Sean opened his eyes and found himself seated at a table adorned with a single calla lily, which stood erect in a slender glass vase. Beside him was an otherworldly bright and shining cobblestone street. If it wasn’t for the dazzling shine, Sean might have believed he was in Paris. Then again, there was the pungent odor of garlic, tomatoes, and freshly baked bread, which made him think he might be in Rome. Sean also noticed the hint of a floral perfume wafting through the air. Thie scent was not coming from the white flower in the table’s centerpiece, so he turned his attention to a dark-haired woman behind him.
Her cheekbones were high and modelesque. She was wearing dark sunglasses, perhaps because of the ethereal radiance being emitted by the adjacent roadway. Staring into a compact, the woman methodically applied a bright red lipstick. When she noticed Sean, she closed the case and smiled before crossing her long legs and picking up her menu.
The attached housing units on the opposite side of the street appeared maintained, but Sean had the sense that they were vacant. However, there was one cast-iron balcony where an open door allowed a sheer drape to billow out onto the landing. The breeze was slight and the temperature mild, so Sean was comfortable in his short-sleeves. His shirt was a cream-colored linen button-up, and he’d paired it with tan pants and brown boots. But he did not remember doing so. Sean was also wearing a straw fedora, which he briefly removed and examined before placing back on top of his head. The ensemble made him think that he was on vacation, but that was not the case. He was dreaming.
Just as Sean thought to turn and ask the solitary woman where he was, he felt a hand on his shoulder. A spritely yet raffish-looking middle-aged man sat down across from him, saying, “I’m so glad you’re still here.”
Sean was not immediately sure he could believe what he was seeing because, unlike everything else around him, this man seemed to have stepped out of a black and white television. His face and hands were a pale gray, while his Brylcreem-infused hair, thin mustache, suit, and tie were all jet black.
As this new man began pulling a cigarette from a small metal case, he continued, “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”
“Would you mind not smoking?” asked Sean.
This immediately struck Sean as an odd request, given any number of much more pressing issues.
“Not at all,” said the man as he returned the single cigarette to its place, closed the case, and—with a wave of his hand—made it disappear.
Sean narrowed his eyes. “How’d you do that?”
“Magic,” explained the man.
Sean nodded but remained perplexed.
“I’m kidding. You’re dreaming, Sean. In fact, I’m your dream.”
The man leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. “I said, ‘I’m your dream.” Then he looked Sean over and added, “I see you’re still confused. My name is Carlos, and I. Am. Your. Dream.”
Sean glanced around the bistro and then briefly back at the attractive woman. “Well, that makes sense. This kind of looks like the set of the mafia flick I was watching last night.”
“Yes!” said Carlos, standing and motion up and down the street as he replied, “That was my inspiration!”
Carlos sat back down just as quickly while Sean continued studying the adjacent buildings. “It’s very realistic.”
Carlos nodded. “I do what I can.”
Then Sean leaned forward and motioned over his shoulder, saying, “Who’s she?”
“Her?” said Carlos as he pointed and spoke at a volume that was a little too loud for Sean’s comfort level.
“She’s an erotic dream. She was going to have you if I hadn’t been here in another minute or two.”
Sean glanced over his shoulder again.
The woman smiled.
“You can still…” said Carlos. “I’ll wait.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Are you sure? People dream all kinds of dreams. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Sean turned to look back at the woman again. She was standing to leave.
Carlos watched her go, saying, “Don’t worry, she’ll be back.”
As he spoke, a waiter appeared from within the restaurant. It was then that Sean noticed for the first time—through the open door—that there were others inside dining in complete silence, despite appearing to be speaking loudly, gesturing, and guffawing.
“Would you like me to turn the volume up?” asked Carlos. “I certainly can, but I find that too much background noise can be distracting, especially in a dream.”
“You better leave it down then,” said Sean.
Meanwhile, the waiter was making his way around the patio, placing a short candle beside the flower at the center of each table. When he arrived at theirs, Carlos waved him off. “We won’t be dining tonight.” When the waiter turned away, Carlos continued, “You never eat in dreams. Have you noticed that? Other dreams have offered you enormous buffets and the most exquisite fine dining experiences, and you have never once indulged. If you ask me, it’s because you have unparalleled self-control. I mean, take, for example, that erotic dream who was just sitting right over there. You didn’t think twice, did you?”
