Connor was once again sitting in Elicott’s office in the university’s science building. Outside, it was another idyllic spring day. The scent of fresh cut grass drifted through the open windows. In the hallway, students rushed past while faculty members strolled at a more leisurely pace.
The office itself hadn’t changed at all since the last time Connor had visited. The same stacks of papers still littered the professor’s desk; the same Braque print still hung on the wall.
“I knew if you were patient that you’d eventually succeed,” said the professor. He spoke in the same self-satisfied tone, thought Connor, he might have used with a failing student who’d finally managed to turn himself around. “It seemed to me all along that your problem was that you were trying too hard.”
“That might have been it,” Connor admitted. “I wanted so badly to make this work. I kept feeling more and more frustrated as time passed without my having had a single dream, or at least none I could remember when I woke up.”
Elicott frowned. “I’m not entirely sure why you felt yourself under such compulsion, though I of course appreciate your enthusiasm. You really need to lighten your attitude. Important as the project is to all of us, there’s still a need to put things in context.”
“I know. I was letting myself get too involved. I can see now I shouldn’t have done that. I should have been more willing to let things happen on their own.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Connor. There are days when it’s difficult even for trained researchers such as myself to maintain the proper attitude of detachment. We have to constantly check ourselves to make sure we’re not allowing our hopes and predispositions to influence our judgment. Sometimes we so desperately want to see results that we deceive ourselves. That can present a danger to the integrity of any experiment.”
“I think the problem was that I went so long without having any dreams at all. It didn’t seem normal to me.”
“That’s only natural. It’s like a person who tries to force himself to sleep when he isn’t tired. The harder he tries, the more wakeful he finds himself.”
“But what’s amazing is that when I finally had a dream, I was able to direct myself within it without any problem at all.” Connor was triumphant. “That’s never happened to me before. Even in the dream itself I felt excited at what I was able to accomplish.”
Elicott cleared his throat. “You’ll be discussing the dream in detail with Dr. Reicha later this week. He’s the real expert when it comes to dream analysis. In the meantime, though, it would be helpful if you could summarize for me its content so that I could form a better idea how much progress you’ve actually made.”
“I was riding down Fifth Avenue on an MTA bus,” Connor began. “My best friend – his name is Gallagher – was sitting beside me and telling me, just as he always does, how important it was for me to find a job. He was drinking a bottle of Guinness the whole time he was talking and then waving it around in the air when he wanted to emphasize a point. I knew it was illegal to drink alcohol anywhere in the transit system, and I was worried he might get busted. But I didn’t want to antagonize him and start an argument, so instead I turned away and looked out the window to see where we were headed. As he kept going on, I concentrated on the buildings we were passing and the people walking on the sidewalk.
“The bus went by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then Saks department store. I realized then that we were at 52nd Street and would reach the Public Library ten blocks further down. That was when it occurred to me that if I got off the bus at 42nd Street I’d be able to go into the library and look at all the books that were kept there. I was really thrilled that I’d had the idea. Somehow I not only knew that I was dreaming but also realized that the whole point of the dream was to see those books and finally discover their titles and read what was inside them.”
“Did you in fact get off the bus?” Elicott asked.
“Oh, yes. As soon as I’d had the thought, the bus was instantly at the corner of 42nd Street though I couldn’t recall having seen it move past the intervening blocks.
“I got up from my seat the moment we arrived and rushed to exit through the door in the rear. I didn’t even take the time to say goodbye to Gallagher who was still droning on and on and seemed totally oblivious to the fact that I was leaving.
“From the outside, the library was exactly the same as we see it every day. The pillared portico entrance was there at the top of the wide stone steps, and the two lions stood guard, one on each side. When I got inside the building, though, it was much different from what I remembered from the visits I’d made in real life. There was no lobby or main reading room, only a maze of tiny cubbyholes one beside the other. All of them were dimly lit and dilapidated. The plaster on the walls was cracked and the paint was peeling off in long strips. What furniture there was looked as if it had been stolen from a thrift shop. Most of the pieces were deeply scarred and cracked. Wooden tables tilted at crazy angles and the straight backed chairs had broken seats. Everywhere on the desks, the chairs and even the floor there were stacks of books piled haphazardly in total disarray. Some of the piles reached almost to the ceiling and looked like they might topple over at any second.
“I looked around me without knowing where to begin. Finally I moved to a tabletop covered with faded clothbound volumes and began to sort through them.
“Unlike my previous dreams, I could easily make out the books’ titles and was able to open them and begin reading their contents at whatever page I chose. It was all so vivid. I had to wipe the dust off some of them and could smell how musty they were as I flipped from one page to the next.”
“You said you could read the titles,” Elicott interrupted. “What books were they? Were any of them familiar to you?”
