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The Best Of 2008
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Awake Into A Dream
By Nathaniel Fincham -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

Joseph Keppt was suddenly filled with a feeling of loss, which temporarily caused him to lose track of what he was doing. He had to pause for a moment because the emotion was deep and unexpected. Everything else sank and seemed to vanish into this newly opened and previously unseen abyss.

Leaning back in his leather chair, Joseph tried to shake away the unexplained sadness. He focused on the groan of the chair as it fought to hold him up. The crick of the joints and the shudder of stretching leather were familiar sounds.

The river of loss had no source from which to flow, Joseph knew. He could build a damn but there was nothing to damn up. He could not block a phantom stream. Instead, Joseph chose to ignore.

Joseph loved his life. Every thing about it. And his brain had simply made a mistake. Released the wrong chemical? Misfired the wrong neuron? He could not say. But, whatever happened was a mistake.

What was I about to do, Joseph asked himself.

Looking around his small home office, Joseph tried to get some ground beneath himself. A desperate swim for dry land. Familiar wooden walls enclosed him, connected to carpeted floor and dark ceiling; short leather sofa against the right wall; pictures within cedar frames, hanging from walls and sitting on a large, long computer desk; many strewed papers and folders and pens and highlighters, placed or tossed with a chaotic structure system; a computer, black to match ebony leather, was still on, its bright monitor screen filled with words. Everything where Joseph had left it. Safe. Secure.

Joseph remembered. He recalled the previous step taken. And knew the next step that he was about to take. The trail was once again clear to him.

The leather chair groaned as Joseph came forward, bringing his body close to the computer screen and keyboard. Squinting, he read the words that filled the bright screen.

I had been writing, he reminded himself.

Joseph had begun working on his third novel, and was about to place the final paragraph of chapter eight. Quickly skimming over the visible sentences, he attempted a reentry into the fictional world that he had been abruptly pulled away from.

This novel, his third, was very special to Joseph. With the success of his first two works, The Uneven Sunlight and The Mouse in the Kitchen, Joseph had earned more freedom with this endeavor. He was able to relax. And possibly have a little artistic fun with it. The pressure was still present, but it no longer felt as if two worlds, the real and the imaginary, was resting upon his shoulders.

Also, the beginnings of a new story always seemed to excite Joseph. The exploration into a fresh and uncharted reality was electrifying, filling his mind with sensations unmatched by nearly everything.

As he finished reading, Joseph was able to jump back on to his initial train of thought. He began to type. Tap. Tap. Tap.

"When Stan woke he immediately knew that the explosion had taken his leg. The absence was unmistakable. But Stan did not rise in his bed in frantic search of his missing limb. He rose, pain pulsing from his void, and began to scan the hospital room for Chrystal. Was she there? And when his eyes met hers, he knew. "

The antique clock, behind Joseph’s head, began to chime, nine slow melodic pulses. 9 p.m.

I am suppose to do something at 9 o’clock, Joseph told himself. But what? But what? But what?

Kimberly.

Her bedtime story.

Joseph glared at the new words for several seconds, before saving them to the hard drive. He always hated walking away from an unfolding work, but he would happily do it for his daughter. Besides, he had already been granted hours worth of work today.

For a moment, Joseph tried to think back. How long had he been writing? He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t even remember exactly what time he had started. Yet, he knew he had been working for a while. He had eight finished chapters to prove it. Which, he thought, was a good place to pause.

Glancing at the title at the top left corner of the screen, Joseph murmured aloud, "A Walk on Crystal, I shall return."

Rising, Joseph briskly exited the office.

Kim was already comfortable, buried beneath her light blue comforter, her hair still wet from her pre-sleep bath.

"You ready for bed, kiddo?" Joseph asked as he strolled into his daughter’s bedroom.

"Yep," Kimberly replied, smiling.

"Brush your face and wash your teeth?"

Kim giggled. "Brush my teeth and wash my face, silly."

Joseph watched his daughter closely, each muscle as they flexed to form her gentle smile. Innocence. That was what Joseph saw when he looked at Kimberly. And possibilities. Like a blank page where anything could be written.

"Oh. Okay. Did you?"

"Yep," Kim replied, squirming into a position deeper below her comforter. "Why am I going to bed so early and you and mom ain’t?"