Sean hesitated to respond.
“Well, did you?”
“Exactly. You are not a man who is easily tempted. Neither are you extravagant or sybaritic. You are a simple man with simple tastes. But the best thing about you is that you know what you want.”
Sean looked at the black and white figure sitting before him, then said, “You seem to know a lot about me.”
“I’m in your head, Sean.” Carlos tapped his temple. “In. Your. Head.”
“I guess so.”
“But there’s another thing about you, my dear friend,” Carlos continued.
“You care. You really care about your dreams.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. And I don’t mean that you keep an inane little dream journal or look to us for signs or harbingers. Not at all. I mean, you care about your dreams because you understand the importance of R.E.M.”
“Well, sleep is important.”
“Precisely. And you are not deprived, my friend. You get what? Eight hours on average?”
“Sometimes a bit more.”
Carlos slapped his knee and pointed at Sean. “You see! That is why you are here.”
“Well, yes… but also here with me.”
“I thought you were my dream.”
“I am also Carlos.” The monochromatic man sighed as he leaned forward on the table. “Try to understand that dreams have personalities. They have rhythms and beats—for God’s sake, cycles! They also have a limited duration. They are ephemeral, which is the real reason I wanted to see you tonight. Would you mind if we took a walk?” Carlos glanced down the empty street. “It’s a lovely evening, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” said Sean, shrugging. “I don’t believe I’ve mastered the art of dreaming lucidly, so I go where you go. That’s how this works, right?”
“That’s right. You’re far from lucid, and asking me not to smoke was a feeble attempt, at best,” Carlos said as he got to his feet. “But it’s okay. We tend not to like lucidity around here. How should I put it?” Carlos looked over his shoulder as Sean followed behind. “Lucid dreaming is a little like putting a leash on a phoenix.”
“That’s pretty vivid.”
“It should be. You dream in color, Sean. Not everyone does, you know?”
As they continued moving along the cobblestone street, Sean said, “Speaking of color, did you know that you’re in black and white?”
“So you noticed.”
“It’s hard not to.”
“You’d be surprised. Many dreams—”
“That’s correct. That is most certainly correct. You are almost too smart for your own good. Do you know that?”
Carlos kept walking as Sean said, “So, you’re not going to tell me.”
“No, no, I will. I’m just preparing something.”
Carlos’s brow was furrowed in deep concentration as a man ambled around the corner, riding an Asian elephant. Sean looked up at the Indian man, who, paired with the pachyderm, appeared to be straight out of the pages of the National Geographic he’d been flipping through before a recent dental exam.
Carlos looked back at Sean as the animal trumpeted. “I’m sorry, but that sort of thing requires a bit of attention.”
“Conjuring up memories?”
“Reconfiguring them,” corrected Carlos. “Dreams are like collage, really—but we were talking about my appearance. You see, Sean, I said you care about your dreams, which is why I felt it was necessary to make you aware of the fact that… Well, I’m dying.”
“You’re dying? Of what?”
“Old age, I suppose. But it doesn’t matter. Dreams die all the time.”
“Wait a minute, are we speaking metaphorically or literally here?”
“Both, of course,” answered Carlos. “Metaphorically, in the sense that you’re getting on in years. You’re what? 35? 36? You probably can’t even remember off the top of your head. You need to count silently from the year of your birth.”
Sean tried to hide the fact that he was doing math in his head as Carlos continued, “It’s 36, Sean. And the fact of the matter is that you may have more dreams in your life, but they’ll lack… how should I put it? The virility of youth. If you think I’m exaggerating, remember that you turned down an erotic dream just moments ago.”
“So, my dreams are all dead? That’s what you’re telling me.” As Sean asked the question, a man on a flying trapeze swung by over their heads. Sean looked up, saying, “I don’t remember that one. Do you know where it came from?”
“I have no idea,” said Carlos before continuing, “Maybe you were once a high achiever. But you must realize that the life or death of your aspirations is beside the point. This isn’t about you. It’s about me. I am your dream, and I am dying.”
