The windshield flashes like an erratic television. Dragons. Sorcerers. Lizard-people.
I open the door and take off running. I need space. I need to escape. I need this to stop.
Up ahead, a homeless black man sits on the grass, writing on newspaper with a worn-down Sharpie. I stumble before him, breaking my fall with an outstretched hand, barely managing to keep my balance. The paper shifts and I see what he’s written:
THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.
I hear myself screaming, feel myself running. I sprint across the street onto the grass, glimpsing a whirl of trees before I trip and fall into a pond. Cold water invades my ears, blurring my sight before the world goes dark.
I’m on my back, completely soaked, staring up at the sky. A dreadlocked head looms above me, silhouetted by the afternoon sun.
I sit up slowly. “What happened?” I look at the homeless man, who is now crouching next to me.
“You fell in the water and hit your head.” He nods at a rock-lined pond a dozen yards behind me. “Had to pull you out before you drowned.”
I cast a quick glance around. Chirping birds, pretty grass, towering trees.
“Golden Gate Park,” I say. “I’m in Golden Gate Park.”
“That you are.” My transient savior gives me a smile. (I count at least five missing teeth.)
“I’m…I’m sorry.” I rise to my feet, brushing dirt and grass off my arms. “I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“No trouble,” he assures. “I’m Al.” He offers a hand.
I shake it. “Jon.” I rub my neck, embarrassed. “Uh…I had a…an episode. That’s not how I usually—”
Al laughs, loud and hearty. “People assume that I’m Looney Tunes crazy. Don’t worry—it’s nothing new.” He waves dismissively. “I know where you’re coming from.”
My curiosity rises to the fore. “The paper. You wrote—”
“ ‘There are other worlds than these?’ ” Al chuckles. “Got it from a book. Cool quote, huh?”
“Sure is.” Before I can stop myself, I blurt: “I’ve never talked with a homeless person. I’m not really sure of how I should—”
He holds up a hand. “Everyone has a home. I—like most of my vagabond brethren—am simply on vacation.” He glances around. “Where’s yours? You look kind of ragged, but I can tell by your bearing that you’re not a wanderer. Not yet, anyway.”
“I have an apartment next to San Francisco State. And what do you mean by ‘not yet?’ ”
He flashes me a sly, unnerving smile. “You’ll find out. Take it from your friend: Alijyar SyCajister.”
Everything blurs. By the shift in the backdrop, I can tell I’ve experienced missing time. Only a second or two, but still.
“What did you say?” I whisper, clutching my head. Alijyar. A-LEE-jee-are. I know that name…(why do I know it?)
“I said you’ll find your way home, as sure as my name’s Al Garrick.” He edges toward me. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine.” I say it roughly; I want to change the subject.
“Let’s start walking. 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. I should go get it. I’m not trying to hide where I live…” (and this is true; I can’t explain it, but I would invite him to my place without hesitation) “Like I said earlier, I had a bit of an episode. Had to pull over and…and…”
“Take a little break?” That knowing smile again. “I get it. 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 marbles. Who’s crazy though, if you stop and think about it?” He cackles with glee. “Come on.” He starts walking and gestures for me to follow. I fall in step beside him.
After a few minutes, I ask, “What’s your story? What did you do before you decided to write quotes on discarded newspaper?”
He launches into a long, complicated tale. Before the virus he’d worked with techies, designing an app that could quantify a person’s net fulfillment. He’d established metrics for varying interests: exercise, finance, hobbies…etcetera, etcetera. After gaining a rough idea of what someone wanted, they could start planning their days, weeks, and months.
“Wow,” I say. “Sounds amazing. Where can I download it?”
He lets out a sigh. “You can’t. After the virus hit, our investors bailed. Our product was designed to alleviate soul sickness, but that isn’t a concern when you’re trying to stay healthy, pay your rent, or put food on the table.”
“The app’s still relevant,” I argue. “Things have normalized, but a lot of people are still dissatisfied.” We cross the street, step over a median, and head down a sidewalk.
He grins and shrugs. “I used to think I could push 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.”
“Bull.” I shake my head. “You’re saying that people choose injustice? That they choose a life of horror and atrocity? I can’t accept that. I won’t.”
“That would be cruel and ridiculous, wouldn’t it?” he says. “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.”
My car is where I left it: parked by the road, keys dangling from the ignition. I’m pleased and surprised—I thought someone would steal it for parts. In 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. “What are you saying?” That we all 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? Where an unnamed part of you has chosen limitation? 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?”
I set my jaw. “There are some things you can’t control. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. Thanks for pulling me out of that pond, but I gotta go—gotta feed the dog.” I pull out my wallet. “Here.” I hand him a wad of soggy bills. “You live in the park, right? I’ll swing by later, get you some food.”
He takes the money, stuffs it in his jacket, and gives me the kindest smile I’ve ever seen. It should creep me out—I barely know him, after all—but a deep-seated part of me glories in its warmth.
“You’ve got a dope-ass aura, Jon. When times get tough, remember this if nothing else: you can lose your way, but you’re never off the path.”
Now he’s being weird. Still—I want to be polite. He did save my life.
“Uh, thanks,” I mutter. “Take care.” I open the door (I remember to close my eyes), and slip into the car. Al taps the roof with the flat of his palm.
