The windshield flashes with erratic images. Dragons. Sorcerers. Lizard-people.
I open the door and take off running. I need to escape. I need this to stop.
Up ahead, a homeless Black man is sitting on the grass, writing on a newspaper with a worn-down Sharpie. I stumble before him, breaking my fall with an outstretched hand. 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 and onto some turf, 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.
I’m lying on my back, completely soaked. A dreadlocked head looms above me, silhouetted by the glare of the afternoon sun.
“What…what happened?” I slowly sit up.
The homeless Black man crouches beside me. “You fell in the water and hit your head.” He nods at a rock-lined pond directly behind me. “I had to pull you out.”
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 grass off my clingy sleeves. “Didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“No trouble,” he assures. “I’m Al.”
“Jon.” I rub my neck, embarrassed. “I guess I had a…an episode. This isn’t how I usually—”
Al laughs, loud and hearty. “Everyone thinks I’m Looney Tunes crazy. No worries.” He waves dismissively. “I get it.”
My 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?”
Before I can stop myself, I blurt, “I’ve never talked with a homeless person before. 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 brethren—am simply taking a leave of absence.” He gives me a critical once-over. “Speaking of homes, where’s yours? You look a little ragged, but I can tell by your bearing that you’re not a wanderer. Not yet, anyway.”
“I live out by San Francisco State. And what do you mean ‘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, disoriented. Alijyar. A-LEE-jee-are. I know that name (why do I know it?)
“I said you’ll find a way home, as sure as my name’s Al Smith.” He edges toward me. “You sure you’re 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. I should go and get it first. I’m not trying to hide where I live…” (this is true—I don’t know why, but I would invite him over without hesitation) “Like I said, I had a bit of an episode. Had to pull over and…and…”
“Take a break?” That knowing smile again. “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 assume you’ve lost your 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 before you wrote obscure quotes on discarded newspaper?”
Al launches into a long, complicated tale. Before the virus, 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 someone’s goals, it would organize and schedule someone’s day.
“Sounds amazing. Where can I get it?”
A regretful sigh. “You can’t. During the virus, our investors bailed. No one cares about spiritual blight when they’re worried about money.”
“The app’s still relevant,” I argue. “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 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. “You’re saying we choose injustice? That we choose a life of horror and atrocity? I can’t accept that. I won’t.”
“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.”
My car is exactly where I left it: parked by the road, keys dangling from the ignition. I’m pleasantly surprised—in San Francisco, if you leave your bike out for longer than fifteen minutes, a street entrepreneur will strip it to the frame. I was expecting my car to be long gone.
I turn back to Al. “What are you saying?” That we reincarnate and choose our lives?”
“What do you think?” He looks me in the eye. “Do you believe in a world where we’re given a choice? Or are we simply cogs in a random machine, at the mercy of forces that would just as soon kill us as see us succeed?”
“There are certain 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 reach in my wallet and hand him some soggy bills. “Here. I’ll swing by later, 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 slip into the car. Al taps the roof with the flat of his palm.
“There are other worlds than these, Jon.”
As I pick up speed, I watch him in the rearview.
“There are other worlds than these!” He spins around, arms out, laughing loudly at the boundless 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.
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. Snakelike creatures with wings and fins, weaving in and out of a twilit ocean. Giant stone-people, plodding across a dried-up lakebed, rife with webs of dusty cracks. 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 wonders. Some I have words for, others I don’t. Something deep in my mind is calling out, yearning to connect with the deluge of novelty.
I’m going to Dragon World. I can feel it in my bones.
As I enter my apartment (catching a flash of a humanoid wolf-warrior) Gribbles runs up to me, wagging and panting. I head to the bathroom, peeling off my clothes and leaving them behind. When I enter the shower, more scenery plays out before me, engulfing my perception in magic and dream.
I was never doomed to a sterile office. That was a lie, a fleeting nightmare. Now, as Dragon World blossoms across open doorways and panes of glass, I realize there is more to this life than I ever thought. A strange buzz is running through me—it starts in my belly but expands throughout, coloring my thoughts with a deep knowledge that all is right.
I step in the shower and turn the handle.
Images appear in the falling water, dripping off my bowed head, spilling through my cupped fingers. Creation and movement, stretching every iota of my swollen perception. I hear laughter and screams, shouts and whispers. The hum in my body grows to a roar. 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. Gribbles is sitting in the passenger seat.
I can’t remember how I got here. My mind feels hazy—like it’s stuffed with a wad of oversized gauze. My hands and feet move all 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 spins and twirls in place, 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.
As I open the door, Dragon World flashes before my eyes. It doesn’t matter; the rain is already rich with imagery, slathering the air in otherworldly beauty.
I walk up the hill and Gribbles follows, yipping and barking at the top of his lungs. I’m blitzed by an ocean of fantastic sights, stretching endlessly in every direction.
Dragon World…that was a label from my surface mind. 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. Fast asleep on their feet, hands stacked on the pommels of their swords. The blades point down, 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 walk 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 rises and prickles my nerves—is something coming out? But my anxiety vanishes as the bark resolves into a circular green door.
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 tries to protest, but it’s washed away in the phantasmagoric rain.
I lay a hand on 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 I walk into Evermoor.