Like any other morning in downtown Chicago, traffic jammed the streets and waves of people flooded the sidewalks. The city was alive with the hustle and bustle of people trying to get from one place to another – preferably someplace warm, as they trudged through light snow.
Unlike any other morning in downtown Chicago, the place people were trying to get was a place of safety, as an enormous winged serpent rose frantically into the sky and shook dirt and pebbles from its back. Its green scales glimmered in the late winter’s sun as it turned back around to roar a fresh breath of fire onto the panicked crowd fleeing down Michigan Avenue. Some victims immediately dropped dead, and those lucky enough to survive began stopping, dropping, and rolling, simultaneously thinking thank goodness for this once-thought-useless skill, and holy shit that’s a real dragon!
A particularly lanky man made it safely around the corner onto Randolph Street, and he hid against one side of the Millennium Park Plaza tower. He breathed a brief sigh of relief just a moment before a gigantic pale white snake erupted from the pavement beneath his feet, swallowed him whole, and crashed onto the ground. It slithered, satisfied, down an alleyway and past a pack of two-headed dogs preying on a few bankers. It left a trail of rubble behind from its explosive arrival.
Three friends stood atop a lonely hill in Douglas Park, a few miles west of the carnage.
“Jesus…” said Paul, the pale man who stood in the middle of the three. He wore blue-and-grey striped pajama pants, a white T-shirt, and a frown as he stared at the scene on the horizon. The details were not clear to him from this distance, but the screams and blazes of flame told him enough of what was happening. As his gaze drifted to his closer surroundings, he saw one of the all-too-familiar giant white snakes making its way down 13th Street. He ran both of his hands through his hair and dirt fell from his head. His mouth took a brief break from frowning when he saw some coarse red hair in his hand.
The sickly-looking blonde man next to Paul brushed snow and dead leaves from his hoodie. Feelings of confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and hunger all clashed inside him when he heard the screams and saw the monsters loose in the city. He suppressed the feelings expertly. “Man, we sure screwed up this time, huh guys?” he said. He put his hand up to feel a bruise on his forehead.
Paul’s eyes, previously heavy with melancholy, quickly narrowed. “’We sure screwed up’?! How can you say that, like we’re in some shitty sitcom? Brendon, people are dying! Earth is swarming with actual monsters, we’re hanging out with someone from the goddamn future, and all you got is ‘we sure screwed up’?!”
“Just trying to lighten the mood, Paul.”
“This mood can’t be lightened. We’re responsible for this.”
“Well if it’s anyone’s fault it’s Gary’s,” said Brendon. He shuffled his feet.
“Gary saved us, you ungrateful ass!”
Their third ally regained her composure. She brushed the dirt from her slick black pants and her long black hair. She tried to look dignified, but failed.
“If I may,” said Jenna, the aforementioned someone from the goddamn future, “I believe I have a plan.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here.” Jenna turned and began carefully walking down the hill with purposeful steps, but Paul did not follow. He stood rooted in horror.
He asked, mostly to himself, “just…how did…how did all this happen?”
“You should know, you were there,” said Jenna. Brendon nodded in agreement at the obvious answer.
“I know that, but I mean…just a few days ago, I did not see my life going this way.”
“Well, a few days ago, you weren’t even-“
Paul cut Brendon off. “You know what I mean.”
Jenna said, “but now you’re back. Lucky you!” She turned away from Paul and continued down the hill.
“Yeah. Lucky me…”
A FEW DAYS AGO. FRIDAY.
Although Paul Truman knew how important he was, he did not take pride in the fact. He did not boast and he did not gloat; he simply did his job because he knew it had to be done. He said as much to the stranger sitting next to him at the bar.
“What is it that you do?” asked the man in response.
“I protect the president from demons,” said Paul proudly.
The man nodded in quiet understanding, clearly unimpressed and unamused. He took a sip of his drink, set it back down on the counter, and signaled to the bartender that he was ready for his check.
