About six or seven years ago, a new political party bombarded the scene. They had a radical concept to get rid of the two-party system. They shouted to the country that the job was just too big for one person. Administration after administration consistently proved it. Run the country by committee, they said. There’d be a committee for foreign affairs, a committee for domestic affairs, a committee for the environment, a committee to regulate banks and big business, etc. With no congress and no senate, the country would save billions. They came up with cheesy slogans like Dream of a clean America, Dream of a prosperous America, Dream of a bright future. They called themselves the Dream Committee Party.
Like sheeple, the country readily followed. I admit I was caught up in it all, too. I dreamed of a clean America and bright future. Literally. I actually had the dreams. I dreamt of a park where flower gardens would be sprouting, kids would be playing on the swings and monkey bars, and the graffiti would be gone. But no. Reality prevailed. I’d wake up in the morning and look out the window at the park across the street. How disappointing. Crime scene tape was still draped around the drinking fountain, broken bottles still littered the bottom of the wading pool, no children anywhere in sight even though it was the middle of summer.
I can’t say I was disgusted by the park. It did have its advantages in being a murder pit. There were some months when minimum wage just wouldn’t cover rent and expenses. Late nights I could go across the street and usually relieve some naïve dumb shit of a few bucks. I never killed anyone though, or even seen it, but I heard it happen enough times. Many nights I fell asleep to the sound of screams, gunshots, sirens, not always in that order. I often wondered what it would be like to see someone die, but I digress.
It turns out other people were having dreams, too. All good stuff. Nightmares were becoming obsolete. Everyone was dreaming of a better, stronger America. There was another odd thing. Most people, myself included, usually forget their dreams. Unless it’s something really dramatic, they fade away after waking up. But not anymore. Dreams stayed with us. I couldn’t forget mine if I tried. Maybe that should’ve been a red flag, but we all seemed to be caught up in the tide of promises.
The Dream Committee took all fifty states. Even the Koch brothers didn’t have enough money to stop them. I don’t even think they tried, heard rumors they voted Dream Committee Party, too. Conservatives and liberals all voted DCP. Maybe that should’ve been another red flag.
The first couple of years there didn’t seem to be much change, but then I didn’t expect any. My neighborhood is usually the end of the trickle of the trickle-down effect. Still, there were a few odd things. One of the bizarre ones was they made sleep a minimum seven hour mandatory. Anything less and it would need to be reported. At first a lot of people complained, saying they had no control over their sleep cycles, especially the insomniacs, especially students who said they had to study. But sleep cycles could be adjusted, treatment for the nonsleepers worked, and when studies came out that proved grades actually improved with a proper amount of sleep, the furor slowly died out.
The DCP also made nightmares illegal. It’s not like one could control their dreams, but if you didn’t report them and go in for voluntary treatment, well, I don’t know. How could they enforce something like that? I heard of a couple of folks who whispered to a friend that they had a scary dream, but no way were they going in for treatment. Within a week both had disappeared. I was told that they were forced into treatment, but I don’t know of anyone who ever saw them again. Another red flag? Again, I digress.
A few weeks ago I walked into my job, ready for another day of flipping burgers and collecting grease burns from the deep fryer. Instead, the manager called me into her office and informed me I’d been fired. She handed me an envelope with an extra week’s pay and a note telling me I needed to report to the local Committee of Employment nine o’clock the next morning.
“Nine o’clock sharp. Thank you for being so prompt, Mr. Crawford. Follow me, please.”
My shoes squeaked on the shiny white linoleum floor. The walls were painted a neutral brown and lined with motivational posters. They all made me think of the Work will set you free sign above the Auschwitz gate, but in a cheerier tone. He led me into a dimly lit room, bare of furniture, even chairs, and slid down the wall until he plopped on the carpet. He motioned for me to do the same. I did.
Across the room, the wall lit up. Not just any holographic picture, but a photo of the park across my street. From the angle it looked as if it had been taken from my bedroom window. Before I could utter a syllable, the picture changed from police tape, litter, and graffiti, to a green park with flowers growing from a garden, and children playing on the swings and monkey bars.
“We’ve been monitoring your dreams and we like the way you think.”
What showed on the wall was exactly what I’d been dreaming. I tried to speak and think I got out the word how but I wasn’t sure.
“Oh, it’s perfectly legal.” Like that was the only explanation necessary. “The Employment Committee has discussed your case and we feel you’re being wasted in the fast food industry. We’d like to offer you a job as a park reconstructionist. We’d start your pay at approximately three times what you were previously making.”
Three times? I accepted the offer before I even knew what a park reconstructionist was. When I finally was able to jumble coherent words together and ask, I was told to just follow my dreams.
