From Perry Palin:
The canvas was Jean’s largest. It was his best. He had studied the park bench facing away toward the walking path, the gray surface of the path, and the low grassy slope beyond the path. He studied how the trees met the sky, their branches hanging with the weight of their leaves. He painted the bench and the path, and the grass and leaves in their end of summer hues and shapes, the maples dark green, the birches just turning yellow. He painted the sunlight of a summer afternoon. He painted two birds flying, one leading, one following, that soared when seen from changing angles. On the bench he painted two figures, a young man and a young woman, sitting inches apart. His arm rests on the back of the bench, wanting to wrap around the woman. His face is turned toward her. He is leaning toward her, his lips slightly parted. The woman is looking slightly downward and toward the park. Her blond hair is pinned up on her head. She is wearing a blue flowered dress.
An artist without income and without prospects, Jean had not dared to speak to Sophie of his love. The canvas below Sophie‘s window was his first declaration of his love for her. Jean pulled the canvas quietly into place on its wheeled frame, adjusted the left strut for the proper angle, and hid the wheels with their own grassy covers. Jean waited unseen for Sophie to come to her window.
Sophie rose from her table and began to clear her dishes. The sight of two figures on the park bench made her turn. People sat so seldom on the bench. She looked out and stopped in the middle of a breath. It was Jean, on the left, his clear profile, the handsome face, unmoving, in love with the woman on the bench. He was waiting for the woman to speak. The woman, blond and slender, in a blue dress like one of hers, was relaxed and receptive to Jean’s attention. Her shoulders asked him to pull her in. Sophie could not see the woman’s face, but she could see that Jean loved this woman who was more beautiful than Sophie believed herself to be. Sophie turned away from the window and sat at her table. Then she cried.
Darius Pomerantz. Dash to his friends. Official title: the Dream Master. A weak handshake and an avuncular smile. A thin man. Turn sidewise and he’d disappear. No, not really. Just relax awhile, Mr. Billings. This is the easy part.
He fusses, while you lie back on the cool, squeaky leather chair, fully reclined. You’ll fall asleep. It’s expected. With all the wires—temples, clavicles, pineal gland—you don’t think so, but peace becomes involuntary. Dash hums a soft tune. Schubert, maybe. The tune dances maddeningly on the precipice of memory, but won’t drop.
No, no. It’s all there on the med form. Sleep is coming, with a shudder, with a gasp. Just over there, behind that shadow, a scrim fills with soft light. Memory, melody, member me. All your dreams and then some, like the blurb said. Dreams Incarnate. Incorporated.
Just let go.
Mr. Billings? Roger? Time to wake up.
His voice is a sweet, descending singsong. Your eyes blink open, and he’s smiling that same smile. Mr. Big. The Dream Master. Everything under control.
About four hours. Right on the tippy top of the bell curve. And…he gestures broadly at nothing…everything went swimmingly.
He holds up a disk, about silver dollar size. Transparent? No, but incredibly thin. When the light catches, it’s a solid thing. Otherwise, it winks in and out of existence, as if Darius Pomerantz is doing sleights and passes like a dinner theater magician.
He holds it still. This is you. Opaque. Non-reflective. A miracle of modern technology. All your dreams and then some.
He laughs. Hardly miraculous, of course but the ad men like to call it that. Really, all we’ve done is accessed your own dream world, your own fantasies, and restructured them into interactive algorithms, a Mendez Agenda we call it in the biz. You can read all the technical details if you want to.
I…while I…I don’t really remember…
Your dreams? Don’t worry. Dream recall for most people is spotty at best. But with this—again he flashes the disk—you will. And…you’ll be able to interract with them in a whole new way. The experience…well, seeing is better than telling, right? Do you want to try it out?
Lights dim. The chair reclines. All the wires are gone from your skin, but something new has been added. A small incision, already sutured. Beneath a delicate touch, a tiny nodule.
The servo. Soon, you won’t even notice it.
You don’t sleep. Or maybe you do. Breath swells the wrinkled membrane, a quivering skinful, in, out. Press your face against the translucence and suddenly, you’re inside. Reality.
