Erratic images slather the windshield. Dragons. Sorcerers. Lizard-people. I need to escape. I need this to stop.
I swerve to the curb, park, and burst out of my car at a dead sprint. Up ahead, a homeless Black man is sitting on the grass, writing on a newspaper with a worn-down Sharpie. As I stumble before him, the breeze picks up and the paper shifts, allowing me to see what he’s written:
THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.
I hear myself screaming, feel myself running.
I tear across the street in the grip of hysteria, glimpsing a whirl of trees before I trip and fall into a pond. Cold water invades my ears, turning everything blurry before the world goes dark.
“Easy, buddy.” A dreadlocked head looms above me, silhouetted in the glare of the afternoon sun.
“What…what happened?” I sit up slowly. First on my elbows, then on my hands.
The Black man crouches beside me. “You fell in the water. Hit your head.” He nods at a rock-lined pond directly 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 wet, clingy sleeves. “Didn’t mean to cause you trouble.”
“No trouble,” he assures. “Name’s Al.”
“Jon.” I rub the back of my neck, embarrassed. “I think I had a…think I had 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 know where you’re coming from.”
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?”
“Yeah…I’ve seen it before.” A circuit trips inside my brain; before I can stop myself, I blurt, “I’ve never talked with any homeless people. I’m sorry, I’m not really sure of how to—”
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 judging by your bearing, you’re no wanderer. Not yet, anyway.”
“I live over by San Francisco State.” My brow furrows. “And what do you mean by ‘not yet?’ ”
He flashes me 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 a wave of mind-twisting 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.” He edges toward me, his smile giving 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 by the side of the road on 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…”
“Take a little break?” That knowing smile. “I understand. The real world’s tough. Hell, the ‘real world’ isn’t even real, but you say that outside of physics or philosophy, and people think you’ve lost your damn mind. Who’s crazy though, when you really stop and think about it?” He cackles gleefully. “Come on. Let’s go find your car.” He turns and starts walking.
I fall in beside him. “What did you do, Al? I mean before you wrote quotes on discarded newspaper.”
Al launches into a long, complicated tale. Before the pandemic, he worked with techies, designing an app that could quantify a person’s net fulfillment. The app established metrics for varying interests: exercise, finance, hobbies, etc. etc. After gaining a rough idea of a user’s goals and priorities, it would help them organize and schedule their day.
“Sounds amazing. 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 or 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 the sidewalk.
He grins and shrugs. “I thought I could sell fulfillment like it was food or medicine, but that’s not 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?’ Are you saying that we choose injustice? That we choose a life of horror and atrocity? I can’t accept that. I won’t.”
A knowing nod. “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 ultimately, a random existence will occasionally—sometimes more than occasionally—reward evil, while severely punishing the undeserving.” He lifts a hand, directing my attention further up the street. “That badly parked automobile wouldn’t happen to be yours, would it?”
My car is exactly where I left it. I’m pleased and surprised—I half-expected my car to be stolen, since I left the keys in the ignition and we’ve been walking for a good stretch of time. I San Francisco, if you leave your bike out for any longer than fifteen minutes, a street entrepreneur will strip it to the frame.
I turn back to Al, determined to philosophically stand my ground. “Are you saying we reincarnate? That we choose our own lives?”
“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, but that’s just how it is.” I shake my head, sealing the argument. “Thanks for pulling me out of that pond but I gotta go—gotta feed the dog.” I reach in my wallet and hand him a wad of soggy bills. “Here. I’ll swing by later and bring you some food.”
He pockets the money and gives me the kindest smile I’ve ever seen. It should creep me out (I barely know this guy) but it has the opposite effect—warmth and surety flood my brain.
“When times get tough, remember this: you may 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. Al 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 with his arms out, laughing wildly at the cloud-speckled sky.
I want to dismiss him as a crazy fool, but the truest part of me is right there with him, cheering and whooping, rejecting the grayness my life has become. A gut-deep certainty surges through me—a tangible sense of adventure and passion. I try to deny it, but I know deep in my heart 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, but unlike before, I find them comforting.
I see sweeping views of lush blue forest, speckled and dotted with fairy-tale animals. I see snakelike creatures with wings and fins, weaving in and out of a twilit ocean. I see giant stone-people plodding across a dry 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, while others fly in steampunk hang-gliders.
I see countless oddities, wonders, and marvels. Some I have words for, others I don’t. Something deep in my soul calls out 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 open the door to my apartment, catching a flash of a humanoid wolf-warrior. My path is instinctive; I head for the bathroom, peeling off clothes and leaving them puddled on the carpet and tile. When I get in the shower, scenery envelops the frosted door, engulfing my soul in magic and dream.
I was never doomed to a sterile office. That was a lie, a fleeting nightmare. Now, as Dragon World blooms across the glass, I realize there’s more to life than I ever thought possible. A strange buzz runs through me—it starts in my belly then expands throughout, blessing my thoughts with an irrational sense of peace and serenity.
I turn on the faucet, watching in dazed amazement as images appear in the falling water. They drip and stream off my bowed head, brimming and spilling from my cupped fingers. Creation and movement blend together, stretching every iota of my swollen perception.
I hear laughter and screams, shouts and whispers. Melodic song swirls up my spine, igniting my cells and flooding my brain.
Dragons. Elves. Monsters. Spirits.
It all flows through my baptized hands.
I’m dry and dressed, driving my car in the slashing rain. I can’t remember how I got here. My mind feels hazy—like it’s stuffed with gauze or heavy cloth. My hands and feet move on their own, steering and braking without my 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. My shirt is soaked completely through, a wet film clinging to my skin.
I stop the car at Lafayette Park: a grassy slope capped by pavement, 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.
Dragon World. That’s not its name; that was a byproduct of my surface mind, trying its best to capture and contain. 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 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. It’s wide and tall, a locus for the others.
I stride toward it without intending to. The air vibrates with an insistent hum.
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. Fear arises and prickles my nerves—is something coming out? But the bark resolves into a circular green door, dispelling my anxiety.
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 protest, but it’s washed away in the phantasmagoric rain.
I grasp the golden doorknob and 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 walk into Evermoor.