The well-dressed gentleman tending bar that night could not get to the man yet as he was quite busy with a crowd of strangely-shaped youngsters a few seats down. He nodded at the man to let him know he would get to him at some point. Paul meanwhile took the hint that his barstool neighbor was not interested in what he had to say. He averted his eyes to his half-empty glass of cheap beer on the counter. The rest of the bar moved about aimlessly in a blur behind him.
The stranger sitting next to Paul turned to address him, opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He looked as if he was having trouble remembering something very important. And then, before he got a chance to remember it, his skin promptly dissolved away from his body to reveal layers of muscle tissue. The muscle tissue pulsed as blood trickled down over it, and then it too shed to the floor, leaving behind a skeletal frame. The bones, no longer bound together, clattered to the floor around the bar stool. Where a seemingly ordinary man once sat now stood a three-foot-tall impish being, free from his disguise. He wore a filthy tunic over his dark red skin. Paul watched the transformation not with surprise, but with self-righteous disgust.
“…Demon scum,” Paul muttered.
The creature shrugged off the last remaining sliver of fake human flesh from its back. It pointed a small boney finger at Paul. “Blaugh! For the last time, we Ichaloids are not demons!”
It reached behind its back, drew a sharp dagger, and leapt at Paul, who effortlessly smacked the imp out of the air with his beer mug. He pressed his foot down firmly on the defeated foe and took out his phone to call in the attack. Instead of ringing, however, his phone beeped loudly in his ear.
The next thing Paul saw was his bedroom ceiling. He reached over to his phone and turned off the alarm to stop the loud beeping.
Paul always assumed he’d eventually get used to these early mornings, but this was not the case; he never quite mastered his morning routine. He reached a long arm down to the floor and felt around under his bed until he found a spiral notebook. The words “dream journal VI” took up the cover, and he flipped to a fresh page. Paul almost always remembered his dreams in vivid detail, and he frequently had lucid dreams. People have told him he was lucky in that regard; some people train themselves to control their actions in their dreams, but Paul did it (almost) effortlessly. Paul did not feel lucky to have such vivid lucid dreams so often. He often found them disorienting. They made waking up even more difficult than it should be.
He began writing:
March 2nd, 2012
I sat in a busy bar and talked to a man sitting next to me. I was a demon slayer, and failed to hide my pride about it. It felt too good to be important…
Once he finished transcribing the dream, Paul prepared himself for another day of work as a software engineer. He decided that today would take a considerable less amount of preparation, since he also decided that today would be his last day at this job. He planned on striding into his boss’s office at five o’clock – shoulders back, head held high – and telling him, “Hey. I quit.” He’d use his most confident voice. A “cool guy” voice. At first he considered just not going to work today at all and quitting in that fashion, but he decided that wasn’t good enough. Paul needed closure.
Paul had grown up in Ann Arbor, but decided to stay in Chicago after he graduated from university there; he preferred the city. The city was full of loners, so doing things by himself here – going to movies alone, going out to eat alone, sitting at a bar alone – wasn’t frowned upon like it was back home. Paul felt free to be Paul.
As he stepped out of his apartment building onto Roosevelt Road, the cold weather bothered him less and the sun seemed to shine brighter that day. When he reached his bus stop at the end of the block, the same strangers he saw every day seemed a bit friendlier. And as he rode to work, the ride seemed to go by faster. Paul got off the bus and walked to his office building.
The three-story grey brick of a building sat on the corner of the block, the words “Lincoln and Associates Life Insurance” spelled out over the door in big black not-so-friendly letters. Paul had dreaded walking into this mundane building every weekday for the past three years, but since he knew that this would be his last time going in, he felt that today would be a good day.
“This place really sucks the soul outta ya, doesn’t it?” Paul joked to a co-worker as he walked in.
“Ha, yeah, but I though you gingers were soulless?”
Paul silently walked away to his cubicle.
A few hours later, Paul had to face facts and admit that today was not such a good day after all. And when the clock finally struck five, he headed for the exit with his shoulders slouched and his head down.
