"Once upon a time, in some silly dream of mine, I found I held the world within my hand."
In the midst of some nameless night's tossing and turning to confused dreams, Eric Gudin awoke from blissful sleep and rubbed his eyes, seeing the form of a translucent boy standing expectantly at the foot of the bed.
"It's time for you to choose, Eric," said the boy.
"Choose what?" Eric mumbled, wondering why he was having a daydream at night, for Kyle had never appeared at such a time as this until now.
"Your path, of course. And don't give me any excuses. You turn thirteen in two days, so it's now or never, live or die. What do you choose?"
Eric winced as he got out of bed, yesterday's bruises on his back and thighs implementing their full pain now. He went up to Kyle and swung a hand through the boy's gaseous torso. "I don't know. If staying alive means living like a lunatic who sees invisible angels in his bedroom at night, maybe it's better to be dead. At least seeing angels in heaven wouldn't get me thrown into the nuthouse."
Kyle shook his head, looking disappointed. "You still think you're crazy for seeing me? That's crazy. And besides, if you're insane, how is it that I can hear and see you?"
Eric shrugged. "Luck, I guess. Look, I have enough problems without having to deal with you. I'm tired and I want to sleep, so leave me alone."
"Oh, yes," Kyle said, stepping forward and concentrating his gaze full on Eric. "'I have problems, woe is me. My parents are stoners and they beat the hell out of me if I don't smile when they play their perverted games with me. I'm just another speck of dirt on the sidewalk that means nothing in the world and it's my life, so but out.' Everyone has problems, Eric, but they don't get rid of them by getting wasted and sleeping their lives away. You have a gift, and like it or not, I'm not going to let you throw it away."
"You call what I have a gift? Not being able to tell what's real and what's not? Never being sure if I'm in the real world or some other reality? Being called a freak, feeling even more like one when I have to talk to you in public and everyone else sees me talking to air...you call that a gift? Well, I don't want it anymore."
Turning away, Eric wrapped his arms about his chest and bit his lip, knowing any minute now he'd be crying like a wuss. Damn, I wish I had a joint right about now...
Kyle placed a hand on Eric's shoulder, a cold breath of air on living flesh that had come to be a sort of comfort over the recent months. When he spoke, his voice was gentle, fatherly. "Too bad, champ. You have it and the only thing you can do is learn how to use it. Now come with me. I want to show you a few things before you make your decision."
With his left hand Kyle covered Eric's eyes and with his right he pointed out the bedroom window, everything getting larger, brighter, and with a sudden sickening sensation like that of falling and being really dizzy at the same time...
...realities shifted once again.
It didn't hit him quickly at first, how he was suddenly standing fully dressed in the baseball aisle of the local Comics & Cards shop, Yankees cap on his head and a wad of chewing gum in his mouth. That was just his body waiting to be animated as he floated nearby, wondering if what he was seeing was real or just another image conjured up by his brain as it drown in the fumes of some joint, for sometimes that's how he switched realities: on accident while he was stoned out of his mind. At least this time I'm in one of the better lives.
"Duh," said Kyle, appearing at his side and knocking on his head as he stepped into his body. "You don't have to be high in order to get in touch with metaphysics. Now why did you come here?"
Eric shrugged and stepped aside as some other kid passed by in the aisle. "You brought me here."
"No, I only gave the suggestion. You chose what direction to walk after that. You chose to come here because this is where you want to be right now. And here you are."
Rather than try to figure out something he knew he wasn't quite understanding yet, Eric went with the flow of his new reality, reaching into his pants pocket and finding a familiar wad of dollar bills there, given to him (he somehow sensed) by his parents. It was supposed to have been for school lunch, but he never spent it on food when he could stop by Comics & Cards afterward and buy a copy of ElfQuest and a pack of Topps baseball cards. The total came out to be just a bit more than he had on him, but Danny, the shop's owner, was cool with that. Danny knew each and every one of his customers just as well as he knew the storylines of each and every ElfQuest comic. Whenever Eric went up to the register, Danny winked and told him he didn't have to pay any tax, that it was "on the house."
Outside the sun was bright and the sky was clear-it was the perfect day for some fooling around away from home.
"You up for some practice at the park?" Kyle asked, picking up a discarded stick and swinging it like a bat.
Eric nodded, adjusting his baseball cap so that it was backwards. "You bet. And today it's gonna be five homies in one game!"
Wylder Park was only a block or so away from Eric's home and the place for anyone twelve and under to be hanging out after school. He had his own area of the park that he used for baseball practice: a flat stretch of grass where other kids usually played soccer or flew their kites.
"We got a rowdy croud out here today," Kyle said, spitting and handing Eric a bat. Both boys' clothing discreetly became appropriate for the event: striped baseball uniforms, no logo but enough to give anyone passing by the notion that this was an offical game. Out on the grass field, a thousand screaming fans suddenly appeared and the air filled with their eager voices. Among them was Kiley, just out of school for the afternoon, for she still wore her backpack, and a smile, cheering Eric on with the other fans. He smiled back at her and suddenly anything was possible, everything was right-this was where he wanted to be and who he wanted to be.
"Right," said Eric, stepping up to the plate and taking a practice swing. "Let's give 'em what they paid for!"