"You know you have to go to school tomorrow, kiddo," Joseph reminded his daughter.

"I know. But why?"

"If you get up early and go to school every day," Joseph began, "you will get real smart and then you can become a lawyer or doctor."

"Really?"

"Yep," Joseph replied. "And if you don’t go to school everyday, the best job that you can hope for is becoming a circus midget."

Kim giggled again.

"What if I don’t want to be a doctor or lawyer?"

"You don’t?" Joseph asked, with a curious tilt of his mouth.

"No," Kimberly replied.

"Really?"

"Yeah," Kimberly replied. "I want to tell stories, like you, dad."

"You still have to go school to tell stories," Joseph informed her, sudden pride filling his face. "Every day."

"Really?"

"Yep," Joseph said. "I went to school each and every day, whether I wanted to or not." Joseph lied.

"You did?"

"Yep," Joseph lied again.

"Okay."

"Okay," Joseph copied. "Now, until you are old enough to tuck me in and tell me a bedtime story, how about I continue the Tale of Kimberly, the Elvin Princess?"

"Okay."

Joseph waked over to the edge of Kim’s bed and sat down on the end. Kimberly adjusted, giving her father room. Leaning forward, Joseph clicked off the lamp on the small table. The room and the air was suddenly engulfed by an empty black. The dark immediately activated the sensor in a nearby nightlight, and the room and the air was brushed with a light red.

A light red?

When did I buy Kimberly a red nightlight? Kimberly’s nightlights have always been a faint yellow, Joseph told himself. And yet, red. A light red. Nearly pink. Maybe Catharine bought it? Maybe?

For another second, Joseph let himself ponder the existence of the red light, which abruptly reminded him of strawberries. Strawberries?

"Kim the Elvin Princess rode hard," Joseph said, beginning the story, trying to ignore the ghostly smell of fruit. "She drew closer and closer to the edge of the Black Forest. Kim could see the Witch’s Tower on the horizon, rising over the Wandering Trees. Twisted. Spiraling into the clouds. Robert, the Gnome Prince was near, Kim knew in her heart. She would rescue him from Gertrude the Green, and they would marry. Like the oracle had predicted. It was fate. It was destiny."

Joseph continued, listening to his daughter’s breaths becoming deeper and steadier with each word. He spoke on, until the rough sound of her first snore.

Rising slowly, Joseph gently kissed Kimberly’s forehead, trying not to wake her. "Love you kiddo," he whispered. "Forever and ever."

As Joseph left the room, on his way back to his office, he noticed a slight glow coming from the master bedroom. Instead of turning right, and heading back to his writing, Joseph turned left.

"Busted," Joseph exclaimed, leaning against the frame of the open doorway.

Catharine looked up from the novel she was curled up with, the low lamp lit up her face, causing her green eyes to glimmer. The cover of the paperback was fully exposed to Joseph, the muscular, bare-chested man peering out at him, giving him a sexy wink.

"This isn’t what it looks like," Catharine replied, a small smirk perking her lips.

The phantom loss touched Joseph’s neck hairs, and then retreated.

"How could you?" Joseph asked. "If my peers found out that my wife reads drug-store-romance-novels, I would be ruined."

"Honey," Catharine began, "I can explain."

"I would be shunned from the literary community. Black balled with any decent publisher. The only thing I will be allowed to write is corny children’s novels. Everyone Poops 2." Joseph closed the door and began to slowly make his way toward the bed.

"Well," Catharine replied. "If you would perform your husbandly duties, then I would not have to read about it. I bet you would make love to me if I was one of your novels."

"First you betray me professionally," Joseph began, coming a few steps closer. "Then you degrade me sexually?"

"Pretty much."

Joseph reached the bottom of their king-sized bed.

"I have no choice then."

Joseph crawled onto the bed. With both hands, he felt his way along Catharine’s leg, which were covered by loose pajama bottoms.

"What are you doing?" Catharine followed the question with burst of laughter. "Cut it out!"

"I have to end you to save my dignity," Joseph replied. Reaching Catharine’s midsection, he raised the bottom of her shirt to reveal her belly button. "I am sorry my love." Putting his lips to her stomach, Joseph violently blew, making his lip and her skin vibrate.