The next morning I woke up from my now recurring dream of a clean park. I washed, dressed, ate breakfast, and headed across the street. On the dirt and weeds by the shed rested a couple cans of paint thinner and some scrapers. For the next three days I removed graffiti from walls and sidewalks and playground equipment. The hardest was cleaning the slide. I kept sliding.
After three days, my unknown bosses must have been satisfied because brushes and thinner and that kind of stuff had been replaced with sacks of dirt, seeds, gloves, a shovel and hoe. I scanned the park, wondering where the hell to put a garden. An envelope I could’ve sworn wasn’t there a minute ago rested on the sack of dirt. Inside the note read Follow your dream. I knew exactly where to plant.
One thing about having a recurring dream every night - it makes going to sleep boring as hell. In fact, life in general became boring as hell. I mean it was cool and all that my park made a feature story on the six o’clock news, but c’mon. If anything bad were going on in the country, you’d never know it by watching the news - just one feel good story after another. I actually found myself missing the gunshots and sirens. I’m a little ashamed to admit I even missed the screams.
I made up a game. I stayed up later and later, trying to lose as much sleep as possible, concentrate on the fun times I used to have in the park, convincing myself that those gunshots and screams were a calming effect. It worked to a point. The dreams still had that smarmy quality, but it was like watching it in 2D after being used to 3D. Baby steps.
After a week the small victories were getting bigger. I was down to five hours sleep per night and found that the less sleep I got, the more control I had over my own dreams. Now my dreams were in black and white. If I concentrated hard enough, I could even dream graffiti back on the slide.
Getting ready for work, I picked up an envelope that had been slipped under the door, not sure when.
Report to the Committee of Sleep Therapy immediately after work.
That couldn’t be good.
Today’s chore was sweeping glass, and scraping used condoms, baked by the sun onto the concrete in the wading pool. On the positives, I spent the entire day worrying about my upcoming appointment that I never bothered thinking about the fact I had been scraping used condoms.
At five forty-five I entered the sleep therapy office. The guy who gave me the job from the employment committee stood just inside the door next to a short woman with librarian looks. My impression was she’d like nothing better than to burn Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and D.H. Lawrence, and use their books for kindling.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Crawford. I’m Ms. Hayes, and you already know Mr. Kirkwood.”
He nodded but didn’t smile.
“Follow me please.”
Clouds were painted on a sky-blue ceiling, and as I waded through a plush green carpet that felt like walking barefoot on grass, even with shoes on, the clouds seemed to move ahead of me. A slight breeze whisked them, and guided us, into an office. Overhead lights gave off the illusion of dusk. Tiny light bulb stars were embedded in the ceiling. I was waiting for crickets to start chirping.
Ms. Hayes took a seat behind her desk. Kirkwood took one of the two chairs in front. I sat in the other. There were no crickets.
“You’re having trouble sleeping, Mr. Crawford,” said Ms. Hayes.
I froze at the statement, not question. I had never breathed a word of it to anyone.
“And it’s been affecting your work,” Kirkwood said.
I had no idea on how to play this. Should I just admit it? If so, would I be labeled a felon? I could deny it, but they seemed so certain in their knowledge. I had to do something or my heart would drumroll right out of my chest. An idea popped into my brain - honesty.
“It’s my dreams, ma’am, Mr. Kirkwood. They never change. I mean, little things, sure, but it’s all about fixing that park. It’s driving me crazy.”
“You’re not the first one with that problem, Mr. Crawford.” Hayes’ voice softened. “Most people are comforted knowing they’ll have the same safe dream every night. It helps prepare them for work. Makes the day go smoother. Unfortunately, there are a few like yourself that need a certain variance.” Her lips cracked as she smiled. “You’ll be happy to know we’ve got a contingency for that.”
I wasn’t happy to know that. My first thought was of the two people who were never heard from again. My hands, lubed by sweat, slid down the arms of the chair. I slumped forward but my butt kept me anchored.
“How would you like to go on a vacation, Mr. Crawford?” Mr. Kirkwood asked.
They both chuckled at my discomfort.
“One week. You can start immediately,” Hayes added.
I realized I had forgotten to breathe and sucked in two lungfuls of air. After a couple of deep breaths, “That’d be great!” As long as it isn’t one way, I thought.
“Excellent. Where would you like to go?” Ms. Hayes asked as she pulled a form from her desk.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon.”
Hayes spoke as she wrote. “A good choice. The only reason you’re getting this opportunity is because Mr. Kirkwood and the employment committee has been so impressed with your work.”
