He had awakened with the itch on his face, from a lone and long hair floating across one eye and one lip, or was it a cob web, a remnant, a silver runner of aerial flight? It definitely was cob-web thin, a filament, a gossamer streamer, light as thought, but not the thought of a spider like the one he had seen eye to eye above his camp bed as a kid. That one hung on such a silken, thin, lone strand that almost wasn’t there. He had always believed he had smashed that black-eyed spider into space with the magazine he had been reading earlier.
This sheer line, though, hung on. When he put his hand up to pull it free, something told him not to yank too hard.
Rob Shackwell was ultimately sure he had been someplace else overnight, during his sleep, bizarre and not to be readily believed. The strangeness lingered in parts of his mind, in parts of his body the way a bruise might hang on for a dozen days, under the skin, invisible, but caught up with memory. Pain has no memory, they had always said, but he had better proof than they did.
The scenes, the odd pieces in his mind, were faded green, mild, the way a mist hangs above a kind meadow. He saw a Buck Rogers Saturday serial in his mind, the theater wild with noise as Buck raced to the rescue in a mild green airship racing through outer space green as pea soup.
The dream had to be a real dream. Whatever that meant? he added, as if still lost, for lost is where he had been, in some kind of emptiness, a void, the nothingness that is space and room and … a place beyond. The ready phrases that rushed at him … a place beyond, a place under, a place beside … had always bothered him, thinking they came out of some weird projection or abstract assimilation. Yet they must have some kind of roots in real being even as he assessed that this new dream had such power of displacement, or else it would not be a dream.
32 lurked in his skull. It was not an old jersey number, not a touchdown run, not friend or foe on the field. 32. 32. 32. It kept repeating. 32. Alone. No attachments, as though it too hung in space or in nothingness. It was not the age of a thing, or a place address or a content’s measurement. But it clawed at him for recognition, identity, and a force in itself. But he could not reach it. The taunting was on him. 32. 32. 32.
And the reality check came in full force; he felt like a pathological mausoleum: the pain in his legs was still hanging around, the corrective pins harbored there still being known as metal; his knees beat up from football wars as a youngster; an ankle twice broken in the long jump; and his back aching, finding the bed too comfortable, seeking a trade-off; it would not ask permission.
The quad by-pass over a dozen years ago, past its corrective span many assumed, was now and then erratic, made itself known at any exertion, any effort of his limbs, of the heart itself. Payback, his father had called it. “Every bruise you get now, at 15 or 16, any bang on the knee or the hips, or at the back of your head, is going to come back at you after 50 … mark my words.” He could have said, “And any insertion of a surgeon’s knife no matter how perfect.”
Marked, Dad, he said, every one of them.
Age, with all its echoes, was on him.
Where had the dream gone? He searched his mind for it; found nothing. It would hang off there, in some piece of space, tempting him now and then, rearing its head, finally disappearing as always into mist, a bank of fog, sheer darkness.
Then a simple idea came to him, a rationale, a way out of one dilemma and into another most likely; he decided a haircut was needed, for that long hair was threaded through his eyelashes or eyebrows and tickled at the corners of his mouth, teasing him? A remnant of his dream? A hangover rope?
Had he been in some craft like the Buck Rogers craft? He’d been in the void, he was positive. Every once in a while, in a flicker at the back of his mind, like a small flashlight clicked on and off, he saw a piece of it.
Suddenly, in a flash, he saw “them.” They were babies for 32 days, and then, poof, they grew up overnight and were fully-trained adults at a job in life that they were good at and most happy to do. What happened in those 32 days? He believed he had seen it all, but it was not real. If 32 days were their youth, gestation must have been a mere second, a thought, a glance. Maybe none of that was necessary.
He sat upright. 32 came at him. It was back, at least the essence of the dream. It had not let go altogether. Hung on for him. And he had nabbed it back from the … space, the nothingness, the beyond. Delicious fervor came on him, euphoria. He had found 32; it was real. It meant something. The dream was real, concrete, and had made a place for itself. It brought him back to a wide-awake realization that whatever he had known was not lost forever. He had recouped his journey, his night travel, his visitation.
- They had let him see the … beginning. They called the process the incorporation. There was the acceptance of the small creature, a bundle of sticks it seemed; the growth pattern as all training fell into place even as discovery of new things became youthful excitement; the assimilation and learning curve they called the guidance; the resolution as a full individual soon stood at an assignment desk, propelled there in an instant, ready to do its part.
Why had he seen 32? Who else had? He had no training in such matters, vaguely believed in the universe as it was talked about, had shunned it as a student. He had also seen the thread emanating from their forms. Had seen it pulled or unraveled, pulling odd parts, bad parts, parts that did not fit. It was their mode of medicine, he believed. He saw one strange hand unravel a thin line of string from one of the young forms, draw it from its place, bring parts with it, as if they weighed nothing, were made of nothing, but were visible; joints, sinews of a kind, nerves in tatters, greened veins displacing some form of liquid.
His discomforts, old and new, played upon his body. He ought to get out of the bed, start his day, get on with it, as his father had often said. Rolling over, the numerals sat behind his eyeballs. 32. 32. 32.
The string, the thin hair, the fine filament, demanded attention.
He drew on it, slowly, oh so slowly.
It started then, in one foot where pain also had lingered. Up through the ankle it came, gathering other disturbances, aches, old memories that still bothered him, through his knees, through his chest as if a ball was rolling to free itself. It came through his throat, his mouth, his lips, the eyelids, the eyelashes, and the top of his head. Came free of him. All that old clutter of the years. The pains. The aches. The small infirmities he had never noticed. The long-hammered and dried-out cartilages. The rough skin. The bumps and bruises. An old loss he had forgotten. A sour memory. A touch gone bad.
He was pain free. He was youthful. He felt like he was 20 again. The miracle was upon him as he kept to his bed. What could he do with this new medicine? How would he ply it? Who would believe him? He looked to see where the miraculous thin filament of new life had gone.
He could not find it. Did not know it had slipped under one of his fingernails and disappeared quicker than a holiday.
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