The glass erupts with fantastic images. Elves. Sorcerers. Lizard-people.
I park at the curb and take off running. Up ahead, a homeless Black man kneels on the grass, scribbling on newspaper with a worn-down Sharpie. As I sprint toward 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 make it a dozen yards before 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 a pond behind me. “Had to pull you out so you didn’t drown.”
I take a moment to study my surroundings. Chirping birds, towering trees…
“Golden Gate Park. I’m in Golden Gate Park.”
“That you are.” My transient savior gives me a smile.
I rise to my feet, brushing sediment off my waterlogged sleeves. “Sorry…I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“No trouble,” he assures. “Name’s Al.”
“Jon.” I duck my head, chagrined. “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 person. I’m not really sure of what I shou—”
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. “What do you mean by ‘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 edge of the park, and I need to get it before I head home. I’m not trying to hide where I live, it’s just…” (this is true—I don’t know why, but I would invite this guy over without hesitation) “I think I’m sick. It’s why I had to pull over and…and…”
Whoa—head rush. I press a hand against my temple.
“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 find your car.” He starts heading west.
I fall in beside him. “What did you do, Al? Before you wrote quotes on discarded newspaper.”
Al launches into a long, complicated tale. Pre-virus, he worked with techies, designing an app that could quantify and maximize someone’s fulfillment. After gaining a rough idea of their goals and priorities, it helped them organize and schedule their day.
“Sounds awesome. Where can I get it?”
Al sighs. “You can’t. We had to abandon it. When the virus hit, our investors bailed. No one cares about spiritual blight, not when they’re worried about money or health.”
“Your app is important,” I argue. “A lot of people hate their life.” We cross the street and head down the sidewalk.
A grin and a shrug. “I thought I could peddle 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?’ 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 ridiculous, wouldn’t it? Since too many people get less than they deserve, and too many people get far too much. But it’s only ridiculous if our fleshy bodies define our existence—if we live a single life and that’s it.”
“What? How does that—”
“Or maybe it’s random, like you’re implying. Maybe we’re born into arbitrary circumstances. The thing is, a universe with any true randomness is unconscionably cruel, because it will sometimes reward atrocity and evil.” 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. In San Francisco, if you leave your bike out for longer than fifteen minutes, a street entrepreneur will strip it to the frame. Cars are trickier, but still—I’m glad it wasn’t stolen, especially since I left the keys in the ignition.
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. 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 dig in my wallet and hand him some bills. “Here. I’ll swing by later and bring you a meal.”
As he pockets the money, he gives me the kindest smile I’ve ever seen. It should creep me out (I mean I barely know the guy) but it surprisingly 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.
He taps the roof with the flat of his palm. “There are other worlds than these, Jon.” I pick up speed, watching him shrink in the rearview mirror.
“There are other worlds than these!” He spins around, arms out, laughing aloud at the cloud-dotted sky.
Despite my reservations, a gut-deep part of me is right there with him, cheering up at the gray-smeared blue. I’m taken by a rush of absolute certainty—a tangible sense of adventure and passion. For a brief moment I try and deny it, but I know in my heart that Alijyar’s right: there are other worlds than these.
I’d bet my life on it.
During the ride, the visions start up. Unlike before, I find them comforting.
I’m drenched in views of lush blue forest, speckled with clumps of fairy-tale fauna. Then it’s snakelike creatures with glittering fins, weaving through the waves of a twilit ocean. Stone giants crossing a dry lakebed, rife with a web of dusty cracks. Elves and pixies (Elves—like in the movies!) relaxing inside a sylvan kingdom. An aerial metropolis, jutting from the side of a cloud-ringed cliff.
I see countless oddities, wonders and marvels. Some I have words for, others I don’t.
A nameless part of me is calling out, yearning to connect with this deluge of novelty.
I head for the bathroom, peeling off clothes and letting them puddle behind me. When I step in 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 through a slashing downpour. I don’t remember how I got here. My mind feels hazy…like it’s stuffed with gauze or heavy cotton. That isn’t the case with my hands or my feet—they 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. As I lower the windows and let it in, Gribbles spins in the passenger seat, barking and whining with manic intensity.
We come to a stop at Lafayette Park: a grassy slope capped by a circle of 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.
That name was created by my surface mind, reflexively trying 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 trees as they truly are; as giant knights made of stone, hands stacked on downturned swords. One of them, however, remains a tree—the one in the center of this ancient assemblage.
I stride toward it without intending to.
The bark on the tree begins to move, writhing and squirming like a nest of snakes. My belly ripples with jittery nerves.
Is something coming out?
Then it transforms into an ornate door, replacing my fear with knowing resolve.
No—nothing’s coming out. I’m going in.
I approach the portal, drawn by the weight of its mythical promise. A false part of me wants to flee, but it’s washed away in the slashing rain.
Not Dragon World, I realize. That’s not what it’s called.
I open the door.
And I walk into Evermoor.