“Have a good night Paul, see you Monday!” said a co-worker whose name Paul still hadn’t learned. She looked like a Janet.
“Yeah, you too...” he maintained his slouched posture as he walked out of the building and to his bus stop.
After a half-hour’s ride, Paul drudged his way back up to his studio apartment on the fifth floor. He dropped his coat on the floor, tossed his keys onto the nearby kitchen counter, and plopped himself onto his patchwork-covered couch in front of the TV. The highlight of his night would be when The Daily Show came on at ten. And after that he was off to bed.
The loud sounds of aggressive sex on a creaky bed in the apartment above him made falling asleep often difficult for Paul. Well at least Bruce seemed to be having a good night. Paul sandwiched his head between two pillows to stifle the noise. Before finally falling asleep, he decided that Monday would be his last day at his job. Yes, things are gonna change.
A large vulture-like bird soared aimlessly through the clear blue sky. She spread out her long tattered wings and a few feathers threatened to fall off. The bird looked ill, but flew triumphantly nonetheless. She looked down on the ground and scanned the desert floor but saw nothing out of the ordinary. An occasional dune rose out of the ground here and there, but nothing to write home about.
This was the bird’s domain, and although it was barren, she made the most of it. She flew onwards. Wait! There, on the ground! A body? Indeed, a red-headed young man lay in the sand below. She dipped into a smooth dive to get a closer look. Dammit. It moved. The bird rose up into the air once more, disappointed. She hadn’t seen a corpse in a long time.
As soon as Paul woke up, he realized something wasn’t right. His first sign of this was that instead of staring up at his bedroom ceiling, he was looking up at the sky. His second sign was that although the sky was bright, the sun was missing. In fact, the sky seemed entirely empty, save for a large bird flying away. He lifted up his right arm and watched as sand trickled off his skin. His lips formed the words “what the hell,” but no sound escaped them. At least one thing was familiar – he still had his pajamas on.
Paul planted his palms firmly on the ground, pushed himself to his feet, and surveyed his surroundings. He attempted to take them in, but his surroundings did not offer much for the taking. Nothing but sand and sky as far as he could see. He wondered if perhaps he was still dreaming; he vaguely remembered having a strange dream just moments ago. But even if that were the case, he certainly didn’t want to just sit in one spot until he woke up. Well, no use waiting. He picked a direction and began walking. He wished he had shoes.
Two hundred and fifty miles above Earth, a team of astronauts underwent Expedition 30 aboard the International Space Station. The 837 cubic meter satellite was currently only half-staffed, with three personnel on board. Those three were: Dr. Lydia Wiggin, 30, docking module pilot; Dr. Harold Chiao, 29, general flight engineer; and Dr. Thomas Poole, 33, life support specialist. They had been onboard the station for 146 days, and in two days a full crew of six would arrive to replace them. Thomas did not wish to be replaced.
Although Thomas was blessed with the brain of a scientist, he was also cursed (or so he felt) with the heart of an explorer. His motivation for joining the station’s crew was fueled by this heart; space is the final frontier, after all. He remembered literally leaping for joy once he heard the news that he was selected for the expedition. He remembered excitedly telling his therapist all about it and about what he would do aboard the modern marvel. He remembered grinning during most of the flight to the station from Houston.
Thomas’s grin, however, had long since faded. Throughout the duration of his stay, he had been conducting research in fields such as physics, biology, astronomy, and meteorology. Lydia and Harold, however, chose to pursue research in fields such as romance, interpersonal relationships, and irrational argumentation; against all recommendations, the two of them started a relationship shortly before leaving Houston. The relationship did not last long, as they broke up only four days into the expedition. Worse still, they could not stay broken up. Last night they got back together for the eighth time.
Thomas stood in his getaway room: the Cupola, the station’s small observation module that gave astronauts a clear view of Earth. Most astronauts found the view of Earth important to maintaining their mental health; looking at the planet they called home gave them both relaxation and inspiration. Thomas leaned his forehead against the borosilicate glass pane and looked not at Earth but past it. He looked longingly out at the stars.