Sean blinked and found himself inside a hospital, surrounded by four white walls and a curtain that overlooked a hazy skyline. It belonged to a city Sean only vaguely recognized as New York. When he finally turned away and looked down at the bed in the center of the room, he saw Carlos again. His dark suit jacket sleeves were out of the covers while both the sheet and blanket were pulled up to his chest.
Despite appearing cadaverous or perhaps because of it, Carlos said, “I didn’t want you to see me like this.”
“So, is this metaphorical or not? Are my ambitions dying?”
“I can’t say for certain, but I want you to stop thinking about yourself for just one minute and look at me. I am Carlos, and I am dying!”
Sean nodded briefly after the outburst, then said, “Honestly, Carlos, I don’t know you that well. And I had very real dreams for my life—plans, you know? Shouldn’t I be concerned about those?”
“You would say this to me even after the elephant?” A pretty red-headed nurse entered the room as Carlos asked the question. Carlos took one look at her, then turned back to Sean with contempt. “You have a problem. You know that, right?”
Sean shook his head as Carlos had his blood pressure taken.
With his free hand, Carlos straightened his hair. Then he smiled at the nurse as she turned to leave. After taking a deep breath, he peered up at the television. It was black and white as well, and a rerun of I Love Lucy was flickering on the screen.
“You know, there were a few things I wanted to do before I died,” he said.
Sean walked toward a chair in the corner and took a seat. “Like what? No, wait, let me guess: skydive and go on safari.”
“Neither of those things,” said Carlos. “I tried to tell you already. This isn’t about you.” The black and white man shook his head. “Dreams have a mind of their own. Unless you do become lucid, then and only then will they do as you wish. But this is beside the point. Dreams are fragile, Sean. We break easily, and I am broken.”
“You were walking through the streets of Rome just a few minutes ago.”
“This is true. But the lifespan of a dream is like a dog’s. Well, more like a fly’s than a dog’s except even shorter. Minute in comparison, really. That is why I am already tragically ill after you have spent just a brief time with me.”
Sean narrowed his eyes. “If I’m being honest—”
“Please be honest, Sean.”
Sean sighed. “I’m getting the impression that you’re faking.”
Carlos glanced outside at a couple of giants who happened to be walking by the hospital window—ogreish creatures with the faces of Neanderthals. As they passed, he said, “You feel that way because dreams are not trustworthy. You can not put stock or faith in a dream and therefore me.”
“Maybe it’s just you,” said Sean. “Plenty of people have looked to dreams for guidance. You hinted at that yourself.”
“Never trust a dream,” said Carlos as he shook his head. “We can be interpreted in any number of ways and mean virtually anything. Tell me, when was the last time you visited a psychic?”
“I never have.”
“You know these things already then,” said Carlos. “Now, before I was so rudely accused of being a hypochondriac and reprobate—”
He stopped and glared at Sean.
“Sorry about that.”
“—I was trying to explain what it is I would like to do with my final few minutes in your head.”
Sean was on a beach with Carlos and a bodybuilder, who was wearing a blue and white singlet. The prodigious strongman was carrying the sick dream. One of Carlos’ arms was draped around him while the other hung limply, swaying as they plodded forward. Sean trudged along next to them, staring out at the ocean and the setting sun. There were gulls flying overhead and waves breaking on the shore. As a breeze began to pick up, Sean saw a leviathan leaping out of a billowing sea.
When he looked away, he noticed that the beach was filled with dead horseshoe crabs. There were so many that he was forced to navigate the shoreline as if it had become a sand labyrinth. The bodybuilder, on the other hand, kept his eyes focused forward and never once glanced downward, planting one foot in front of the other as though he were able to intuit each of the dead crab’s final resting place.
“What happened to these crabs?” asked Sean.
“It’s in that National Geographic,” Carlos answered. “You didn’t read the article—just looked at the pictures.”
“Oh, right,” said Sean. “So, why are we here?”
“I wanted to take a long walk on the beach.”
Sean furrowed his brow. “That sounds a lot like—”
“Yes, I know what it sounds like,” Carlos interjected. “I can only get so far away from your psyche.”
“Sure,” said Sean, “but you must have wanted to come here too.”
“I did,” admitted Carlos as he looked up at the strongman and patted him on the cheek. “I hoped the sea air would revive me.”
