“When I climbed the hill of bones, the shaman was waiting for me,” Darren said, stirring Nutrasweet into his herbal tea. “Except now he was a giant rat. Like ten feet tall.”
Darren’s always told me about his dreams. Ever since he quit his office job to write comic books full time, his dreams have gotten weirder. I figure he’s really dreaming about how to pay the rent next month, though I can’t see what the giant rat has to do with anything. I was probably more worried about Darren’s rent than he was, even though we weren’t roommates anymore.
Around us, the coffeeshop was nearly empty. We sat at our usual table–the four-seater with room for my wheelchair. Darren’s backpack and bike helmet occupied the extra chair. The late-September sunlight stretched through the window like it wasn’t ready to leave. I asked, “So did the rat-shaman have the sword ready for you like he’d promised?”
“He did,” said Darren. “But he wouldn’t give it to me. He said I had to visit the river and bring him a rock.”
“Standard quest procedure,” I remarked, tearing away a chunk of my chocolate chip cookie. I ate it and licked my fingers carefully. “When you find what you thought you wanted, you realize you were looking for something else all along.”
“But here’s the thing, Alice. So I went to the river, and there–in the jungle–was a guy in swim trunks. He didn’t say anything to me. He just handed me a beer and then he left.”
Better than TV. That’s my friend Darren. “Did you find the rock?”
“Yeah. I took it back to the shaman. And then I was flying away and–I guess the dream ended, or I changed dreams, or something. I don’t remember.”
“Most people have lots of dreams they don’t remember.” I remembered mine occasionally, mostly when I had a steady boyfriend and was taking the pill. It’d been a while. Darren and I had always been platonic.
“But that guy. He didn’t belong in that dream.”
“What, and the giant rat did?”
Darren grinned, tucking his shaggy hair behind his ears. “Okay, it does sound funny when you put it that way. But I mean the beer guy didn’t have anything to do with the quest. The one the shaman sent me on. Hell, he didn’t even belong in that setting.”
I touched my hot chocolate underneath the foam, but it was still too warm. “I dunno. A jungle is a lovely place for a swim. Think about the piranha.”
“I’m serious,” he said, drinking his tea and wincing. He sucked in cool air. “That guy is what I’m interested in.”
“Because he’s not part of the dream. He didn’t matter. He didn’t point me to the best rock, or warn me about the shaman, or threaten me. He just showed up. A cameo appearance. ”
“Let’s call his agent and complain,” I said, smiling.
Darren ignored me. “So why is he there at all? He’s not relevant. The story arc would have been the same without him. And the guy’s shown up in other dreams too. Like he’s a guest star. Someone wandering from dream to dream. Captain Random.”
“Captain Random would be a great name for a comic book character,” I told him.
“Come on, Alice, be serious. He’s not part of the dream, I’m sure. I’ve been thinking about story arc lately because of the rejection note I got for Bruiser Ballast last week. You know, the pages I wrote and inked in three days because I just knew how it went.”
Now I wished I hadn’t made fun of him. Darren’s comics were his babies. “That sucks. You didn’t tell me it got rejected again. What’s wrong with those people? I think it’s awesome.”
We talked about the nuts and bolts of his work, and my latest parental drama, and then we went home. I was thinking about the conversation all evening. Mostly I think I was jealous because Darren has the coolest dreams and I don’t remember mine. But Darren also doesn’t have problem-solving skills like I do. Comes from my line of work. I liked the idea of a random character that wandered from dream to dream. I decided to track down Captain Random, as Darren called him, using the Internet and the library. I figured Jung or Freud would have covered this ground already. It didn’t sound too hard. At their core, dreams–like everything else–must be rational things.
There’s three things people should know about me. I’m a 911 dispatcher, I’m disabled, and I’m a skeptic. They’re all part of why I like Darren so much.
First, my work. I’ve been a dispatcher for about two years now. I started because the money was nice, even for a college dropout, but I stayed because I’m really good at it. I never forget a voice, like the way some people are with faces. And when I’m on the phone, I command the situation. I’m in control. I’m the one who decides which officers go where, and what victims do next. I work the swing shift–four 10’s, Thursday through Sunday. That’s why Darren and I set up the coffeeshop meeting on Mondays after my physical therapy. Everyone else is at work, and Darren and I have the place to ourselves, except for a few college students.