Glove on one hand, baseball in the other, Kyle flashed an elfish grin and strode purposefully onto the mound. A nod to the catcher who'd just appeared behind Eric, the windup and the pitch, a tight curveball but Eric was ready for it. He swung, a perfect swing, one that sent the ball hurtling out across the small field, past the fence, up into the air where the sky claimed it. Even so, he took off like a bullet, rounding first, second, third and sliding home in a magnificent cloud of dust.
"Another homerun from Eric Gudin and the crowd goes wild!" Kyle shouted, jumping up and down as he ran to Eric's side and helped him up. "See? What'd I tell you? Will it and it will happen! That was awesome!"
"Thanks," Eric replied, smiling and running into the crowd of people where he hugged Kiley. She hugged him back and gave him a kiss.
"That was great!" she said. "You know Eric, someday you're gonna be famous and you'll get all this money and move away to some big mansion and you'll forget me..."
Putting a finger on her lips, Eric rolled his eyes and laughed. "You know I'll never forget you. Wherever I go, I will take you with me."
Kyle appeared beside them and tapped Eric on the shoulder while making a gesture as if he were tapping his wristwatch, even though he wasn't wearing one. "Eric, we have to go. We have a schedule to keep."
Darn, and just when I was beginning to enjoy myself, Eric thought. He kissed Kiley again and whispered into her ear, "I'll see you soon, okay?" Then she and the rest of the crowd melted away.
Running home, sweaty and satisfied with the day, it was easy for Eric to think he was having a great life. It was easy to imagine himself bounding up the front steps of his parents' lovely two-story house, his best friend at his side, the bright midday sun making everything glow all nice, going inside and stopping by the kitchen for a glass of ice-cold grape juice.
"Mom, I hit a home run today!" he exclaimed.
"Yeah, you should have seen it," Kyle added, although his voice could not be heard by anyone other than Eric.
Mrs. Gudin smiled and patted him on the head. "That's wonderful, honey. I couldn't be more proud. Now why don't you go on upstairs and wash up?"
Eric nodded and went up to his bedroom. He felt like the luckiest boy in the world, especially since tonight was potatoes au' gratin night. He tossed his backpack onto his race-car-shaped bed, kicked off his sneakers and socks, and padded out into the hall with a fresh towel in his hand. Halfway to the bathroom, he halted suddenly and cringed, hearing his father calling from his parents' bedroom.
"Eric..." His voice was raspy, swollen, soaked with beer. "Eric, come in here."
At that moment Kyle appeared by his side and linked his arm in Eric's. "Let's leave...now," he hissed, but it was too late already. The new reailty was setting in again and Kyle became merely a banished daydream, the words, "Oh, shit..." trailing off his lips as his body dissolved away into nothing. In his place stood the old notion that real life was much stronger than the surreal, and all the old fears rattled loose from their dank cages.
He went in, dared not disobey his father in the hopes that maybe tonight's beating wouldn't be as bad as the last. Around him, the light from outside became darker as the sun hid behind a hazy brown cloud, like a frightened child covering his eyes before the bad part in a bloody movie. The walls of his parents' bedroom became dirtier, the floor more cluttered, the smell mustier, the mood more somber...more real. So real even when he tried to close his eyes he still couldn't escape back into the daydream place of a moment ago. He never could go there when it mattered, here in this insanely real world where there was only the odor of alcohol and the feel of Dad's searching fingers, pulling down his underwear and touching his private places. Only a precious few moments now before mustered dignity gave way to painful disgust.
"Dad...stop. Please don't do that."
Trying to reason with the man was futile; trying to struggle was crazy. He merely earned himself a slap across the face, a burning in his cheeks, rougher hands on his naked thighs.
Take it without a fight, he thought grimly. Maybe there'll be less pain if he doesn't see fit to hit me anymore. Maybe he won't ask me to do those other things if I just be quiet and get it over with. God I wish I really could be in that daydream house right now...if only it was real, the kitchen, ice-cold grape juice, the race-car bed, fresh towel, scent of Dove soap...good. Keep thinking. Keep your mind off what's happening between your legs. Pretend it's already over and Dad's lying passed out on the floor. Don't let the tears blind you. Clean yourself off and try to forget it ever happened unless you want to get beaten.
Be strong. Think of the daydream...
Kyle came back later when Eric was in the bathtub, staring quietly at the wall and seeing nothing around him.
"Eric?" Kyle whispered, kneeling at the edge of the tub and waving his translucent hand (less solid now than before) in front of his friend's face. "Eric, did it happen again?"
Eric nodded and turned his head to look at Kyle, who now wore boxers and a T-shirt (like he always did for sleepovers) and who was little more than a breath of shadow against the dull white of the toilet bowl.
"Why'd you cast me away?" Kyle asked, his voice soft, brittle, like he'd been slapped hard across the face.
"There was nothing you could've done," Eric said, now turning his attention to the water in the tub. "You're not real."
"I'm not real only because you think I'm not."
"If you were real you would have helped me."
"How could I have? You let your fear take over, you let reality control you again and again! That's why I disappear whenever your parents get the itching for a fuck. Be strong and I can help you, but otherwise..."
Otherwise I'm just another crazy kid, Eric thought. Another sorry statistic people hear about in the news when someone gets shot. The only difference is that I'm the only person on this side of town who sees a ghost that tells him if he believes in the impossible, the impossibloe can happen. Yeah, right! Like my parents are ever gonna treat me like more than their little whore, like I'm ever gonna find my way out of this hole...
"Eric, you're not trying," Kyle said, noticing that his body was fading away aagin.
