Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Chapter 2

Jaden dreamed that night for the first time since the accident. In fact, it was really the first time in years, at least that he could remember. He had never had very good dream recall. Elisa, a very frequent and vivid dreamer, had always found that unusual, bordering on unnatural. Earlier on in their now defunct relationship, whenever she had spent this night at Jaden's apartment, she would wake up in the morning, immediately recount the latest story from her head, and ask about Jaden's dreams, which were never forthcoming. His attitude had been that if his subconscious wanted him to know what it was doing it would tell him, but he wasn't going to lose any sleep, so to speak, worrying about or trying to remember the random nighttime firings of some neural synapses. Elisa eventually gave it up and stopped asking.

There was no ignoring this dream, though. In it, his right arm was entirely gone, from the elbow down. Not simply nonfunctioning but outright missing. He passed his left hand through the air where his right wrist should be and felt an imaginary slice of pain. He couldn't tell where he was; all he could see was a thick, dark mist, which sometimes coalesced briefly into hints of shapes both horrible and beautiful, then dissolved again. He reached out with his left hand to touch it, and to his surprise he was able to pull out a tuft of mist like cotton candy.

And then somehow he found that he had been inverted. From a man missing an arm, he had changed to the arm that was missing the rest of its body. At least, that was the most sense he could make of it. He had no eyes to see if there was anyone or anything around him. He could feel and move the muscles of his right hand, his fingers and forearm, but that was all. It was as if his consciousness were inside it now, in the way it usually seemed to be in his head, and there was nothing else. He felt a pressure underneath him, something scaly under the heel of his hand and under his forearm, and he was lifted, carried. He thought he felt the thick swirl of the dark cotton candy mist, before it all faded away.

Jaden slept in the next day, and woke to the late morning sun streaming in through the window. He hadn't set his alarm clock, mostly because he hadn't really thought much about what exactly he would be doing when he woke up. His mother had called his boss from the hospital the day before, so people at work knew what had happened over the weekend. Jaden had no idea when they were expecting him back. He could probably play hooky for a while if he wanted.

He poked around the apartment until about noon, unable to get very interested in, or concentrate on, anything. It was too surreal, having been out of commission for several days, and now back at home, alone and with nothing to do but stare at his strangely paralyzed hand. He decided to go ahead and just go to work, if only to feel like he was back in the real world again.

The trickiest part of getting out of the apartment was tying his shoes. He eventually worked out a way to do it one handed, with a little help from a single, straightened finger on his right hand. Good enough for the walk to work, anyway. Probably not secure enough for dancing, he thought, but I'll fake that step when I come to it.

Jaden was glad he lived close enough to work to walk there. Even if his car had been in good enough shape to drive, he didn't know if he could have managed the stick shift with his hand the way it was. Plus, it just felt good to be out in the sun and the spring air, and the walking started to ease out some remaining stiffness in his muscles.

He was only a few blocks from downtown, but he took a slight detour to walk down a different street for a more scenic route. Fewer generic apartment complexes and more fancy, expensive homes with pristine gardens. Mostly fancy and pristine, anyway. There was one large corner lot where an old house had been torn down the year before. Construction on a new one had been started, but abruptly abandoned with only a skeleton of a frame left behind. No one seemed to know the exact story behind it, or even who the owner was, though there was much speculation in the neighborhood about the mysterious number 250 Richards Street, and even, supposedly, many failed attempts to buy it. Jaden noticed a fresh growth of weeds around the swimming pool excavation as he passed it.

Once downtown, he headed for the used book store. At the entrance he turned right and took an anonymous looking door that could have led to a janitor's closet, but in fact took him upstairs to a small office suite on the second floor. had turned it into a small cubicle farm for their world (and only) headquarters. Jaden did QA work on their web application, a social networking service that was different and special just like all the others.

"Hey! Jade's back!" Todd's voice greeted him almost as soon as he stepped in. He sounded happy to see him, which was unsurprising, since he had probably been doing Jaden's job in addition to his own for the last day and a half, without knowing how much longer it would last. There was a flurry as the news spread around, and people came over to ask how he was. A lot of them were creeped out by his hand, though, and gradually everyone headed back to work.

"Are you actually going to be able to work with that thing?" Todd asked, gesturing at Jaden's hand and managing to sound both skeptical and hopeful at the same time.

"I'm not sure. I'm going to need to experiment a bit and find out what I can do and what I can work around."

Jaden didn't actually end up getting much done that day, spending it mostly in adjusting. Meetings were the easiest, but he usually only had one Tuesdays. He downloaded some speech recognition software that helped a bit with typing, though between some program glitches and frequent transcription inaccuracies, it wasn't always faster than a one handed hunt and peck method. A lot of the QA testing that he and Todd did required more mouse work than typing, so that would get better as his left hand got more practice. By the end of the day, Jaden had decided that he could probably manage, though at a noticeable decrease in efficiency. Still, it was better than nothing. Stacey, his manager, had told him it might be possible to go on partial disability leave, but he would save that as a last resort. He could tell she was deliberately trying not to put pressure on him, but he also knew how busy they all were there, and how his absence would just make it more difficult to keep up with everything that needed to be done.

After work, Jaden got some dinner at the Chinese restaurant across the street, with Todd and a couple of other coworkers. Taking leave of everyone an hour later, he headed off down Castro Street until he found himself outside the East West bookstore, and decided to go in and browse a bit.

East West being what it is, it had a fairly prominent section of shelves devoted to dreaming, and seeing the sign for it on the side of a bookcase reminded Jaden of his dream the night before. He scanned the shelves. Some titles looked like a complete load of New Age crock, but others seemed intriguing. Soon he found himself engrossed in one of the more reputable seeming ones, on the subject of lucid dreaming. He was fairly sure that this was not what he had experienced, since he had had no idea that he was dreaming until after he was awake. But it seemed incredible that some people could realize their dreams while still asleep. Jaden thought that if you were able to "wake up" in your dreams, and start consciously acting as though they were real, then you were probably well on your way to a completely unreliable perception of reality, and from there at least some form of minor insanity. Interesting, though. The store was about to close, so he bought himself the book as a get well present for his hand.

It was dark as he walked home and turned down Richards Street. He had gone another block on automatic pilot when he found himself feeling a bit disoriented, and stopped. Looking around, it took him a second to realize where he was, and then a bit longer to realize why he had been confused. The view wasn't right.

The corner up ahead was supposed to be the final resting place of 250 Richards Street, but the skeletal building frame that had stuck bleakly out into the sky for the last year was gone. In its place was a dark mansion, which looked too big to fit between its neighboring houses, and yet still seemed aloof and removed from them. The chain link construction fence had been replaced by a wrought iron one, over ten feet high. The swimming pool was full of shimmering dark water, rippled by a silent fountain. Greenish yellow lights shone in the windows on the upper storey, and insubstantial silhouettes seemed to pass back and forth on the other side.

Jaden just watched it for a minute, as though waiting for it to pounce. He knew he had seen it as normal just that afternoon, so what had happened to it since then? He was about half a block away still, so he started gradually moving closer. As he did, the mansion seemed to grow less distinct, rather than more so, as though a mist were forming over it, clouding his vision. When he was at the end of his block and just across the street from it, Jaden could barely see a thing. He waded through a fog to the other sidewalk, at which point it cleared, and he found his hand resting on a chain link fence. On the other side was the empty pool, its concrete basin only partially filled in. Beyond it, the wooden beams in an empty outline of an ordinary house.


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