The disabled part is simple. I’ve got mild cerebral palsy, which means I walk like a chicken that survived a car wreck. I can get around on crutches when I have to, but the chair’s much easier and doesn’t hurt my back. No retardation or speech issues, lucky for me. I mention it only because people ask me all the time, or look like they want to. I don’t worry about it and neither should anyone else. The skeptic part is also simple: I don’t believe in anything that can’t be proven with concrete facts–like God, astrology, or ESP. My parents tried faith healing on me when I was a kid, and it’s clear how well that worked.
For the things I can’t do well, Darren’s my backup. He never runs out of compassion. He knows when to get something off a shelf and when to let me handle it myself. And he always makes me think. Even when I don’t agree with his crazypants theories about the world, sometimes I can imagine–just for a moment–there’s something worthwhile up ahead. Something more than decomposing into the dirt.
I try not to think about it, but that’s what scares me more than anything else: when I die, it’s done. Over. It’s enough to give you a drinking problem. Personally, I cope by eating chocolate chip cookies. But it’s always in the back of my mind. I don’t get to pick when or where I get snuffed out. Like hitting a brick wall. The end.
Darren and I had a standing coffee-date for Mondays at 4 PM. At least, that was the official plan. Neither of us liked coffee and Darren never knew what time it was. One time he flaked out on me and didn’t show up until 6, after I’d left him voicemail and gone home. Lots of people would give up on friends like that, but I’m patient and my schedule’s crazy anyway. There’s worse flaws in a friend.
This week, Darren was only fifteen minutes late. “I tracked him,” he said, before he even sat down. He was still wearing his bike helmet and the beat-up backpack he’d had ever since I’d known him. Darren lived cheap, which was how he could afford to quit his job. He wore loose-soled shoes and he’d duct-taped the pockets on his backpack. I could see his cell phone and his asthma inhaler poking out. At least he wasn’t skimping on his meds–not yet.
“Tracked who?” I asked.
Darren grinned like he’d figured out something clever. “The guy. Captain Random.”
“Oh, good,” I told him. “I’ve been reading up on that. Dream interpretation is pretty crazy. Seems like an excuse for people to make up their wishlist and convince themselves it’s true.”
He took off his bike helmet and set it with his backpack on the extra chair, like they were our third companion. He slid into his seat and said, “But dreams aren’t usually random, like this guy.”
“Okay, dream interp 101,” I told him. “First off, your dreams are part of you. They help you filter your life experiences and understand them. They come from your unconscious mind.”
“Like getting knocked on the head?” he said, smiling.
“Ha ha. No, what I’m saying is that dreams are real, and they’re rational. You can actually control them. That’s the first step to understanding them. I think our friend Captain Random has a method to his madness. I think he stands for something important.”
Darren rubbed his head, trying to smooth his hair from the bike helmet. He only made it messier. “The same thing every time?”
“Could be. Where have you seen him?”
“Oh, a bunch of places. He’s been a clown in a nude bakery, a housewife in a meat locker, and a pizza delivery guy at M.C. Escher’s office.”
“Wrong address. Showed up and left again and didn’t seem to change the dream.”
“That’s totally random,” I said, laughing. “Darren, you’re a freak. I don’t know how you function in this world.”
He chuckled. “Well, if you opened the door on M.C. Escher building a house of burning cards, you might be a little nervous too.”
“Were the cards all warped like his drawings?”
“Not really. They were just regular playing cards. Except, y’know, on fire.”
“Right. Man, I don’t know how you get this stuff in your brain. You must have layers and layers of filtering going on. Like everything you see and do gets translated through Darrenspeak.”
“It’s kinda weird,” he said.
“I think it’s awesome,” I said firmly. “I think you connect to a deep part of your brain that most of us can’t get to. I don’t get my own dreams, so I have to live through yours.”
“I don’t know where my ideas come from,” he said. “I just sort of… don’t censor them. Like right now I’m thinking about whether the lights could turn into fish and swim away from the ceiling, and if you overfed them would they go belly-up so you could see the wiring beneath?” He paused and laughed. “Sorry, but I mean, that’s what it’s like.”
Probably that’s what went through his head on Mondays at 4 PM instead of remembering to call me and say he was late. I grinned at him. “Okay, Mr. Fishlights. So you said you tracked Captain Random. I’ve started a list: nude clown, pizza guy–what was the other one? You said you tracked him.”