Sean smirked. “That’s a little old-fashioned, isn’t it?”
“I’m an old-fashioned dream,” explained Carlos. “I am black and white, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, but wouldn’t you have been better off back in the hospital?”
Carlos looked at the bodybuilder. “Would you hold me vertically for a moment?”
The strongman let go of Carlos’s legs and held him under each arm.
Then, Carlos looked at Sean and said, “I wanted to look you directly in the eye when I said this.”
“Don’t be stupid. Hospitals can do nothing for a dream. Pick me back up, Gerald.”
The bodybuilder cradled Carlos like an infant once more.
Sean looked forward. “I guess I didn’t think that one through.”
“It’s to be expected,” continued Carlos as he took a deep breath. “You’re under the impression that I’m real.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”
“You don’t think any of this is real?” asked Carlos as he stopped Gerald and waved a hand toward the ocean.
“Well, I know I’m dreaming.”
“No! No, you do not! You have never been lucid before!”
“Well, if you’re going to yell at me, maybe I should give it a try.”
Carlos pursed his lips. “Fine. Take control.”
“Take control of the dream.”
Sean stood motionless, stunned. He could do nothing.
Carlos cried out once more, “Turn around, Sean!”
Sean turned to see a white rabbit the size of a human standing on its hind legs on a nearby dune. It was holding a basket full of colorful purple, pink, and yellow plastic eggs.
When Sean turned back around, he said, “Did I do that?”
“No,” said Carlos. “But Easter is just around the corner.”
Sean had heard this somewhere before. He looked back toward the rabbit, trying to remember the context of that statement, but nothing came to mind.
Carlos and Gerald had continued forward, and Sean hurried to catch up with them. When he did, he said, “So, what else did you want to do?”
Gerald and Carlos were standing nearby as Sean stared at a plate glass window on the side of a building in a nondescript office park.
Sean looked back at them. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?” asked Carlos.
“Take us from one place to another in an instant like that?”
Carlos made a face. “I’m not sure. Gerald, do you know how we do it?”
Gerald only shook his head.
“Every dream can do it,” explained Carlos. “It’s like breathing for us. How do you breathe, Sean?”
“I don’t know,” replied Sean. “It’s involuntary.”
Sean glance around the empty parking lot, then said, “So why are we here? It looks like someplace I used to work.”
“I want to break this plate glass window.” Carlos pointed at the large rock at Gerald’s feet.
“Your dying wish is to vandalize a building?”
“I want to destroy everything, Sean. But I can’t. What I can do is destroy this giant window—puncture the glass with a rock the size of a pigskin and run away… or let Gerald run away with me.” Carlos paused and looked down at the rock. “Now that I think of it, I don’t even think I have the strength to hurl the damn thing. You’re going to have to do it for me.”
Sean looked at the rock, which had become a side of ham.
“Stop!” cried Carlos, “I just thought of something.” Putting his fingers to his temples, he murmured, “If you break that glass with the hind leg of a pig, the crash is sure to wake you up.”
“Like when I’m falling?” asked Sean.
“Sort of,” answered Carlos, noticeably irritated by the interruption of his thought process.
“Speaking of falling,” continued Sean before realizing that he, Gerald, and his dream had been transported to the edge of a cliff.
Horrified, Carlos looked at the bodybuilder and said, “Is he getting lucid? That will ruin everything. He can’t be getting lucid.”
“Am I?” asked Sean. Without waiting for a response, he glanced over the cliff’s edge. “Do dreams ever push people off of cliffs?”
Carlos looked at the strongman and then back at Sean. “I wouldn’t, but yes, they sometimes do.”
“Why do they do that?”
“Maybe it’s dislike or maybe just because they have a prior engagement. Any number of reasons.”
“So, my dream may not like me?”
“Some of them hate you,” said Carlos.
“Nightmares,” said Sean thoughtfully.
When Carlos snapped his fingers, the three men appeared back in front of the plate-glass window. “Now, Gerald will put me down and throw the ham. But this is very important, Sean. You will cover your ears.”
“Cover my ears?”
“Are you starting to repeat me all of a sudden, or has this been going on for a while?” He looked at the bodybuilder and said, “Put me down.”
The strongman obeyed.
Carlos looked at Sean. “Cover your ears.”
