Start with Color

By Bill Kte'pi

Start with color. A nimbus of blue at the base, a finger of black, a flicker of yellow and orange. Start with color, and then as soon as color turns into flame, forget the color: just leave the heat. Good. The mug starts to warm, from the base up through the cold coffee, and when the first wisps of steam appear -- there we go. Now stop: send the flame away.

Take a sip. Now what was Carly saying?

"They really let you quit?"

I take another gulp of the coffee and tap my finger on the side of the mug. "The necessity of my work has diminished."

Her eyes narrow and she pushes her morning paper away, unread. Her dreams have been lazing at her elbows, small white elephants and green giraffes, grazing from invisible trees. They move aside, harrumphing at her as the paper interrupts their breakfast. "What does that mean, Will?"

I had started to dream my notepad into my hand from my study, but I stop. Vaguely, I sense the notepad, out there, half one place and half another, and as I stroke Carly's hand with my fingertips, I concentrate harder on its original position: sitting on my desk, slightly at an angle next to the computer keyboard, the better to read from while typing. The vagueness disappears. "It means I'll be home from now on, sweetheart. I promise."

"The Sops don't let anyone quit."

"Well, they've let me retire. And you know I don't like that term. It sounds too much like 'cops.'"

"And they may as well be. But fine, Soporifics, then. No one retires from the Soporifics until they're too old to work. It's in the Tochko Amendment. You're as much a natural resource as you are a citizen." The elephants start to darken in color, from white to blue.

I shrug and begin to make breakfast, drawing on memories of my grandmother's flapjacks, fluffy and golden-brown, layered with pats of yellow-white butter and drizzled with maple syrup, the real stuff, Grade A Amber--

"Will, stop daydreaming and pay attention to me."

I forget about breakfast for now. "What is it you want me to say?"

"I want you to look me in the eye and promise me that this is for real. That you're going to be home from now on. No more late nights or overnights at headquarters. No more running off to the west coast for a month to track down some death-dreamer. No more leaving for a year 'on loan' to some foreign government, when you can't even tell me which one. I want you to tell me they're not going to come for you. MacKenzie's six years old, he hardly knows his father. I barely know my husband anymore."

This is what it's always been like. These arguments, this argument. I tell myself I do the work for my family, not at their expense, but that argument has grown old even with me. I squeeze Carly's hand, so much younger than my own, untouched by wrinkles, free of blemish, and look straight into her green-blue eyes, fix on them, forgetting the coffee (which stops warming up when I drop my attention from it), forgetting the flapjacks, forgetting the notebook in my upstairs study. "I'm going to be home. I'm not going back. They don't need me anymore."

It gets through to her, and when her eyes widen my heart breaks a little bit. She's never known the effect that has on me, that little widening, that when we were young and she wasn't allowed in my office, it was because if I got trapped looking at those eyes I'd forget everything else and my work would disappear. It didn't always work that way: if you were disciplined enough, you could keep a dream "alive" indefinitely by keeping it at the back of your mind. But it had taken a long time for me to learn that discipline.

Ever since the experiment went horribly wrong in New Mexico, people's dreams have been coming alive. And there are a few of us, few but enough, who dream so strongly that we can make almost anything happen, make anything real. When we dream of fire, it burns, and when we stop dreaming of it, the things it burned don't come back. The Soporifics helped us control our talents: they trained us, taught us to focus, taught us concentration, withdrawal, guardedness.

"You did it." She doesn't have to ask; she knows. She knows that if I'm serious, there's only one explanation.

"Daddy, you're home!" MacKenzie comes into the breakfast room with that waddle-scurry only little children can manage. His eyes are dull with more than sleep, with the usual 30 ccs of morpheum the law mandates that he take every morning until he's old enough to join the Sops. I can see the reflection of his dreams in his eyes: Super Dragon Warriors again, that annoying cartoon I'd hoped he'd get over.