Catharine exploded. Grabbing her husband, she guided his face to hers, until their lips met. They made love fast then slow then fast again, never turning off the small lamp. Every motion was like the steps of a well rehearsed dance, fluid and in sync with each other. Years of practice and dedication had created the perfect rhythm.

Afterward, Joseph rolled over exhausted. Sleep was coming, and he was happy to let it come. He was not leaving, simply resting. Everything and everyone he loved would still be here when he woke. Safe and secure, Joseph dove into the void, doing a swan dive into sleep.

Joseph Keppt woke. Before opening his eyes, he reached over to feel the warm skin of his wife. He felt nothing but open air. So he reached further, for Catharine, but still found nothing. Why was she not there? Only nothing next to him. Why?

With a jolt, Joseph rose up. Every joint in his back and arms ached, as if the space between his bones had been filled with rough sand. But he didn’t care about the pain. Was Catharine there? Was she somewhere near? Was she?

"Catharine?"

As he rapidly peered around the small bedroom, he knew that she wasn’t.

It felt as if his whole reality quivered, shivering with the chill of total confusion.

Searching the room around him, Joseph tried to find familiarity to support him, to give him solid ground. But the room was not familiar. This was not the same room that he had fallen asleep in. An alien bedroom was now wrapped around Joseph. And he was forced to remain free-floating in the chaos.

A faint red light lit the base of the room, layering everything with the color of strawberries. A simple wooden dresser sat against the wall to the left; a bathroom door was near to the dresser; a black television came out from the wall, resting on a metal arm, a couple feet below the ceiling; a small wooden table was to the right, holding the company of one matching chair; a large off-white door took up the right corner of the wall.

The room felt empty. Soulless. Dead.

Joseph’s heart sped up. The speed increase made his chest hurt.

"Catharine?" Even his own voice seemed different. Full of grain. "Catharine?"

Joseph threw the thick blanket aside. He saw that he was wearing blue plaid pajamas. But I had fallen asleep naked. Hadn’t I?

Joseph pulled his legs completely out from the blanket. And then he slid from the bed. Quickly, he walked to the metal door. He tried the knob. It wouldn’t turn. Locked. Had he turned hard enough? He tried the knob again. Still locked.

The door had a small window, shaped like a lopsided rectangle. Joseph twisted his neck. This way. That way. Trying to see through the tiny window. A faint yellow light. An empty white wall. Nothing else could be seen.

"Hello?" he began to yell. "Hello?"

He pounded his fist off the metal door. It hurt. He hit again. Again. And again.

"Is anyone out there?"

Joseph yelled.

"Can anyone hear me?"

Joseph pounded.

"Help me!"

Is all of this a dream? A nightmare that I have awakened into? Or have I died in my sleep? Is this hell? Imprisonment for all eternity? No one I love with me? No one I care about near me? Alone? Utterly? That would be true damnation.

Someone moved passed the window. It was a subtle motion but Joseph noticed it. A shadow. A figure. He couldn’t tell.

"Help! Help me!"

Joseph took a step back. Another step. And another.

From outside the door, Joseph heard a buzz. Followed by the sound of the lock disengaging.

Joseph readied himself. Planting his feet, he was prepared for whoever was to come into the room. Friend or foe.

The metal door slowly opened inward.

Joseph’s breathing increased, keeping pace with his heart.

A short, middle aged woman entered. Her shirt was colorful and her expression was that of shock and subtle confusion, Joseph assumed her face matched his own.

"Mr. Keppt?" She asked, masking her confusion with sincerity. "You shouldn’t be up and about at this late of hour. Let me help you back into bed."

"Who are you?" Joseph asked, backing away as the woman approached.

The woman paused, the mask partially slipping off.

"Who are you? Where am I?"

"Please," she replied. "It is late. And you need your rest." The woman managed to place a hand on Joseph’s arm. "Let’s get you back into bed. A good night sleep will be beautiful."

"Get your hands off me!" Using his palm, Joseph pushed the woman backward, nearly causing her stumble to the ground.

"Calm down," the woman replied. "There is no need to get angry."

"Where is Catharine!" Joseph screamed. "Where is my wife!?"

"There is no need to scream," the woman replied. "Everything is all right. Everything is okay."

"Nothing is okay," Joseph said, coming closer to the woman. "Where is my wife? Where is my daughter? What have you done to them? Why are you keeping me here? Where the hell is here? I want answers! Now!"