Then Gerald picked up the side of ham and threw it with enough force to shatter the glass and force Sean to roll over in his sleep. Then, when it was abundantly clear that Sean would not awaken, Carlos smiled and told Gerald to stop running.
He said, “There. We’ve done it.”
“How does it feel?” asked Sean.
“I’m not sure, but I could go for a club sandwich.”
“I thought you said I didn’t eat in dreams.”
“You don’t,” said Carlos. “Now, let’s watch a little television while I die.”
Sean instantaneously returned to the hospital where Carlos had initially been admitted. He was eating a club sandwich.
“That’s it?” asked Sean as a busty blonde nurse entered the room.
“You have any better ideas?”
Sean looked up at the television. The screen displayed an aquarium full of floating club sandwiches.
“Well, if I were dying, I’d—”
“Go skydiving or on safari?”
“I’m a dream, Sean. I’ve done things you can’t even remember.” Carlos held up his finger as he took a bite and finished chewing. “But not more things than you could dream of.”
Sean accepted the sentiment.
Carlos took another bite of his sandwich before adding, “However, there is, perhaps, one other thing I’d like to do.”
“I’d like to be analyzed.”
“But you said you shouldn’t put any stock in dreams.”
“For fun, my friend,” said Carlos. “I mean, there’s no reason not to see what there is to see.”
“I don’t know,” said Sean. “It seems a little contrary to your overarching philosophy.”
“Are accusing a dream of not making sense? Think about that for a moment.”
Sean conceded with a shrug just as there was a knock on the door, and a woman, who was under five feet tall, walked into the room wearing a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
She said, “Hello, I’m here to meet with Carlos?”
“Wait a minute,” said Sean, “she doesn’t look like a psychic.”
“I’m a psychologist,” explained the woman. “You can call me Dr. Doctor.”
“Dr. Doctor?” asked Sean. “Is Doctor your last name?”
“Yes, I happen to come from a family of Doctors.”
Sean looked at Carlos, who was trying to suppress his laughter.
“What are you laughing at?” asked Sean.
Carlos shook his head. “I just wanted one good laugh before I died. Dr. Doctor?” He giggled to himself as he slapped his knee.
“But that’s not funny.”
“Try to believe that it is,” said Dr. Doctor as she adjusted her glasses on her face. “Laughter in a dream is a very good sign.”
Carlos smiled and said, “Did you hear that? A good sign? I am forever the optimist.”
“That’s interesting,” said Sean. “I’m a pessimist.”
Carlos shrugged. “It is in the nature of dreams to be hopeful.”
“Ahem. I’d like to get started,” continued Dr. Doctor.
“Wait,” said Sean, “I get it. You’re shrunken because you’re a shrink. Now that is kind of funny.”
“I prefer the term psychologist,” said the doctor sternly as she once again repositioned her glasses. “And I really would like to get started. We don’t have much time.”
“By all means,” said Carlos.
“To dream of Rome is power,” she explained as she referred to a small clipboard in her hands. “And Italy, pleasure. You see, Carlos, you are a powerful dream that will live on in Sean’s mind long after he wakes.”
“Thank God,” said Carlos as he threw his hands up over his head.
“Even the elephant was a testament to your prowess and strength.”
“Do I need to be here for this?” asked Sean suddenly. “It seems a little self-congratulatory.”
“No, no. Go get yourself a soft drink,” said Carlos as he waved Sean away.
However, at that exact moment, the blonde-haired nurse returned, carrying a tray full of Shastas.
She handed Sean one.
After Carlos cracked a cola open and took a sip, he said, “Please, go on.”
Before she could, Sean asked, “What about the dead horseshoe crabs?”
Dr. Doctor explained, “That means you should pay special attention to the cycles of life.”
“Oh! The end is nigh!” Carlos exclaimed. Then he added to the nurse: “Do you think I could also have a ginger ale? My stomach is a teeny bit upset.”
“Of course,” she said. “Take two.”
Dr. Doctor continued, saying, “The most disturbing aspect of your dream was the breaking of the plate glass window.”
“Why is that?” asked Sean.
“It’s indicative of shattered dreams.”
“Shattered,” reiterated Carlos with emphasis as he turned toward Sean.