"Maybe later," replied Eric as he sighed and fixed his gaze once again on the bare bathroom wall. Thinking nothing, seeing nothing, hardly even awake, he sat suspended in a place somewhere between realities. Maybe if he went numb enough he wouldn't be able to feel anything either.
After his bath he dressed, stuffed a pack of cigarettes into his backpack and snuck out of the house. Knowing that it would be more pleasant to spend the rest of the evening at Kiley's, he walked quickly along the cracked sidewalks and tried to ignore his latest surroundings, which were reflective of a neighborhood that ranked somewhere between middle and lower-class. Most of the homes here were single-story houses that had been built in the early seventies and since then they'd not received much care.
Kiley's place was near the freeway and had the most horribly overgrown yard Eric had ever seen. He jumped the tall wooden fence and waded through bristly grass and weeds and went around to her bedroom window, where he tapped on the glass, softly, for her parents didn't care much for him, being a street-punk and all. Kiley didn't care though. She slid her window open and let him inside with a kiss. Together they spent the rest of the evening smoking a secret stash of weed and making out until Eric finally stumbled home without his virginity nor a clue as to how he'd lost it. Higher than a kite, he tripped and lurched his way towards home, his surroundings swirling about him like a whirlpool. When he tried to cross the street, he missed his footing and fell off the curb. He landed face-down on the street and started laughing, thinking to himself, "Shit, now that was a rush!"
Airy hands, grabbing at his shoulders and hauling up onto his feet brought back some sense of reality to his thoughts. With his head lolling back and forth, Eric squinted and saw that Kyle was holding him now, supporting him as he stumbled across the street.
"Dude," Eric murmured. "You missed the good stuff. Kiley and me, we got it on..."
Kyle wasn't amused or impressed. "You stupid fool," he said. "You think getting high and becoming a babbling idiot is cool? Just wait until tomorrow morning."
"Aw, Kyle, you're such a fucking wab! You gotta start having some fun. Or what, you can't get a hard-on? Are your nuts inverted?" Eric grabbed at his friend's groin but Kyle slapped his hand away and pushed him onto the ground.
"Look at yourself, Eric," he said with a disgusted scowl on his face. "Is this what you really want?"
Eric blinked, turning his eyes towards the sidewalk, which had now become a mirror, reflecting his image, as well as Kyle's. Only it couldn't have been his own image he saw for the boy in the mirror was several years older and sickly looking. Pale skin, dark circles under the eyes. The face was familiar though, his own, but yet not as it was supposed to be. With shaky hands he touched his own cheeks, ran fingers over mouth, pulled back lips and saw sores inside, tongue recoiling.
My face as it would look inside a nightmare, he thought.
"As it could be," Kyle whispered, kneeling beside Eric. "As you could make yourself if you wanted."
Trembling all over now, Eric coughed and sat up in a teenager's body. "That's crazy...I'll never get that bad..."
"This is what you are right now. This is the reality you've weaved for yourself. Past, present or future don't matter; it's all relative. This is you as you believe yourself to be."
"Take me back," Eric croaked, unaccustomed to his deepened voice and sore throat. "This isn't real. This isn't me. I'm not here right now."
"You're always here," Kyle said, placing his hand over Eric's eyes. "It's what surrounds you that changes."
He took his hand away and Eric saw that he was back in his bedroom again, kneeling over his bed, Kyle ever-present at his side. Looking around with wild eyes he saw that it wasn't his favorite reality but it wasn't his worst either and his body was once again the familiar twelve-year-old's. It took him a moment to find his voice, but Kyle waited patiently until it came.
"Okay, so I do some things I shouldn't do," Eric rasped. "But it's all I have to keep my mind off my parents and...and what they do to me."
"So why do drugs? Why get wasted? What does it do to solve your problem?"
"I dunno...it helps me get away."
"Aha. It helps you get away, but that's only one of the paths to happiness and every time you get thrown back here. There are countless other paths and they all lead to the same place, which in turn means that you can find your way there through the use of more than one tool. Maybe even through the use of the greatest tool ever invented: your mind." Kyle put his arm around Eric's shoulder and knocked on his head. "Think about it. When you're not here in this reality, where are you?"
Eric shrugged and looked off at the wall. "I'm in a better place, usually. Somewhere my parents don't hurt me and we get along like a normal family."
"So you could say that's your escape, right?"
"Then why don't you stay there where you want to be?"
"Because it's not real, it's all in my head."
"Who's to say? If you really think about it, everything that exists in this universe is all in your head, and mine and everyone else's. The only way we know about existence is through our minds and we all percieve things differnetly. No two people are alike. Nor are their visions of what the universe is. Billions of different, unique universes all rattling around in humans' heads, that's all existence really is. There is no set standard for what's real and what's not, so therefore, why should you believe that what causes you pain is reality and that what causes you joy is fantasy?"
Eric groaned and held his head in his hands. "I don't know, I DON'T KNOW! You're giving me a headache. Now go away!"
A breeze against his skin. He looked up and found it was morning already (or had it been like that all along?) and that his bedroom window was wide open, a wiff of something like summer honeysuckle wafting past the curtains.
Yet another reality...or still high off my ass...
Stretching grandly, Eric got out of bed, pulled on a pair of shorts and made his way out into the kitchen where Mom was making breakfast. Breakfast, real food and not just that frozen crap he usually got, as he could see when he perched himself upon a stool in front of the counter where Mom always had his orange juice ready for him every morning. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and put his breakfast plate in front of him.