He sighed softly. I belong out there…
After an uneventful three-mile walk, Paul’s surroundings remained completely unchanged. He grew more tired of the sand than he was of walking. Actually, he wasn’t tired of walking at all. This surprised him at first, but he attributed it to the likelihood that he was dreaming.
A rumbling from beneath the ground surprised him even more. He looked all around himself but saw no source of the sound until a patch of sand in front of him began swirling, much like toilet water being flushed. The ground opened up to reveal the toilet bowl, and sand poured down into the resulting hole as the rumbling grew tremendously louder. Paul stood frozen in place, suddenly feeling much more empathetic towards deer. He decided to file his fear under the possibility that he was not dreaming.
A gigantic beast of a snake erupted forth from the hole, its body initially perpendicular to the ground. The creature was a pale white, but its eyes were black as black could be. Paul gazed in awed fascination as the snake launched into the air, then turned and ran in awed panic as it fell back to the ground. It slammed against the desert floor with a sickening thud, but Paul didn’t bother to turn and look. He kept sprinting. The unbelievable monster slithered closely behind him, and Paul felt that this was the end for him; that is, until he heard the snake let out a painful moan. It sounded like a whale crying.
Paul’s curiosity got the best of him. He stopped and spun on his heel, almost tipping over from the halted momentum. The snake had a wooden arrow protruding from its face, and soon another arrow soared brilliantly from out of Paul’s sight to join the first one. The monster ended its rampage and burrowed back into the ground to safety.
“And that,” said a gruff voice from behind Paul, “is what we call the worst welcome party ever.”
Paul turned and saw a short, stocky man with dirty blonde hair down to his shoulders and a face that looked as if it took regular beatings from a shovel. He wore a plain brown shirt which strongly resembled a burlap sack, and pants to match. The man sat perched atop a tall stool on the back of a crude motorcycle. It looked as if the man had made the vehicle from parts he found lying around his garage.
“Name’s Todd,” said the stranger. He lowered his crossbow and climbed down from his bizarre vehicle. “Looks like I found you just in time.”
Paul tried to speak, but he had a million questions and didn’t want them to all come out at once. He took the time to figure out how to prioritize them.
“What was that?”
“Dunno if they have a scientific name, but I’ve always just known ‘em as snakes. Or big uglies.” Todd backed up to get a good look at Paul. “First time to the afterlife, eh?” He appeared as if he was trying to hold back a grin as he said this, but he failed. His smile looked almost as ridiculous as his bike.
“Excuse me?” said Paul. “The afterlife?”
Todd’s smile quickly vanished. “Well yeah. Naturally.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Okay, to be specific this is the Torrid Desert, in the southern region of Kranuk. We’re pretty stumped as to how ya ended up all the way out here.”
“And here is…in the afterlife?” Paul sat down cross-legged on the ground, his legs unable to bear how crazy this man sounded.
“Sure is. The afterlife…as in after life. Sorry about dying, kid. Happens to the best of us.” Todd tried to sound facetious, but his tone gave away his true feelings of concern.
“But I didn’t die. This has to be a dream. I am dreaming, right?”
Todd paused and thought for a moment. “Ya know, I was once told that you can’t focus on anything for too long in dreams. So if you ever think you’re in a dream, you just stare at your hand. I guess if nothing happens that means you’re in reality.”
Paul raised his hand in front of his face and stared at it. He picked a line in his palm and followed it as slowly and carefully as he could. He kept waiting – hoping – for something to happen. Maybe it’d disappear, or maybe his fingers would turn into worms. Or maybe he’d just wake up.
“I don’t think I’m dreaming,” said Paul at last.
“You aren’t,” agreed Todd.
Paul suddenly felt completely alone and abandoned. He was used to being a loner, but this felt different. As if he had been married for years and his wife suddenly left him without so much as a note.
“’Shit’ is right,” agreed Todd again.