"Calm down please."

"I will not." Suddenly, Joseph sprang forward and shoved the woman again, causing her to lose her footing and fall into the wall. The act was instinctual. Upon seeing his own outburst of violence, Joseph ran. Into the open bathroom, he hurried, slamming the door behind him.

Total blackness now hid him.

"What do you want from me?!"

There was no answer.

"What do you want!"

His voice became weak, desperate, scared.

"What do you want?"

The dark around Joseph refused to deteriorate. At first, his eyes refused to filter it. And the black remained impenetrable, empty, blank, like an ebony page, unused. Instead of words, Joseph filled the void with images. Catharine’s face. Her body. Naked. As it had been when he last saw her. Smooth skin. Tanned. Flawless. Gone.

Gone.

The loneliest word in the English language.

Joseph could no longer feel Catharine near by. Her scent had vanished. The connection had been lost. He could not feel her. The absence was unmistakable.

Gone.

Somewhere inside him the word rang true.

Gone.

Joseph‘s eyes finally chose to focus the strawberry light along the bottom of the door, revealing shapes around him. A toilet. A sink. A tub. A mirror.

"Mr. Keppt," cried a male voice. "Mr. Keppt. My name is Doctor Ramone. I believe that I have some answers for you. If you would please come out and join me out here."

Joseph locked the door.

"No!"

"What happened?" Dr. Ramone asked the middle aged lady. "What triggered this?"

"I don’t know," the woman responded.

"Well, something did," Dr. Ramone replied.

Without noticing the motion, Joseph found himself sitting on the top of the toilet seat.

"I know you must be frightened," Dr. Ramone spoke, turning his attention back to Joseph. "It is completely reasonable. And understandable. But, if you come out here, we can talk about it. We can sit down, face to face, and I can try to explain everything. Do you understand? Mr. Keppt? Mr. Keppt? Do you understand what I am telling you?"

"Where am I?" Joseph chose not to raise his voice this time, the fight was quickly draining from him, filling the toilet bowl beneath him.

"Please come out of the bathroom, Joseph," Dr. Ramone tried one more time.

"Where am I?"

Joseph could feel the doctor’s frustration, like sound waves, pulsing through the walls.

"Blissful Wanderings," Dr. Ramone finally answered. "A resting home for . . . "

"Why?"

"Why what?’

"Why are you keeping me here?"

"You are," Dr. Ramone began, "very ill, Joseph. We are not keeping you here. You are a patient here."

"You’re lying."

"It’s the truth," Dr. Ramone replied. "Please come out. I don’t want to tell this to the broad side of a door."

"You will tell me. You will tell me." Joseph’s hands began to quiver uncontrollably.

"Alzheimer’s."

"Alzheimer’s?"

"For over 20 years," Dr. Ramone answered. "I can’t explain what is going on right now. You have been catatonic. Barley responsive for almost a decade. You haven’t spoken more than couple words in years. And now. This."

"You’re lying."

"What is the last thing you remember?" Dr. Ramone ignored the accusation.

"My wife. My daughter. Being at home. Writing. Going to sleep in my own bed. Strawberries."

"What year?"

"2007."

Silence.

"2007!"

"It’s 2038, Mr. Keppt," Dr. Ramone replied.

Again, without feeling the motion, Joseph found himself standing. The small bathroom seemed smaller, claustrophobic. If he had room, Joseph knew that he would pace, side to side, end to end.

2038?

Impossible.

Wasn’t it?

"Mr. Keppt?" Dr. Ramone seemed anxious. "Did you hear what I said?"

"Yes." Joseph answered. "I don’t believe you."

"I am not trying to deceive you in any way," Dr. Ramone began. "I know how it must sound. I know how hard it must be to swallow. But I insist that you try. You are not yourself, right, Joseph."

"I am myself. I know myself," Joseph replied. "And I know how to spot lies. I know how to spot stories and fairy tales. I write them for a living. I create fiction, and I can smell fiction a mile short of Texas."

"Just listen to me please," Dr. Ramone pleaded. "You are not well. Your mind is not well. You cannot trust yourself. Do me a favor, Joseph. Look in the mirror. But brace yourself."

Joseph’s entire body paused, blood and heart and breath. No. No. No.

"Prove me wrong," Dr. Ramone insisted.