"G'morning, hun. Sleep well?" she asked, putting the butter back in the fridge.
"Uh, yeah," Eric replied, a little bug-eyed, for he wasn't used to seeing his mother, dressed atypically in cutoffs and a tank-top, looking so healthy and happy. No dark circles under the eyes, no stringy pale hair, no slouched shoulders or pudgy limbs. Nor was he used to seeing the apartment in such a clean, bright and cheery state.
"Great. I hope everyone can make it for your party tonight. They are still coming, right?"
Eric nodded and started rattling off a list of names he'd never heard before but knew as well as anything. When he was through, he paused and wondered, Since when do I have friends?
"It's going to be a hot day," Mom said, writing a small list. "I've got some errands to run, so when you're through eating, go down to the store and pick up some drinks. Whatever you like, so long as it's enough for ten people, okay?"
"Okay, mom," replied Eric, mouth full of egg and toast. He was eating like a starved child. Even though he wasn't really hungry, there were still the tastes, the smells, the sensations he could not resist and he hoped Mom didn't notice his almost frantic fork-mouth-fork-mouth motions.
When he was through, he rinsed off his dishes and grabbed the wad of dollar bills left for him on the kitchen counter. He went back to his bedroom and found a pair of well-worn sandals, which he slipped onto his bare feet, and his bike, a sturdy Huffy leaning against his closet door. As he hauled it out into the hallway, he took a moment to glance around himself and think, Gee, this feels pretty good. There's this tingling sensation inside me that I haven't felt ever...I think...but it feels pretty right.
He rode out into the morning sun, where all around the apartment complex people were already lounging about on their patios listening to music or chatting with friends. In the pool, a dozen or so children were splashing away gleefully. Out on the neighborhood streets, Eric saw people mowing or watering their lawns, the sky above so blue and clear...Kiley wearing a flowery dress and running barefoot across her parents' front yard, running towards him and calling out.
A splash of water and he was off his bike, kicking off his sandals and tackling Kiley in a water-fight with the garden hose calling the shots. Laughter rang out across the grass, arms waved, fingers tickled and droplets of cool water soaked Eric's hair and shorts as he fell over Kiley and paused for a moment to stare into her eyes, blinking prettily.
"I'm so glad you could make it," she said, and somehow Eric knew she was talking about something more than his simply riding to her house. He could see the notion behind her eyes and he couldn't help but sneak in a brief kiss on the lips before she brought the hose up and splashed him again in the face. Then she rolled back onto her knees, laughing as Eric fell back, surprised, rubbing water out of his eyes and spitting bits of grass out of his mouth. For a second his vision was blurred and he staggered to his feet, scrunched up his nose and held his breath as he felt reality slip from beneath him again.
He was home again, there was the smell of candles burning, the sight of his birthday cake, the sounds of a handful of boys and girls, including Kiley, standing around him at the kitchen table and singing "Happy Birthday" terribly off-key but with bright smiles on their faces. Afterwards everyone gathered around the TV and ate cake as they watched some cheap horror movie and laughed at all the bloody parts because they were so fake. Mom couldn't stand it, though, and paused the VCR just long enough for Eric to open his presents.
"Here," she said with a warm smile as she handed him a brand new aluminum baseball bat. "This is from me to you. Happy birthday, Eric."
Happy birthday, Eric. The words echoed inside his head and became sweeter each time, kind of making him wish they were real and not just something he was dreaming up in the middle of some night he didn't want to be...
The bat resting at the foot of his bed wasn't much better than a piece of scarred, battered wood with electrical tape wrapped where the handle should have been. Eric crawled to the edge of his bed and touched the wood with his hand. It had been so long ago since his mom, during a rare window of normality, had bought him this bat, probably just to shut him up whenever he got in the way of their routine binges. Dad's stern orders came fluttering back to him:
"Your mom and I are tired from work. Dinner can wait until later. Now go outside and play baseball or something and don't come back a minute before dark." They always sent him away when they knew they were going to get wasted. Maybe because they cared about him and knew that if he were around when they did it that he would get hurt, or maybe he only imagined that they cared when really they didn't want to share their stash. Either way, he was stuck outside, all by himself, hungry and alone, trying to act like he wanted to be out on those cold evenings when he had nothing on but a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. He would wander the sidewalks that weaved around the apartment complex until he grew sleepy and finally stumbled back home to find his parents both drunk or already passed out. Needless to say, dinner sucked on nights like those.
"It's a shame," said Kyle, folding his arms and shaking his head. "A billion different realities and you keep coming back here..."
"Why are you doing this to me?" Eric breathed as he looked away from the bat and up into Kyle's eyes. "You keep showing me what I can't have and it's killing me. Who are you to do this to me?"
Placing both of his hands over his chest, Kyle sat on the bed and crossed his legs. "I'm a boy, a son, a kid just like you. Before I became this apparation I was flesh and blood. I know what you're going through because I've been there before." He paused for a second, closing his eyes and making a disgusted face, before continuing. "My father used to abuse me when I was little. It started off real early and as a sort of game...at least, that's what he told me it was..."
Kyle's father liked to watch first. That's how it all began, crouching just out of sight or looking through one of the peepholes as his son undressed for bed or took a shower. Kyle was only five, so he thought that perhaps it was merely a fatherly thing, Dad watching over him to make sure he didn't slip in the tub...and yet strange that he didn't actually come inside like Mom did to help him take a bath. Like he was afraid of something or hiding something, like that time Dad had been standing in his bedroom doorway for so long, watching him sleep-or more accurately, watching him feign sleep. With his eyes open just a crack he could see his father watching intently and doing something to his private parts.
