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 sits on the grass, writing on a newspaper with a worn-down Sharpie. I stumble before him and break 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 the grass, glimpsing a whirl of trees as I trip and fall into a pond. Cold water invades my ears, blurring my sight before the world goes dark.
My eyes crack open. I’m lying on my back, completely soaked. A dreadlocked head looms above me, silhouetted by the afternoon sun.
“What happened?” I sit up slowly.
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 pulled you out.”
I cast a quick glance 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. I count at least five missing teeth.
“Sorry.” I rise to my feet, brushing dirt and grass off my sleeves. “Didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“No trouble,” he assures. “I’m Al.”
“Jon.” I rub my neck, embarrassed. “I think I had a…an episode. This isn’t how I usually—”
Al laughs, loud and hearty. “Almost everyone thinks I’m Looney Tunes crazy. Don’t worry.” He waves dismissively. “I understand.”
My curiosity bubbles to the fore. “The newspaper. You wrote—”
“ ‘There are other worlds than these?’ ” Al grins. “I 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 I should—”
He holds up a hand, cutting me off. “We all have a home, Jon. I—like most of my vagabond brethren—am simply taking a leave of absence.” He gives me a critical look. “Speaking of homes, where’s yours? You look kind of ragged…” He tilts his head left and right, looking at me from a couple different angles, “but I can tell by your bearing that you’re not a wanderer. Not yet, anyway.”
“I live over by San Francisco State. 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 backdrop, I can tell I’ve experienced missing time.
“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 roughly. I want to change the subject.
“You said you live by the college?”
My brusqueness turns to muted embarrassment. “Yeah, but I left my car by the side of the road. I should go and get it. 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 get it, man—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 mind. Who’s crazy though, if you stop and think about it?” He cackles with glee. “Come on. Let’s go find your car.” He turns around and starts walking.
I fall in beside him. “What’s your story? What did you do before you wrote obscure quotes on discarded newspaper?”
He 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 long-term goals, the app would organize and schedule their day.
“It sounds amazing. Where can I get it?”
He sighs regretfully. “You can’t. During the virus, our investors bailed. I wanted to design a cure for soul sickness, but no one cares when they’re worried about health, rent, or food on the table.”
“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. You’re saying that 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 any longer than fifteen minutes, a street entrepreneur will strip it to the frame. I was expecting my car to be long gone by now.
I turn back to Al. “What are you saying?” We all reincarnate and 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 some things you can’t control, Al. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. Thanks for pulling me out of the 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—it floods my soul with warmth and certainty.
“When times get tough, remember this if nothing else: you can lose your way, but you’re never off the path.”
A second later the spell breaks, leaving me feeling a little weirded out. Still—I want to be polite. He did save my life, after all.
“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 with his arms out, laughing at the sky.
I want to dismiss him as 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 sureness 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 lakebed, rife with a web of dusty cracks. Elves and pixies (Elves! Like in the movies!) relaxing in a sylvan kingdom.
I see an aerial metropolis, jutting defiantly out from a cloud-feathered 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. If they need more thrust, they press a button attached to their gloves, activating brassy sets of tubes that spread like veins across their wings. The flames from the tubes are small but intense; they serve as boosters or corrective jets.
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 bones.
As I enter my apartment, I catch a flash of a humanoid wolf-warrior. Gribbles runs up to me, wagging and panting.
I scratch his head and head for the bathroom, peeling off my clothes and littering the floor with my soggy shirt, jeans and socks. When I enter the shower, 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 fleeting nightmare. Now, as Dragon World invades every open door and pane of glass, I realize there is more to life than I ever thought. A strange buzz electrifies my body—it starts in my belly but expands throughout, coloring my thoughts with a deep conviction that all is right.
I step in the shower, close the door, and turn the faucet. Warm liquid pours off me.
Everything around me slows to a crawl.
I see it all in the falling water, dripping off my bowed head. Worlds are born and splashed apart. 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 through me, 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 been stuffed with a wad of cottony gauze. The windows are flashing and jumping with images. My hands and feet move by themselves, steering and braking without my guidance.
Strangely enough, I’m not afraid.
Rain pelts down, coating the glass in fantastic visuals. I lower the windows and let it in. Fierce wind whips my face, blasting my skin with freezing cold. Gribbles spins and twirls in place, barking and whining with manic intensity. My shirt is soaked completely through, a wet film stuck to my skin.
I stop the car at Lafayette Park. The grassy slopes are capped with cement pavement and stone benches. The summit is ringed by towering 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 images, slathering the air in otherworldly beauty.
I walk up the hill and Gribbles follows, yipping and barking with all his might. He sounds tinny and distant due to the storm. Everywhere I look, I’m blitzed by an ocean of fantastic sights.
When we reach the peak, booming thunder fills my ears.
Dragon World was my fumbling attempt to give it a name: a label created by my surface mind. Now it’s different—I’m deep in the grip of my full 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 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. 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 closer to the locus 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 spills through me; is something coming out? But my anxiety vanishes as the bark resolves into a circular green door.
Nothing’s coming out. No—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 phantom rain. I lay my hand on the golden doorknob.
I turn it clockwise. The latch clicks back.
Not Dragon World, I realize. That’s not its name.
I open the door. And I walk into Evermoor.