Kirkwood nodded and gave me a wink. Hayes slid the form across the desk and told me to sign at the bottom. I did so without reading and slid it back. She tore off the top copy. “For your records.”
Kirkwood stood up and put a hand on my shoulder. “Just so we’re straight here, you’ll still have to show up for work every morning. It’s just that at night you’ll have dreams of the Grand Canyon.”
My jaw dropped to where my heart should’ve been, but my heart had dropped down to my colon, ready to be shit out.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Crawford. The Grand Canyon is a large place. You’ll dream a different part of the canyon every night,” Hayes said. “It’s all in the contract you just signed.”
Kirkwood squeezed my shoulder and hefted me up onto my feet. “But that means you’ll have to work extra hard because you won’t have the day already mapped out for you.”
They were done. I had nothing to do but go home and watch TV until sleep overtook me.
The next morning I woke up with a clearer head than I’d had in quite some time. I had beautiful memories of the Grand Canyon and walking along the rim. Slid under my door was an envelope with instructions for the day. Now that I didn’t have everything previously planned in my sleep, the powers must have decided I couldn’t think for myself.
By night three the dreams were boring as dreaming of the park. Sure the scenes were a bit different, but it was always the same, me walking alone along the rim, staring into a deep pit. I admit I had thoughts of jumping over the side. Would I wake up just before hitting the ground, or die in my dream? If I died in my dream, would I die in real life? Hard questions to answer, especially throwing in the part that I really didn’t have control of my dreams.
Instead of jumping, and just six hours of sleep the night before, I forced all of my concentration in another direction. I dreamt up another person, somebody I could talk to. By night five they had taken control again. I still had somebody to talk to, but all they’d talk about was how great the Dream Party was and my work at the park. I pushed my dream friend off the path, down into the abyss. I woke up feeling refreshed as ever. With lack of sleep I could take control of my dreams. By night seven I was down to four-and-a-half hours of sleep, and I had pushed four DCP members, including Kirkwood and Hayes, down into the canyon. I looked forward to lack of sleep.
Night eight, vacation was over and I was back in the park. Depression returned. Night nine I experimented. With a little tweaking, I could alter the aesthetics. Nothing major, I still had my work to do, but instead of bottled water, I drank beer. With a little more concentration, clouds blocked the sun.
The following night’s dream the DCP had fought back. Children played in the park while I worked. I had nothing to do with that and as hard as I concentrated, I couldn’t get rid of ‘em. When I went to work that morning, sure as dogs love to eat frozen shit, kids were on the swings and sliding down the graffiti-free slide. They watched while I worked, never offering to help. They laughed and played while I sweat. I hated them all.
That night my subconscious hit a major breakthrough. While the little boys and girls played and laughed, I pulled a gun from my pocket and yelled the park wasn’t open yet and they’d better get the hell out. With a few shots pointed at the sky, kids screamed as they fled.
I woke up feeling the best I’d ever felt since the park dreams started. I checked the pockets of my trousers hoping I’d find a real gun. No gun, but there was an envelope that had been slid under the door.
Report to the Dream Dysfunction Committee immediately.
Part of me wondered why it took so long. I’d been dodging sleep for almost a week, getting between four and five hours per night. I could run, but where too? I had no friends, at least none I could trust. My savings might take me as far as the Motel 6 across the river. No, I’d better show up, keep damage to a minimal.
I knew there’d be trouble, but on the plus side, at least it got me out of work for the day. Besides, last time I went in I got a week’s worth of different dreams. What was the worst they could do? Send me back to flipping burgers?
The Dream Dysfunction Committee was located in the same building as the Committee for Sleep Therapy. Ms. Hayes met me at the door, standing next to a man who wasn’t Mr. Kirkwood.
“Shooting a gun around children? That was inexcusable!” Ms. Hayes spat. She looked like she wanted to add me to the Bradbury, Orwell, Lawrence list.
“Now, now. Ms. Hayes, if you’d kindly leave Mr. Crawford to me. I’m sure we can get this whole misunderstanding straightened out.” His soft voice had the calming effect of a close friend.
She stomped off with a hmmph.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “She’s just upset because you threw her off the Grand Canyon. Women, right?”
“Preachin’ to the choir, Mr.?”
“Hodgkiss,” he answered. “Now if you’ll be so kind as to follow me.”
I felt a little more at ease as we walked down a different hall than the one I walked down last time. This one had no moving clouds on the ceiling or plush carpet. I followed him into a room and was instantly assaulted by two burly men, all muscle. They threw a white robe around me and I was thrust onto a chair. One strapped my wrists, the other my ankles. One held my head while the other strapped a metal band around my forehead, then put a clamp around my neck. They were so efficient I never had the chance to put up a fight. I squirmed but the chair was more solid than the men.
