Being late for my Econ-385 final exam is bad.
Not knowing where the exam is taking place is worse.
Realizing I am also bare-ass naked completes the misery trifecta, causing me to duck behind the hedges outside Ridgley Hall.
For someone who not only passed Econ-385, but graduated almost 30 years ago, it’s all confusing as hell. Also, the fact that I’ve taken this shame-dive into Ridgley’s landscaping at least two dozen times before, should definitely grant me clarity—but I don’t even realize it’s a dream yet. Not until the tap on my shoulder.
“Dude. Nice penis,” my brother Zack says.
My other brother, Adam, stands beside him. But not the current middle-aged version. No, they’re both as they were when I was in college: gangly teenagers with braces and goofy grins.
Before the reflex to cover my naked junk kicks in, Adam conjures a Polaroid camera from behind his back and a flashbulb fires.
“Mom’ll put this one on the fridge,” he says, then yanks the picture from the camera and dangles it in my face.
I know it’s a dream, know none of it matters, but in the microcosm of a single, silly moment, all that matters is getting that damn picture back. Helpless (and still naked), I scramble after him, which means the developing film isn’t the only thing dangling in the breeze. Zack guffaws as I streak after Adam, and in spite of my predicament, the laughter makes me smile. I feel…light. Happy. My college body is a long-lost friend—one with defined abs, confidence, and zero joint pain.
I get two full seconds of bliss before everything changes.
Now we’re Jedi Knights.
All three of us wear simple robes, lightsabers at our belts.
The college campus is now a motley starport in a distant galaxy. Twin reddish suns shine—
I almost fumble mine into the dust before pulling it free of the robe. When I toggle the switch, though, all is right in the universe. A blade of pure emerald plasma extends, and the whoom-whoom sound when it moves is infinitely satisfying.
Zack and Adam’s sabers are already out and they’re just as giddy about it as I am.
“Let’s find some bad guys,” Zack says, and he and Adam duck through the nearest door. When I follow, the starport has become the basement of our childhood home. My brothers are little now, wearing Batman and Robin Underoos, yet somehow still wielding fully functional lightsabers while bouncing on an orange couch surrounded by wood-paneled walls. My saber has morphed into the version I had in 1978, cheap black plastic with an inflatable green ‘blade.’
Zack points at it, laughing hard enough to make his red curls bob.
Jealous, I point to his saber, hopelessly confused. “How did you keep yours?”
His expression is playful, mocking. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Five words I’ve heard Zack say countless times, each time more frustrating than the last.
Adam thump-thumps his way up the basement stairs. Before I can follow, everything changes again.
Zack and I are on the playground at Bellerive Elementary, just the two of us.
He’s a toddler, screeching in delight as I push him ever-higher on the swing. His tiny fingers white-knuckle the chains as he goes too high, but when I stop pushing and let the momentum peter out, my brother begs “one more time” in a sing-songy voice.
Like always, I move in close to give him another shove. His hair, fire-engine red in the afternoon sun. Freckles cover his chubby cheeks. My brother smells of summer wind, cheese puffs, and limitless potential.
“One more time!” he squeals again.
Before I wind up for a final push, shadows fall across the playground.
I know what’s coming next. Hell, I knew the moment I turned around outside Ridgley Hall and saw his sideways smirk. The dark memories leech out of my soul and transform the playground, no matter how hard I mentally cling to it. Three-year-old Zack vanishes before I can scoop him up and tell the little boy just how much I love him.
The chemotherapy clinic. Near the end.
He’s almost 30 now, sitting in a recliner. Clear fluid from an IV bag drip-drip-drips into Zack’s arm. He scratches bald skin beneath the lip of his knit cap and grimaces when his stomach lurches. I grab his hand, and the sobbing begins. Except the tears are mine.
“Why are you crying?” he asks.
“Because this is just a dream. You’re not really him.”
It may look like him. Sound like him. But I’ve been in this dreamworld version of the clinic enough times to know it’s not Zack. It’s something…less. An echo. That’s all.
Zack shrugs me off. “Dude, I hope none of this is real. Because it blooooows.”
It’s so different, so unexpected that I bust out laughing. Which makes him laugh too. Before we finish, the clinic walls start to shimmer.
Shit. I’m waking up.
I surge forward, grabbing him with both hands. “Don’t go. Please! I’m not ready.”
Zack tilts his head and squints at me askance. “Thought you said I wasn’t real.”
A flash of his eyes cracks my certainty.
“Are you?” I plead. “A piece of him? The real him?”
Zack slips away, receding into a bloom of light. As the dream dissolves, I hear his voice a final time.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Sunshine beams through a slit between my bedroom curtains, warming the lines in my forehead. I close my eyes tight, silently willing myself to go back. But it’s too late. Always too late.
I know what dreams are. An ethereal stew of memory and emotion, bubbling up whatever wanders into a particular corner of my unconscious mind.
But today, doubt lingers. So does hope.
Which is why I look forward to tomorrow night and all the nights after that.
To see Zack again. To talk to my brother. To dream.
One more time.
Trey Dowell is an award-winning author of both short and novel-length fiction. His short stories have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and Intrinsick, among many others. His debut sci-fi novel The Protectors was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. You can learn more at www.treydowell.com, or hit him up on Twitter @treydowell3.