"What are you doing, dad?" asked Kyle, opening his eyes fully and glancing curiosly at what his father's hands were doing. With a sudden jolt, the man zipped up his pants and swore out loud.
"Damn it, Kyle, I thought you were asleep." A series of rapid, nervous breaths and then, "Sorry. Just go to sleep."
Kyle wasn't sure what his father had to be sorry about. Dad always looked guilty of something whenever he was caught staring, which was kind of stupid since he wasn't hurting anybody-not initially anyway.
The touching came later, when Kyle was seven. It was a rainy day and Mom had gone somewhere for the day, leaving Dad to babysit. For an hour or so, Kyle played video games in the den contentedly, until he noticed Dad standing in the doorway, staring in his usual way.
"Kyle," he said softly, his voice raspy, strained. "Go take a shower. We're eating out tonight."
A normal enough request, so Kyle went upstairs to the bathroom and started his shower. Moments after he'd stepped in and started shampooing his hair, the shower curtain opened and there was Dad, naked and smiling strangely as he stepped into the tub.
"A game," Dad said. "All fathers play it with their sons, but it's a secret. Not for mommy to know. Our little secret, okay?"
The secret was kept for three years. Mom never knew about what went on when she wasn't there, how Dad's infatuation with his son went from "playful" touching to something worse. Kyle didn't know what to think, for it was almost inconceivable that his own dad would try to hurt him, but yet the things that happened in the shower were not entirely pleasant. At first it was interesting, being touched in places that liked to be touched and feeling new sensations, but Dad didn't stop there. He wanted Kyle to do other things as well, things that were more painful than pleasurable and that definitely didn't feel good at all. He would ask his father to stop, but Dad didn't listen. He merely moaned something like, "Shh, almost there now," and thrust faster, causing more pain until Kyle was crying. Then when it was all over, the familiar warning, "Remember, this is our little secret. Mommy doesn't know." Lastly, a sense of impending danger if Kyle were to tell his mother and a crushing fear if he kept the secret.
Those secret games in the shower taught Kyle to hate his body and to despise sex. He wished sometimes that he didn't have a penis, knowing that that particular organ was the cause of much of his pain. He also wished he'd never learned the ways of sex, or at least what his father's idea of sex was...touching a little boy's privates like they were some magic oracle, making him bend over so that he could put his own erection where it caused pain. How could sex be anything but bad if this was how it felt? Dad always whispered that he loved Kyle after each "secret game" was over, but as Kyle grew older he knew it wasn't love his father felt for him but something else. Something like hunger but having to do with his groin, something that wasn't natural as he caught on to the notion that what his father was doing to him was flat-out wrong. He'd learned a few things about the way fathers and sons interacted and he was becoming more and more sure most other fathers did not do the things to their sons' Dad did to his. And to call it a secret game...
For three years though, the secret was kept, all along Kyle feeling like he was going to burst unless he told someone, asked someone if what he and his father did was right, but yet he couldn't tell anyone because if he did, something bad might happen to him. That's what Dad told him after every time too, and the look on his face meant he knew what he was talking about. Kyle didn't want anything bad to happen, so he kept silent, crying only in private, where his mother couldn't see or hear him...until that one afternoon when she came home early from an errand and, upon hearing her son's sobbing, walked in on the "secret game" as it was being played out on her own bed.
That particular game was never finished and all the other games with Dad were put to a stop. Mom went to a judge and got her to keep Dad away for awhile; she also gave Mom full custody of Kyle, who was rapidly realizing just how precarious his situation with Dad had been. Bad enough so that Kyle never saw his father again for months. During that time, he lived with Mom in a new home and learned from a special doctor about what was right and wrong when it came to his body and sex. New words rattled around inside his head, like "abuse", "molest" and "pedophilia", and new emotions as he learned to think of Dad as a monster rather than his father. It was mostly like learning you had some terminal disease, learning that for all this time he'd been doing things with his father that were really bad. He'd sensed they were somehow strange, perhaps even wrong all along, but hearing it from his mother and shocked relatives...he almost felt like a freak himself for being so stupid.
Time helped him get over the whole thing. He lived with his mother in a new house, in a new neighborhood where he went to a new school, made new friends and tried to forget about his old life (funny, he was only twelve years old and he felt so grown-up already, like he was thirty or fourty already). He'd almost forgotten completely when Dad suddenly came back out of the blue one day. Kyle was walking home from school and a car pulled up alongside him. The window rolled down, Dad stuck his head out.
"Hello Kyle, I've come to drive you home."
Don't get in the car, someone in his head screamed. Dad's a stranger now, and Mom and the counselor told you not to talk to strangers. Keep walking. Ignore him. Run away if he tries to bother you.
"Kyle, don't be afraid. I'm your father. I know they told you bad things about me but that's because they didn't understand what we had."
"Come, Kyle, get in the car and we can start over again. We'll go someplace where they can't split us up again. Just you and me."
He's lying. He only wants to touch you again, do those bad things to you...
"Whatever they told you about me was a lie. You know I wouldn't hurt you. I love you, Kyle. Love you. Now come and get inside the car."