The mirror was two steps away. Joseph inhaled. One step. And then exhaled. Another step. A dark shape met him there. Barely a shadow. Hunched. Faded.

Who is that? Joseph asked himself.

Turning at the hip, Joseph flipped the light switch. And the florescent bulb flickered, flickered, before coming fully to life. Suddenly, revealed by the bright, an old man, wrinkled and worn, glared back at Joseph from within the looking glass. A stranger with a familiar face.

Joseph quickly closed his eyes.

That is not me.

"Where is Catharine?" Joseph asked the question again, still hoping for some sort of response.

"Your wife . . . " Dr. Ramone began. "Catharine passed . . . nearly 6 years ago."

"And my daughter?"

"I don’t know," Dr. Ramone replied. "We don’t know. No one has been able to contact her for several years. She signed your care completely over to Blissful Wanderings, full decision making ability, and disappeared."

"Am I dead?" Joseph asked, squeezing his eyelids tighter, trying to feel the strain. But the strain wasn’t there.

"No, Joseph. You are very much a live."

"Is this damnation?"

"No. This is illness."

"Is this even real?"

"Yes. Everything you are experience is 100 percent real."

"Am I dreaming still? Have I not woken yet?"

Joseph opened his eyes. The old man was still there.

"You are not me," Joseph told the old man, watching the old man’s lips move in the same manner that his own had. Was the old man mocking him?

"What was that, Joseph?" Dr. Ramone asked. "I couldn’t hear you."

"You are not me," Joseph repeated, watching the old man’s eyebrows twitch. Did mine twitch? He was unsure. "You are not me."

Joseph watched the old man very closely. He watched for differences. Inconsistencies in movement.

"You are not me. My wife is asleep next to me, her arm across my chest. My daughter is in her bed down the hall, dreaming of fairy tales and horses. My wife is not dead. My daughter is not gone. Not gone!"

The old man’s nostrils flared. My nose did not flare, Joseph told himself. His flared. But mine did not.

"You are not me!" Folding his fingers, Joseph slammed the base of his two fists into the mirror. He was shocked when they did not simply pass through. "Come out of there. Take your life." He struck the mirror again. Fractures erupted and spread. Pieces of glass began to rain into the sink. But there was no pain. "Give me back mine." Another hit. And another. No pain. The pieces grew bigger, as did the drops of maroon blood.

The mirror now half existed.

Sleep to wake, Joseph thought, remembering the nightmares he had when he was a child. He would run. He would fight. But the monsters never stopped, until he finally decided to give up, to fall down, to play dead. That was when he would wake up. Only then would the nightmare end.

Taking a large sliver of broken glass, Joseph held it to his wrist. "Sleep unto death, and wake in to dream," Joseph said, quoting one of his favorite poems. He then cut, making a deep slide from left to right. He watched his skin split, but never felt it. "Dream unto life, and sleep forever more."

The bathroom spun. The blood flowed. And Joseph did not fight to remain conscious. He would let sleep take him. Hope made it easy. Hope that this cold reality would no longer be. In his bed, safe and secure, he would return.

Joseph allowed his body to fall to the tile. The blood was like the light, peaking under the door.

"What is going on Joseph?"

Red.

"Are you all right in there?"

Strawberry.

"And the wedding was grand. Everyone traveled far to attend, from elf to gnome to pixie to posie. The sight of true love and destiny brought them all together. As Kim and Robert kissed, their first kiss as husband and wife, there was no doubt that their ending would be happy, no matter which road they rode down next. No evil witch nor troll king could separate them, love would always bring them back to each other. The end."

As Joseph finally finished his fairy tale, he became aware of Kimberly’s deep, calm breathing. He knew that he would have to finish it again tomorrow night. But that was okay. Joseph never minded a rewrite, stories only get better with time. The more you come back to them, the more you can improve on earlier mistakes. He only wished that life was that easy.

"Love ya, kiddo," Joseph said, slowly brushing Kimberly’s forehead with his lips. "For ever and ever."

Joseph gently rose, trying not to stir his daughter’s peace. Walking towards the door, heel to toe, trying to be silent, Joseph paused. When did Kimberly’s nightlight become red? He wondered. Did I buy that? Or did Catharine? It reminded him of something. Not blood. Not wine. Strawberries . . . 

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