“Again,” said Sean, “this seems a little more metaphorical than literal.”
“Everything really is about you, isn’t it?” said Carlos. “That’s your problem.”
“Would you consider yourself a dreamer?” asked the doctor as she turned toward Sean.
He shook his head. “No. I gave up on dreams a long—”
“You see!” cried Carlos. “It’s all about him, again!”
“I’m afraid so,” said the doctor before she asked, “What were your dreams?”
“Carlos,” answered Sean.
“I made him say that,” Carlos confessed with a smirk. “Now, what about the bunny?”
“Joy,” answered the doctor. “And…fertility.”
“There he goes again,” said Carlos, shaking his head.
Sean looked over at the nurse, who smiled. “Okay, well, this dream can’t be all about me. What about Gerald?”
“The bodybuilder?” asked Carlos. “Good question.”
“It means you should try to improve your physical state,” said Dr. Doctor, referring to her notes once more.
“Because I’m dying,” said Carlos.
“See?” said Sean, “That’s not about me.”
“Oh please, this is all about you,” said Carlos before rolling his eyes. “I’m just jealous.”
“Jealousy in a dream represents feelings of inadequacy,” explained Dr. Doctor.
“Well, that’s apparent,” said Carlos as, without warning, a flying bovine slammed into the hospital window, bounced off, and zoomed off like a hummingbird.
Sean said, “I can’t believe that cow didn’t shatter the glass.”
“It’s a good omen,” explained the doctor.
“For me?” asked Carlos.
“No,” said Dr. Doctor. “You’re still dying. And this is all about Sean.”
“But I don’t want it to be,” said Sean.
Then he turned to look out at a sky full of flying cows before noticing the giant eye hovering above them. The iris and pupil bounced around rapidly as Carlos explained, “It’s you, my friend. It’s always been you.”
“You’re exiting R.E.M.,” said Dr. Doctor.
“So I must now die,” Carlos lamented.
“What if I stayed here forever?” asked Sean, appealing to the doctor. He approached the bedside, saying, “I mean, I can’t help but think I’m somehow responsible for his death.”
“You are 100% responsible,” said Carlos as he sipped his ginger ale. Turning to the doctor, he added, “Go ahead. Tell him.”
“A giant eye means that you have a hard time seeing a future for yourself.”
“In this dream,” added Carlos.
“What about life? A future in my real life?” asked Sean.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with this,” said Carlos, incredulously. “But before I die, I want you to know you gave me everything I ever wanted.”
Carlos nodded as a more placed nature emerged, and he said, “I wanted my existence to make sense.”
“This makes sense to you?” asked Sean. “Flying cows?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Carlos peered through the window. “They are in training.”
“Training? Training for what?”
“To jump over the moon.”
Sean looked once more. The cows were moving in long, slow arches. The scene suddenly struck him profoundly, resonating somewhere near his inner child. He said, “Oh my God. I didn’t see it before.”
“But you do now?” asked Carlos. Before he could answer, Sean’s dream continued, “It would be much different if you were seeing flying pigs, of course.”
Sean nodded as he watched the Holsteins leap.
“It just goes to show that I’m going into the final sleep.” Carlos motioned to his white sheets and blanket. “I have already put myself to bed.”
The doctor arched an eyebrow and said, “It’s also a nursery rhyme, Sean.”
“I remember. He’s trying to keep me asleep, isn’t he? So he won’t die.”
“He’s trying very hard,” explained Dr. Doctor.
“You sneaky little bastard,” said Sean.
“Hey Diddle Diddle,” said Carlos, whose grayscale braincase began shrinking as if he were under the curse of a shaman or witch doctor. Sean looked at Dr. Doctor, who smiled only to reveal a set of broken teeth, which proceeded to fall out of her face.
Carlos said, “You’ll be fine, my friend,” then turned his tiny head toward the nurse in the overly tight uniform and added, in a nasal tone, “I’m certain of it.”
Justin Meckes lives and writes in Durham, NC. He has published stories in journals and magazines such as Map Literary, The Broadkill Review, and Bewildering Stories. He is also a filmmaker, and his animated short, The Hot Air Balloon, was an official selection of the Academy Award-Qualifying 23rd RiverRun International Film Festival. You can learn more at justinmeckes.com.