I give him a hug and scoop him into my lap, kissing the top of his head and resting my chin on it as I watch Carly give me the look I dread, the look I can't stand, a mixture of hope and aggravation and the hatred she's prepared to unleash on me if I leave again. I've seen her preparing for this, for the ultimatum. Stay or don't come back again. All or nothing. She wants to believe in my work, but she doesn't want to wait, isn't willing to give up her child for the sake of future generations. "Hey, Big Mac," I say. "Up for breakfast?"

He fiddles with the feet of his Super Dragon Warriors pajamas, curling his legs up under him as he sniffs at my cold coffee. "That isn't my name, Daddy, I'm MacKenzie." His mother doesn't let him have McDonald's, and more power to her, but he never gets my jokes. "Can I have a chocolate banana blueberry pancake for breakfast? I think that's my favorite, but I have to try it again so I'm sure."

"Ask your Mom." I nudge him, and keep watching Carly. There's a flash of fear across her eyes, thin and fleeting like color on a soap bubble. She guards it, but she's not as good at secrecy as I am. Part of her, God bless her, will always be afraid of her son, because she knows what he can do, and what's in store for the rest of his life if his father fails. Or she thinks she does.

"Sure." Carly smiles. "But only one. And no syrup, not if there's chocolate in the pancake."

"Oh, Mom." MacKenzie shakes his head. "I can just make syrup that doesn't have any calories anyway."

"That's not the point, and you know it." That's one of those things Carly sticks to. Let the boy dream up his breakfast, since he's strong enough to dream up something with sustenance, but don't let him have anything that would be too unhealthy for him if it were real.

MacKenzie sighs dramatically and rolls his eyes up at me, and I shrug. He starts to stare at the table, and I can smell the rich chocolate and warm bananas and melting blueberries, in that moment of a moment before the oversized blue china plate appears, covered in a pancake the size of a place mat. He didn't bother dreaming of a fork, of course -- what child dreams of silverware? -- so I do it for him and he goes to work. I know Carly's annoyed he got around her "just one" loophole, but it's not like the kid's actually going to be able to eat a pancake that size anyway, so what's the harm?

"MacKenzie, let your father get up so he and I can finish our grown-up talk, okay?"

Mac shakes his head and talks through a mouthful of fruit and chocolate. "Nope. Daddy's my booster seat."

"Donald MacKenzie Duquette--" Before she gets to Duquette, Mac sighs and everything spins vertigo around me as the ceiling becomes closer and the floor farther away, air warping around me, and I find myself standing at the other end of the table, with Mac sitting on a bright blue plastic booster seat instead of my lap. His position didn't even shift; the seat's just the right height to keep him in the same place.

I shift my feet and look straight ahead, trying to cover up the fact that he forgot to adjust my balance. No point in giving his mother something else to yell at him for, especially when it's really me she wants to yell at.

He's had his 30 ccs. He's not scheduled for a dosage increase until he turns eight. But there's no way he should have been able to move me without my cooperation, without even turning around to look at me, until the morpheum starts to wear off at noon.

He's getting stronger. Just like I knew he would. Just like he did before.

Carly grabs my hand and pulls me out the door, through the porch and onto the patch of grass between the house and the driveway. "You did it, Will. Didn't you? Why didn't you just tell me that? Why isn't it on the news?"

I shake my head. "It's not that simple, hon. I didn't want to get your hopes up. Look, it's not like I was the only Soporific on the project. I was group leader, but only of one group. There are others, too, and if our plan doesn't work -- then maybe one of the other groups will come up with something."

"So you didn't fix it."

"I might have. I think I did. All of my work led up to this -- if I'm wrong, I have no idea where to start over."

"And that's why they let you retire?"

"Yeah. Either way, they don't need me anymore. Either way, it's all over for me."

"Were you going to tell me?"

No. I wasn't. "Of course I was! I was just waiting -- I didn't want MacKenzie to walk in. I mean, who knows how he'll take it. It's not like with me."

