Fantastic imagery slathers the windows. Elves. Sorcerers. Lizard-people. I need to escape. I need this to stop.
I park at the curb and burst out of my car. Up ahead, a homeless Black man is sitting on the grass, writing on newspaper with a worn-down Sharpie. As I stumble before him the paper shifts, allowing me to see what he’s written in the margins:
THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.
I hear myself screaming, feel myself running. I trip and fall, glimpsing a whirl of trees and sky. Cold water invades my ears, turning everything blurry before the world goes dark.
A dreadlocked head looms above me, silhouetted by the glare of the afternoon sun.
“What…what happened?” I sit up slowly. First on my elbows, then on my hands.
“You fell in the water. Hit your head.” The Black man nods at the pond behind me. “Had to pull you out so you didn’t drown.”
I look around. Chirping birds, pretty grass, towering trees…
“Golden Gate Park. I’m in Golden Gate Park.”
“That you are.” My transient savior gives me a smile.
“Sorry.” I rise to my feet, brushing dirt and sediment off my waterlogged sleeves. “Didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“No trouble,” he assures. “Name’s Al.”
“Jon.” I rub the back of my neck, embarrassed. “I think I had a…an episode. This isn’t how I usually—”
Al laughs, loud and hearty. “No worries. Everyone thinks I’m Looney Tunes crazy.” He waves dismissively. “I get it.”
Curiosity bubbles to the fore. “The newspaper. You wrote—”
“ ‘There are other worlds than these?’ ” Al grins. “Got it from a book. Cool quote, huh?”
“I’ve seen it before.” A circuit trips inside my brain—before I can stop myself, I blurt, “I’ve never talked with a homeless guy. I’m sorry, I’m not really sure what I should—”
He holds up a hand, cutting me off. “We all have a home. I—like most of my wanderer brethren—am simply taking a leave of absence.” He gives me a once-over. “Speaking of homes, where’s yours? You look a little ragged, but you’re no wanderer. Not yet, anyway.”
“I live over by San Francisco State.” My brow furrows. “And what do you mean ‘not yet?’ ”
He flashes a smile. “You’ll find out. Take it from me: Alijyar SyCajister.”
Everything blurs. By the shift in the backdrop, I can tell I’ve experienced missing time.
“What did you say?” I clutch my head, fighting off vertigo. Alijyar. A-LEE-jee-are. I know that name. (why do I know it?)
“I said you’ll find your way home, sure as my name’s Al Smith.” His smile gives way to mild concern. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” I say it roughly; I want to change the subject.
“You said you live by the college, right?”
My brusqueness turns to muted embarrassment. “Yeah, but I left my car at the other end of the park. I need to go get it before I head home. I’m not trying to hide where I live…” (this is true—I don’t know why, but I would invite this guy over without hesitation) “Like I said: I had a bit of an episode. Had to pull over and…and…”
Whoa—head rush. I close my eyes and shake my head, pressing a hand against my brow.
“Take a little break?” That knowing smile. “I understand. The real world’s tough. Hell, the ‘real world’ isn’t even real, but if you say that outside of physics or philosophy, people think you’ve lost your mind. Who’s crazy though, when you stop and think about it?” He cackles gleefully. “Come on—let’s go get your car.” He turns and starts walking.
I fall in beside him. “What did you do, Al? Before you wrote quotes on discarded newspaper, I mean.”
My question triggers a long, complicated tale. Prior to the virus, Al worked with a bunch of techies, designing an app that could quantify a person’s net fulfillment. After gaining a rough idea of someone’s goals and priorities, it would help them organize and schedule their day.
“That sounds awesome. Where do I get it?”
Al sighs. “You can’t. When the virus hit, our investors bailed. No one cares about spiritual blight, not when they’re worried about money and health.”
“The app’s still relevant,” I argue. “A lot of people hate their life.” We cross the street, step over a median, and head down a sidewalk.
A grin and a shrug. “I thought I could sell fulfillment like it was food or medicine, but that isn’t how it works. When someone’s ready, they’ll find a way to level up. Whether it’s through an app or a book or even a song, it doesn’t matter—everyone gets their heart’s desire.”
“That’s insane,” I scoff. “ ‘Everyone gets their heart’s desire?’ So we choose injustice? We choose a life of horror and failure? I can’t accept that. I won’t.”
He nods knowingly. “That would be cruel and ridiculous, wouldn’t it? If our fleshy bodies defined our existence, if we lived a single life and that was it. In that case, yes, you’re right—we would be at the mercy of a random universe. A cruel one at that, because a random existence will occasionally reward evil while punishing those who don’t deserve it.” He lifts a hand, directing my attention further up the street. “That badly parked automobile wouldn’t happen to be yours, would it?”
My Hyundai Accent is right where I left it. I’m pleased and surprised—I left the keys in the ignition. In San Francisco, if you leave your bike out for any longer than fifteen minutes, a street entrepreneur will strip it to the frame. Cars are trickier, sure, but still—I’m glad that it’s there.
