
“Hey, could we sit together on the ride home?”
I nodded in agreement.
As the bus drove off, Hunter took a quick look around to see if anyone was watching us. He unzipped his backpack and whispered to me.
“Don’t tell anyone about what I’m about to show you.”
As I peeked into the open bag I noticed hoards of candy, keychains, and miniature stuffed animals. I began to inquire.
“Where did you get all this stuff?”
He looked around then asked, “You swear not to tell anyone?”
“Yea I swear.”, I replied.
“Not even Ash or my sister, promise me.”, he asserts with a worried expression.
“Yea I promise.”, I quickly agreed.
“I stole them from the gift shop.”, he reveals.
Even a first grader could tell that this was wrong. But as his friend I swore that I wouldn’t tell anyone, so I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the ride home.
Hunter offered me some of the contraband goods.
“You want some of these gummy worms?”, he asks.
I declined his offer, “No thanks”.
As the bus rolled along the highway my eyes began to droop and I fell asleep.
The screen faded to black.
Back in the otherworldly theatre I could just make out the sound men yelling and what resembled a truck’s horn in the distance. Annoyed by the ruckus, I slowly opened my eyes. Heavy machinery and the chatter of men reverberated through the windows and walls of my room. I dragged myself out of bed and peeped outside through the curtains. Construction workers in their fluorescent vests hollered at one another while bulldozers and trucks hauled dirt and wooden planks towards the unfinished houses on the opposite side of my street. One of the downsides of living in a new neighborhood was the bothersome commotion caused by the workers and their machinery.
I checked the time.
11am. It was earlier than usual, but I couldn’t go back to bed with all this noise.
While I absent-mindedly watched the workers toil away, I caught a glimpse of a quartet of sparrows on the roof of the house across the street. One by one they flew off in different directions until one remained. As I met its gaze, I thought to myself what it would be like to be a bird. It took off and I stood there for a little longer.
I wonder what it’s like to fly without a care.
I wonder what it’s like to soar through the air.
I wonder what it’s like to be free.