The walls, ceiling, floor, even the chair, was sterile white. The only other color was the brown leather straps. I quit struggling. They had left me alone. There were no speakers that I could see, but Mr. Hodgkiss’ voice filled the room.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Crawford.” It actually sounded like he meant it. “We really need to find out what’s causing your deviant behavior. I’m afraid we’re going to have to delve into that brain of yours. Unfortunately, it’s going to be quite painful for a bit and we can’t have you squirming around.”
I fought the restraints with renewed energy. I didn’t want to end up lobotomized. I’d seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“It will only hurt for a minute. Once we get to the root of it, we can fix it.”
It’s hard to fight with your head, arms, and legs locked into place.
“Try to be perfectly still. It will only hurt for a moment.” Now Hodgkiss’ voice seemed to come from inside my head.
It began as a slight burn, like someone put a lit match on the top of my head. The lit match became a lit drill burrowing past my skull and into my brain. I was told there are no pain receptors in the brain. That might be true, but my brain still felt like meat on a grill. I screamed before passing out.
I stood next to Mr. Hodgkiss in an empty room.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Incredibly good.” I felt light and at peace with the world.
“We had to do a lot of exploring, but we learned a lot.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Did you know that you have a deep desire to watch a person die?”
Not sure if I agreed, I nodded anyway.
“The term ‘blown away’ kept recurring in your thoughts.”
The two men that had strapped me to the chair entered through a door from the other side of the room. They half-dragged, half-carried a man and placed him in the center. Like the rest of us, he wore a white robe but had his back to me so I couldn’t see his face. One of the burly men held him upright while the other stared into him and mumbled something I couldn’t make out. Whatever he said, the man stiffened and no longer needed support. The two orderlies walked out of the room, leaving the man to us.
Hodgkiss spoke just above a whisper. “The committee is hoping that once you see a death you’ll get it out of your system and be happy to go back to work.”
The stranger shrieked as he grabbed his head.
After the explosion, “I hope we’ve exceeded your expectations, Mr. Crawford.”
“I know by the term ‘blown away’ you were probably referring to a gun of some sort.”
I nodded again.
“But we wanted to take it that extra step. More bang for your buck, so to speak.”
I recognized the attempt at humor, but didn’t smile, only nodded like a bobble-head doll.
“So, Mr. Crawford, is it out of your system? Are you ready to go back to work?”
The bobbing stopped. I wanted it to continue, I wanted to lie and say yes, but truth became too powerful. I couldn’t lie. “No,” I said.
A long sigh whistled through Hodgkiss’ lips. It took a long time before he spoke. “I appreciate your honesty. That’s why it’s so much harder.” He sighed again, but not as long this time. “Would it surprise you to know we already knew that, Mr. Crawford?”
“No,” I whispered. I didn’t know what drugs they had me pumped up on, but I don’t think anything would surprise me in my present state.
“Do you know who that person was?”
Mist clouded my thoughts. It took a lot of concentration, but I figured it out. “Mr. Kirkwood?” I asked. “That must’ve been his punishment for recruiting a loser such as myself.”
“No, it wasn’t Mr. Kirkwood, Mr. Crawford, it was you.”
Between chuckles, “How could that be me? I’m standing right here.”
A glop of brain fell from the ceiling, splashing into a puddle of blood. I found it amusing while Hodgkiss ignored it.
“When we realized there was no curing a malcontent such as yourself, we took the liberty of removing your soul.”
How absurd was that? I couldn’t help but laugh as the room began to pulsate - fading, becoming sharp, fading... Even Mr. Hodgkiss began to fade.
“We’re not totally heartless, Mr. Crawford. At least we granted you a final wish.” He looked at me. “I see you’re already transforming. Before you fade away completely, I’ll answer any final question you may have.”
I heard him but was too lost in my own thoughts to make it register. He was telling the truth. A sudden sadness washed through my being. Could that really have been me? I became contemplative. “I never saw myself from the back before. Is that what I look like?” I wasn’t sure if I said that out loud, but it didn’t really matter.
Through a thickening fog, Hodgkiss responded. “Most malcontents ask if there’s a heaven or hell. Sometimes they ask what’s the meaning of life. To answer your question, Mr. Crawford, what you see on the floor and the ceiling and walls is what you look like now. Previous to that, yes, that is what you looked like from the back.”
The walls became transparent. So did the two burly men sitting on the other side. So did the glop in the middle of the room. So did Hodgkiss.
Did he know the meaning of life? If there was a heaven or hell? I wish I would’ve thought to ask. But then, nobody had ever accused me of having an overabundance of smarts.