I turn back to Al, determined to stand my philosophical ground. “So you’re saying we reincarnate? And that we choose our next life?”
“What do you think?” He looks me in the eye. “Do you believe in a world where you’re given a choice? Or are you simply a cog in a random machine, at the mercy of forces that would just as soon kill you as see you succeed?”
“There are certain things you can’t control. I’m sorry, Al, but that’s just how it is.” I shake my head, sealing the argument. “Thanks for the help but I gotta go—gotta feed the dog.” I reach in my wallet and hand him some bills. “Here. I’ll swing by later and bring you a meal.”
He pockets the money and gives me the kindest smile I’ve ever seen. It should creep me out—I mean I barely know this guy—but it surprisingly has the opposite effect. Warmth and surety flood my brain.
“When times get tough, remember this: you can lose your way, but you’re never off the path.”
“Uh…thanks,” I mutter. “Take care.” I open the door (remembering to close my eyes) and slide into my car. He taps the roof with the flat of his palm.
“There are other worlds than these, Jon.”
I pick up speed, watching his reflection in the rearview mirror.
“There are other worlds than these!” He spins around, arms out, laughing aloud at the cloud-riddled sky.
I want to write him off, dismiss him as crazy, but the truest part of me is right there with him, cheering and whooping. A gut-deep certainty surges through me—a tangible sense of adventure and passion. For a brief moment I try and deny it, but I know in my heart of hearts that Alijyar’s right: there are other worlds than these.
I’d bet my life on it.
On the ride back home, the visions start up. Unlike before, I find them comforting.
I see sweeping views of lush blue forest, speckled and dotted with fairy-tale fauna. I see snakelike creatures with glittering fins, weaving in and out of a twilit ocean. I see giant stone-people crossing a dried-up lakebed, rife with a web of dusty cracks. I see elves and pixies (Elves—like in the movies!) relaxing inside a sylvan kingdom.
I see an aerial metropolis, jutting defiantly out from a cloud-ringed cliff, adorned with a network of ropes, platforms, and walkways. Some of the inhabitants—mostly human but with varying degrees of birdlike features—have wings that sprout from their naked backs. Others fly around in steampunk hang-gliders.
I see countless oddities, wonders, and marvels. Some I have words for, others I don’t. A nameless piece of me calls to my mind, yearning to connect with this deluge of novelty.
I’m going to Dragon World. I can feel it in my bones.
I head for the bathroom, peeling off clothes and letting them puddle behind me. When I enter the shower, scenery envelops the frosted glass walls, engulfing my soul in magic and dream. I was never doomed to a sterile office. That was a lie, a fleeting nightmare. As Dragon World blooms across the panes, I realize there is more to life than I ever imagined.
I turn the faucet, watching images appear in the falling water. They drip and stream off the crown of my head, brim and spill from my cupped fingers. Melodic song swirls up my spine, igniting my cells and flooding my brain. Creation and movement blending together, stretching every iota of my swollen perception.
Dragons. Elves. Monsters. Spirits.
It all flows through my baptized hands.
I’m dry and dressed, driving my car in the slashing rain. My mind feels hazy—like it’s stuffed with gauze or heavy cloth. My hands and feet move all on their own, steering and braking without any guidance.
Strangely enough, I’m not afraid.
Rain pelts down, coating the glass in Dragon World visuals. I lower the windows and let it in. Gribbles—sitting beside me in the passenger seat—spins and twirls, barking and whining with manic intensity.
We come to a stop at Lafayette Park: a grassy slope that’s capped with benches and a towering circle of massive trees.
I have to go up there. I can’t say why.
Gribbles follows me up the hill, yipping and barking at the top of his lungs. Thanks to the rain, I’m blitzed by an ocean of fantastic sights, stretching endlessly in every direction.
That isn’t its name. That was a byproduct of my conscious mind, trying its best to contain and categorize. Now it’s different—I’m deep in the grip of my entire being, free and trapped at the same time.
There are other worlds than these.
Lightning rips across the sky. For a blazing instant, I see the ring of trees as they truly are—as giant knights made of stone. Their hands are stacked on downturned swords, touching the ground between their boots. One of them, however, remains a tree—the one in the center of this ancient assemblage. Powerful and tall; a locus for the others.
I stride toward it without intending to.
The bark on the tree begins to move, writhing and squirming like a nest of snakes. Not all of it—just the section right in front of me. My belly ripples with jittery nerves. Is something coming out?
The bark resolves into a circular green door, dispelling my fear.
No—nothing’s coming out. I’m going in.
I approach the door, drawn by the weight of its mythical promise. A small part of me wants to flee, but it’s washed away in the phantasmagoric rain.
I grasp the knob. Briefly contemplate what lies beyond it.
I turn it clockwise. The latch clicks back.
Not Dragon World, I realize. That’s not what it’s called.
I open the door. And I walk into Evermoor.