Darren hesitated. I wondered if he was going to order some tea.
“Alice,” he said, his voice dropping low, “I mean I tracked Captain Random. I went looking for him, on a quest. I was in a library–in my dream, I mean–and I turned the corner and saw a whole shelf of books. Kenny Shaw was there. He was this kid in second grade who was before me in roll call. Totally random. And I saw an old woman dressed in furs, with white braids hanging to her knees. She took a book off the shelf and handed it to me. I opened it and the book was filled with runes I couldn’t read. I flipped to the end and the last page was blank. That’s when I looked up and saw that the library was empty. In the spot where Kenny had been standing there was a sixer. A six-sided die, I mean. And here it is.”
Darren pulled something out of his pocket. He opened his fist and showed me a die. My eyes widened–after a story like that, whose wouldn’t? I took the die. It was an ordinary white cube with black dots, exactly like one from a Monopoly game. That’s when my senses caught me, and I started laughing. “Oh my God, Darren. You had me. You totally did. Hell of a story.”
He tapped his fingers on the table, then his face shifted to its usual grin. “Yeah. Hell of a story.”
“Now I want this thing. Captain Random’s cryptic message! Seriously, this is your next comic script.”
“Keep it,” he said, looking out the window. “It’s just a sixer. Not what I thought it’d be. Like you said the other day–standard quest procedure.”
I tucked it into my bag and forgot about it for a while. It was another of Darren’s crazy stories, the kind he wrote down and sold for a living. That’s what I thought back then.
I like my job, mostly. Decent pay, great benefits. Sometimes I save lives. Sometimes I can’t save lives, but I help the survivors. And sometimes–often–I get reminders that some people are too dumb to live. Like the lady who called because she’d gotten off the wrong freeway exit and saw a brown person. Or the guy who dropped a coffee mug and was afraid the lead paint would vaporize. Believe me, I’ve heard it all. For every baby I’ve saved from choking, I’ve listened to someone shoot himself in the mouth.
No one calls 911 on a good day. I’m talking to people at their worst. It’s the most important five minutes of their lives. I feel sorry for lots of them, but sometimes I’ve just got to laugh. It’s not just me–it’s all the dispatchers. People don’t get that. You’ve got to keep a sense of humor, or you’ll go absolutely insane. When you can’t laugh about it–that’s when you take a mental health day. Otherwise you burn out.
Darren always got this. He’s one of the few people I could really talk to. Once, about a year ago, we were coming home from a movie. We passed 540 Oak Street, and I blurted out, “Hey, this is where that guy strangled his wife last week.”
With most people I wouldn’t say that, because it would creep them out. Not Darren. He stopped at the plain gray house and said, “The place looks like any other. You’d never know. Poor woman.” It was right there that it all hit me: this woman died. Not just a voice on the phone–she lived here. An actual person with a house like her neighbors. Maybe they knew what hell her domestic life was, or maybe they didn’t. But now she’s dead, and there’s nothing left of her except maybe some ashes. That’s it–she’s done. I never forgot that incident. Like I said, Darren keeps me real.
And it was just after the talk about Captain Random–the one where Darren gave me the die–when everything fell apart. That Sunday, Kim missed work. Nasty food poisoning, poor girl. Not her fault–but I got stuck with her shift. My boss Becca called around, but no one else was available. We can’t have uncovered shifts. So that meant 20 straight hours of work for me. I’d done it before, and I could do it again.
But in the 19th hour of that shift, after I’d stacked six empty Diet Coke cans on my desk–the call came in. Worst thing I’ve ever heard on a call, but I didn’t know it at the start. Stranded motorist at Lakeland and the 94. Pretty run-of-the-mill, not like he was in any real trouble. Sounded like a young white guy from somewhere Southern. Gravelly voice, talked slow. I determined the facts: he was on a freeway shoulder curve, out of traffic, nobody hurt. My officers were busy with a hit-and-run in a parking lot. I told the motorist I’d send an officer as soon as one was free, and he should stay with his car and wait.
With. I wish I could unsay that word.
Five minutes later, I got a frantic call from a woman about something at the Lakeland offramp. Vehicular homicide. Turns out the guy sat on his rear bumper waiting for the cop to show. A teenage girl took the curve too sharp. Didn’t see his car. Plowed right into him. My officer–Paul, my rookie–that’s what he arrived to see.