“Yes. I was actually startled to find that they were all well known works, most of them novels by major writers. Their titles pretty much corresponded to those on the reading lists I’d been given for my college literature courses. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner were all there with Hammett and Kerouac right beside them. In another pile I found not only a complete edition of Shakespeare in one oversized volume, but there was even a copy of the same textbook of Shakespearean sources I’d once been required to study. Looking through it, I could see the margins were filled with notes written in my own hand. Those annotations brought back to me memories of the long hours I’d once spent poring through those same sources in the university library.”
“So there weren’t any surprises then in the books themselves?”
“What surprised me was finding there so many I’d long ago forgotten about. For example, there was a copy of Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. If Brown hadn’t been known as one of the country’s first professional writers, I doubt anyone except scholars would ever have looked at that novel after the close of the eighteenth century. I’d had to read it for a course in American literature in my sophomore year and had thought then it was absolutely awful.”
Elicott coughed politely to indicate the conversation was getting off track. “There are theorists who hold that we never really forget anything, that our minds selectively repress memories that are no longer of any use to us so that we’re not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of past experiences as we go about our daily routines. The memory of that novel was probably lodged in your unconscious for decades.”
“I’m sure you’re right. I certainly had no trouble recalling the entire plot once I saw the book again in my dream. Not that there’s anything so remarkable about that. I’ve no doubt that if I’d come across the title in some second hand bookstore in my waking life, I’d have remembered everything just as easily.”
“Was there any more to your dream?”
“It actually lasted quite a while. Or at least it seemed to. Once I understood what I was looking at, I sat down and began to read some of the material around me. I felt I had all the time in the world. In the volume of Shakespearean sources, I came across Thomas Kyd’s earlier version of Hamlet and then compared sections of it to Shakespeare’s play to see where the differences lay. There was no ‘to be, or not to be’ monologue for one thing. Then I picked up Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and reread the passages dealing with the Italian retreat after the Battle of Caporetto. The book was just as I’d remembered it. I even checked my own copy when I got back home to make sure my recollections were accurate. The passages were word for word exactly the same.”
Elicott stretched and then sat erect in his chair. His hands rested easily on his desk. “So we can say with a fair amount of confidence then that your dream was a great success. You certainly achieved what you set out to do.”
Connor grew thoughtful. “A success, yes. But at the same time it was something of a disappointment to me. I don’t know what I’d been hoping to find, but it definitely wasn’t a reading list from my college days. Maybe my expectations had been unrealistic, but I’d somehow been sure that if I were ever able to read the books I’d seen in my dreams I’d discover something completely unknown to me and maybe to everyone else as well.”
Elicott laughed out loud at the idea. “This isn’t magic, Connor. It’s impossible to encounter anything in your dreams that you haven’t experienced in your waking life. Even if you meet someone in your dreams you think you’ve never seen before it invariably turns out to be a familiar figure whose identity has been masked by your unconscious.”
Connor thought it over. “But why would my mind play such tricks on me in the first place?”
“In order to protect you,” Elicott pronounced with certainty. “There may be individuals whose presence in your dreams would cause you great anxiety if you were to recognize them. But if they appear as complete strangers then there’s no need for you to have an emotional reaction. It’s a well known defense mechanism that Dr. Reicha can explain more fully when you meet with him.”
“Life is so boring, though, if there are explanations for everything. There’s no mystery left.” But even as he gave vent to his disappointment Connor realized how foolish he was being.
“Mysteries are the stuff of romance,” the professor responded brusquely. “We explore them in scientific research only so that we can provide the cause and effect by which these processes operate.”
“That may be true enough, but I want to believe there are things that cannot be explained rationally.”
“That’s your prerogative of course.” Elicott once again became the pedantic lecturer. “Life can become meaningless for many people if they can’t believe there’s more to it than what they see in front of them.”
“Well, at least I’ve proven I can control my dreams,” said Connor. “That’s something anyway.”
“And that’s a great achievement,” Elicott encouraged him. “I hope now that you’ve come this far you intend to continue on with the project.”
“Definitely. Even if the dream wasn’t all that I expected, it still opened up a whole new world of possibilities to me. I can’t wait to find out what’s next.”
“That’s good to hear. To be honest, I was afraid that once you’d had the one particular dream you were most interested in, you’d lose your enthusiasm. That happens occasionally. I’m glad to see it’s not the case with you.”
“No, not at all. I’m really looking forward to the next assignment. Can you tell me what it’s going to involve?”
“I’ll go over it with you the next time we talk. I’d prefer you have more time to assimilate the experience you’ve already had before we move on.”
“Of course,” said Connor. “Sorry if I was jumping the gun.”
“It’s all right. In the meantime, you’ll be meeting with Dr. Reicha to discuss in more detail the dream you’ve described.” Elicott hesitated. “And you’ll have an opportunity to discuss with him anything else that’s on your mind. He’ll be in touch with you soon by email to set up an appointment.”