Her eyes widen again, and dammit, another part of me breaks. She turns and looks at the house, at our reflections in the porch's picture windows. ". . . It's like telling Mozart there's no such thing as pianos anymore, isn't it? Or no such thing as music?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

"What do you mean, you don't know? How do you feel?"

"Carly, it's not the same with me. When New Mexico happened, I was Mac's age. I remember what it was like when dreams weren't real, when everything was just in our heads. I didn't grow up with imaginary friends who really could get into the cookie jar -- I had to make them up."

"So you feel good about it?"

I watch the back of her head, glad I can't see her eyes, don't have to look at them. "Whatever . . . awkwardness I might feel as a result of it, it's what needs to be done. The world can't continue like this. It just can't." Where dreams come to life, where nightmares crawl through the shadows to kill and feast, where parents worry their kids don't understand how sex can be anything but casual because they've been having it with their dreams for as long as their hormones have told them to, where whole cities have been wiped out by sleep disorders. Where whole new arts have been invented, where nearly every neurological disease is now curable or treatable as a side effect of the research done in the wake of New Mexico, where psychotherapy has literally been given a new life.

"Awkwardness." She turns around to look at me and I look away, watch the sun yellow the sky, watch the clouds move, listen to the sparrows and the ravens. "You don't . . ." Her eyes narrow again as they meet mine, and she crosses her arms, shifts her weight to one foot, cocks her head, breaks my heart. "You don't want it to work."

"Carly--"

"You don't. I can hear it in your voice. I can see it in your eyes. I can see your goddamned dreams." I'd forgotten, become distracted, released one of the birds I dream of when I don't remember not to, a glossy black raven of regret chirping, "Nevermore!"

"I have mixed feelings, it's true, but--"

"Mixed feelings! You son of a bitch. You go in there and have breakfast with your son. Have a pancake the size of a fucking house with your son, and tell me the Soporifics wouldn't take him away in three years, and that he'd grow up normal, without having to be drugged up all the time to keep from killing someone. Go sit down with the son you never see, the one I have to watch slowly turn into something I'm not even sure is human anymore -- and tell me what the fuck you have mixed feelings about." She storms past me, almost shoving me aside with her shoulders.

"Where are you going?" I ask.

"Out. I'm going for a drive."

And she leaves me there, watching the sky. I could bring her back. I could dream her to me the way Mac dreamed me out of the chair. There was a time I would have thought that was the solution, but I let her go.

Somewhere out there, the machines are working, reversing what was done in New Mexico. If it works, it'll happen all at once or nearly so: when New Mexico went to hell, it was like blowing the lid off of a box. It's been my job to build a new lid, and by the end of the day, the box will be closed. If I've done my job right, this is the last platter-sized chocolate banana blueberry pancake my son will have.

So I go back inside and have breakfast with him. I listen to him tell me about the Super Dragon Warriors and let him watch television after he cleans his plate -- by hand, the way his mother would want. He sits in my lap on the couch, and we watch morning cartoons and order a pizza for lunch. I let him keep his pajamas on, and we watch the Super Dragon Warriors movie on videotape for what must be the hundredth time, sharing a sausage and pepper pizza, slice by slice.

"You know I love you, MacKenzie."

"Of course you do, Daddy. Now be quiet, this is the best part."

I make a call to work after putting Mac down for his nap, just to check in. The machines are running fine. The European team reports the figures we were hoping for in their dream activity. It's working.

God help me. It's working.

Carly comes home while Mac is still asleep. Her hair is disheveled -- she was driving with the top down, probably along the coast, something she does when she's very upset. She looks up at me through the fog of her hair and I grab her wrists and hug her.

"You're right," I say. "Look, I'm not saying that to avoid a fight. If you want to yell at me, if you want me to sleep on the couch, if you want to go to your mother's, fine. But you're right. It isn't fair for me to have mixed feelings. But you have to understand that, for a little while, I'm going to have them -- but then they'll go away. I know I'm doing the right thing."