Stay away from the car, Kyle. His legs kicked into high gear and he was running along the sidewalk now. The sound of a warm car engine purring as it pursued him made him run faster, not looking back but knowing who it was that followed him. Ahead, there was a busy four-laned street and a red light. Not daring to wait it out at the corner, Kyle plunged into the traffic, trying to look both ways first but trippig over his shoelace which had become undone. He fell to the ground, heard a horrendous screech, saw a glimpse of tire as it hurtled towards him, brought a flash of pain so wretched it was painless, and then...he died.
Bright light, a form of coziness his human senses could understand, surrounded him in its arms, cradled him, quieted him like he was a little baby again, told him, "Shh, there there, it's all right now. It's over." Tears that he squeezed from his eyes became memories flowing so quickly that he could experience his entire lifetime, and many other lifetimes, in a single orgasmic breath, a thousand times more encompassing than any feeling he could have felt on Earth. Yesterday, today, tomorrow all became one with a single breath.
"Am I dead?"
"Depends on what you mean by that. Nothing really ceases to exist, though forms of matter can be changed. You are now vibrating on a higher frequency that is currently incompatible with flesh. Do you wish to stay here or continue your work below, on Earth?"
"Yes, the work every human travels to Earth to do. To enlighten, to teach, to help build and nurture the physical paradise."
"What can I do?"
"Anything, starting with the first of billions of lost souls. Go to a child like yourself, help him see through his misfortune and rise above it."
An eternity passed and Kyle was returning to Earth not a second after he'd left. "Oh God, there I am," he heard himself whisper as he passed over the sight at a busy city intersection. "Hard to believe, that's my body lying there all rumpled on the street, soaking the pavement with my blood...there's Dad, running out of his car and screaming; he thinks it's all his fault. He's also screaming at God for doing this to him, punishing him for his sins. There he is bending over my body as some poor lady in a Benz dials up 911 on her cell phone. He really did love me but somehow got confused with his desire for my body...he'll never be able to touch it again. Geez, look at all the cars stopping. The streets will be backed up for miles and all because I got hit by a car..."
Looking away, Kyle felt the pull of someone not too far away. He passed by people on the streets, almost as if he were walking, but he had no body, only his desire to seek out the call which drew him to an old dusty baseball diamond in a run-down park where a lone figure, a boy, swung a beat-up old bat over and over against a tree and imagined it was his father.
That's the one, Kyle thought and settled himself beside the boy, scaring the shit out of him but forming a new beginning nonetheless.
"I remember that," Eric murmured, curled up on his bed and staring up at the ceiling. "I thought I was crazy when I first saw you...I must still be 'cause your still here." He reached under his pillow for a pack of cigarettes.
Kyle sighed, quickly wiping away the tear that dripped from his eye before Eric could see. "Don't you ever wonder why you have the gift to change realities like you do?"
"No...I dunno. I don't care. Can I get some sleep now?"
"No you can't sleep now," Kyle said, scowling as Eric lit his cigarette and took a drag. "And yes, you do know very well why you can see all the different realities, but you're acting like you don't because you're afraid of being right and accepting that responsibility. So you act like you're dumb, like you don't know when really inside you're screaming, 'I know what to do, I know how to do it but I'm afraid to because I might be wrong or I might make a mistake.' That's what everyone thinks. That's why they all act stupid, stumbling over whatever path they're handed, good or bad, without questioning why they were given it. But not you. I'm not going to let you slip away like that and neither are you. I'm going to suggest one more reality to you now, and afterwards, if you still deny the power of your imagination, then I'll have no choice but to leave and help some other kid who'll listen. You'll be on your own, completely, if that's what you want. Kyle, the crazy vision who haunts you will be gone forever"
Eric grunted. "I'm starting to think I'm a crazy vision-"
"One last try on my part," Kyle said, grabbing the cigarette from Eric's fingers and making it disappear with a flick of his wrist.
"Hey," Eric began, sitting up...
...in a new reality at dusk. An alley downtown with muddy water and trash all around. He looked down at himself and found he was wearing baggy clothes: denim jacket, oversized sweater, wide-legged cordury pants, stained sneakers. He was also wearing his backpack and he could sense immediately that all his belongings in the world were in that bag. No more, no less. He also had a case of the sniffles.
A raspy voice called out to him from the semi-shadows. "Hey, little shit, what's up?" A young man, pale of face and possessive of a swollen expression, stepped towards Eric and gestured at his pack. "You got what I'm looking for?"
Eric sensed that he did, and reached into his pack for the cocaine. The exchange of money for drugs was quick and mostly instinct on Eric's part, as if he'd been doing this sort of thing for years. He counted the wad of bills he was handed and nodded to the young man. "Same time next week."
A moment later the man was gone and Eric, feeling certain he shouldn't stay in one place for too long, was walking briskly along the city streets, keenly aware of all who passed near him, of how they looked at him, of how the knife in his jacket banged slightly against his chest, ready for him should he need to defend himself.
His home in this reality was an abandoned single-story office building that no one had cared to look after in fifteen years. All the windows and doors were boarded up tightly, except for one in the back that he always kept accessible so that he could wriggle inside every night to sleep. It wasn't the coziest of places, but in the few weeks he'd lived here no one had bothered him. By now he'd even learned to call the place home.
Quickly, he crawled in through the window and replaced the board firmly before scuffling about in the darkness and flicking on the flashlight he had in his pack. Once lit up, he looked around the small storage room to make sure he was alone, then took off his backpack and settled himself upon the sleeping bag that lay rumpled in one corner, facing the window. As usual, dinner was an uninspired, half-empty bag of Sun Chips.