“That’s fine. Maybe I’ll learn something more about my dream while I’m talking with him. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
As he left the room, Connor happened to glance back over his shoulder. He had caught Elicott in an unguarded moment and saw the professor regarding him with an expression of uncertainty that he found unnerving. He turned away and made his way out the door as quickly as he could.
“Yo, Connor. Long time no see. How the fuck you been?”
He didn’t recognize the stranger at first. Connor had been walking toward the Union Square subway station, too lost in his own thoughts to pay any attention the crowds milling about him on the sidewalk. Now, waiting for the light to change at the corner of Broadway and 16th, he looked around in confusion as he tried to determine who it was who had called out to him.
“Yo, Connor.” The voice was much closer this time, almost at his elbow.
It was the man’s bad complexion that helped Connor place him. It was his former cellmate from Rikers, the frightened young guy who had come close to slashing Connor’s throat with a piece of broken glass one memorable night when a prisoner had escaped and a riot had broken out. Connor found he still couldn’t recall the pimply faced kid’s name though. Surely he must once have known it. He regarded the youth uncertainly.
“What’s the matter with you, Connor? It’s me, Jackson. Don’t tell me you don’t remember the guy you shared a cell with.” His face darkened with anger at the thought he’d already been forgotten. It was an insult he wasn’t likely to overlook. In the outside world, ex-cons have only each other. No one else wants anything to do with them.
“Hey, I’m sorry, Jackson,” Connor apologized at once. “I wasn’t trying to be rude. You just caught me when I wasn’t looking. I wasn’t expecting to run into anyone I knew from the old days. I didn’t even realize you’d gotten out.”
“It’s ok.” Jackson relaxed and held out his hand. “I thought for a minute you didn’t want to be bothered knowing your old buddy. I should’ve paid more attention and seen you got problems of your own. You seemed like you was in another world the way you were walking down the street bumping into everyone. You gotta be more careful and keep your eyes open 24/7 in this city. Otherwise, you make yourself a target. There are too many bad guys out there looking to score off the first fool they find.”
Connor glanced behind him. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Jackson studied him more carefully. “You always was a strange one. I never could figure out what was going on inside your head.”
Connor shrugged ruefully. “Don’t worry about it. Sometimes I don’t know myself.”
“I got out two weeks ago,” Jackson informed him. “I’m on my way down to John Street now so my parole officer can grill me about what I’ve been up to.”
“I don’t want to make you late.” Connor had been searching for an excuse to break off the conversation and get away. He didn’t need to be around anyone so violent.
“We can share a cab if you’re headed in that direction,” Jackson offered.
That was the last thing Connor wanted. But before he could demur, his companion had jumped off the curb to hail a passing taxi. “There’s one now,” he yelled.
As the cab pulled up before them, Connor all at once experienced an intense premonition of disaster. He couldn’t have said where the sensation had come from or what had caused it, but he was as sure of it as he was of his own name. “Don’t get in that car,” he instructed Jackson urgently.
“Are you kidding me?” Jackson was incredulous. “I’ve been waiting ten minutes for an empty one to come along. I’m gonna be late if I don’t get going now.”
“Wait for another. That one’s too dangerous.” Connor couldn’t understand why he’d said that, but he knew somehow it was the truth. “Something bad’s going to happen.”
Jackson regarded him scornfully. “Oh, man. You’re just as nuts now as you were a few months ago. You one crazy fucker. You know that?”
“Just listen to what I’m telling you,” Connor begged.
“The hell with that shit. And with you too.” Jackson jumped in the back of the cab without saying anything more. Through the window, Connor could see him giving an address to the driver and no doubt urging him to step on the gas. He gave Connor a last pitying look as the car raced its engine and moved rapidly off.
Connor wanted to turn and walk away, but he found himself frozen to the spot, his eyes fixed on the southbound cab.
The vehicle had only gone two blocks when it tried to jump a light at the corner of 14th Street directly in the path of a crosstown bus. There was a screech of brakes followed by the sickening sound of twisting metal as the oncoming bus crashed headlong into the side of the cab. The small car bounced in the air before landing upside down and then rolling over several times until it finally came to a stop. Flames burst forth from the undercarriage and in a moment engulfed the entire vehicle.
Connor knew there was nothing he could do. No one could have lived through the fire still burning in the middle of the Broadway pavement. If he waited to give the police Jackson’s name, they’d only want to know where he knew him from; that would involve endless explanations. There was no need anyway. The parole officer would set things in motion when Jackson failed to show for his appointment. It was only a matter of time before the authorities put two and two together.
Connor started away. He knew already he’d never tell anyone what he’d seen or the strange foreboding that had come over him immediately before it happened.