Passing out of one world, passing into the next. Close your eyes. Clear your mind. Count some sheep maybe. Before you know it, you’re in dreamland, with hours to go before you wake. A simple process for most people.
Not for me.
There I was, 10 feet off the ground, maybe more, blood-red bloom of a sunset fit for the end of the world needling my pupils. I clenched my eyelids shut. No matter how many times I saw this, I never got used to it. Not right away anyway. The red behind my eyelids seized and collapsed into a weird yellow and then a murky black. Only then did I open my eyes.
Same sunset as always. Same buildings as always. Same streets as always. Same town. Same riverbank. Same glowing stoplights and gently sparkling water, same secret smooth stones and swaying rivergrass, long blades hunched carefree, a green lilt on the soft dusk wind.
Same scene as always.
The perfect dream.
Or the perfect memory.
But I couldn’t remember. If this dream that I’d had so many times, this dream that I saw every time my emotions whipped into a panic and I blacked out like the flick of a light switch — if this dream was a memory, I couldn’t remember it.
Why not? Why couldn’t I remember?
I looked down. There I was, where I always was in this dream. It was another me. A younger me on that short little bridge that crossed the river. That bridge was so short you could cross it in just three or four strides, but back when I was a kid, it had seemed much, much longer. Off in the distance, the train tracks hid amidst the tall grass, quieter than the glass-cool pop of a soap bubble. This was where I always used to play.
I gave my younger self a good look this time, thinking back to how I saw myself as a little kid and trying to remember if it lined up with the kid version of me that I was seeing now.
My ever-present companion was there too, eyes wide. She was there, right in front of kid me, same as always. Who was she? Beat the heck out of me. An erstwhile playmate? But I didn’t have a friend like that when I was little. Not that I could remember at least.
She was about the same height as kid me, and she had a birthmark on her forehead. It looked kind of like Australia, only spiky and a little bit lopsided.
I noticed it the very first time I laid eyes on her, the very first time I had this out-of-body experience in dream form. Or was it time travel? Both, I guessed. Anyway, the reason I spied the birthmark, even though I was floating a dozen or more feet off the ground and couldn’t move an inch, was that I was hitting it.
In slow motion — that ultra-slow sort of slow motion that you only ever experience in a dream, like when you’re running and running and running as fast as you can and you realize you haven’t moved two inches — young me was winding up to hit the girl, smack on the forehead it looked like, right on that lopsided spiky Australia birthmark.
I never saw the impact. I always woke up first. But it was clear as day, even in this blood-red sunset, that that was what was happening.
The sunset. The riverbank. The wide-eyed girl. And me, moving to smack her a new one. What did it all mean?
Well, that was the worst part.
I hadn’t the foggiest.
I jerked awake. A difficult thing to do when you’re bound to a chair and gagged with a rag that tastes of old grease, as I soon realized I was, but I managed it anyway, somehow.
I could hardly move. I was in some kind of smallish room. That much I could tell. But it was too dark to see much of anything. I felt like a million bucks. A million bucks who’d just had their antlers sawed off by poachers and their habitats deforested to make room for strip malls.
From the murk came a voice. A voice I knew all too well. A voice that evoked in me the unpleasentest feelings of revulsion that anyone had likely ever felt, and then some.
“Let there be light.”
Of course he’d say something like that. Of course he’d play at god. I wasn’t even surprised.
Nor was I surprised, when the blinds flew open and the autumn sunlight flooded what I now saw was the principal’s office, to see him standing there: my grandfather, “Principal” William Wade.
I put “Principal” in quotes because even though on paper he was principal of the school, he did screw all for us students, or for the teachers for that matter. In fact, most of us never saw hide or hair of him all year long. He usually made a couple announcements at the beginning of the school year, and that was it. Announcements to the effect of reminding us how great he was; claiming he was planning on replacing the pledge of allegiance, which nobody ever did anyway, with a mandatory prayer (to him), and then never following through with it out of laziness; or begging us to sign up for whatever sleazy hookup app he was using at the moment, with the exclusive promo code URA-SUCKER (or something to that effect) so he could get 10 free matches for every friend he invited. He sure hit the dating apps real quick after grandma, may she rest in peace, kicked the bucket. She departed this world shortly after her real true love, Oliver the minifridge, died.
Because of my grandfather’s hands-off approach to principal-hood, I don’t think anyone had ever really put two and two together and figured out that we were related, even though we shared a last name. Which was a-ok with me. The less I had to do with the crazy old coot, the better.
I could count the number of times my grandfather took being a principal seriously on zero hands.
But hey, at least shirking literally all his responsibilities as an educator and role model gave him plenty of time to invent things. After all, that was his real calling: mad scientist. Ever since I could remember, he’d always been a tinkerer. Back when I lived with him and grandma as a kid, our house was filled with all sorts of gizmos and gadgets that did all kinds of things. Even things you didn’t want them to do.
Scratch that. Especially things you didn’t want them to do.
There was the laundry drone, programmed specifically to do our laundry for us. I can still remember the sound its prehensile spine made as it hung our clothes out to dry on a clothesline, and we’d have to snatch them quick as soon as they were dry or else the bot would douse them with water again. It was programmed to do laundry, not to let laundry be done.
Then there was the chef bot, our own personal cook. Official designation: UTENSIL UNIT 00. “Shall I cook you a meal?” it would ask, face display positively — and literally — glowing. If you said yes, the thing would come after you with the nearest knife. Turned out grandpa had accidentally programmed it to ask “Shall I cook you, a meal?” That misplaced comma was almost the death of me on more than one occasion.
And the robots were just the tip of the iceberg. Gramps also conducted plenty of other experiments that would invariably end up going horribly wrong.
The bananas that peeled into a curved tube of green slime when microwaved.
The books that read themselves. Loudly. At night.
The glue that only worked on some Thursdays. (It was supposed to work on all of them.)
And the list went on. And on. And on. Come to think of it, did grandpa ever create anything worthwhile? Like, ever? In his life?
I was surprised grandma even put up with him for as long as she did. Even when I stopped living with them, they still lived together until grandma passed.
Speaking of grandma, she actually had done more for my school than grandpa ever did, and from beyond the grave no less. That chili they were serving at lunch? Her recipe. In fact, all the food they served at lunch came straight out of her cookbooks, handwritten in loopy cursive into tiny little black notebooks that she liked to keep bound together with rubber bands back when she was still of this earth.
I guess after she passed on the thing my grandfather missed about her the most was her cooking. Frankly, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t blame him. And so he used his executive power as principal to replace the regional lunch program with our school’s own, and now, unbeknownst to everyone but me and him, grandma’s recipes lived on from 12:00 to 12:52 p.m. each day.
Though “lived on” may have been an overstatement, what with that maid in charge now.
The end of The Birth of the Great Pun Detective! (Part 5)!
To be continued in Part 6!