Too bad I can't just keep Don's hundred or so dollars in my pocket and run off with it, maybe buy a hundred cheeseburgers. But of course he's expecting his money tonight and I should be grateful for the small change I get. Better than poor Barney living in his cardboard box like a troll...
He finished off dinner with a joint. Even though he knew he would only be starved in another few hours because of it, he enjoyed the drug and tried to relax somewhat, maybe enjoy an evening for once, be tranquil so that when Kiley came by after her rounds she would be able to hang with him during a good mood.
The board in the window rattled a moment later and she came slithering in.
"Hi," Eric greeted, crawling over to give her a hug and a kiss. He handed her the rest of the joint and she took a few hits before getting into the sleeping bag with him and snuggling close.
"The guys were bitching today," she said as she reached down and unzipped his pants. "They say Don's not happy with our performance. Says he can get better scouts somewhere else if we don't start putting out more."
Eric grunted and allowed his hands to wander. He didn't really feel like having sex right now, but Kiley wanted it, so he obliged silently, half concentrating on getting aroused and half letting his mind wander. He'd done this sort of thing several times before when he'd had to sell himself for extra money, sometimes even just a meal, if he was hungry enough. That's the way it was on the streets; sooner or later you gave in to make ends meet with nothing more than your body, the only thing to bargain with that you couldn't really lose...unless you got killed, of course. When you were hungry enough, you didn't really care how you got food, just as long as you got it. Sometimes you tried to enjoy the sex and sometimes you just spaced out while a total stranger fornicated with your body. Sometimes your mind didn't even know when it was over unless you told yourself, "Hey, it's been awhile. Shouldn't you see what's happening to the rest of you?" On rare occasions you blinked and found yourself walking along the street, your ass all sore but your pocket full of money. Most of the time, though, you were perfectly coherent and had to fight for payment when the perved guy (sometimes woman) you'd just fucked refused to part with his cash. You went for your clothes at the side of the bed, grabbed the knife and threatened to slit his throat, and if he laughed at you for being some twelve-year-old rat, you threatened to go to the police or tell his wife, if you knew he had one. If you were lucky, it worked; if not, you got beat up.
Eric hardly noticed he was coming until it was over and Kiley lay napping in his arms. He took off the condom and tossed it into a corner knowing he wouldn't be here in another few days so why bother cleaning up? That was the way of things here, always moving, never staying in one place too long...a hell of a life that many people fell into but few survived in. Even with Kiley in his arms he couldn't help but feel like the loneliest person in the world. He tried to tell himself that he was lucky to be alive, to have whatever small commodities he'd been blessed with during his three months of being homeless and to keep hope that everything would work out sooner or later. Still, there was that one vision he often had that brought tears to his eyes. It was possible to adjust to the loneliness of the streets, but he would never be able to push away that vision that so forcefully took hold of him when he least expected (or desired). Like now...
Moving through the city streets, Eric became invisible and made his way along the sidewalks alone. There were hordes of other people around him, driving, shopping, strolling, but none of them paid any attention to him, a pock mark on the fragile eggshell of society. It felt strange to be amongst a bustling crowd and yet be totally detached from it. He was bumped, jostled, poked by people rushing about their day. When they looked his way they saw through him, as if he wasn't even there, but he knew he was because he could see everyone else, hear their conversation, smell the scents of their cologne or clothing like an animal would, even though his nose was stuffed up and his head thick with the flu.
Where am I going? He wondered to himself as he shoved his hands into his pockets and tried to ignore the cold. It was now winter, he realized with a slight start (but hadn't it been summer just a few seconds ago?) and he was still without a home. That was probably the reason he was walking around without any destination in mind: to stave off the cold, to be doing something with his body so it wouldn't freeze up in some dank alley.
As he crossed another street, he spotted a family of three approaching a Gamescape store. The parents joked good-naturedly with their pre-teen boy as he gushed about some new video game. The father ruffled his son's hair and insisted that "all a real man needs to beat a game is four buttons: A, B, select and start. None of this fancy Playstation, ten-button stuff." The mother's comment was something like, "What is it about you men and your obsession with toys?" before she and her family entered the store and Eric stood quivering on the sidewalk and trying to hold in a sneeze.
I wish that boy was me. I wish those parents were mine. I wish that...that I could just be happy like he is and only have to think about something stupid like a new video game. No more worrying about when I'll get to eat, if I'll get killed in a knife fight, if that itching down in my crotch is anything serious. To just be a kid for awhile...
The combined effects of his sickness and introverted melancholy mood were probably to blame for his not noticing the hands around his torso until it was too late. How the hell he'd walked into an alley, he didn't know, but he did know he was in one now and three guys in chains and leather were throwing him up against a wall as they ripped his backpack from his shoulders. He was hit in the stomach twice, the groin once and the pain was unbearable. He started coughing uncontrollably and doubled over as the men scurried off with his belongings, one of them shouting, "Message from Don: You're fired!"
"Well fuck you too," Eric tried to yell, though he only managed a few frantic breaths as he squirmed on the cold ground, his hands over his belly and crotch. Gritting his teeth, he tried to stop his coughing and reminded himself that he still had five dollars stuffed in his underwear. Thank God the dumb bastards hadn't been rapists.