“There are other worlds than these, Jon!”
I gun the ignition and drive onto the road. As I pick up speed, I see him in the rearview, throwing his head back and laughing joyously.
“There are other worlds than these!” He spins around, arms out, laughing at the sky.
Part of me wants to dismiss him as a 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 is humming through me—a tangible sense of adventure and passion.
There are other worlds than these. I’d bet my life on it.
During the ride back home, the visions start up. But unlike before, I find them comforting.
I see sweeping views of deep blue forest. I see snakelike creatures with wings and fins, weaving in and out of a twilit ocean. I see giant stone-people, tromping across a dried-up lakebed. I see Elves (Elves! Like in the movies!) relaxing in a sylvan kingdom, doing all kinds of amazing stuff: swordplay, archery, magic.
I see an aerial metropolis, jutting defiantly out from a sheer, cloud-studded cliff. Some of the inhabitants—mostly human but with varying degrees of birdlike features—have wings that sprout from their naked backs, while others are equipped with steampunk hang-gliders. If they need to add thrust, they press a button attached to their gloves, activating a brassy set of tubes that spread like veins across their wings. The flames from the tubes are small but intense; they seem to act like corrective jets. Throughout the city, ropes, platforms, and walkways adorn the stone.
I see countless wonders. Some I have words for. Others I don’t. Something deep in my mind is calling out, yearning to connect with this deluge of novelty.
I’m going to Dragon World. I can feel it in my gut—just like I know the sky is blue, or the ocean is wet.
There are other worlds than these.
I enter my apartment, catching a flash of some humanoid wolf-warriors. Gribbles greets me, wagging and panting.
I scratch his head and start undressing. I’m still dirty from my dip in the pond—I need to shower. As I walk to the bathroom, more scenes play out before me, engulfing my soul in magic and dream.
I was never doomed to a sterile office. That was a lie, a transient nightmare. Now, as Dragon World invades every door, every pane of glass, I see how there is so much more to my life than I had imagined. There’s a strange buzz running through my body—it starts in my belly but expands throughout. It pools and swirls inside my brain, coloring my thoughts with a deep conviction that all is right, that all is well.
I step in the shower and close the door. As warm liquid runs down my body, each drop flashes with imagery. Jungles and oceans, red-baked flats and crisp-aired peaks. Swords and sorcery, creatures and beasts. Brilliant magic, taking form as fierce hues or harnessed elements.
Everything around me slows to a crawl.
I see it all in the falling water, pooling together in my cupped hands, dripping off my bowed head. I watch each drop as worlds are born and splashed apart. Creation and movement, stretching every iota of my swollen perception. I hear laughter and screams, shouts and whispers.
Then it all fades away as the hum in my body grows to a roar. Melodic song is pouring through me, igniting my cells and filling 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. The windows are flashing and jumping with images.
Gribbles barks, alerting me to his presence in the passenger seat. My hands move of their own accord. My right foot follows, pushing the gas without my guidance.
Strangely enough, I’m not afraid.
Rain pelts my Hyundai Accent, coating the glass in fantastic visuals. I lower the windows and let it in. Elation hits me, adding to the buzz inside my head.
Fierce wind whips in through the window, blasting my face with a surge of cold. Gribbles spins and twirls in his seat, barking and whining with manic intensity. My shirt is soaked, a transparent film clinging to my skin. My hands and feet know just where to go—they guide my car through avenues and roads, alleys and turns.
I stop the car. We’re at Lafayette Park. Me and Gribbles are the only ones here; no one else wants to brave the rain.
Lafayette Park is built on a hill. Its grassy slopes are capped by a summit: a large flat area with cement pavement and stone benches. The summit is guarded by towering trees.
I have to go up there. I can’t say why.
As I open my door, Dragon World flashes before my eyes. It doesn’t matter; the rain is already rich with visuals, slathering the air in otherworldly beauty, collecting in puddles and fast-flowing streams.
As I walk up the steps, Gribbles follows, yipping and barking. He sounds tinny and distant due to the rain. Everywhere I look, I’m blitzed by an ocean of fantastic sights. Dragon World is playing out all around me.
As we reach the peak, thunder peals across the sky.
Dragon World is my fumbling attempt to give it a name when I can only access my surface mind. Now it’s different—now I’m in the grip of my entire being. Free and trapped at the same time. I’m aware of a choice that must be made: let go and enjoy, or give in to the terror.
There are other worlds than these.
Lightning flashes. For a blazing instant, I see the thirty-foot trees in their true form—as giant knights made of stone. They’re fast asleep on their feet, hands stacked on the pommels of their swords. Their blades point down, touching the ground between their boots.
One of them, however, remains a tree—the one in the center of this iconic assemblage. It’s wide and tall, a locus for the others.
A magnetic hum fills the air, and I walk closer to the tree without intending it. The hum grows stronger, and my pace quickens.
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 rips through me; is someone coming out? But my anxiety vanishes as the bark changes into a circular green door.
No one’s coming out. I’m going in.
I approach the door, drawn by the weight of its unfettered promise. A small part of me wants to protest, but it’s washed away by the phantasmagoric rain. My hand reaches out for the golden doorknob.
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.