I wanted to slam down my headset, but that’s never an option. I held myself together–hell, Paul sounded like he was going to cry too. But we talked each other through it, and he managed to tell the guy’s wife without losing it. Becca told me it wasn’t my fault, but–I could have said “in.” I usually say “stay in your car.” I just didn’t.
When I motored on out of there, I felt like a zombie on Prozac. I went home and took a long bath. When it was morning enough, I called to cancel my physical therapy. Then I left voicemail for Darren telling him I’d had a bad day at work and needed some sleep. I went to bed and slept a few hours, then woke up like something had startled me. I was thinking of Darren’s house of burning cards, from his M.C. Escher dream. It felt like I’d been dreaming, but I couldn’t remember any of it.
I spent the afternoon doing quiet things: Minesweeper, a jazz concert on the radio, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. I don’t take mental health days often, but when I do, I make damn sure I keep them effective. Free days don’t relax you if you try to scrub the toilet. At 4 PM I was re-reading a favorite Agatha Christie that I trusted not to surprise me. Darren hadn’t returned my call, but I hardly noticed. He was like that, after all.
My mental health day turned into two, and then I felt great. Went back to work on Thursday like always. The usual. Call after call–never know what’s next. First there’s a woman whose ex-husband is breaking down her door. Then there’s someone who dropped her wedding ring down the drain. Then a toddler fell in the pool and needed CPR, and then an old man told me he’s going to shoot himself–except really he was just lonely and wanted someone to talk to. He lived alone, he said, and his kids were dead and he didn’t know who was going to pick up his body. I talked him down, and when the cops got there he didn’t have a gun anyway. I never know how to feel about people like that–I mean, they’re wasting my time and taxpayer money, but think about how desperately lonely you have to be to call 911 for company. It was my last call Sunday night, so that wasn’t a bad way to end things.
On Monday, I showed up at the coffeeshop like always. No Darren. By 4:30 I figured he’d flaked. I called his cell–no answer. I remembered that I never heard from him last week when I cancelled, so I got worried.
I took the bus to Darren’s new place and scooted up the ramp. When I knocked on Darren’s door, an older woman in a blue dress opened up. Tears streaked her face. Behind her stood a man that looked like a gray-haired Darren with heavy lines around his mouth and eyes.
“Is…” I snapped into work mode. “What happened to Darren?”
The woman started crying. The man folded his arms and walked into the kitchen. The woman–Darren’s mom, I was sure–glanced at my wheelchair and said, “Are you Alice? You must be Alice. He told us about you once. Didn’t you live with him?”
“Yes. I need to know what happened to Darren.”
“I’m so sorry. We didn’t know how to contact you. We don’t know who his friends are. We don’t know anything.” She rubbed her eyes. “Come in, honey. Excuse me, I need a Kleenex.”
I wheeled myself into the apartment. The place was half-packed into fresh cardboard boxes, all identically sized like they came from a warehouse. Darren’s bookshelves were empty. His desk still held bottles of ink. His half-finished comic project showed lamps swimming away like fish.
I knew, before his mom told me the details. Asthma attack. Biking in the park last Monday afternoon. The duct-taped pockets on his backpack had ripped. His inhaler and cell phone fell out a half-mile up the road. “It was terribly unlucky,” his mom said. “They got there as soon as someone found him and called for help. But he slipped away…”
I slid into a familiar place–a numbness where words lived–and I spoke them without believing. “I’m so sorry. I know Darren’s friends. I’ll take care of telling everyone. How can I help you here?”
Asthma is not supposed to fucking kill people. Not when people survive triple gunshot wounds and electrocution and God knows what else.
Darren, you idiot. You stupid, careless–I was going to lose it.
I missed him already. God. I loved that guy.
Darren’s death hurt like hell. I went back to work anyway, because what else could I do? There’s bills to be paid, and I couldn’t get admin leave for my ex-roommate. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him. If I’d gone to the coffeeshop like always–I would have called him. Maybe gone looking for him. Wouldn’t I? Surely I’d recognize the most important five minutes of Darren’s life. No, if I’d been at the coffeeshop–he’d have been there too. Not biking. Not having an asthma attack. Or at least I’d have been there and known what to do.