With limbs shaking uncontrollably now, he got to his feet and stumbled out of the alley. He was hurting enough to consider going to a hospital, though he didn't know where the nearest one was and the crowds of people around him looked too busy to care about what happened to one more street punk. Stumbling along for the entre length of a block, his pain only worsened and his vision started to become fuzzy. He was seeing stars by the time he reached the crosswalk and collapsed at the feet of a decent-looking gentleman wearing a gray overcoat and carrying a briefcase.
"Geez, kid," said the man as he squatted and supported Eric by the shoulders. "What's happened to you?"
"Just take me away from here," Eric breathed, wincing as his gut wrenched. "I want to go now...anywhere but here..."
The man holding him smiled and his body suddenly morphed into that of a young boy's, familiar blond hair, blue eyes and that all-knowing smile wrapping around Eric's shivering form like a blanket.
"Only you can take yoursef from here," Kyle whispered into his ear. "Only you can take yourself to the place you want to be. Do you want to go there now?"
Squeezing his eyes shut, Eric clenched his fists and gave in to the yearning that had been eating away since he'd first discovered his gift. "Yes...yes, I don't want this loneliness anymore. This isn't my reality. I want my own...want it so bad...I'll never let it go..." Then he started crying violently. His whole body shook, his face became soaked with tears, but Kyle only held him and spoke softly into his ear.
"Shh. It's okay. Eric, it's all right. You've made it. Open your eyes, Eric, and see what you've made."
It took a moment for Eric to stop the flow of tears, but he managed it and found he was no longer in pain. Additionally, he was no longer lying in the middle of a city street but instead sitting at the edge of a race-car shaped bed in a clean, warm bedroom.
Kyle stood and spread his arms. "The bedroom of your dreams, right?"
Silently, Eric left the bed and went over to his (his?) dresser, upon which a bunch of Legos and a Mr. PotatoHead had been placed. He touched the Mr. PotatoHead, which sure felt real, and then turned to look around the rest of the room. A large oversized wristwatch clock hung at the foot of his bed; a desk and computer in one corner; a beanbag in the shape of Eric Cartman sat next to a color TV; a set of weights and a bench had been placed in another corner; from the ceiling hung a mobile of the solar system and all over the walls were glow-in-the-dark stars.
"This is all real?" he asked at last, a smile touching his lips as he peered out the window and saw a beautiful day outside with kids playing ball and having water-fights on bright green lawns.
"Oh, it's real," Kyle said, dropping onto all fours and reaching underneath the bed. "You want proof?"
Before Eric could answer, he was being bombarded with the spray of a Super Soaker water gun and Kyle's laughter.
"You're gonna get it!" Eric shouted with a smile as he lunged for the gun. Kyle ducked away and started running around the room, squirting Eric at regular intervals until he was dripping wet. Finally, Kyle tripped over his own feet and Eric grabbed the gun, squirting the hell out his friend, who moaned and made gargling noises like he was being slaughtered.
"I surrender!" he yelled, slicking back his wet hair and giggling like a maniac. Eric started to laugh too, but stopped abruptly when he heard the bedroom door opening. He turned and saw his mom, trim and healthy, standing in the threshold, shaking her head at the sight of her water-drenched son but smiling nevertheless.
"Kiley's here to see you," she said. "She's down in the den."
She was just as pretty as he could ever have imagined her, sitting on the sofa in her favorite sky-blue dress and sandals with the sun shining on her like a spotlight from heaven. Eric went into the den slowly, taking in the sight of her long hair held in its tail by a studded pin that glittered in the sunlight. Her ankle-bracelet glittered similarly, calling attention to her lovely bare feet. He didn't know why, but he had such a thing for her feet.
"Hello, Kiley," he said, at last walking to the couch where she sat. Cheerfully, she sprang up and gave him a hug and a kiss, fully convincing him that she was real and not just a daydream. He caught the scent of sweet soap and oranges, her favorite fruit, about her and smiled.
"Happy birthday!" she said, brushing a drop of water from his cheeks. "You've made it."
Behind them, Kyle stood and beamed happily. Kiley winked at him and gave him a thumbs-up. Eric blinked and looked confused.
"I'm finished here, Eric," Kyle said. "Kiley's your new guardian angel now, and you are hers. Take care of each other, and remember, you can make your life whatever you want it to be. You can be whoever you want to be. That's the gift every human has but only a precious few realize."
Eric stepped forward and hugged his friend. "Thanks...for everything you've done. I hope we'll see each other again soon."
"Oh, we'll always be together," Kyle said, tapping Eric's chest. "Whenever you feel warm inside and you get the urge to just kick back and be one with every wonderful thing that surrounds you, that'll be me, smiling from the inside."
"Cool," Eric said, already feeling something wonderful spreading throughout him. He took Kiley's hand and watched as Kyle started to glow, shimmer and then melt into the fabric of this newly woven reality. It was sort of sad to see him go, but Eric knew he'd found his true path and with a little of that warm feeling as his guide, he would surely find his way true within the new journey he'd created for himself.
A.J. Thompson was born in California, though he considers himself to be a merely average "freak" who squeezes writing in between schoolwork, chores and playing guitar in a band that is quite dazed and confused. When he's not spewing words out onto paper, he can usually be found on a volleyball court, inside any Sam Ash, or (of course) curled up against a tree with an acoustic guitar and playing some tunes...unless it's raining. His goals at this time include growing another inch or two, finishing a novel about fantastic dreams, and living to the age of a thousand so he can witness the first Twinkie as its shelf-life expires.
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