Mr. Billings? Roger?
As soon becomes apparent, you can live a lifetime in one billiable hour. Or, it can vanish like a half-remembered thought. So you go again. As soon as possible. You pay a little more, they let you stay a little longer. Damn! The first time I was plugged in, I was gone! I never wanted to come out. Food, water—hell, breathing! Nothing mattered but the dream. Once a day, twice a day. Can I stay overnight?
I’m sorry, sir. We close at six.
Well just plug me in and let it run. I don’t care.
But it didn’t work that way. They had the disk. They had control. The technology was theirs. For a while, they toyed with selling a home version, but where was the long term profit in that? Imagine all those plugged-in dream junkies, wasting away, dead to the world. At least until the power gets turned off. Then what? Better to control the source. Keep the revenue flowing.
This is the real world now, Roger. The whole round world.
There is the real and there is the true. Unfortunately, you can no longer tell the difference.
All your dreams. All your dreams. All your dreams.
Carl E. Reed:
Road Runner screeched to a vibrating halt in front of the train tunnel’s mouth, then neatly stepped aside.
Hard on the bird’s heels and going about a hundred mph, Wile E. Coyote slammed into the side of the mountain.
“Beep-beep!” quoth Road Runner.
Wile E. Coyote slid down the rock face to the ground, furry body now thin as a pancake.
The gaping black hole of the tunnel’s mouth was an illusion: Tromp l’oeil.
But who painted it there?! No time to think or reflect; new hijinks were scheduled in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .
Road Runner raced off.
“Home sweet home,” said Dee as the coach pulled up to the entrance of a low, sprawling structure.
“Impressive!” pronounced his traveling companion. “The cunning juxtaposition of diverse architectural styles, artistry itself.”
“You are kind. Most say ramshackle.”
A man rushed forth to collect baggage dropped from the roof rack of the carriage with a thud.
“More books, Dr. Dee?” asked Seth Sutcliffe, Dee’s butler, grounds-keeper, and general handyman. He was one half of a caretaker couple, Seth’s wife being cook and maid of all work.
“I can’t wait to see your library!” whispered Sly.
“In good time, dear boy, in good time. First, some refreshment. Seth,” he called over his shoulder, “does Beth have something tasty for us?”
The retainer and the coachman, a few steps behind, were lugging four heavy grips down the walk.
“As always, sir, as always.”
“We’ll settle ourselves in the Green Room. Put the books in the hall. I’ll unpack them presently.”
“What treasures have you snatched up this trip, sir?”
“Some real finds, I assure you.”
Sly tugged at Dee’s pants leg and hissed, “your library! I must poke my nose in, just a brief snoop. Please, don’t make me wait. Here I be, within steps of the largest private library in England, and you want me to eat? This is torture.”
“Seth! What’s Beth got for us?”
“A lovely plate of cold mutton, sir.”
The cat made a face. “I ate mutton for ten years, till it came out my ears. You got nothing else?”
“How about eggs? You eat eggs, don’t you?”
“In a pinch,” sighed Sly.
“Seth, ask Beth to rustle up a platter of her special Eggs Savannah.”*
“The library,” pleaded the cat.
Dee bent down. “Patience, son, patience. First, I’ll explain a few things. Your admiration of me is misguided. I am not the man you believe me to be.
“When I won the post of Royal Astrologer, I sold off inherited land and spent with abandon. I thought the celebrity would result in the world beating a path to my door. I went all out, on furnishings, expansions. The crowds never came. I have a trickle of trade. I claw just enough out of them to make do.
“Séances are my bread and butter. You will be an asset to me in the endeavor, listening in on hushed conversations, then passing me prompts, in the form of notes. My undeniable clairvoyance will finally lure the high and well-heeled to my doorstep.
“I have not funds to maintain this property. I exploit the shabbiness as part of my marketing effort. I excuse my threadbare rugs by bragging on my library. New carpet? Faugh! Every cent I lay my hands on goes for rare books.”