After that, I started looking for Captain Random everywhere I could. When I watched the World Series on TV, I scanned the crowd, looking for the guy who didn’t belong. When I rode the bus to work, I studied everyone else, looking at their faces. Was it that man in the Bermuda shorts? How about the woman with a pink shopping bag that kept turning around like someone was talking to her?
What if I’d been on shift and taken that call about Darren?
It was stupid. But I couldn’t stop.
Two months later, I was Christmas shopping in the suburbs–looking for the bed slippers my dad really likes, even though he hasn’t sent me anything in years. A street festival filled the plaza by the shopping mall. It hadn’t snowed yet, so the ground was bare. The booths were decorated with fake icicles, like everyone hoped that consumer spending could force a white Christmas.
I was patiently getting through the crowd when I saw a guy who looked like Darren. Shaggy blonde hair, white bike helmet–even that duct-taped backpack. I couldn’t see his face. I watched him buy something at an art booth and put it in his pocket. Left-handed, just like Darren. I wheeled after him as he stopped at another vendor and bought gingerbread cookies. I’d been struggling through the crowd all afternoon, but now it parted for me just when I needed it.
I knew it wasn’t Darren. Darren was dead. But this guy looked just like him. I wanted to approach him and say–I don’t know what. Hi, you look like my friend who died, and I wish I could’ve told him some stuff? Ridiculous.
Just then he turned and looked at me, and it was Darren. I felt shivery like I was in some ghost movie. He turned and walked away from the festival, toward the mall’s loading zone where all the trash and dumpsters stood. I zipped after him so fast my arms hurt. “Wait!” I called to him. My mind was still sorting through rational explanations for this. Maybe I was asleep and dreaming–but no, I never remembered dreams, and besides I’d used my credit card today. So I’d have proof later that this was definitely happening. Okay. For now, I’d go with it, and check my credit card bill later.
We turned around the mall into the loading zone. I wasn’t worried about safety–I trusted my instincts, and I knew I’d be fine. I just had to talk to him. What was he doing here? He was dead. He didn’t belong here.
That’s when I knew who I was following.
It was easy to keep pace with him, and no matter how fast I rolled, he stayed the same distance ahead. He stopped at some empty pallets in the dock and sat down. When I came closer, I saw his face. Not Darren. I couldn’t figure out why I’d thought it was Darren, because his face was entirely different even though the features were the same.
I opened my bag and pulled out the die. “I think this is yours,” I said, feeling silly. I extended my hand towards him, palm up.
He took the die from my hand without touching my skin, which relieved me for some reason. “Thank you,” he said gravely. His voice sounded like Darren’s, but somehow it just wasn’t. I couldn’t name exactly how, and that scared me.
“Are you Darren?” I asked.
“You know who I am.”
I looked at him. Lying seemed pointless. “Are you actually here? Are you a real person?”
He shook his head, looking at me with that not-Darren expression in Darren’s face. “You can do better than that.”
I gripped my wheels. “Was it my fault? Would he have died even if I’d been there? Who’s running this place and how do they decide these things?”
“Those are all good questions,” he said. “And now it’s time for me to go.”
He stood up. “Wait!” I said. “I followed you here. Can’t I get the answer to anything? Even one question? Because what I really need to know is where we go when we die. Please.”
He smiled and looked sad. “You followed me here to talk to me. You’ve been looking for me, right?”
“You do realize that by speaking to me, you made me part of this scene? I belong here now. I’m no longer who you’re looking for. Standard quest procedure.”
I stared at him, speechless. His face morphed into someone I didn’t recognize–a young white guy in a baseball cap. He tossed the die into the air, caught it in one hand, and smiled. “See you, Alice,” he said, his voice turning rough and Southern.
Just like that, he was gone. He didn’t vanish literally–more like he walked away and my brain didn’t register it. I sat alone in the loading dock, listening to machinery and smelling the dumpster. I pulled out my cellphone and called my credit card company, who confirmed that I’d made some purchases today. Their numbers matched my receipts. There was nothing to do but go home and cry.
And that’s just the thing. Everything I claimed to believe in crumbled under pressure. I can’t be an atheist when deep down I think I’m wrong. Captain Random walks where he chooses and leaves signs of his passage. All my paper-thin rationalizations collapse into ash, like a burning house of cards.