She rests her head on my shoulder, tilted away from me, and sighs. "I know. I know you do. I'm just scared, Will. Like you said, I don't want to get my hopes up. You don't know what it's like, with Mac -- the other day, he almost set the house on fire." God, Carly, don't say it. We've talked about it before. There was nothing I could do about it, I wasn't home, and you weren't strong enough to undo his dreams. "If you had been home--"

"And I will be, if anything like that happens again. But it won't, sweetheart. Okay? Let's just do today, and take it one step at a time from here." Ever since we'd realized the strength of Mac's dreams, she'd hated for me to be gone: when I was there, she knew she was safe, she knew I'd feel it if Mac started to dream anything dangerous.

I remember the last time Mac dreamed of fire, the looks of first fear and then pity from the firemen. "I'm going to go see how--" Carly starts to say, and I kiss her before she can finish.

"No," I say. "You're not. Dance with me."

"What?"

I forget about everything except the things I'm never able to, and raise my hands. Music fills the air: no radio, no television, no orchestra, but music all the same, her favorite waltz, the one we danced to at the wedding. "Dance with me. Celebrate. It's all going to be over."

I rest my hand beneath her shoulder blade and wait for her to give in, because I know she will, if for no other reason than that she's my wife and she can see that I need her to. The music rises, and I daydream dampers up the stairs so MacKenzie doesn't wake up, and we dance.

Dreaming of fire is one of the easiest things to do, which is why it's so dangerous. Fire grows, fire feeds, and you only need to dream a spark to dream an inferno.

Left foot forward.

Fire is the leading factor in dream-related deaths. The first thing the Soporifics teach you, one of the few things I've tried teaching Mac, is how to control your fire dreams. Even the cadets who never make it through training leave with that much. We estimate that this training has accounted for a seventy percent reduction in dream-related deaths, since the formation of the Soporifics.

Right foot side.

We never knew Mac was going to be so strong, so difficult to control. Carly's dreams are normal, even weaker than normal, the giraffes and elephants about the limit of what she can come up with except under the most extreme conditions. Dreams are always strongest during times of emotional intensity -- fights, sex, imminent jeopardy, grief.

Left foot close.

Somewhere out there, the machines are working, and it's all going to be okay. No more fire dreams. The layoffs in the fire departments will be immense, but the Soporifics will be out of work, too. I can feel it already, the intensity dimming, control becoming easier as the box starts to close.

Right foot forward.

I lean into Carly's hair and kiss her earlobe, whispering, "I love you, baby." She nods, still uncertain of me, still breaking my heart, still following my lead.

Left foot side.

You start with color because it gives you something to see. Start with color, and as soon as it turns into flame, forget it. As soon as you feel the heat, send the flame away.

Right foot close.

The last time Mac dreamed of fire was the last time. The firemen were scared of me because I came home straight from work, still in my Sop uniform. Fear melted into pity in front of the blazing glow of the house, as I watched the ambulance drive away, with the sirens off. When it's a DOA, they don't turn the siren on. Not even when it's two bodies. Fourteen years as a Sop and I hadn't known that.

The dance is over because the music is gone and there's no one left to dance with. My feet keep moving, left foot forward, right foot side, because I don't know what else to do with myself. The dance is over, because the box is closed and the dreams are gone and it's beyond my power to make my house stand anymore, it's beyond my power to keep my family with me while I finish my work, and all I can do is keep waltzing through ashes that have been cold for a decade.

Left foot close. Right foot forward.

 

Copyright © 2003 Bill Kte'pi

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Bill Kte'pi became a writer when he realized that Waldenbooks would shelve him between Stephen King and Milan Kundera. In the interest of contributing to a pleasant shopping experience, he's trying to learn how to write the stories which justify the juxtaposition. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.