“Absolutely! I share the impulse, believe me. I must see them. Now! Please!”
“I am hanging on by my fingernails. I have my Spirit Room, I call it, in the east wing. I shoo my guests past the cracked door of my library, they get to snatch the merest peek. Seth stands the door, no one is let in. Just inside, I have tables piled high with volumes, along with cunning busts and vases. The fools ooh and aah over the staged magnificence and beg a closer look. Now, now, I chide them. You are here for a consultation, are you not? I will open my reading room another time.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” asked Sly.
“See for yourself,” sighed Dee. He led the way to his legendary librarium. Near the threshold were conventionally disposed shelves. The far wall, floor to ceiling, was fitted with shallow ledges, sufficient depth to display trinkets for added realism, behind which displayed a mural of books, thousands of books painstakingly depicted, highly decorative, but a cruel ruse to break a book-lover’s heart.
Sly has discovered the truth. He’s crestfallen. He’s struggling to wrap his wits around the situation. If he could cry he’d be bawling his head off.
“What is this?” he shrieks. “You buy books right and left. It’s known all over Europe. The satchels we lately transported, full of books, so you announced to everyone from Grayson Manor to here.”
Dee snorts. “Wrack and Ruin, those malicious devils, are forever stalking me. I do what I may to keep the bastards at bay.” He unlocks one of the secured satchels sitting just outside the door and opens it wide. It is packed, not with books, but with rocks. “Part of my myth-making, I’m afraid. I am desperate to maintain a façade. I am the book-obsessed genius pronosticator oblivious to run-down surroundings; my priorities lie elsewhere.”
“When,” asked the cat, “when did you have time to paint this massive artwork? I observe astounding attention to detail, mottled spines, precise lettering. It was a Herculean task.”
“The mural,” replied Dee, “is, in fact, a bas relief, slabs of wood adhered to paneling. I tote brushes, pens, and paint with me on my frequent business trips. I travel extensively, as you know. When I encounter a book shop, I explore, take notes, and make sketches of my objects of desire, and create my facsimiles as a pleasant – and inexpensive – evening’s entertainment. And it keeps me out of the taprooms, a boon to my health.”
“You are,” squealed Sly, “as much an oddment as I am. We have a true rapport, I see it already. May it prove advantageous for the both of us.”
“Yes, you and I will get along well, I have no doubt of it. I only hope you get along with Hugin and Mugin.”
“Who are Hugin and Mugin?”
“No, the question should rather be, will Hugin and Mugin get along with you?”
“Dr. Dee! Who are Hugin and Mugin?”
TO BE CONTINUED.
* The joke behind Eggs Savannah will be explained in the comments. This runs too long already.
A few minutes later, another woman came in and sat down. Janet nodded hello and went back to her notes. What was it now she’d just thought of? Something about –
‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’
Janet studied her. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Do you live in Cheltenham by any chance?’
‘Why, yes. You too?’ Janet still couldn’t place her. ‘What part?’
‘Lynworth.’ The woman smiled. ‘The school run, perhaps. Your daughter goes to Oakwood?’
Janet thought she knew all the parents, at least by sight. A vague unease began to trouble her. Who was this woman? Was it pure coincidence that they’d met here? Or something more sinister?
No, not coincidence. She’d never seen the woman before, so how could it be?
‘I’m sorry, I just… I’m usually quite good with faces but I… You’re saying you’ve seen me with my daughter at Oakwood?’
‘You and Amelia, yes. She’s in Year 4’
The woman sat with perfect poise, her presence filling the room, while Janet, muddled and upset, shrank into her chair. She made an attempt to reassert herself. ‘I’m sorry, what’s your name?’
Just at that moment, the door opened and a secretary announced, ‘Mrs. Bowman? The arbitrator will see you now.’
Janet hurriedly put her pen and notebook into her bag and stood up.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the secretary ‘Mrs. Bowman’s appointment was first.’
Janet opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came.
‘It was nice to get a chance to speak. I do hope we meet again.’ And addressing Janet a cursory nod, the woman strode through the door.